The long view: Descendants of N.D.'s early Muslim settlers put immigration, refugee debates into perspective

FARGO -- When Donald Trump is on TV, Richard Omar changes the channel. "I had respect for him years ago, but I don't anymore," Omar said. The 65-year-old retired electrician once admired Trump the businessman. But he has no patience for Trump the...

America’s first convention of Syrian Clubs in Williston around 1918. Photo courtesy “Prairie Peddlers: They Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota”
America’s first convention of Syrian Clubs in Williston around 1918. Photo courtesy “Prairie Peddlers: The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota”

FARGO -- When Donald Trump is on TV, Richard Omar changes the channel.

“I had respect for him years ago, but I don’t anymore,” Omar said.

The 65-year-old retired electrician once admired Trump the businessman. But he has no patience for Trump the presidential candidate and his call to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S.

The issue is personal for Omar. He’s one of a dwindling number of North Dakotans with strong family ties to a little-known enclave of Lebanese Muslims that built America’s first mosque in 1929 on a piece of prairie in Ross, N.D.

At a time when terrorism concerns are influencing the debate over Muslim immigration, including whether to allow entry to Syrian refugees, the enclave is a reminder of just how long Muslims have called North Dakota home.


Omar, who lives outside Stanley not far from the site of the Ross mosque, said Trump’s proposed immigration ban, announced days after the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., unfairly groups all Muslims into the terrorist category.

For Charlie Juma Jr., a Stanley native whose grandparents were Muslim settlers, the proposal is yet another example of Trump’s bluster.

“He’s doing a lot of talking and making a lot of threats,” said Juma, an 81-year-old retired farmer and rancher. “It’s not only the Muslims that’s causing trouble in the world.”

Syrian refugee crisis

North Dakota’s early wave of Arab immigrants came from what is now Lebanon, said William Sherman, a retired priest and sociologist who’s researched the topic.

When these settlers emigrated in the early 1900s, Lebanon was not yet an independent country. It was part of Syria, which was controlled by the Turkish Empire. Consequently, U.S. immigration records listed the settlers as Syrian, said Sherman, who co-authored a book about the group titled “Prairie Peddlers: The Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota.”

The Syrian designation stuck enough that the settlers formed Syrian clubs in North Dakota, and even today, some descendants refer to themselves as Syrian. After World War I, Lebanon became a separate nation that borders Syria.


Recent violence in Syria has prompted millions to flee the country, and many have made long journeys to Europe to seek asylum. It’s a state of affairs that depresses Juma. “I don’t know what in the world is going on over there,” he said.

In September, President Barack Obama announced plans to allow some 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. But in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks in November, more than half the country’s governors, including North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, demanded that the flow of Syrian refugees be halted, citing concerns that the federal government’s screening process is inadequate to weed out terrorists.

On this issue, Omar and Juma side with Dalrymple and the other governors. “It’s not that I don’t want to let refugees in. But at this time, no,” Omar said.

From Juma’s perspective, the current situation is too uncertain to admit the refugees. “My opinion is leave them where they’re at,” he said.

Syrians have not been part of North Dakota’s refugee resettlement program in the past, but other refugee groups with Muslim populations, including Somalis and Bosnians, have come here in large numbers.

‘Understand your roots’

Like other homesteaders who arrived in North Dakota in the early 1900s, Lebanese settlers were drawn here by the prospect of free land, which they learned about through word-of-mouth and through reports in Arabic-language newspapers, Sherman said.


About 2,000 settled throughout the state. Most of them were Christian, but about 400 were Muslim, he said.

Among the Lebanese Christian immigrants was Vernon Owan’s father, Charles, who traveled from Beirut to the U.S. by himself in 1906 at the age of 13. He came through Mexico and then Sioux City, Iowa, before heading to North Dakota.

“He started peddling dry goods just from horse and buggy,” Owan said. “He peddled them all the way to North Dakota.”

Owan, 81, said he disagrees with Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigration. “I don’t believe in just a free country. I believe in a free world,” said Owan, who visited Lebanon and Syria in 1980.

As for Syrian refugees, Owan said he empathizes with them and believes they should be allowed into the U.S. “I really feel for them because I’m one of them,” he said. “You have to understand your roots.”

Owan grew up on a farm 20 miles northwest of Williston. “All the friends we had that came over, Arab friends, spoke Lebanese. And of course, I learned it from listening to my daddy, relatives talk,” said Owan, who can still speak the language.

Swapping religions

Owan’s parents were members of a rural Syrian Orthodox Church, but the congregation faded away in the 1940s. When he moved to Williston for school, his parents sent him to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which he still attends.

Omar and Juma have similar stories of religious assimilation.

Juma said that as a boy, he recited Muslim prayers at home. He also went to services at the Ross mosque, but memories of those visits are hazy.

The mosque, which adjoined a cemetery, was a semi-basement structure that stood just 4 feet above ground. The worship space was about 1,200 square feet.

At some point, the services there were discontinued. “There wasn’t enough people around here to keep it going,” Juma said.

It was a tradition Juma’s parents were sad to see end, but in time, they became Lutherans, he said. Juma married a woman of Danish descent, and they raised their kids in the Lutheran church.

This is a typical story of the children of Lebanese Muslims, said Sherman, the sociologist.

“Their kids went to local schools, fell in love with a Christian boy or Christian girl, and that was the end of the Muslim religion,” which, he said, lacked the kind of established network in the U.S. that allowed faiths like Lutheranism and Catholicism to thrive in North Dakota.

Omar said his parents attended services at the Ross mosque. But by the time he was old enough to remember, the building had fallen into disrepair.

The cemetery committee dismantled the dilapidated mosque in the 1970s. A new mosque, about half the size of the original, was built above ground at the same site in 2005.

Omar, who was confirmed at a Lutheran church while in grade school, considers himself Christian. But he acknowledges that he’s not very religious.

“I’ve never read the Quran,” he said. “Sorry to say, I haven’t even read the Bible.”

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