Submit your Story
World War I and religious persecution wrecked havoc in the pastoral life of Christian Assyrians in Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Their participation in the war, fighting on the Allied side with the Russians and the British, left them vulnerable to massacres by Turks, Kurds, and Persians of the Moslem faith. By the end of the war, nearly 100,000 Assyrians, along with tens of thousands of Armenians, had been slaughtered, their homes looted, their lands destroyed, and their women carried away. Approximately 10,000 Assyrians found shelter in Russian Transcaucasia while many others escaped to Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Over 600 men, women, and children sought refuge in the United States, 200 arriving in San Francisco on Japanese ships from Yokohama between 1918 and 1922. Among them was 16-year-old Philipos Pera.
According to his immigration file, Philipos Pera was born in Urmia, Persia, the youngest of three sons. Before the war, he lived with his family and helped his father cultivate their lands. When he turned twelve, he said, because “there was a war between the Christians and Mohammedans,” the family fled to Bagdad. He decided to join the British Army to fight against the Turks. After 22 months of military service, he found a job as a waiter at the American Consulate in Bagdad. It was at this time that his brother Alexander Pera, who had settled in New Britain, Connecticut (site of one of the earliest Assyrian settlements), sent for him. Armed with a valid passport signed by the American Consul and dated May 9, 1921 (before the enactment of the Quota Act), he made his way to Yokohama, where he said he was delayed for five months before Mrs. Diana Apcar, a woman who looked after the interests of Assyrians, helped him book steerage passage on the Shinyo Maru bound for San Francisco.
Unfortunately for Pera, he arrived on April 5, 1922, a year after the enactment of the Quota Act of 1921, which was passed to restrict immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries. The new law set an annual quota for each immigrant group based on 3 percent of their population in the U.S. in 1910. Assyrians were put into the category of “Other Asia,” which meant they had to share the annual quota of 78 with other nationalities from the Middle East. Pera was among the 150 Assyrians who were initially excluded and slated for deportation because they had arrived after that year’s quota for Persia had been exhausted. After numerous appeals and more than a year locked up on Angel Island, almost all of them were temporarily admitted into the country on humanitarian grounds. But Pera was not one of the lucky ones. This is his Angel Island story.
Upon arrival, he was taken to Angel Island for the medical exam and interrogation. Two days later, appearing before a Board of Special Inquiry, Pera was asked a total of 44 questions about how and why he had come to the United States. Although the Board noted that he was “well dressed—neat appearing—of good physique and apparently cleanly in his habits,” they ruled to deny him entry into the country for two reasons: he was illiterate and the quota for Persia had been filled for the fiscal year. Pera chose to appeal the decision, and thus began his long stay on Angel Island, imprisoned with other European men in the detention quarters of the Administration Building.
Philipos Pera and 30 other Assyrians were represented by Thomas Firby, a capable attorney. In his petition for a writ of habeas corpus before the District Court, Firby made the argument that Pera was seeking admission to avoid religious persecution in his home country. The overwhelming evidence that he presented is worth repeating here.
Alien resided with his parents in Urmia district, northwestern Persia; in 1914, after the commencement of the World War, but before Turkey had formally allied herself with the Central Powers, Turks and Kurds invaded Urmia district, outraging, pillaging and killing the Christian inhabitants thereof, and forcibly taking their girls and young women for Turkish harems; Russia then sent troops to protect her Christian neighbors, which drove the Moslems before them; intermittent fighting occurred between the Russians and the Turks until the debacle in Russia [1917 revolution], at which time the former withdrew from Persia, leaving a supply of rifles, several machine-guns, and a limited quantity of ammunition therefore with the Assyrian defenders; upon the departure of the Russians, the Moslems again attacked the Christians, but for approximately six months were held at bay; however, in July of 1918, when the ammunition of the defenders had been exhausted, they were compelled to retreat; the Moslems (then including Mohammedan Persians) thereupon systematically located and destroyed the homes, vineyards and orchards of the Assyrians, and followed the fleeing inhabitants for days, slaughtering them indiscriminately; thousands of Christians were killed outright; thousands of others died of privation, wounds and hardships endured during the flight from Urmia; many of their girls and young women about to be captured by the Moslems, committed suicide rather than become inmates of harems; in the confusion, families became separated and divided, some members going to Salmas and Tabriz, others to Kasvin and Hamadan, thence to Mesopotamia, which was then under British protection; that all of said persecution was the result of religious differences, and could have been avoided if said Assyrians had renounced Christianity and embraced the Moslem religion; that the surviving members of said former population of Urmia district are forbidden under pain of death to return to their native homes; that said aliens are now literally, “The People without a Country.”
Firby chose this line of argument for two reasons. One, the Immigration Act of 1917 exempted those fleeing religious persecution from having to pass the literacy test. And two, there was the possibility that Pera could be admitted under House Joint Resolution 279, which was passed by Congress on December 24, 1921, to admit 2,443 aliens who had arrived in excess of their country’s quotas on grounds of unusual hardships, misunderstandings over quota figures, and if they had departed from their country before the Quota Act of May 19, 1921 was enacted.
Both the District Court and the Circuit Court of Appeals denied their appeals, but through the intervention of Senators Joseph Ramsdell and Samuel Shortridge, the Department of Labor ordered a stay of deportation. Finally, on March 2, 1923, word came from Washington that 25 of them, plus infant Jonathan Pera, who had been born on Angel Island, were to be admitted into the country. The remaining six (widower Sergei Yakuboff, his four children, and Philipos Pera) were denied admission and offered the option of going to Mexico. (They were probably excluded because they were considered poor risks in comparison to the other “wealthy Persians,” as described in the San Francisco Examiner on March 3, 1923.)
When presented with the option by Immigration Inspector Lorenzen, Philipos Pera replied, “No, I don’t want to go to Mexico. I came here to be admitted to the United States. I have nothing left at home, and the only place I want to go is the United States.” He was deported on May 22, 1923, after spending thirteen long months on Angel Island. But his immigration record shows that he was arrested in Hartford, Connecticut, in June 1932, for unknown reasons and released by the Boston District Immigration Office five months later “for purpose of reshipping foreign.” Whether he shipped out again or remained in the United States is unknown, as he failed to notify the Boston office of his departure as he had been instructed.
Ancestry Institution, https://www.ancestryinstitution.com.
“Persians Win Refuge from Turk Terror,” San Francisco Examiner, March 3, 1923, p. 2.
“Survivors of Persian Swords Arrive in San Francisco,” San Francisco Examiner, October 8, 1921, p. 13.
Arian Ishaya and Eden Naby, “Assyrians,” Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 160-63.
Arianne Ishaya, “Assyrian-Americans: A Study in Ethnic Reconstruction and Dissolution in Diaspora,” https://www.nineveh.com/ASSYRIAN-AMERICANS.html.
Philipos Pera (File 20981/25-4), RG 85, National Archives, San Bruno, CA.
Maria Sakovich, “Angel Island and Immigration Station Reconsidered: Non-Asian Encounters with the Immigration Laws, 1910-1940,” MA thesis, Sonoma State University, 2002, pp. 162-65.
Submit your Story