Sharing Your Stories
Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Blog
It’s not a cliché. We are a nation of immigrants who come from vibrant places. Together We Came is our effort to collect your immigrant stories in celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month. We’ve heard from so many Arab Americans and we are honored to be able to share your stories more widely.
Arab Americans have made a significant contribution to our nation. These stories from everyday community members are a testament to that legacy. If you’d like to share your story, please click here and do so.
Your Stories: 2017
Maram Abdelhamid: Leading the way forward for immigrants to succeed
Country of Origin: Egypt
My family and I immigrated to the United States from Egypt in the fall of 1988. We moved here after my family lost their business in times of intense corruption in the country.
I remember moving here to a beautiful townhouse in Woodbridge, New Jersey, seeing snow for the first time and having our landlord bring us a turkey and an old black and white television for Thanksgiving.
The first few years in America were difficult. We moved a lot from New York to California to Los Angeles. I missed my grandparents, cousins and extended family. My dad worked all the time and we essentially had to start from scratch. Continue reading...
Country of Origin: Palestine
By Isaac Filat
Down South, in the small state of Arkansas, in the small city of Little Rock, in the small community of Chenal, you’ll find a Palestinian family living amongst the bunch. Though mostly assimilated, my family retains many of our Hebron ways. We are loud. We are hard headed. We cook good food. But, more importantly, we are Arkansan!
I was born and raised in Arkansas, but my family’s arrival in the South was mostly chance. My grandfather originally immigrated to Chicago—working in a factory until one day he opened a small business. It was the “American Dream.” He worked long hours to support his family, and sooner or later, he became an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, being a small business owner came with its own set of challenges, and after being held at gun point, my grandfather decided to move. He eventually resettled in Central Arkansas where one of his siblings had already lived. In Arkansas, his entrepreneurial spirit continued, and he soon opened a jewelry store.
Assimilating is hard, but we like to think that we have made headway in Central Arkansas. Our family has been in the area for almost 50 years and has established deep roots in the community. In an area where anti-Arab sentiment has fomented in recent years, my family remains entrenched in the local community. I’ll occasionally come across retired men and women who recognize my last name. They’ll stop and say, “My wedding band is from your grandfather’s store.” It is a constant reminder that Arkansas is home.
Oussama and Hadia Elbaba
Country of Origin: Lebanon
By Razan Elbaba
My professor from my video production class at the School for Visual Arts asked us to film a video of our choice for our final project. After an extensive brainstorming session, I landed on the idea of telling the immigration story of my parents. The recent presidential election and subsequent Muslim travel ban encouraged me to delve into the harsh reality immigrants face coming to the United States.
After interviewing my parents about the specific details of their journey to the United States over 30 years ago I had a new-found appreciation for my parents and all immigrants. From a small town in Lebanon to undergraduate studies in Louisiana to graduate studies in Missouri to a career in Washington, DC and New York City, my parents traveled thousands of miles to give me and my siblings a better life. What’s more American than that?
With the current political climate, we must remember that immigrants are incredible assets to our nation’s growth and diversity. We are a nation built on the backs of immigrants, and a nation greater than fear and bigotry. We shall remain resilient in the face of hate. Watch the film here.
The Hanna Family
Country of Origin: Syria
At the age of 14, in 1904, George Hanna emigrated from Mashta al-Helu, Syria to Pennsylvania, settling in the town of Clymer, 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. George supported himself as a businessman, selling housewares in a cart to local coal miners. He was charismatic, an astute entrepreneur, and spoke four languages. Through his military service in World War I, George was stationed in Chateau-Thierry, France, he became a naturalized citizen. His parents arranged a marriage for George with a young woman whose family also hailed from Mashta al-Helu. George and Sara married in 1919 and had three children over 10 years, Dorothy, George and William (“Chad”). The Hannas decided not to speak Arabic to their children, opting to more quickly assimilate as so many immigrants of that generation did. However, the family was adamant about retaining the cultural and Syrian Orthodox practices of their homeland. Continue reading...
Your Stories: 2016
Country of Origin: Lebanese Heritage
“I’m still here,” says Joseph H. Lahout Sr., a 94-year-old first generation Arab American, who continues to live and work in the New Hampshire home his parents moved into after leaving Lebanon in 1920. Joe inherited the store, which originally sold groceries and dry-goods, after his father passed away when he was twelve. When he returned from serving in World War II, Joe expanded and eventually transformed the store into the first ski shop in the United States.
With the dedication and expertise of three generations of Lahouts, the store has thrived and is now found in 8 locations. Joe attributes the success of the store to its novel customer service. “Customer service is a priority,” he says. “First, greet a customer. Make them feel warm, relaxed and welcomed. Ask them how the skiing was? Or the hiking? Or the mountains? They should feel at home. Second, create a bond. A relationship should be built on shared interests and the outdoors, as well as keeping up with their family. You can shop anywhere, especially these days. Genuine friendships are hard to come by.” In the stores earlier days, Joe and his wife would invite families in need to the store for a Christmas celebration including food and discounted shopping. “We would start in my apartment with an Arabic meal with my wife Lorretta and my four children, Joe Jr., Ron, Nina and Herb. Afterward, I would bring them downstairs for some beer and cheese, and we would have everyone put their name into a hat. Late into the night we would pick a name and that family would walk away with a full winter setup for their family for free.”
Joe started the store in order to keep skiing accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and his discounted prices often upset local retailers and his competition. “We did the best we could to help people and make a living. …when you think back 80-90 years, we were working to survive. My family stayed together because of the store, the store stayed together because of my family.” Reflecting on the success of his store today, Joe states, “My sons have made it more successful than I could have ever imagined. I am proud that they have continued the tradition and remained rooted to our core values. They've always kept a positive attitude and helped families anyway they can.”
Joe’s grandson Anthony, who played a large role in modernizing the shop, recently produced a short documentary about his grandfather. Watch film here.
Dr. Abdel Kader Fustok
Country of Origin: Syria
I am a plastic surgeon. I came to the US from France at the end of 1975 with my wife and son because most papers in surgery were coming from the United States so I knew I had to go there. I am originally from Syria. I graduated from the medical school of Grenoble in France, trained in surgery. I retrained in general and plastic surgery here in Houston at a UT affiliated program at St Joseph hospital. I have been in practice since 1982. When I started my first day working at the hospital they told me to be there at 6am and I was shocked because it was unheard of that people would work that early in Europe. So I had my friend pick me up and take me to work and was shocked at the number of people who were going to work at that time. People in Houston are hard-working and I wanted to be part of that culture. It was hard for me at first to find residency after I passed my exam because I had an accent and was a foreigner. But once I got into the program I was treated like everyone else. I did not feel discriminated against and was judged based on my hard work and knowledge rather than where I came from. Even in France, when my French became very good, I was still considered a foreigner there. This is what I love about America.
I have always been politically involved in the city and state government and am the recipient of many communities’ awards. Senior fellow and past vice chair of the American Leadership Forum (Golf Coast Chapter).
We are hardworking people and we are builders of civilization. When I look around I see things that Arabs have created; Arabic numerals, months of years, Algebra, these are Arab Inventions Arab ideas. This small portion of the world has come up with so much for humanity we use today. We should be proud of these accomplishments; we are producers of civilization not just consumers of it.”
We [Arab Americans] have a beautiful story to tell. We have a rich beautiful heritage and culture that we can share. When you have a tree and pick up it up and move it, it still remains that same tree. The roots may grow somewhere else but you still have that original tree. We have a duty to show people about our Arab American culture. I believe that your culture is within you whether you like it or not and I carry mine with me proudly. The culture in Syria and Lebanon is all about family values, hard work, helping others and this is something we saw in the United States as well. I belong to this beautiful culture and my identity remains as an Arab American and it defines who I am as a person.
Country of Origin: Yemeni Heritage
In the 1950s Ripley's "Believe it or Not' had an entry in its publications about South Dearborn being one of the most unique communities in the world. It was an immigrant community in the shadows of the Ford Motor Company. Immigrants came to live here for the good paying jobs at Ford Motor Company. It was an immigrant community of 45 nationalities that spoke 52 languages. They came from a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. They came from all corners of the world. My father came from Yemen. He was a devout Muslim, a hajji. Mother came from Bosnia Herzagovenia in the former Yugoslavia. She was a Serb of Eastern Orthodox persuasion. My friends traveled here with their families from Mexico, Italy, Romania, Armenia, Lebanon and Yemen. And friends who came from Kentucky and Tennessee. There were a number of churches, including Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Ukranian, Church of Christ and a Mosque in this small geographical area.
This was a time when air-conditioning wasn't a prominent feature in households, and a time when homes, unlike the sprawling, suburbs without sidewalks, were built close together. With opened windows in the summer, it was a treat to walk along the streets and hear the different music, and pick up the various fragrances of ethnic cooked foods being prepared. Visiting each other’s homes was a special treat. Mothers treated us like their own children and would give us special treats typical to the countries they came from. The richness of the diversity of this very special community of hard-working immigrants was deeply ingrained in me. It was an informal education that, in many ways, surpassed my formal schooling. Who I am as an individual was crafted by this wonderful community of immigrants that I will always be indebted to. Even more so today given the xenophobic, anti-immigrant bent of the country; be proud of who you are, and never allow anyone to take that dignity away from you.
Country of Origin: Syria
Abe Kasbo reflects on the hardest thing about leaving Syria as a fourth grader:
“How could I leave without Hilda? ... The girl I loved. We attended the same grammar school. Our parents shared a long friendship. I fell in love with her in the second grade playing Robin Hood at recess. I assumed the heroic role; she, the princess captured by the bad guys. I will always remember the day I saved her from her fate and brought her back to the slide (Robin Hood’s headquarters in the playground). While hopping back to the slide, pretending to be on a horse, I noted her behind moving rhythmically with every step. “I think I’m getting sick,” I remember thinking. Enjoyable yet questionable feelings danced in my stomach. From that day forward, I secretly enjoyed looking at Hilda for it was not proper for a man (boy) to talk about his feelings for a woman (girl). Maybe I will find someone just like her. Naa… She’s irreplaceable.”
Country of Origin: Palestine
Nabil Matar left Palestine in 1980 due to the “political situation back home and the lack of work and opportunities.” As a young man, Matar settled and found employment in Covina, California. “After a few years of working and saving money," Matar told us, "I went back to Palestine to get married and then we came back to California.” Today, Matar is the father of three children. It was important to him and his wife that their children "stayed connected to the Arab community" and their Palestinian roots. "There are so many Arab societies and organizations. I would take my children all the time to their events and I took my family four or five times to Palestine.” This year, Matar’s business was nominated for business of the year in Hemet, California. Although he takes great pride in his work as a successful business man, Matar considers his greatest accomplishment to be raising a good family. When asked what it means to him to be an Arab American, he responded, “Our community is trying to improve our image and hold onto our culture, as well as make sure our voices are heard.”
Country of Origin: Morocco
Wafa Faith Hallam moved to the United States from Morocco in September 1980 to attend the University of Florida. Raised Muslim in a colonized country, Wafa recalls feeling her identity as a “source of confusion” growing up. After moving to America, Wafa was content with being “part of the American fabric; [to] melt in its magnificent melting pot and integrate the larger identity.” That is, until September 11th, 2001. “I became concerned about how Muslims were being perceived and troubled by the growth of Islamophobia. I couldn’t stay silent…” 9/11 served as an awakening for Wafa, a poignant reminder of her heritage and of what it means to be an Arab American. “I did love the culture I was born in, I did value my heritage, and I did connect with its beauty, richness and vibrancy. And so I did want to make my voice heard. I wanted to put a different face on what my fellow Americans perceived Muslims to be.”
Today, Wafa is an author, speaker and coach. In 2011, she wrote “The Road from Morocco”, a personal memoir that delves into the issues of freedom and equal rights. She describes writing as “cathartic and immensely helpful in achieving the level of peace and happiness I now enjoy in my daily life.” She is also a committed advocate for peace and conflict resolution in the Middle East and women’s issues. Wafa travels often to Morocco to visit her brother, sister and extended family. When asked about her life today, Wafa called it “beautiful in every way. I feel now it’s time to give back and guide others to find the light of consciousness.”
Your Stories: 2014
In celebration of the first annual Immigrant Heritage Month, AAI has kicked off with our Together We Came
series where we feature the stories of outstanding Arab Americans and their descendants who have had a remarkable bearing on the vibrancy of this nation.
As much as we love hearing the narratives of the most well-known members of our Arab American community, there is nothing better than tuning in to ordinary Arab Americans to hear you tell us about your extraordinary journeys to and through America. Whether it is about the
moment you or your ancestor first stepped off the airplane/boat or simply about your memories accumulated on American soil, your story is important to us.
Throughout the month, we will be collecting your stories and sharing them below for the purpose of remembering that the United States is a nation very much defined by our diversity and the contributions of countless immigrants from all over the world. We call on YOU to share your “Welcome” story to be featured below and to be a part of this exceptional nationwide effort. It could be about when you arrived in the United States, when your parents made the journey, or the story of a distant relative a few generations ago. We need to hear it.
Country of Origin: Jordan
“My father was 11 when he left Jordan. His oldest brother won a green card lottery and was able to bring the whole family, consisting of 8 brothers and 2 sisters to the United States for a new life. When they all moved into their two bedroom apartment in Yonkers they thought nothing of it. It was much more spacious than their two room mud brick house in Jordan. Through hard work and the guidance of my grandmother, all 9 of his siblings ended up successful, helping each other through school, getting jobs, and providing for their own ever growing nuclear families. My father, who probably had no future in Jordan, was able to get a degree in chemical engineering before getting hooked on computers--one of his biggest regrets is turning down a job at Microsoft when it was still run out of a basement. He ended up meeting my mom, who can trace her immigrant roots back to the Mayflower, and married her, a sort of capstone on his assimilation. But what is great about America, is that even though my dad fancies himself the most American of all his family, he is at the same time the most Arab. His work has brought him back to Jordan, a place he once claimed he would never return, and nearly every other conversation he has on the phone is in Arabic. In a way this is what is great about being an immigrant; my dad can hold onto everything that is good about his past and leave behind everything that is frustrating, in the same way he can accept everything in America that is worthwhile, while rejecting the less than spectacular parts of American society. This is what America being a melting pot means, that American culture always is a give and a take. We enlighten newcomers, and they in turn, enlighten us. Sometimes it takes us a few generations to realize that we have changed, but it is this fluidity and dynamism that allows America to be the great nation it is. This is why a nation of immigrants, made up of some of the most disenfranchised of their previous societies, has made America one of the most free and prosperous societies the world has, and may ever, see.”
Country of Origin: Egypt
“My grandfather and grandmother came to the United States originally on a temporary visa for my grandfather to complete surgical training and residencies. Two of their children were born in this period. They returned to Egypt for a short time. In the lead up to the Six Day War, they became nervous; on the last-minute impulse of my grandfather, they took what turned out to be one of the last flights from the Cairo airport before Israeli bombardment. They eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio, and my grandfather became known as a well-respected surgeon and philanthropist. My grandmother, a Copt, initiated the first interfaith dialogue to include Muslims in the region. There is a foundation which holds an annual lecture in their memory at the University of Toledo.”
Country of Origin: Palestine & Syria
“Born and raised in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, I graduated from university and landed in the United States in 1990 as a tourist to visit my student brother when the Gulf War broke out. I had only a few days left on my tourist visa, no money, no contact with parents, no education documents, and nowhere to go. I pursued professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to convince them that I had a degree in Electric Engineering and to ask for a student visa to be able to stay in the country and get a job. I took every test they threw at me, and was finally accepted into the Masters program. I lived in a walk-in closet in my brother’s room for six months, studied, worked on campus until I earned my degree, and then married. I live in Texas with my husband and two children, and chose to work in the field of social safety as an advocate for domestic abuse victims. Pursuing my true passion for writing, I published a debut novel, Shadows of Damascus, based on current events happening in Syria, and I am about to publish another novel inspired by the tragedy in Palestine. My third novel is about Kuwait.”
Country of Origin: Palestine
“My mother, Shamsa Zayid, came to this country in 1948 with her one month old daughter. She left Palestine with three male relatives. They had to travel to Beirut because of the 1948 war. The group waited in Beirut for one week to get their documents in order. They flew to Paris and then to the United States. My father, who was already in Chicago, had booked her passage only to New York. When they arrived in New York, they were hungry and without money.
The local authorities called some Arab Americans who were residing in the city. After a lengthy conversation, the local New Yorkers asked my mother who she was. She told him that her name was Shamsa Zayid and her husband was Khalil Zayid. They did not know her husband. But then they asked her who her father was. She proudly told them that she was the daughter of the late Ahmad Hamadeh from Beitunia, Palestine. They immediately hugged her and began crying. My grandfather had come to America seven times in the early 1900s. He was a businessman and was well known among the New Yorkers for his honesty and character. They fed the group and bought clothing for the one month old girl and purchased train tickets to Chicago for the group. They said that if it was not for the memory and legacy of Ahmed Hamadeh, they would never have helped them. When they arrived in Chicago and told my father the story, he immediately wired the money to the people who paid their fares and thanked them profusely. That was my mother’s trip to America.”