American Stories

WPA Interview with Mary Juma, 19th Century Syrian Immigrant in North Dakota

About This Resource

A Syrian who settled in North Dakota in 1902 had many stories to tell four decades later. In 1939, Syrian native Mary Juma 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 Mary Juma and her 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 is a photograph of the first mosque in the United States, built in Ross, North Dakota. The interviews with Mary Juma 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.


Note: A WPA field worker, Everal J. McKinnon, interviewed Mary Juma in her home in Ross, North Dakota. Because she could not speak English, her son, Charles Juma, interpreted.

I was born in Byria, Rushia, Syria. I don't know my exact age, but according to my naturalization papers, I am sixty-nine years old. I am sure that I am at least seventy-five years of age, however. My home in Syria was a large, one-story stone house. The floors were made of logs (about the size of our telephone poles), and the space between the poles was filled with smaller poles….

My religion in the Old Country was Moslem. We attended services every Friday, the same as we do here.

I received no education, as our people figured that it was a waste of time and money to teach a girl to read and write. There were no schools in our village, and those that were taught to read and write were taught by a tutor….

My husband's farm [in Syria] was very small. I don't know the number of acres, but it wasn't enough for us to but barely exist on. The people in our vicinity were migrating to America and kept writing back about the riches in America. Everyone wanted to move, and we were a family of the many that contemplated leaving. We sold all our possessions and borrowed $200 from a man, giving our land as a collateral.

A big farewell party was given in our honor, as there were twelve of us coming to America from that one village. It was a sad farewell as our relatives hated to see us leave. We feasted, danced, and played games at the party. The games were for men, which were feats of strength and endurance.

We left two daughters in the Old Country with relatives. One of the girls has died since, and the other one still lives there.

We went to Beirut, which was about thirty miles from our home, and caught a boat to France. It took us about three weeks to travel through France…. It took us three weeks to come from France to Montreal, Canada.

We moved further inland and started to travel over that country with a horse and cart as peddlers. We stayed there only a few months, and then moved to Nebraska…. We traveled through the entire state in a year. We never had trouble making people understand what we wanted while peddling, but many times we were refused a place to sleep. We suffered the same conditions as the pioneers, and at times were even more uncomfortable.

We were in Canada in 1900, and in Nebraska in 1901. In 1902, we came to western North Dakota where we started to peddle. It was at the time when there was such an influx of people to take homesteads, and for no reason at all, we decided to try homesteading too.

We started clearing the land immediately, and within a year, had a horse, plow, disk, drag, and drill. We also had some cattle and chickens. When there was a very little work to do on the farm, my husband traveled to Minnesota and eastern North Dakota to peddle.

In 1903, my son, Charles, was born. He was the first Syrian child born in western North Dakota. We were the first Syrians to homestead in this community, but soon many people from that country came to settle here.

Our home has always been a gathering place for the Syrian folk. Not many parties or celebrations were held, except for occasions like a wedding or such. Before we built our church [mosque], we held services at the different homes. We have a month of fasting, after which everyone visits the home of another, and there [is] a lot of feasting.

I am pretty old now, and am confined to this wheelchair because of my leg which was amputated two years ago. I miss my work, both indoor and outdoor, but still enjoy life.

We were always able to make a very good living by farming and raising livestock, until the death of my husband in February of 1918. My son then took over the management of the farm, and I have lived with his family since. The depression has made living hard, but I don't worry.

Charles went to school in Ross [town in North Dakota] until my husband died, and was not able to even complete the eighth grade.

We always speak in our native tongue at home, except my grandchildren, who won't speak Syrian to their parents. They do speak in Syrian to me because I cannot speak [or] understand English. My grandchildren range from fourteen months of age to eight years, and there are four of them. . . .

I can't read at all, neither in English nor Syrian. My son and daughter-in-law tell me the news they think might interest me.

We don't have any recreation; we only work. Sometimes friends stop in to talk for a while, and then we attend services every Friday too, but that is all. I sew a little occasionally, and like to hold the baby.

Our farm home is a low three-room house, with furnishings that are old and worn as a result of hard times and rough usage by children. The outside of the house has never been painted. Within, it is clean but shabby-looking. The barn is quite large[,] with a hip roof, and is painted red.

The thing that sets this farm apart as a Syrian-American home is that all the buildings are located close to the house, and all the chickens and sheep come close, even to the doorstep of the house….

There is too great a comparison to say much about America and my native land. This country has everything, and we have freedom. When we pay taxes, we get schools, roads, and an efficiency in the government. In the Old Country, we paid taxes and Turkey took all the money, [with] Syria receiving nothing in return. We were repaid by having Turkey force our boys to join her army. The climate in the Old Country was wonderful, but we [Americans] have such a climate down south.

If I had my life to live over, I would come to America sooner than I did. I would have liked to visit the people in Syria five or ten years ago, but now that I am helpless, I wouldn’t care to go. I don’t ever want to go back there to live.


Edward E. Curtis IV (Ed.). The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008 (pp. 30–33).  Image: “The first Mosque near Ross ND from Playford Thorson, Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History, ND Institute for Regional Studies 1988, p. 360,” retrieved from Dick Bernard (September 5, 2010), “A Close Encounter With a Mosque,” at Thoughts Towards a Better World,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #85: WPA Interview with Mary Juma, 19th Century Syrian Immigrant in North Dakota", May 18, 2024


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