Last fall Roanoke Mayor David Bowers went viral when he cited Japanese internment camps during World War II as a reason why the city shouldn’t accept Syrian refugees.
The discordant statement not only flew in the face of Roanoke’s status as a destination for refugees, but it also disregarded the contributions of the many Syrians who migrated to the city in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.
In those days, “Syrian” meant something far different than it does today. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire incorporated not just Syria as we know it today, but the bulk of the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Europe. Between 1880 and 1920, about 150,000 people left the Ottoman Empire—and many landed in Roanoke.