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
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
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.
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
remembers the day her father left for America. Before leaving, he recited one last poem
|Biddi ganni ma'hana
||I want to sing a
|Wa takh ne min el
||Enough of the
|Wasseeh ya Khouri
||I beseech you
|Der balak min
||Take care of my
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
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
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
sisters. She 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
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
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
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
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.