Our Lady of Deliverance: Immigration of the
Saadi, Abraham,
Elum, and Hayek Families

By Edward T. Saadi
Attorney at Law.

In this section of the Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS), a Maronite-American family presents its own history of migration to the United States of America. The Maronites in America have a rich history preserved through oral narratives. Valuable historical and cultural details such as reasons for emigrating, means of transport, adjustments in the new country, customs, music, food, etc., are worth recording. These stories represent the views of the author(s).  They may be edited for clarity and style.

In the village of Bejje, Lebanon, in the Byblos (Jbeil) district, there is a Maronite church dedicated to Saints Sarkis and Bacchus.  It is the main church in the village. Like so many churches in other Lebanese villages, it is simple with a bell tower, and fills with people every Sunday. There is nothing about its appearance to make you believe that there is anything unusual about this church, nothing to give you a clue that any sort of drama has unfolded here over the centuries. But like so many village churches in Lebanon, it has an amazing history.

For the past 400 years until 1917, Lebanon struggled for independence from the Ottoman Empire. During this period, there stood a much smaller church on the same spot. When the village outgrew the old church, it decided in about 1896 to build a new one. Instead of tearing down the old church then building a new one, the new church was actually built over and around the old. Upon completion of the new church, the old was dismantled within the new one, and taken away.

One day, several villagers were digging the foundation when an Ottoman soldier on horseback came to the village and observed the construction site. He ordered the men to stop, saying "It's illegal to build Christian churches in Lebanon, by decree of the Sultan," or something to that effect. "Only mosques can be built. Not churches." For centuries, the Ottomans had taken great pleasure in oppressing and persecuting Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon. To this day, there are churches in Lebanon where one must crouch down to pass through the doors. They were built with doors like this to combat the favorite Ottoman sport of desecrating Maronite churches after entering them on horseback --such doors are too low for a horse to pass through.

The men building the church were not thrilled with either the presence or the harassment of their oppressor's representative. A fight broke out, and in the heat of passion, the Ottoman soldier was killed. The men knew that when this soldier did not return to his post, an Ottoman legion would soon arrive in Bejje to investigate his disappearance. To save their own lives and to save the village, they had to conceal the evidence of their deed. In a panic, they threw the soldier's corpse into the foundation of the church, and continued building the church over the body of their oppressor.

That night, everyone in the village stayed in their abou (basement) and prayed to be saved from retaliation.. They prayed to Saints Sarkis and Bacchus, ancient soldiers in the Roman Army who were tortured, beaten and killed for their Christianity and their refusal to worship pagan gods. Late that night, from below in their abou, people heard noises outside --yelling and shooting, like some kind of a battle was going on. The Turks must be here, they thought, and they're going to take their retribution on us. The noises went on and on throughout the night, and finally subsided when dawn broke. The villagers began emerging from their basements. After talking with one another, they found that no one had ventured outside the night before. Everyone heard the noises of the battle outside, but no one actually went out. No one could figure out what had happened. Who could have fought the Ottomans if no one dared to venture outside? Being a people of great faith, they concluded that Saints Sarkis and Bacchus had saved them from destruction. So they finished the church and named it for their protectors. There are two photographs taken during construction of the church, depicting the people of Bejje proudly standing in, around, and on the roof of the church.

Such was the atmosphere that three of my grandparents were born into. The fourth, my maternal grandmother, was Lebanese, but was born in America and never visited Lebanon. They were all born around 1900, give or take a few years. Those born in Lebanon immigrated during the Ottoman occupation that became outright genocide when the Turks blockaded the mostly Maronite Mountain during World War I.

They all eventually ended up in Youngstown, Ohio. Dates and details are sketchy, but the story of their immigration is nothing short of heroic.

Tufic Saadi, my paternal grandfather, was born in Bejje. His mother, Genevieve, was from the family of Yusuf (Joseph) Bey Karam, the great 19th Century "Batal Lubnan," or "Hero of Lebanon," who traveled from village to village on horseback, rounding up an army to fend off Ottoman aggression and preserve Lebanon's autonomy. With an army of only 800 ragtag men, Joseph Bey Karam defeated an Ottoman army of thousands. Tufic's father was Salim, the son of George (Girgis). We know of no photographs of George, but when I visited Lebanon in 1992, my cousin drove me to the nearby village of Ma'ad and showed me a painting in a church there depicting Patriarch John Maron. I looked at this painting and could have sworn that a brother or uncle was staring back at me. My cousin explained that George had posed for the painting. Tufic had a brother, Elias, and a sister, Marie. Tufic's father Salim was a successful man who owned a lot of land in the Bejje area. I've heard that their home was, in its time, the finest house in Bejje --a beautiful new house built of stone. Over the entrance to the house was engraved a cross and an inscription: "The height of wisdom is fear of the Lord."

Coming to America was always in the back of Salim's mind. He wanted to come to the United States but his wife refused. One day, two-year-old Marie was outside with her mother who was washing sheets. Marie found something heavy sewn into a pocket in a corner of one of the sheets. She reached in and found eight Ottoman coins, quite a bit of money in the early 1900s. Marie, who is now 98 years old and still living in Bejje, believes that her mother was hiding this money from her father so that he wouldn't have enough to travel.

The people of Bejje would often gather on one of the highest hilltops in the village. They would get together, drink arak, and sing ma'hanna (folk songs) and recite er'radi (traditional poems). Many of the poems and songs were spontaneous. Most villagers would contribute an er'radi, but a ma'hanna was considered the higher form of expression. Marie remembers that her father would take a jug of arak to the hilltop party and it was so big that he had to carry it with two hands.

When Genevieve was 27 years old, she developed kidney disease and fell very ill. The doctors in the Bejje area could not help her, and the disease worsened. Salim brought her to doctor after doctor, but to no avail. When the disease worsened to the point that Genevieve could no longer walk, Salim carried her in his arms or on his back. On foot, he carried her to the best doctors in Beirut, and on foot, he carried her to doctors in Syria. But no one could help, and sadly, Genevieve died, leaving two sons and a two-year old daughter. Genevieve's death crushed Salim. His despair knew no bounds. He had sold all of his land and gone into debt to pay for his wife's care. Utterly despondent, Salim broke up the furniture in the house, and was never quite the same.

Down the road from Saints Sarkis and Bacchus is the church of the Saadi family, Saydet al-Najjat, ("Our Lady of Deliverance"), built in 1877. Traditionally, men from the family were buried inside of the church, under the floor, with priests buried closest to the altar. Women were traditionally buried outside. But Salim, distraught over his loss, demanded that his wife be buried inside the church --and this was done.

Two years after Genevieve's death and in dire financial straits, Salim finally got his wish to go to America, though certainly under different circumstances than he originally intended. Salim left Lebanon alone around 1910, leaving his three children behind in the care of a priest, Khouri Hanna. Marie was only four when her father left, and her two brothers were not much older. Marie remembers the day her father left for America. Before leaving, he recited one last poem

Ya Khouri Hanna Oh, Khouri Hanna
Biddi ganni ma'hana I want to sing a ma'hana
Wa takh ne min el err'radi Enough of the er'radi
Wasseeh ya Khouri Hanna I beseech you Khouri Hanna
Der balak min ouladi Take care of my children

 Salim then walked to Beirut, and never returned to Lebanon. What could Salim have been feeling during his days-long walk to Beirut? Did he know, when he left his ancestral village, that he would never return? His world had crumbled around him, and America offered him the only hope. There, the streets were paved with gold. He would work in America, and send his earnings to his children. Someday he would send for his children to join him.

When Salim arrived at Ellis Island, he was quarantined for several weeks due to trachoma, a common eye infection among immigrants to the New World. From New York, Salim went to Wellsville, Ohio. Seven months passed before anyone in Lebanon heard from him. When he finally wrote to his children, young Marie wrote back asking why it took so long for Salim to contact her. He replied, "The answer to that question could fill a volume." Salim, struggling in America, sent money for the support of his children in Lebanon. Four years after leaving Lebanon, Salim finally sent for Tufic, his oldest child and my grandfather, to join him in America. Tufic was only thirteen or fourteen, so young that the priest felt it necessary to put the travel money in a pouch attached to a string around Tufic's neck. That way, it wouldn't be lost during Tufic's long walk from the mountain to Beirut to catch the boat to America. We still have the receipt that Salim received when he purchased Tufic's passage to Youngstown. Tufic became a U.S. citizen in 1963.

Only Elias and Marie were left in Lebanon. During this time, there was an epidemic of typhoid fever. A priest in Bejje contracted the disease and died. The villagers buried him. Shortly thereafter, Elias got a touch of the fever. Marie has said that holes formed in the priest's tomb, allowing the disease to escape and spread, and she believes that this is how Elias got the disease. But he seemed to be winning the battle against the disease. But one day, bandits came to the house when Marie was home alone. Terrified, she hid from the thieves and watched them as they stole the rugs and other valuables from the house. When her brother Elias came home, she told him what had happened. Elias believed that he knew who the thieves were, and he went out into the night to retrieve what was lost. The damp night and the strenuous effort weakened Elias's immune defenses. The infection returned, this time in full force, and it took the life of seventeen-year-old Elias.

Salim and Tufic were told of Elias's death, but it seems that they had reason to doubt the accuracy of the information. Salim took it upon himself to ask the United States Department of State to investigate the welfare of his son. The State Department replied with a cold, terse letter telling Salim that the Muktar of Bejje had verified his son's death.

Marie was alone in Lebanon. Her father and brother were thousands of miles away, and her mother and second brother had died. Finally, like a punctuation mark at the end of a cruel sentence, a massive earthquake struck Lebanon in 1919 and demolished the house her father had built. The "finest house in Bejje" had become a house of heartbreak. The four corners of the house, as well as the entryway with its inscription stand to this day. "If misery and suffering could kill," she said, "I would have been dead long ago."

Salim repeatedly sent for Marie to join him and Tufic in Ohio. But she never left Lebanon. Once, she went down to the coast to board a ship, but she turned around and went back up to the village. She won't say why. She married into the Hayek family in Bejje and had four children: Nassib, Michel, Emile, and Elias. Nassib was at one time the head of customs in Lebanon. Father Michel Hayek lives in Paris and Lebanon, and is considered to be perhaps the foremost Maronite theologian today. Emile, an attorney with four children, was recently elected president of the municipality of Bejje, and Elias is a prominent Beirut physician.

At 98, Marie rarely leaves the village. Her eyesight and hearing are failing, but her memory and wit are razor-sharp. She prays the Rosary five times a day --once for each of her children and once for my father, the son of Tufic.

Salim initially went to Wellsville, Ohio, because the pottery industry there made work easy to find. When Tufic arrived, they opened a dry-goods store in Wellsville's business district. After a few years they moved their business about one hour north to Federal Street in Youngstown, a city that was booming as a steel town. Youngstown also had the added attraction of being the home of many other Lebanese immigrants. It is believed that Lebanese immigrants had first arrived in Youngstown as early as 1883. Like most of the other Lebanese in Youngstown, Salim and Tufic lived on the city's East Side. The east side of Youngstown was like a "little Lebanon" in those days. Most of the Lebanese lived clustered together in the same small neighborhood, with a Maronite parish around the corner on Wilson Avenue. Many of them were peddlers. Many others worked in the steel mills of Youngstown, which would employ anyone who showed up for work regardless of whether they spoke English. The lives of the Lebanese centered around the church. On summer Sundays after Mass between 1956 and 1970, the group would gather en masse at Cedar Lake, a recreation area purchased by Msgr. Peter Eid, who served the Maronites of Youngstown for 32 years. It was always an exciting event whenever the Lebanese actor and comedian Danny Thomas came to town. By the 1970s, most of the Lebanese, having become affluent, left the east side for other parts of the city. And in 1974, a new church was built in the suburbs. Inside the new church is a huge painting of Saint Maron. To his right in the painting is a young boy looking up at the saint. My oldest brother, Elias, posed as the boy for this painting, just as my great-great grandfather had posed for the painting in Ma'ad. Few Lebanese still live on Youngstown's East Side, but a drive through it still reveals Arabic writing on some of the buildings as a reminder of its past.

It was probably in that East Side neighborhood sometime in the 1920s that Tufic met Victoria Hayek. Or perhaps he remembered her from the old country, because Victoria was also from Bejje --she grew up in a house right down the road. Victoria was born in Youngstown in 1905 or 1906 to Kalem and Najieh Hayek, but the family returned to Lebanon in her infancy. During Victoria's childhood, her mother and father returned to America, leaving Victoria in Lebanon with her sister Rouhaniye (Rose) and brother Alex, just as Salim had left his children. Like so many immigrant families, Victoria's parents intended to send for their children when the appropriate time came. Kalem, who became a grocer and peddler, and Najiye produced five more children in America --a son Kaiser, and four daughters, Josephine, Mary, Julia, and Adla.

Victoria attended school at the Pensionnat des Soeurs de la Visitation, a convent in the village of Antoura. She finished high school there and spoke fluent French. She took great pride in this accomplishment, so rare in its day, and always stressed the importance of education to her children and grandchildren. "Anything you have can be taken away from you," she used to say, "your health, your family, your home. But when you get an education, you have the only thing that no one can ever take."

Victoria remained in Lebanon until she was eighteen. In 1924, she, Alex and Rose came back to Youngstown together, and met for the first time their American brothers and sistersShe and Tufic married in 1931, and in 1932 had one son, Elias, my father, named for Tufic's deceased brother. Even while in America, Victoria corresponded with the nuns who educated her. One letter gives some indication that Victoria at one time entertained the idea of becoming a nun.

Victoria had an uncle, Alex Thomas Hayek, the brother of Kalem, who enjoyed some fame and notoriety. He was a "strong man," a man of legendary strength. He billed himself as "Alex Thomas" and made his living by putting on a show demonstrating his strength in a makeshift theater on Federal Street in Youngstown. This remarkable poster was plastered around Youngstown to attract people to his show. In it, he is touted as "positively the world's greatest strong man." On his death, a local sports editor wrote a detailed obituary, in which he described Alex's ability to hold "off the ground a Packard touring car --one of those big lumbering jobs of the day-- while a friend changed a tire." The writer described him as a "living, breathing Samson." Alex toured at one point with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He would lie down, place a platform on his chest, and allow an elephant to walk over it. He also wrestled and worked in vaudeville shows and carnivals.

At home, Tufic and Victoria spoke Arabic exclusively. In fact, my Dad did not speak a word of English until he started first grade. Because of his lack of English proficiency, he struggled in school for the first two years. Some of his report cards have Arabic words scribbled on them by his parents, to help them comprehend what Eli was studying in school. But by third grade, Dad became proficient in English and became a good student. This was a common experience with many of the Lebanese in Youngstown. Victoria's sister, Rose, for example, married Sassine Coury and had one son, Richie, who was similarly unable to speak English. After his first day of school, Aunt Rose asked Richie "Keef al madrasi il'youm? (How was school today)?" And Richie innocently replied, in Arabic, "There's something wrong with those people. I don't understand what they're saying, they must not be from around here." And Rose said, "You're not from around here!"

Being an only child, Eli was closely guarded by Victoria. I often hear stories from my father's childhood friends that while they were out playing, Victoria would force Eli to practice his French instead. Dad was also very close to his Uncle Kaiser, Victoria's brother. Kaiser was drafted and served in the United States Army in World War II. He served in a unit with other young men from Youngstown, some of them Lebanese such as Fred Beshara, who later became a successful contractor who built many of the nation's shopping malls. Kaiser fought valiantly in the war, and came home a hero. He and Dad corresponded throughout his tour of duty. But tragically, despite surviving an Army tour of duty in which he saw combat, Kaiser drowned while swimming in a lake near Youngstown shortly after returning.

In the 1940s, after the immigrants achieved a measure of stability in their adopted land, the descendants of Bejje living in Youngstown formed a club which met frequently in the decades after its inception. At the first meeting of the Bejje club in 1947, Tufic Saadi gave a speech, which luckily was recorded and preserved. In the 1980s, the club, which still meets occasionally, held fund-raisers for the purpose of assisting the medical needs of Bejje. Enough was raised to build a medical dispensary in the village. Inside the dispensary, there is a plaque that states that it was built by the sons of Bejje living in Youngstown, Ohio. The Lebanese government has designated the dispensary as a regional health center.

When Eli was nine years old, his grandfather Salim died. In the subsequent years, Tufic gradually quit the dry goods business and went into real estate. Tufic was not an educated man, but he was an extraordinary businessman, purchasing houses in the Youngstown area and renting them. By the time he died in 1968, public records show that he owned over 400 houses in Youngstown. But he was an old-fashioned Lebanese. He worked almost 24 hours a day. He maintained the houses himself. His car, no matter what kind it was, always had a ladder attached to the top in case he had to go out on a repair job. No one I know ever remembers seeing him in anything other than a suit. Sometimes he would even fall asleep in his suit. And he was an ardent practitioner of the ancient Lebanese tradition of the unexpected visit. You never knew when Tufic was going to pop into one of the other Lebanese homes on the East Side, but it was usually late at night, because he rarely slept more than a few hours a night. When Tufic passed away, it fell to Eli to take care of his business. Dad examined the books and found that many of Ghiddi's tenants were behind in their rent --they were only paying rent eleven months out of the year. He inquired with some long-term tenants and discovered that they had paid their rent, but that Ghiddi Tufic would send back all of the December checks so that his tenants would be able to provide a better Christmas for their children. He never told anyone about this and other acts of generosity. I find it amazing that a man who came to America with little more than the clothes on his back and unable to speak a word of English was somehow able to not only support a wife and child, but also find the means to aid his sister in Lebanon and so many family and friends. But it is no less than saintly that his generosity extended to perfect strangers.

Victoria died in 1984 when I was only 13, but I remember some of the stories she told me about why she left Lebanon. She told me that everyone was starving, that there was so little to eat because of the Ottoman blockade that even the wolves were starving. She told me that she witnessed with her own eyes a child being eaten by wolves. When I went to Lebanon in 1992, I asked my cousins about these stories, and was told that they hadn't seen that sort of animal around the mountain in anyone's recent memory. I wondered if Sitti's memory had been embellished with the passage of time. Then, a few days later, while a cousin and I were driving through the mountain roads, we swerved to avoid hitting an animal crossing the road. At first it looked like a dog. But after looking closely, I realized that it was a wolf. My cousin couldn't believe it. I wonder if this was more than an uncanny coincidence. I'll never doubt the stories again. I wonder if someday my grandchildren will disbelieve the stories that I tell them about the horrors of the recent war in Lebanon and I wonder what it will take to make them believe.

Sitti Victoria was a very religious woman. Every Sunday during my childhood, after Mass, we would go to Sitti's house. When she was done mixing the kibbee, she would put it on a large dish and send me off to wash my hands so that I could make the impression of a cross in the kibbee. Sometimes I would stay at her house overnight. Whenever I did, she would take out her photo albums and show me a lot of old black and white pictures from the old country. Sometimes she wanted me to help her pray the Rosary. She would say the first half of each prayer, "Hail Mary, full of grace…" and I would finish the second part "Holy Mary, mother of God…"

Eli went from Sacred Heart elementary school to Ursuline High School, Catholic schools that attracted many of the local Maronites. From there, he went to Youngstown College, where, at his mother's insistence, he enrolled in pre-medical studies. Then Eli attended medical school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He then returned to Youngstown where he specialized in cardiology and quickly made a name for himself. Dad is much too modest to toot his own horn, but I have learned through various sources that Dad was among the first to employ CPR as a means of resuscitation, and he built from blueprints one of the first defibrillators in the country. When Dad used his new device for the first time to rescue a local Lebanese man in the midst of a heart attack, the local newspaper ran a story the following day with the headline "Doctors bring local man back to life." In 1986, he founded the Ohio Heart Institute in Youngstown.

Dad was also heavily involved in Lebanese cultural and political activities. Starting in 1972, he traveled frequently to Lebanon, even during the heaviest fighting. He served several times as the president of the National Apostolate of Maronites, and in 1974 was one of the founding members of the American Lebanese League, a lobbying organization with the purpose of preserving the freedom and independence of Lebanon. The A.L.L., which had its genesis in Youngstown, achieved many successes between its inception and the mid-eighties. Through a grass-roots effort, it succeeded in reversing the skeptical U.S. position toward the Christian resistance movement in Lebanon. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited Dad and the other leaders of the A.L.L. to participate in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden in which a Cedar of Lebanon was planted on the White House grounds. During the ceremony, President Carter and Dr. Saadi delivered speeches, recorded for posterity, in which they spoke eloquently of the ties that bind the United States and Lebanon together. These men also had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. In 1981, during the Syrian siege of the predominantly Christian town of Zahle, the A.L.L. succeeded in pressuring the Carter administration to order Syria to stop shelling the town. Dad remained active in the A.L.L. until 1983. In 1986, at a testimonial dinner, he was knighted with the highest honor that the Lebanese government can bestow upon a civilian --the medal of the National Order of Cedar. Although in my childhood I did not always understand the complexities of Lebanese politics, I will never forget the frequent trips to Washington with Dad, nor the impassioned phone calls that Dad would receive at all hours of the night, like the one from the Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox bishops of Zahleh, calling from a basement-turned-bunker in 1980 in the midst of Syrian efforts to level the town, with nothing to eat but raw potatoes for weeks on end; nor the ones from Michel Aoun in 1989 and 1990, Syrian-induced explosions sometimes cutting the connection; nor, worst of all, ones that came in 1982, informing him that his close friend, who had just been elected President, had been murdered.

In 1959, my father married Peggy Abraham, a Lebanese girl from Youngstown whose family history is no less dramatic.

I still can hear her father, my grandfather,saying: "when I was young, I remember being amazed at how high the mountain was. I couldn't believe how high the mountain was. I remember being amazed at so many things. Usually," my mother's father said, "when I see those things again as an adult, the reality of what I see never lives up to the memory of my childhood. " Joe Abraham, my mother's father, left Lebanon when he was only fourteen years old and traveled alone to the United States. He returned to Lebanon one time, for a brief visit, about 50 years later. "But when I saw the mountain again," he said to my father, "it was as big as I remembered."

I often thought of that story during my first visit to Lebanon in 1992. It was as if Ghiddi Joe, who died when I was 13, and Ghiddi Tufic, who died before I was born, were in some strange way my escorts. One day, my cousin and I were driving from Bejje, in the mountains, to Jbeil on the coast. On the way, we stopped at a tiny roadside store to buy something to drink. Inside, there was an older man sitting leisurely, chatting with some others. He didn't speak a word of English. When I entered the store, this gentleman stood up, took my hand, kissed me on each cheek and said something to me in Lebanese. I don't speak much Lebanese, but I recognized the last three words of his sentence: "Youssef Mikhail Ibrahim." Joseph Michael Abraham. That was my grandfather's name. My cousin translated for me. "He says that you are the descendant of Joseph Michael Abraham." It had been nearly 80 years since my grandfather had emigrated from lebanon, but this gentleman knew, simply by looking at me, that I was my grandfather's grandson. It struck me that not only did my grandfather remember the mountain, the mountain remembered him.

We don't know the whole story of why Ghiddi Joe immigrated to the United States. Like many people who came to America during the early 1900s, Ghiddi Joe was much too busy trying to "make it" in America and trying to assimilate, so he didn't talk much about the past. He was a young man of only 14 when he left Lebanon, and when he arrived in the United States, he found himself responsible for the support of his mother and two sisters. In his situation, Joe faced a mad urgency to assimilate. He didn't speak Arabic at home, and didn't teach it to his six daughters and son, and he didn't talk much about his childhood. But we have been able to piece together some of the story.

His hometown was Mesreh, a little town in the Batroun district. When I visited there in 1992 and again in 1997, I saw roughly a dozen houses, and a beautiful, yet simple Maronite church.  Joe's father died during his infancy. Joe had one older sister, Sophie, a younger sister, Victoria, and a younger brother, George. Joe's mother, along with the two youngest children, Victoria and George, left Joe and Sophie in Lebanon. They were raised by a priest who we believe was an uncle. In the church in Mesreh, Joe served Mass every day; and every day, he pulled the rope which hung down from the church tower to sound the bell for Mass. When Joe was 13 or 14, this priest who was raising him decided that he should be sent away to school in Paris. I have heard that the priest intended him to go to the seminary, and that Joe did not want to be a priest. There is no way to know this for sure, but what we do know is that Joe never went to Paris. He left Lebanon,and, probably against someone's wishes, sailed to America instead. He told his daughter Joanne that he had a ticket for the Titanic, but didn't make it to England in time to board the ship.

Like so many immigrants of that era, Joe journeyed to America in the steerage class of an ocean liner, which meant that his accommodations on the ship were roughly equivalent to those enjoyed by cattle. Like thousands of other immigrants, Joe passed through Ellis Island. His destination was Youngstown to meet his mother and brother and sister.

Joe taught himself English by reading the Youngstown newspaper every day. We still have in our possession a few elementary school primers that he used as well. He immediately went into business for himself, his first venture being a malt shop in Youngstown. Later he founded a vending business that owned a "route" that stretched at its height from Chicago to New York. Joe invented a shuffleboard machine that he mass-produced and sold. It was a long slate of shuffleboard raised waist-high with metal pucks. You still see them sometimes in older establishments along with some of the pool tables he used to manufacture. Joe also once owned a tool and die shop that supplied the U.S. Navy during World War II. Like Tufic, he was a man of impeccable character. He became an American citizen in 1920.

Joe was somewhat eccentric. He didn't settle on the east side of Youngstown like most of the other Lebanese in the area. Instead, he bought a beautiful country home in North Jackson (a suburb), just down the road from the future site of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, which was founded by many Youngstown Lebanese, including Ghiddi Tufic.

Margaret Elum, my mother's mother, was born in about 1908 in Massillon, Ohio, the daughter of Tannous Elum and Rose Sala. Tannous owned a business, Thomas J. Elum & Co., on Tremont Street in Massillon. Margaret spoke fluent Arabic and was Lebanese in every sense, but she never once in her 82 years set foot in Lebanon. Margaret's mother and father were from Jounieh, which at the time was a small fishing village on the coast north of Beirut, but is now a bustling metropolis. The story behind the immigration of Margaret's family is somewhat more romantic than that of her husband. Margaret's mother, Rose Sala, was the daughter of the Mukhtar (mayor) of Jounieh. Rose's family looked down upon Tannous because he was, in their eyes, a mere fisherman. But Rose was nevertheless in love, and she married Tannous against her family's wishes. To avoid the fallout from their decision, Tannous and Rose "eloped" to America around the turn of the century. They settled in Massillon, and had ten children: Joe, Francis, Marie, Evelyn, Edward, George, Morris, Lula, Alice, and Margaret. George made a significant contribution to the American war effort --he worked closely with Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret American effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb.

In 1926, Joe Abraham was browsing through the Youngstown newspaper and saw an article about a beauty queen from Massillon named Margaret Elum. He drove to Massillon to meet her, and eventually married Margaret. They were married for over 50 years and had seven children: Joanne, Jean, Barbara, Philip, my mother Peggy, Maureen, and Susan.

Joe did not teach his children Arabic, nor did he impress upon them an awareness of the details of the family history. This is why some of the details of his immigration are harder to come by. From the moment Joe landed in America, he personally took care of the people who depended upon him, so his attention was focused on succeeding in America. His de-emphasis of family history and the old country was not a decision, it was a consequence of the circumstances he found himself in. But this does not by any means imply that his children were not raised within their heritage. Anyone who walked into his house and experienced the almost overwhelming hospitality could attest to that. Three of his daughters married into Lebanese families from the east side.

Joe never forgot Lebanon. His years as an altar boy in Mesreh had shaped him --he was fascinated by his religion, and often pondered aloud the fully human, yet fully divine nature of Christ. And he was acutely aware of the dangers facing the Maronites and the Lebanese people. My father recalls watching the nightly news with him one night in 1976, when the lead story was the entry of 20,000 Syrian troops into Lebanon. Joe, being a man of few words, simply said, "They're not going back," and he got up and left the room in disgust.

When I visited Lebanon in 1992, my cousin took me to Mesreh, and I saw the church where Ghiddi Joe served Mass every day until he was 13. This same cousin also accompanied Ghiddi Joe to Mesreh during his return trip to Lebanon five decades after his emigration from there. I never saw Ghiddi Joe expresses much emotion -- his experiences had steeled him, and he was not an expressive man. But my cousin told me that when Joe returned to Lebanon and saw the church, he rang the bell again and tears flowed. Just a few years before Ghiddi Joe died in 1984, he called my mother out of the blue from his billiards shop. "Peggy, come over," he said, "I want to teach you Arabic." Joe was stricken with cancer at the end of his life. During his illness, he was uncomfortable with visitors. But whenever the Maronite priest came, Joe patted the bed next to him, as a signal for the priest to sit down.

Elias Saadi, the son of Tufic and Victoria, married Peggy Abraham in May of 1959. They have six children and several grandchildren. All were raised in Youngstown, but are now scattered throughout the country.

This is the history of the immigration of the Saadi family as it has been told to me. But in my possession are hundreds of letters, all in Arabic, written from family in Lebanon to family in America. I can only imagine, once those letters are translated, how much more dramatic this story will be.

The church of the Saadi family in Bejje is called "Saydet al-Najjat" (Our Lady of Deliverance). What more evidence does one need than the stories of immigration of Tufic and Salim Saadi, Victoria Hayek, and Joe Abraham to illustrate what so many Maronites felt they needed deliverance from? And what more is needed to disprove my grandmother's theory that education is the only thing that can never be taken away? Education is only one --the other is your heritage.

| Previous | Copyright | Next |