The History of Arabs in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The History of Arabs in Wisconsin

The History of Arabs in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Between 1890 and 1940, most Arab immigrants to Wisconsin came from Greater Syria. Some traveled originally from the village of Ayn Bairdeh to participate in the 1904 Chicago Fair, where they demonstrated Arabian horsemanship and traditional folk dances. Afterwards, some stayed and others returned home with astonishing stories of the New World. During the first decade of the 20th century, more immigrants arrived from different parts of Palestine and the Arab population reached 500 Syrians living in the Milwaukee area by 1910. By 1920, the census listed 575 Syrians living in Wisconsin. Other sources estimate that by 1915, there were 800 Syrians living in Milwaukee, but 90% had been listed as Turks or Greeks by census officials. The number of women increased from 32% of Arab immigrants in 1910 to 44% in 1940.
Although most were illiterate in English when they arrived, they learned to speak the language through contact with non-Arabs. Many of the earliest Arab immigrants to Wisconsin earned a living as peddlers, carrying with them a variety of goods such as oriental rugs, linens, combs, thread, and needles, as well as holy items like rosaries, crosses, and icons. The Milwaukee City directory of 1920 shows members of the Syrian community worked either as small business owners or clerks. Until World War Two, most Arab women helped from home by preparing the goods their husbands sold.

A small number of early Arab immigrants were skilled laborers, but as they established permanent residency many of them changed jobs from traveling traders to more sedentary work such as industrial laborers. Like many other ethnic groups, succeeding generations displayed upward movement through American social classes. A survey conducted in 1998 on the Arab-Christian community in Milwaukee showed that 76 percent of the second and third generation Arab Christians worked in professional jobs.

Othman, Dr. Enaya. “The Immigrants to Milwaukee from the Arab World.” (

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