By Terry Abdoo King*
The sun shone brightly as I walked over to the south lawn of the White House to greet Lebanese President Amin Gemayl. As part of the White House staff in the Reagan Administration, I was fortunate enough to attend many of the historic events that made up the day-to-day schedule of President Reagan. But this event was more important than the others. As a Lebanese-American, I was quite thrilled, of course, to get a glimpse of the Lebanese president. As the saying goes, only in America could the granddaughter of immigrants who spoke little English and had almost no formal education end up working in the White House.
The story of my family in the United States is similar to that of millions
of other Americans -- between 1880 and 1900 alone, nine million immigrants
entered the United States. And, among those newcomers who had endured traveling
across the ocean in steerage class was my mother's father, Abraham Abdoo
Beshara. Abraham Abdoo Beshara was born in 1872 in a tiny town in the Akkar
region of northern Lebanon, Bkarzla. The town is so small that even in
a country the size of Lebanon, not many people know of it. The town is
noted for the shrine to its patron saint, Saint Maura**.
At the turn of the century, Lebanon was under Turkish occupation. My grandparents suffered terrible economic hardships under the Turkish reign. There were several children born to my grandparents in Lebanon who died during this difficult period. Like millions of people before and after him, my grandfather set out for the new world in the hope that the opportunities in the United States would enable him and his family to have a better life.
Abraham Abdoo, as his name was shortened, eventually made his way to Utica, a small city in upstate New York, where his brother Moses Abraham, had previously settled. Utica still is the home to many recent Lebanese immigrants, and the knitting mills and other factories located in the area at that time provided places for these new arrivals to work.
Like many Lebanese immigrants of the time, his first venture into the working world was as a peddler of lace, buttons, and similar items. He walked through the county with a pack on his back full of the items that he sold. He eventually opened a dry goods store with his brother, located in the East Utica section of the city, where most of the Lebanese immigrants lived. It was after the store closed that he began working in the knitting mills in the city. Abraham Abdoo loved thick Turkish coffee, which he made himself. He liked to roll his own cigarettes, and, whenever he could, he took advantage of the nearby streams and lakes to go fishing. A dedicated family man, my aunt remembers my grandfather making breakfast for the entire family and helping my grandmother, Zeina Saba Abdoo, with the many Lebanese sweets she made -- at that time, they all made their own dough for the baklava.
My grandfather's home also was a gathering place for many of the Lebanese people in the area. Without television or radio, my grandfather would read stories from the Bible to the men gathered in his home. They would gather night after night and he would continue the passages from where he had left off the previous evening.
As important as his family was to him, my grandfather also was dedicated to the church. The Lebanese immigrants in Utica eventually built a Maronite Church, Saint Louis Gonzaga, which has been around for 86 years. My grandparents were among the founders of that church. And my mother, aunts, uncles, and many cousins are still active members.
My grandparents carried on the traditions of their town in Lebanon by forming the St. Mora's Ladies Society for women, which is still active, and the Akkar Young Men's Society, which disbanded in 1979, for men. A grand hafli was held every September on the feast day of St. Mora, and on Sunday, a mass was celebrated. A large banner was carried through the streets of Utica to the church by the society members to celebrate the feast day. In addition, many people pinned money to the banner which was then and is still now, being sent to Lebanon as assistance for the poor in Lebanon.
Abraham Abdoo was simply a quiet family man, who had 13 children, 9 of whom grew to adulthood. Always loyal to his church, he was proud to become an American citizen. If he were alive today, he would have been able to meet 33 grandchildren, and 52 great-grandchildren and 33 great-great grandchildren -- thus far.
He may have even been able to see the Lebanese President on the White House Lawn.
* Terry Abdoo King lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband John, and 9-month-old daughter Katherine. All four of her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon.
** Saint Maura was the wife of Timothy. Timothy was the
son of a Christian priest from an area near Antinoe in Thebaid, Egypt.
Timothy was a lector. With his wife, they devoted themselves to the study
of the Holy Scripture. Refusing to desecrate the Holy Books and denounce
his religion before the Governor Arian, he was tortured. When Maura also
refused to obey the orders of Arian, she too was tortured. Both St. Maura
and St. Timothy were crucified and were suspended nine days while consoling
each other in the faith. They both died circa 286. The Saints feast day
is May 3 in the Roman Church, and November 23 in the Coptic Church.
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