Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/Mamie Lewis

Mrs. Mamie Depoulos was interviewed in Georgia by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. She immigrated to Georgia from Syria. She was married to Mr. John Depoulos. The two of them owned a clothing and dry goods store.

Mamie (Lewis) Depoulos
BornProbably 1896
ResidenceAthens, Alabama
NationalitySyrian American
ReligionRoman Catholic
SpouseJohn Depoulos


Early LifeEdit

Mamie (Lewis) Depoulos was born in Beirut, Syria in 1896. Her father died before she was two years old, and her mother raised Depoulos and her five siblings alone. Depoulos had two sisters and three brothers. Her mother was a housekeeper for the rich, but Depoulos's childhood was a poor one. She often lacked food to eat. At some point in Depoulos's childhood, Depoulos’s mother and brother moved to the United States seeking a better living. Depoulos and her remaining siblings were left with Depoulos's uncle. Depoulos's mother and brother sent back money that they made in the United States. It is also unknown when one of Depoulos's sisters followed and lived with her mother for six years. Depoulos's sister and Depoulos's mother became sick. Depoulos's sister died in the United States, which caused Depoulos's mother's condition to worsen. Depoulos's mother returned home.[1]

Depoulos married John Depoulos when she was seventeen. About one and a half years into their marriage, they had a son. When the baby was six months old, John borrowed money to move to the United States to earn more money as a peddler. There was not enough money for Depoulos and the baby to come also.[2]

World War I and FamineEdit

While Depoulos was alone with her child, war struck Syria, and the Turks overtook Beirut. Because ports were closed during the war, she and the people around her starved. Depoulos described eating oranges and grass. Depoulos's mother, sister, and sister's family all died during a famine, which was probably The Great Famine of Mount Lebanon.[3]

She was jobless until a rich woman asked her to take care of her, her husband, and her four children. Depoulos served as a nanny, housekeeper, and cook. The rich woman was ill and died, but Depoulos continued to care for the family until the widowed husband remarried. [4]

For seven years, Depoulos did not hear from her husband, until her brother found out she was still alive. They wrote her a large check and she soon moved to the United States. [5]

Depoulos remained emotional in her later life about her experience during the war. She cried and was visibly upset while she spoke about her experience with the interviewer for the Federal Writers' Project.[6]

Life in the United StatesEdit

John Depoulos was a peddler in the United States when he first arrived. When he made enough money, he started a small restaurant.[7]

When Depoulos first arrived, she was homesick but said that people were nice to her and she made new friends. She worked in the restaurant and as a peddler.[8]

Her son was renamed Jim, and she and her husband sent Jim to school.

Depoulos and her son could not speak English when she arrived in the United States. Jim was six years old and learned English fast, but she learned English more slowly. By the time she was middle-aged, she had learned to speak proficient English; however, she still could not count money. Depoulos also never learned how to drive. [9]

Depoulos and her husband soon sold the restaurant and opened a store in Athens, Georgia. The store sold a combination of clothing and other goods, including piece goods, thread and notions, curtains, bedspreads, old-fashioned footwear, suitcases, and drinks. The store sold to both white and black people.[10]

Some of Depoulos's favorite memories of the United States were the parties they hosted. The biggest party they ever had was for her son's wedding. The parties were multiple days and included a feast and Syrian music.[11]

Children and GrandchildrenEdit

Her son Jim married a girl of Syrian blood named Mary when he was eighteen. Mary was from South America. They had four children, two boys and two girls. Depoulos never had any children besides Jim, but she was very close to her grandchildren.[12]

Jim left high school after he married and never finished high school. He became a peddler as an adult.[13]

Mamie expressed that she did not want to live in Syria, but she wanted her grandchildren to know of their heritage.

She died at an unknown date.

Social IssuesEdit

Syrian Immigrants and XenophobiaEdit

Syrians began to arrive in the United States in the 1870s. Most of the Syrians who immigrated to the United States were Christian. [14] The most common motivation to move was economic improvement and the American dream.[15] The Syrian community became centered around peddling, which was a job that had many social stigmas associated with it, so the Syrian people became associated with those negative social stigmas. The perception of Syrians in the United States was that they were "white before the law but not on the street." [16]

The Syrian peddler and Anti-semitic stereotypes were similar. Syrians were assumed to be greedy, morally depraved, tricksy, and manipulative. At the same time, they were viewed through "the broad Orientalist lens of mysticism and exoticism." [17]

However, Syrians were able to blend into American culture more easily because of their peddling. Their daily interactions with Americans allowed them to absorb American customs and mannerisms, and new Syrian American individuals tended to blend in faster than other groups. They were also able to use their proximity to the Holy Land as a way to appeal to white Americans. Many of them Anglicized their names and became members of more mainstream American Christian denominations. [18]

The Great Famine of Mount LebanonEdit

Syria became a military base when the Ottoman Empire entered WWI in 1914.[19]

In April 1915, a plague of locusts followed a bad harvest. The locusts ate almost all that had been left by the Ottomans who had taken food and grain to feed their soldiers. When the Allies blockaded the Eastern Mediterranean to block off supplies to the Ottomans, General Jamal Pasha instated a blockade of Mount Lebanon. These blockades and environmental factors such as the poor rainfall and the locust attack led to an underproduction of food, which raised the cost of living. Further state policies depreciated the value of money, so even those people with money could not buy food. [20]

The Great Famine of Mount Lebanon killed around 500,000 people. It lasted from 1915-1918. Lebanon, at the time part of the Greater Syria region, saw the highest death tolls; around half of the people, or 100,000-200,000 people, died. People ate anything they could, including cats, dogs, rats, and dead people. People were more susceptible to disease, and there was a malaria crisis by 1917.[21]

Out of everywhere, Syria saw the highest deaths in proportion to its population.[22]



  1. Interview with Mamie Lewis, July 10, 1939, Federal Writers' Project.
  2. Ibid., 4
  3. Ibid., 7
  4. Ibid., 8
  5. Ibid., 10
  6. Ibid., 9
  7. Ibid., 12
  8. Ibid., 10
  9. Ibid., 11-13
  10. Ibid., 13
  11. Ibid., 14
  12. Ibid., 14
  13. Ibid., 15
  14. Charlotte Albrecht, "An Archive of Difference: Syrian Women, the Peddling Economy and US Social Welfare, 1880-1935." (Gender & History 28, no. 1, 2016: 127-49.) doi:10.1111/1468-0424.12180., 137
  15. J. Jones, "Syrian Americans." (In Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, edited by Gale. 3rd ed. Gale, 2014)
  16. Charlotte Albrecht, "An Archive of Difference: Syrian Women, the Peddling Economy and US Social Welfare, 1880-1935.", 130
  17. Ibid.
  18. J. Jones, "Syrian Americans."
  19. William Polk, “Syria.”
  20. Rym Ghazal. “Lebanon's Dark Days of Hunger: The Great Famine of 1915-18.”
  21. Ibid.
  22. “WW1: The Famine of Mount Lebanon.”


  • Albrecht, Charlotte Karem. "An Archive of Difference: Syrian Women, the Peddling Economy and US Social Welfare, 1880-1935." Gender & History 28, no. 1, 2016: 127-49. doi:10.1111/1468-0424.12180.
  • Commins, David Dean, and William Roe Polk. “Syria.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Sept. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Syria/Ottoman-rule-restored#ref29919.
  • Ghazal, Rym. “Lebanon's Dark Days of Hunger: The Great Famine of 1915-18.” The National, The National, 14 Apr. 2015, www.thenational.ae/world/lebanon-s-dark-days-of-hunger-the-great-famine-of-1915-18-1.70379.
  • “WW1: The Famine of Mount Lebanon.” BBC News, BBC, 24 Oct. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-29719542/ww1-the-famine-of-mount-lebanon.