The Immigration of the Bouhasin Family: from 'Aitanit, Lebanon to St. Louis

By Claudine M. Bouhasin*

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 are unedited and represent the views of their author(s).

Abraham Bouhasin M.D., the grandfather I never knew, inspired this article. He was born in 'Aitanit in the Lebanon he loved greatly. He was compelled to migrate in search of a better life. Though he began life in America as a peddler, he found the freedom and opportunity here to become a physician. His generosity and kindness to others extended beyond his own family and friends. 

'Aitanit, a small village above the Litani River in the Bekaa' Valley, was the origin of the Freiha [Bouhasin] family. 'Aitanit was primarily a poor agricultural village. The origin of the village name is Ain Taneet, a Phoenician term which means the well of the Goddess Athena. George Freiha [Fry-ha], later Bouhasin, married Mariam Abdo and lived in 'Aitanit where he was a miller. They had four daughters and one son: Sa'adie, Arabiyeh, Jaleelee (Julia), Senura (Nora) and Ibrahim (Abraham) (July 8, 1887 - August 2, 1965).

'Aitanit village on the Litani river.
Photo courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (Lebanon, 1981) 

Although the historical family name is Freiha, one branch became known as Bouhasin. There are two stories about the source of the Bouhasin name, each is interesting and worth telling. The first version maintains that due to George's grandfather's kindness and charitable nature, his neighbors and friends were inspired to nickname him Bou Hasneh or Bouhasni in Arabic, father of charity in English. The second story tells that George's grandfather left 'Aitanit with his pregnant wife due to financial devastation in the village and took refuge with a sheik. The sheik placed them under his protection, treating them as family. The sheik, whose name was Hassan, had no sons. He asked as a favor, if the wife bore a son, that they name the baby after him. George's grandmother bore a son and they named him Hassan, thus George's grandfather became Bou-Hassan or father of Hassan. The family name then became Bouhasin when George's family entered Ellis Island in 1901. 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Lebanon was, like the rest of the Middle East, under the repressive Turkish rule. And even though the situation in 'Aitanit was not so grave as elsewhere in Mount Lebanon, Mariam believed that there was no future for her family there and decided to migrate to America. In 1901, she left 'Aitanit and embarked on a most arduous journey with Julia, Nora and Abraham, her three youngest children. She departed without her husband George. He was to provide the necessary financial support until his family was established in America and then join them. Mariam also left behind in Lebanon her two eldest married daughters, Sa'adie Kahwaji and Arabiyeh Abood. Despite the sacrifices, Mariam felt compelled to make this journey because she sought a better life for her family. George was never reunited with his family. He contracted influenza during the epidemic that swept through Lebanon and died in 'Aitanit.

Mariam and her children had to travel from their Bekaa' village through the mountain to Beirut by donkey and on foot for several days. Though a small town in 1901, Beirut appeared enormous and strange to them. Here they booked passage on a cattle boat that sailed for several weeks and made many stops before reaching its final destination of New York City. Most emigrants traveled "steerage" or what is really third class in the lowest deck of the boat without windows, fresh air or any creature comforts. One of the stops for provisions was Marseilles, France. Because young Abraham, approximately fourteen years old, had studied French, he was able to obtain additional food and necessities for his family and a few other lucky travelers. In "steerage", there were no dining rooms, no luxuries, but only the most basic necessities. These hapless travelers had to fend for themselves. 

At Ellis Island, Mariam and her children went through the routine processing and were permitted entry into the United States. From there they had to make their way to Buffalo, New York where they met up with Mariam's brother, Joseph Abdo. They settled in Buffalo for approximately one year. Mariam peddled handmade linens door to door while Abraham traveled with his uncle Joseph who was an itinerant peddler.

Mariam then found an opportunity in St. Louis, Missouri and moved the family there. Sa'adie and her husband Youssef traveled from Lebanon and joined Mariam in St. Louis. Abraham was to meet up with the family later because he was still peddling with his uncle. After a short stay, Sa'adie and her husband Youssef both returned to 'Aitanit because Youssef disliked life in America.

Life in St. Louis was not much easier than in Buffalo. The family had to overcome the language barrier, although it was much easier for the children to pick up English. Mariam, however, spoke mostly Arabic and learned only a few words of the language of her new country. Meanwhile, she peddled merchandise for a few different companies while in St. Louis, most notably Fine's Dry Goods on Broadway Street. She would pack a suitcase with goods from Mr. Fine's store and peddle door to door to new immigrants. When Mariam was finished, Mr. Fine would give her a share of the money and reload her suitcase. This was the family's main source of income which was used to educate Abraham, yet Mariam also managed to send money to her husband George in 'Aitanit.

Abraham traveled as a peddler throughout Missouri and Illinois. In Chicago, he became a citizen and received his naturalization papers on September 5,1905 at the age of 18. This was a major achievement for he had only been in the country for four years.

Dr. Abraham's citizenship papers.
Exhibit courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (Illinois,  1905) 

It is not known if Abraham attended high school, but he gained admission to St. Louis University's undergraduate program under special circumstances. An Arab from the Arabian Peninsula wanted to educate his son at St. Louis University but neither spoke English. After inquiring among the Lebanese community, he learned of Abraham who could serve as an interpreter. After being interviewed by Jesuit Father Lawrence Kenny, the official in charge of admissions, Abraham courageously asked him in private: "Father, can a poor boy go to this school?" The Jesuit asked who this boy was and Abraham replied, "I am that boy, Father." Fr. Kenny instructed Abraham to return later and he would help him gain admission. He was indeed accepted as a pre-medical. student at St. Louis University. After graduation in 1910, Abraham attended Beaumont Medical School (now St. Louis University School of Medicine) and later transferred to the American Medical College (now Washington University School of Medicine). 

Congratulations to Abraham on his graduation from medical school came from his native village of 'Aitanit, from one person in the form of a telegram. This was Dr. Abdallah Khoury, the village's only physician. He had studied medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and returned to 'Aitanit to marry the woman of his dreams. Dr. Khoury appreciated the hard work put into medical school and wanted to congratulate a fellow villager on his well deserved accomplishment. As Fate would have it, fifty-four years later in 1969, Dr. Khoury's granddaughter, Nina Khoury, would marry Abraham's son, John.

While Abraham was still in medical school, his family, according to Lebanese custom of that era, was arranging his marriage. Mariam had sent to 'Aitanit for the bride-to-be, sixteen-year-old Regina (Virginia) Kawkabani (May 4, 1897 - December 4, 1985). Regina was accompanied on the trip from Lebanon to St. Louis in 1913 by Abraham's sister, Sa'adie, who decided to leave her husband and return to her family in America. Their journey was also by cattle boat and steerage class. Regina had planned to stay in Detroit with her brother, George David Kawkabani, but was invited to stay in St. Louis with the Bouhasin family. She lived with the Bouhasins for two years until Abraham completed his medical studies in 1914, secured a job and established his practice.

Abraham's medical degree.
Exhibit courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (St. Louis, 1914)

Abraham and Regina were married on August 31, 1915. They were a model couple, always caring for others. Mariam and Sa'adie, until they died, lived with them. The young couple had set up house at the 1100 block of Chouteau Avenue where they were forced to rent an apartment until they were able to buy a home of their own. Regina became pregnant right away and was due for delivery in June 1916. In April when Regina was seven months pregnant, she fell down a flight of stairs and went into labor. The young doctor delivered his first child, a daughter, who was so small she fit in the palm of his hand. He felt sure that the baby would not live, but handed her to his sister, Sa'adie, and told her to put the baby in a warm place while he took care of his wife. Sa'adie wrapped the baby girl in a blanket, opened the oven and placed her on the door-- a modern day incubator without the convenience of monitors to watch her condition. They named her Rosamond.

Dr. Abraham and Regina Bouhasin.
Photo courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (St. Louis,  1957) 

Marriage certificate of Dr. Abraham B. Fariha (Freiha) to
Miss Regina Koukabani St. Louis, MO, 1915.
Exhibit courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (St. Louis,  1915) 

Abraham and Regina had eight children: Rosamond, Marie, Mathilda I (1919-1921), Mathilda (Tillie), George, Mary Magdalen (Josephine), Sadie and John. Their third child, Mathilda I, after suffering high fever and being red all over her body, died at the age of two from pneumonia. Regina recalled Mathilda I as the prettiest of all her children, with white skin, dark black hair and eyes with very long eyelashes. Regina and other elders claimed that she had been cursed with the "evil eye", something very real to the Lebanese of the time. A Lebanese woman who patted the baby on the thigh and remarked that she was beautiful caused the "evil eye". The imprint of the woman's hand remained on the baby's thigh. The medical explanation was pneumonia but believers maintained otherwise. At the time of Mathilda's death, Regina was pregnant with their fourth child and Abraham, Mariam and Sa'adie would not allow her to attend her daughter's funeral. They were superstitious and felt that it would cause harm to the next baby. Later that year, Regina delivered her fourth child, another daughter. According to Lebanese custom of the time, they named her Mathilda after her sister. 

The Bouhasin family.
Back Row, left to right: Dr. George, Marie, Josephine, Rosamond and Dr. John
Front Row, Left to right: Tillie, Regina, Dr. Abraham and Sadie.
Photo courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (St. Louis,  1957) 

In 1923, Abraham and Regina bought their first home at 2015-2021 Park Avenue in St. Louis. They lived there until 1954 when they bought their "dream house", a spacious Spanish manor at 3515 Longfellow Avenue.

In October 1936, the family faced a threat to the life of another of their children. Josephine, only ten years old, had contracted polio. It was then incurable and discoveries of the Salk and the oral Sabin vaccine in 1955 and 1961 were far in the future. It was thought that she caught the disease at the St. Louis Guardian Angel Settlement where she, and her brothers and sisters were fed lunch and played with other children. Josephine, who had always been the most active and athletic of the Bouhasin girls, was playing with one boy whom they later found to have been infected with the polio virus. Josephine still vividly recalls the night she was diagnosed with polio. Her father and his friends were playing cards. She had a high fever, felt horribly sick, and could not move. Regina called her husband to examine their daughter and Abraham immediately called his friend Doctor Reuben Smith to examine her. His diagnosis was polio. Josephine had to be taken that night to the isolation hospital on Arsenal Street. Maroun Ezar, the husband of Abraham's pregnant niece Adele, carried Josephine to the car in spite of his wife's pleas not to touch Josephine for fear of contagion . Josephine's only treatment was confinement in a full body cast for over a year. Once returned home, she was cared for by her loving family, all of whom shared the responsibilities. After the body cast was removed, Josephine was fitted with leg braces and crutches which enabled her to walk again.

She wrote about her condition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been stricken with the same disabling disease in 1921. Surprisingly, President Roosevelt responded with a personally signed card. Fiercely determined never to let polio get the best of her, she graduated from high school in 1943, went to work in the mailroom and later as a telephone switchboard operator at Blackwell Wielandy. In 1947, upon the recommendation of Fr. Paul Kennedy, she lef her job at Blackwell Wielandy and took a similar position at St. Louis University in 1947. 

In 1950, the Bouhasins heard about the miracles taking place in Lebanon at St. Sharbel's hermitage in 'Annaya. Those possessed of unwavering faith in God who visited the hermitage crippled, walked away miraculously cured after requesting the saint's mediation with God. Abraham and Regina strongly wished for a miracle and so they sent Josephine and her sister, Marie, to Lebanon in 1950. Both stayed with their mother Regina's family and at the hermitage.

Josephine did not receive a miracle and said that a cure was not God's plan for her. She met her relatives on her mother's side and visited her parents' homeland. In 1962m Josephine learned how to drive a car equipped for use by the handicapped. In this current year, 1997, Josephine celebrates her fiftieth anniversary with the St. Louis University. She is now Manager of Telephone Services at this institution.

Abraham was a general practitioner at St. Louis City Hospital. As head of the emergency room there, he worked on the night shift. During World War II, he volunteered his services in performing the medical exams for young men entering the armed forces. He also maintained a private practice on Park Avenue. The Lebanese would come to his home seeking medical attention and Abraham always cared for them with kindness and compassion. He delivered most of the Lebanese babies in the community and was well loved and highly regarded. Because he was not judgmental, even the Lebanese Mafia known as "The Cuckoo Club" loved and respected him.

During the depression in the 1930's, his medical care and friendship were valuable qualities even for the poor who could only pay with their homegrown vegetables and farm products. Because the medical profession provided a good livelihood, Regina had a personal holiday project for the poor where she prepared food baskets that Abraham and the children distributed by car. The children were never seen as they hurriedly rushed the baskets to the doorsteps of the homes and then fled in the car. Abraham realized that people had pride and would be uncomfortable accepting the baskets from him or anyone else they knew, therefore these gifts of food were delivered anonymously. Although theirs was a full house with the seven children and the four adults, Abraham's and Regina's home was always open to those in need. In exchange for doing odd jobs or janitorial work in the basement, Regina would prepare hot home-cooked meals while Abraham would offer temporary living quarters in the basement. As if this were not enough, their home was open to others on a more permanent basis. Abraham had a very close friend, Michael Couris from Detroit, Michigan. Michael brought his baby son, George, to St. Louis to see Abraham. George was jaundiced and very ill. He had hepatitis and was not expected to live. As is the old Lebanese custom, if your child is gravely ill, a close friend shall "buy" (ransom) the child for one penny and the child will recover. Remembering this custom, Abraham gave Michael one cent for George, took them into his home and nursed George back to health. George never forgot this act of love and generosity and was forever indebted to Abraham. 

Abraham and Regina raised his niece, Rose Abood, the daughter of his sister, Arabiyeh, who had stayed in 'Aitanit when the family left in 1901. Rose and her father Iskandar (Alexander) Abood came to the United States when she was twelve or thirteen years old. Iskandar left Rose with her maternal aunt, Nora Abood, and returned to 'Aitanit, hoping to bring the rest of the family to Cleveland, Ohio where he had found a business opportunity. Upon his return to 'Aitanit, Iskandar died. His family decided not to come to America, thus leaving Rose in the care of her mother's relatives in America. Abraham sent for his niece because he was her maternal uncle and felt it was his responsibility to raise her. She was raised and loved just as one of his and Regina's own children. Rose loved growing up in the company of her grandmother and her many cousins. She married and her children remember Abraham as their grandfather --not as their great-uncle-- because he loved them so much.

Mariam the matriarch surrounded by her family.
Back row, left to right: Sa'adie Kahwaji, Rose Abood, Julia.
Front row, left to right: Abraham, Rosamond, Mariam, George (baby in Mariam's lap),
Marie, Regina and Mathilda (child in Regina's lap)
Photo courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (St. Louis,  1923) 

Mariam, the matriarch who left her husband, two married daughters, and homeland in hopes of making a better life for her three youngest children, died on May 31, 1943. She successfully struggled to educate her only son, Abraham, by peddling. Her daughters, Julia and Nora, were happily married, Sa'adie had joined her in America and Abraham became a well-known physician. By her example, Mariam taught her children that everything is possible with faith in God, hard work and determination. Her dream of a better life had come true.

In 1960, Regina decided to make her first trip back to Lebanon since she left in 1913. Her parents Daoud and Bdour Kawkabani and her brother George had since passed away, but she was reunited with the rest of her family. Abraham wished to accompany his wife and their two sons to Lebanon, but was experiencing episodes of angina. He was afraid to make the journey, even though it was now a one-day trip by airplane rather than several weeks in steerage class on a cattle boat. Abraham never saw his native land again. 

Regina's niece Sonya Kawkabani, who was an Air France employee, met the three on the runway. Sonya approached Regina and inquired if she was "Madame Bouhasin". When Regina replied in the affirmative, Sonya turned around and waved, indicating to her fifty or more relatives that this was indeed her father's sister. They were all cheering, waving, and crying. Regina left as a 16-year old girl and returned as a grandmother, anxious to meet her family. John recalls how Sonya led his mother to the excited relatives. Regina's siblings in Lebanon included her sisters Rose Richa, Habaka and Toufica Kawkabani, and her brothers Maroun, Khalil, and Fr. John Kawkabani. Fr. John and Toufica had not been born when Regina left 'Aitanit in 1913.

Abraham was a devout Maronite who carried in his pocket a relic case known in Arabic as a dkheeree. It contained relics believed to be a piece of the true cross and a piece of a bone from each of the twelve Apostles. The silver case was engraved with his name and held the papers of authenticity folded up inside. The relic of the cross was given to Abraham by the assistant Pastor of St. Anthony of the Desert, Fr. Francis Chamoun, who later died in a car accident. These were very dear to Abraham and he carried them with him wherever he went. Now his son, Dr. John Bouhasin, cherishes them as his father did before him.

In his silver case, Abraham carried this document which attested
to the authenticity the relic of the True Cross.
Exhibit courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (Vatican,  N.D.)

Abraham and Regina were very dedicated to St. Anthony the Hermit and St. Raymond of Antioch Maronite Churches in St. Louis. They worshipped at St. Anthony's Church one week and St. Raymond's the next. When St. Anthony's Church was demolished to make room for a new housing project after World War II, it was never rebuilt. So the Bouhasin family became increasingly active at St. Raymond's which was housed in a four-family flat in much need of repair.

Mariam and Regina were members of St. Raymond's Ladies' Society which was essential to the active life of the church. Mariam had served as president and Regina as president, treasurer and secretary. This commitment was carried on by Regina's daughter-in-law, Nina, who dedicated her first meeting as president to both of those former officers. It was the Ladies' Society which kept the church doors open after the death of Chorbishop Joseph Karam in 1944. The society held the social events in the church basement for the next twenty-three years until a Maronite priest was sent. Abraham and Regina were among the members of the parish committee working to obtain a new priest. The people prayed for a priest to be assigned to the church, and petitioned the Pope in the Vatican and the Maronite Patriarch in Lebanon. They felt that they must always have a church with a Maronite priest in order to hold the community together as a family and preserve its heritage and culture. 

In the course of his visit to the United States to dedicate the Maronite Seminary in Washington D.C., His Beatitude Patriarch Peter Paul Meouchi came to St. Louis and visited the parish from the 10th to the 12th of September 1962. In preparation for his visit, the exterior of the church was painted, a new pavement laid, banners of welcome made, and the parish hall transformed. 

Abraham and Regina posing with His Beatitude the late
Patriarch Peter Paul Meouchi (d. 1975) during his visit to St. Louis in 1962.
Photo courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (St. Louis, 1961)

Representatives of the community met him at the airport and escorted him to the parish. All the preparations culminated in a magnificent reception held in his honor. Abraham and Regina, whom Patriarch Meouchi already knew, were involved in every phase of the activities related to the visit. In the 1920's, prior to being elected Patriarch, he had performed pastoral work in St. Louis and had stayed with the Bouhasins. He well remembered their dedication and love of the Maronite Church.

Two months later on November 5, 1962, Sa'adie died. On August 2, 1965, twenty-nine days before his fiftieth wedding anniversary, Abraham suffered a fatal heart attack. John recalls that at his father's funeral, one could not see an end to the police-escorted cortege. Anyone whom Abraham had touched in life came to pay their final respects. He is remembered as one of the finest of men. He learned well from his mother Mariam's example to use the talents given him by God to overcome obstacles and attain his goals. Abraham desired to educate his children just as his mother educated him. All seven of his children received an education and five entered the health-care profession: Rosamond, Tillie, and Sadie became nurses, George a dentist, and John a doctor of medicine. Although he never saw his homeland again, his name lives on in 'Aitanit, through the land where once stood the house that he lived in until 1901. Abraham is still affectionately remembered in 1997 by the Maronite community just as he was in 1965.

Abraham was again remembered in 1969, by Patriarch Peter Paul Meouchi when he learned of Abraham's son John's impending marriage to Nina Khoury on September 11. Although Patriarch Meouchi was no longer performing wedding ceremonies, he insisted upon officiating at the Ceremony of Crowning in the chapel at Bkerke, Lebanon. A few days prior to the wedding, the Patriarch's brother died, yet he proceeded with the ceremony despite the fact that he was in mourning. The following are the words he spoke during the homily as recorded by John's uncle, Maroun Kawkabani:

"My son, I believe that Providence has sent you from America to meet your fiancée in Lebanon.  The same Providence enabled me, sometime ago, to go to America and meet people I will always  remember. When you go back, my son, tell them in St. Louis that the Patriarch bestowed on me  and my wife his apostolic blessings and that the Patriarch was glad to officiate at the ceremony  of the wedding in spite of a very sad circumstance. Tell them also, that the Patriarch will not  forget the people of the St. Louis parish and their devotion to their religion and creed, and will  never forget the reception given to him. Tell them the Patriarch remembers every one of his sons  in St. Louis, the living and the dead, especially your father, and wants them to keep their faith  and their Lebanese traditions. I wish you, my son, a very long and happy married life, ornate  with many offspring. My blessing goes with you always, in the name of the Father and of the  Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

On December 4, 1985, Regina suddenly died of a heart attack, just as her husband had some twenty years ago. Several months prior to her death, Regina told her granddaughter, Linda Cary: "I have been so lucky. God has been good to me. He gave me good children and they raised good families. Family is everything." This simple statement shows the focus of Regina's whole life-- her God and her family. 

Within the community, Regina is remembered best for gentleness, the sympathy she showed her neighbor, her steadfast faith in God, and her infinite capacity to love. She had supported Abraham in all he did. Regina was an exceptional cook, gracious hostess, talented craftswoman who could sew and crochet, and a devout Maronite who knelt to say her bedtime prayers until the day she died.

Regina's certificate of baptism obtained during her trip to Lebanon in 1968.
Exhibit courtesy of The Bouhasin Family, (Lebanon,   1969) 

Both Regina and Abraham had broadened the concept of family to embrace countless people whose lives they touched over the years. They both strove to instill a strong sense of family in their children. Rosamond married Henry Zambie and they had six children; Marie married Marion Hornbeck; Tillie married Michael Rizik and they had seven children ; Sadie married Clayton Clary, Jr. and they had two children ; and John and Nina had three children. George and Josephine never married and share a home. Abraham did not live to see all his grandchildren, but Regina did. 

The original dream of Mariam in Lebanon had come true: an excellent education for Abraham and a better life in America for the whole family. Mariam, Abraham and Regina are fine examples of accomplishing one's heart's desire. Abraham and Regina instilled in their children a deep love of family, God, the Maronite Lebanese faith and heritage. Their legacy shall live on in their eighteen grandchildren and thirty-seven great-grandchildren.

*Claudine M. Bouhasin is the youngest granddaughter of Dr. Abraham and Regina Bouhasin. She has a BA in History and BS in Nursing. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Apostolate of Maronites. 

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