American Stories

WPA Interview with Mike Abdullah, 19th Century Syrian Immigrant in North Dakota

About This Resource

A Syrian who settled in North Dakota in 1907 had many stories to tell three decades later. In 1939, Syrian native Mike Abdullah sat for interviews with employees of a New Deal program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The interviews were part of an effort to employ writers and historians to capture oral histories in a rapidly changing nation at midcentury. The “Syrians” of North Dakota had found their way to the upper Midwest when their eastern Mediterranean homeland was still under Ottoman rule. Many of these immigrants were Maronite, Orthodox, and Melkite Christians, but some were Muslims, especially those who settled in North Dakota. Even though Mike Abdullah and his compatriots had become “sodbusters” in the Great Plains tradition, they continued to practice Islam, and had founded a mosque and cemetery by around 1930. The image accompanying this excerpt shows the Ross, North Dakota, mosque, the first mosque in the United States, as it was rebuilt in 2005. The two people in the picture are descendants of the Syrian immigrants who came to North Dakota a century earlier. The interviews with Mike Abdullah and other Syrian settlers are excerpted in The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States, edited by Edward E. Curtis. The book is included in the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf.

Text

Note: A WPA field worker, Everal J. McKinnon, interviewed Mike Abdullah in his home in Ross, North Dakota. I was born in Rufage, Rushia, Syria. I don't remember the date, nor the month[,] but I believe that it was in 1886. (People in the Old Country did not keep track of their age or birth date because of the Turkish rule[,] and they forced our boys into military service when they were of a certain age.) The village that I was born in had a population of about 400 people…. My home was a one-story six-room stone building, about thirty by forty. The floor was made like all the other homes in the Old Country, poles about six inches in diameter were laid side by side on the ground….
I went to school one year. It wasn't a school like in this country. Father paid a man living in our town to write and read our bible [the Qur’an]. That was my education.

Father was a farmer and until I was a full-grown man, I worked at home for father. When I was old enough to work out for others, I received about 25 cents a day.

Taxes in the Old Country [were] much different from here. Taxes there were figured according to what your crop produced. For instance, for every ten bushels that the farmer got from the crop, the government took one bushel.

For seven years, I farmed for myself in the Old Country. I farmed about forty acres, with a team of oxen, wooden plow equipped with an iron lay, the rest of the farm work such as seeding, reaping, and threshing, I had to do by hand. I had one cow and about a dozen chickens, but no goats or sheep as most people had.

We had church services every Friday. I belonged to the Moslem church in the Old Country the same as I do in this country….

In the Old Country… it was very hard to make a living…. Quite a few people from our town had already come to America and their letters told of lots of work for which they got big pay, free land to farm and live on, and much freedom. We didn't have any freedom in the Old Country as we were under the Turkish rule and we even had to be very careful what we said[,] and the taxes we paid were taken by Turkey and we never got anything back for the taxes we paid. Our roads were terrible. Then the Turkish government made our men and boys serve in their army for sometimes many years

When I left for America, I gave my land and things to my mother and sister, my father was dead. I borrowed $75 besides the money I had saved, to make the trip. I brought only some clothes and enough food to last until I got to France. There were fifteen of us that left from our town at that time. H. A. Juma and Alley Farhart were in the group. I don't remember the names of the rest. We left from Beirut the spring of 1907 and sailed to Naples, Italy, on a cattle boat, from there we traveled through France by train and took a boat to Liverpool, England. I can't remember sailing from England to Montreal, Canada. It seems to me that I was only on a boat two times on the whole trip. [Field worker's note: Mrs. Abdullah tried to convince the informant that he must have crossed the ocean on a boat, but he could not recall it.]

I stayed in Montreal for one month and then came to Fargo, North Dakota, by train. I tried to peddle for about three months but I couldn't make a living at that, so I took the train to Ashley, North Dakota. There were other Syrians already there and I went to work on a farm; worked on farms there for three years, making from $25 to $30 a month. In 1911, I came to Ross. I worked out for four years and during threshing I got $1.25 a day. When working by the month I got $30. In 1915, I filed on a homestead. I lived on my homestead for two years and then lived with Frank Osman for a year. I got my naturalization papers October 2, 1916. In 1918, I moved to New Rockford, North Dakota. I stayed in New Rockford for five months and worked in the section crew. In 1919, I moved to Detroit, Michigan, and worked in the factories for two and a half years. In 1921, I moved back to Ross, North Dakota, as I got married in 1920 and had to settle down and make a home. I have lived around Ross ever since. I rented three farms and in 1927, I bought the farm we are now living on.

When I first came to America, I thought America was pretty funny. The way people [did] things seemed funny. The people were always in a hurry[,] and when they got done there didn't seem to be any reason for the hurry…. Everything in the Old Country was much slower…. I didn't like it for the first two years I was in America, and many times I felt like I wanted to go back to the Old Country.

I couldn't talk or understand the American language when I came here, and when I was peddling I had to talk to people by motions and when I wanted to tell anyone the price of a thing, I would take money from my pocket and show them the amount of the price. When I wanted to ask for a place to sleep, I had to lay down on the floor and play that I was asleep[,] and then they knew what I wanted. Nearly everyone felt sorry for me because I couldn't talk their language. I remember one time when a bunch of people wanted to know what nationality I was[,] so a man asked me if I was Jewish, and I nodded my head no. So he asked me if I was a sheeny [an archaic epithet for Jews]. It sounded enough like "Syrian" so I nodded my head meaning yes. Everyone laughed very hard. It took me about two years to learn enough English to get along good.

I was attracted to my first American residence by other Syrians living in that community and an opportunity to make a living. That was at Ashley, North Dakota….
When I first started farming in this country I had a plow, harrow, and binder. I farmed 100 acres when I started and in 1924 I farmed 240 acres. Now I farm 160 acres…. My steadiest income has been from cattle and sheep. Until 1934 we depended mostly on the cattle, [but] since it [has been] so dry [since then] we have depended more on the sheep. I have 106 head of sheep, nine cows, and seven horses. I have no more machinery now and do all my farming with horses. In 1934 I was forced to sell thirty-nine head of cattle to the government because [I] didn't have feed for them.

I have not been able to make anything farming since 1929. I belong to the Agricultural Conservation Association [a locally administered federal program of financial support and other aid to farmers]. If it weren't for this there wouldn't be any money in trying to raise a crop. I don't think we live any different now than we did before there was a depression. If we [couldn’t] eat good[,] there wouldn't be any use living. It was hard to have to sell my cattle to the government for so little money, but they would have starved if had tried to keep them….

My wife was born in Rufage, Rushia, Syria. We don't know the date of her birth, but it was in the year 1886. [Field worker's note: Mrs. Abdallah told as a joke: There are several of the Syrians here that don't know their age, and they never get to be over 55 or 60 years old. I guess I am like the rest of them. Because of military reasons nobody in the Old Country kept track of their age, and they still don't know. I am sure that some of them can't tell within 15 or 20 years of their correct age.] Mrs. Abdullah was married and had two children in the Old Country before coming to America….
We (meaning Syrians) have a religious belief concerning the butchering of meat. We believe that an animal should not be shot or hit in the head to kill it. It should be bled to death. We think that when an animal is shot or hit in the head, the evil and sins remain in the meat and it is a sin to eat this meat. We also know that when an animal is butchered our way the blood drains from the meat better, and in this way the meat is a lighter color and it will keep much longer. There is another Old Country belief that to pass a comment when looking at a newly born baby, such as saying that the baby is good looking, etc., will make the baby become sick. We also have a Syrian way of blessing and saying thanks for our food on the table before eating even one bite. We believe that it is a sin to eat without saying this (cannot give it in English).

[We don't have much recreation] besides going to town, listening to the radio, the children try to play the mouth organ and the guitar. Sometimes we go to the neighbors’ to visit but most times we have work enough to keep us busy….
[Field worker's note: There was nothing about the farm or the home to set it aside as a Syrian American home. One frame barn, and one straw barn, a few small frame sheds and a frame house….]

If I had my life to live over again, I'd likely do about the same things only I'd come to America when I was younger and I [would] settle down and stay there. I'd maybe settle in the state of Michigan or in North Dakota. I would get married younger and try to save for my old age. I wouldn't try to raise much crop if I was on a farm; I'd go into cattle and sheep. I can't really say that I am sorry that I lived the way I have because I have always enjoyed life.

Source

 Edward E. Curtis, ed. The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. (pp.33-39)

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #86: WPA Interview with Mike Abdullah, 19th Century Syrian Immigrant in North Dakota", May 28, 2016 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/86.

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