Caribbean futures: How Lebanese and Syrian migrants forged new beginnings in Jamaica

[jamaica , 1940s
6 min read
07 May, 2021
Many of the Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were Christians that were fleeing religious persecution by Muslim Turks from the Ottoman Empire. Those leaving the Middle East in the 1860s and 1870s did not want to go to America due to the violent American civil war (1861-1865) and even after the civil war the country was still trying to recover.

Lebanese and Syrian people therefore sought protection from Britain and since Jamaica was under British rule at the time, they fled to Jamaica. Lebanese and Syrian people moved to many parts of the Caribbean. Others moved to Cuba, but weren’t happy there and eventually moved to Jamaica.

Many of those who arrived in Jamaica at a later stage came to reunite with family. Not only was being reunited with family an incentive to move to Jamaica but also those who were successful could provide their families with a job. Living in Jamaica for years meant that Lebanese and Syrian people had social connections and knew the country well which would help their family settle.

In the 1800s, Jamaica felt the strain of its sugar industry doing poorly and knew that new industries had to be invested in to free the country from its economic struggles. Jamaica encouraged tourism with their "Postcards from Paradise" and provided travellers with first class accommodation.

In 1890 the Jamaica Hotels Law was passed to bring money to the hotel industry. This law was created to also lead up to Jamaica's Great Exhibition of 1891, which attracted over 300,000 visitors from around the world including some from the Middle East.

Jamaica drew in those from the Middle East with trading opportunities and many people moved there to sell dry goods and build a better life for themselves and their families.

After the break-up of the old colonial powers, hundreds of thousands of families were compelled to migrate to foreign lands

Upon arriving in Kingston, Jamaica, Syrian and Lebanese newcomers were greeted with bustling and vibrant markets. Men could be seen in business coats going to work and women were finely dressed. There was electricity and drinkable piped water too. The city was full of promise.

The earliest Lebanese and Syrian immigrants worked in the banana industry but the industry began to decline at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, like the Jamaican-Jews, the Lebanese and Syrian people began to work in the retail sector and were buying and selling.

They began as pedlars, borrowing money from established members of the Lebanese/Syrian community and purchased a small amount of goods to sell them door to door.

Customers enjoyed the goods and when Syrian and Lebanese people had enough money, they opened their own shops to sell dry goods, many of which are still open in Kingston today.

Read also: How France's colonial narrative no longer stands up

Adjusting to the country was difficult. Many of those who first came to Jamaica worshipped in the Greek Orthodox Church but upon arrival, they found that there were only Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Not only was the religion different but also the culture and the language.

Chinese, Indians, Africans and Europeans found it especially hard to fit into their new home, but Middle Easterners seemed to have the upper hand. Those who came from parts of the Middle East where they were taught English at school had found it easier to adjust and find their place in the Jamaican community. However, those who arrived later between the First and Second World War to reunite with family spoke French so it took them longer to learn both the Queen's English and Jamaican English.

"People tend to forget just how porous our world is and how Jamaica is rich in different ethnicities, religions and cultures"

The New Arab spoke with Naomi Oppenheim, a collaborative doctoral student whose research examines Caribbean diaspora publishing, activism, post/colonial transitions, migration, historical consciousness and freedom. Naomi contributed to a book called Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, which was long listed for the Jhalak Prize in 2019.

Naomi’s Lebanese-Jamaican grandmother, Joyce Elisser Norris, was born in St Andrew, Jamaica in 1928. Joyce’s parents moved to Jamaica in the 1920s to join family who had moved there and set up a business called Zayne's Tobacco.

Zayne's Tobacco, the Elliser-Norris family business

Middle Eastern inspired dishes were a huge way in which her family had brought Lebanon to Jamaica and food kept them in touch with their Middle Eastern roots.

"Food was an important way in which Lebanese culture was expressed," Naomi said. Syrian bread, stuffed vine leaves, hummus, kibbeh and tabbouleh became one of the country’s favourite dishes.

Naomi recalled her trip to Kingston in February 2019 and the variety of Lebanese family run restaurants she saw. It is clear that to this day Middle Eastern food is very popular in Jamaica.

Naomi expressed that she felt that her grandmother experienced a conflict with her identity. Although never explicitly expressed by Joyce, Naomi believes that she was much happier to identify with her Lebanese heritage than her Jamaican side.

"The lack of awareness and understanding of the complexities of identity to a large degree stems from schools failing to teach pupils about Caribbean trade and how slavery, politics and economic circumstances had caused people to move across the globe"

Colonialism, as well as where we are geographically located, has an impact on the way in which we perceive ourselves and our identities. Pigmentocracy loomed in Jamaica and the country had a highly racialised society.

Joyce was light-skinned and was racialised as white by Jamaican society and came from a wealthy upper-middle class background. However, when she moved to England in 1948, her Jamaican heritage came to the forefront and she felt much more black than she did in Jamaica.

Most people are shocked that Lebanese and Syrian people live in Jamaica. People tend to forget just how porous our world is and how Jamaica is rich in different ethnicities, religions and cultures.

In fact, many of the second generation Lebanese-Jamaicans did not return to Lebanon.

"People used to say to me at school it doesn’t make sense to be Lebanese and Jamaican," Naomi said.

The lack of awareness and understanding of the complexities of identity to a large degree stems from schools failing to teach pupils about Caribbean trade and how slavery, politics and economic circumstances had caused people to move across the globe.

Read also: Why Immigrants don't need to integrate, you do

Many Lebanese and Syrian people living in Jamaica became very successful across a range of different sectors including retail, tourism, horse racing, and manufacturing.

Some of the most well-known, successful and highly regarded individuals are of Syrian or Lebanese descent, including Lisa Hanna-Panton, who won Miss Jamaica and Miss World in 1993, Edward Seaga, Jamaica's longest-serving parliamentarian, and Maria Ziadie-Haddad, Air Jamaica's first female captain.

Yasmin is a freelance journalist covering a variety of different subjects including human rights, law, culture, social issues and social justice. 

Follow her on Twitter: @YasminAlnajar97