April 21: Assyrian Muslim Cemetery
Today, we recognize one of North Dakota’s listings in the National Register of Historic Places. Amidst the early immigration to North Dakota were individuals from Syria, in what is today Lebanon. The Syrian-Lebanese formed communities in various counties across the state. Like so many, they were looking for better opportunities and a better life. Together with the rest of the community, they toiled, struggled, and succeeded.
These immigrants came from a variety of religious backgrounds, but the largest of the North Dakota Muslim communities settled around Ross, which was established in Mountrail County in 1887.
Around 1901, Mary Juma and her husband Hasson* were the first Syrian-Lebanese couple to settle around Ross. By all accounts, the couple had been peddling across various states before deciding to stay and homestead — perhaps because they found that North Dakota had others from their home country.
By March 1929 the Minot Daily News reported that the Syrian-Lebanese community in Ross was on the brink of purchasing land for a Muslim Cemetery. The article reported that a modest mosque would be built “as soon as is practicable.” This became the Assyrian Muslim Cemetery, the first Muslim cemetery in North Dakota by more than ninety years, and it was the first mosque built in the United States.
While the community didn’t continue to grow, the stories remain. For example, Mary Juma, who was widowed in 1917, recorded her history during the 1930s when the Works Progress Administration conducted interviews with various people of the area. Years later, in the 1970s, her son Charlie Juma, of Stanley, would contribute to the bicentennial oral history collection conducted by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Those stories, and those of other Syrian-Lebanese men and women, document the settlement of this population group in Ross and other parts of the state.
The original mosque had fallen into disrepair, but in 2005, a replica of a typical Muslim house of prayer was built. This south-facing building is 17 feet by 17 feet and includes an east-facing prayer rug, as well as historical information about many of those who rest in the cemetery. The grounds remain cared for by the descendants of those buried there.
Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker
*Hasson, Hassin, and other spellings were used in various sources.
- North Dakota Place Name, Douglas Wick
- Bicentennial Oral History Collection, Charlie Juma interview, 10157-00669AB
- Minot Daily News and Daily Optic Reporter, March 7, 1929, p1