Syrian Christians began to emigrate from the Muslim Ottoman Empire in large numbers after 1880. Of the 250,000 who left in the following quarter century, more than 60,000 settled in North America, many becoming peddlers, shopkeepers, or small businessowners in large urban areas. In the 2000 U.S. census and 2001 Canadian census, 142,897 Americans and 22,065 Canadians claimed Syrian descent. Most Syrian Americans are descendants of this early immigration. The largest concentrations in the United States are in New York City; Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; and Dallas, Texas, though they are in general fairly widespread throughout the country. About half of Syrian Canadians live in the province of Quebec.
The modern state of Syria occupies 71,000 square miles in the Middle East, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Lebanon and Israel on the west, Jordan on the south, Iraq on the east, and Turkey on the north. In 2002, the population was estimated at 16,728,808. The people are 90 percent Arab. The chief religions are Sunni Islam (74 percent), other forms of Islam (14 percent), and Christianity (10 percent). Syria was the site of some of the most ancient civilizations, forming parts of the Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, and Persian Empires. It was the center of the Greek Seleucid Empire but later was absorbed by Rome before being conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century. The Ottoman Empire ruled Syria from 1513 through the end of World War I (1914–18), after which the territories separated from Turkey by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) were divided into the states of Syria and Greater Lebanon, both administered under a French League of Nations mandate between 1920 and 1941. With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Syria refused to accept the new state’s legitimacy and played a prominent role in ongoing military attempts to destroy it, particularly in 1948, 1967, 1973, and 1982. During the 1980s, Syria came to play a prominent role in governing war-torn Lebanon, a role it had not completely relinquished by 2004. Syria’s role in promoting international terrorism led to the breaking of diplomatic relations with Great Britain and to limited sanctions by the European Community in 1986, though the 1990s saw a moderation of its policies. Syria condemned the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and sent troops to help Allied forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The same year, Syria accepted U.S. proposals for the terms of an Arab-Israeli peace conference. Syria subsequently participated in negotiations with Israel, but progress toward peace was slow.
It is impossible to completely separate the strands of early Syrian-Lebanese immigration. Lebanese and Syrian Christians both came from a common, western region of the Ottoman Empire without distinct borders (see Lebanese immigration). These borders would again change when the region was divided from Turkey in 1920. Lebanon, denoting the southern area of Syria near Mount Lebanon, was virtually unknown in North America, so immigrants frequently used the term Syrian to designate the larger, more familiar geographical region. Immigrants from the Ottoman Empire were usually classified in the United States as being from "Turkey in Asia,” whether Arab, Turk, or Armenian (see Arab immigration; Armenian immigration; Turkish immigration). By 1899, U.S. immigration records began to make some distinctions, and by 1920, the category "Syrian” was introduced into the census, though religious distinctions still were not noticed. Throughout the 20th century, there was little consistency in designation, principally because overall numbers remained small. Between 1911 and 1955, any immigrant from the region to Canada was listed as coming from "Ottoman Greater Syria”; afterward, they might choose either designation. Some immigrants even changed their own self-designation as political fortunes, as well as boundaries, changed.
The majority of Syrians in the United States are the largely assimilated descendants of Christians who emigrated from the Syrian and Lebanese areas of the Ottoman Empire between 1875 and 1920. As Christians living in an Islamic empire, they were subject to persecution, though in good times they were afforded considerable autonomy. During periods of drought or economic decline, however, they frequently chose to emigrate. Most were Maronite, Melkite, or Greek Orthodox Christians. A second wave of immigration after World War II (1939–45) was more diverse, with immigrants about equally divided between Christian and Muslim. Whereas the first immigrants were usually poor and often illiterate, the postwar settlers were frequently well-educated professionals. Between 1989 and 2002, average immigration was more than 2,600 per year.
The same patterns of immigration apply to Canada. Most early Syrian immigrants came between 1885 and 1908, at first hoping to return to their homeland. The immigration of both Christian and Muslim Syrians after World War II, however, substantially changed the character of the Syrian community in Canada. The political instability of the 1970s and 1980s led to a significant migration, particularly in relation to the relatively small number of early Syrian immigrants. In 2001, immigrants accounted for more than 70 percent of Syrian Canadians. Of the 15,680 Syrian immigrants, 11,630 (74 percent) came after 1980.