Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Blog
By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014
In northern Lebanon, there lays an old village named Aytou that rests on the side of a mountain. Like so many other immigrant populations, a large number of Aytou people came to the United States in the early 1900s in search of opportunities that were not available to them in their homeland. Aytou men and women settled primarily in Mankato and St. Paul, Minnesota; Buffalo, New York; and, Peoria, Illinois. In a recent edition of InterBusiness Issues magazine, Randy Couri, a Lebanese-American whose grandparents immigrated to the United States from this village, stated that more than 6,000 Aytou descendants and another 2,000 Lebanese people currently live in the city of Peoria.
The Aytou descendants who live in Peoria regard the Lebanese mountain village as an enchanted place where one may “walk in the footsteps of [their] ancestors.” Indeed, these people still have very strong ties to their ancestral roots. The most public and well-established example of the Aytou’s descendants deep connection to their homeland is the Itoo Society. Established in 1914, the Itoo Society was founded in memory of an immigrant from Aytou named Rumia Sarkis Halhoul, who drowned in the Illinois River while working on a steamboat. Though the society was originally formed by 46 men, in 1916, the Ladies’ Branch of the Itoo Society was established. By 1951, both the men and women’s branches of the society combined to form the Itoo Society of Peoria.
This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Itoo Society. In anticipation of the milestone, Congressman Aaron Schock recently honored the Itoo Society at the House of Representatives. Schock acknowledged the organization’s family-oriented focus and spoke highly of its cultural significance. This past July, the Itoo Society hosted an event to recognize its centennial. During the event, members of the society celebrated their ancestors and founders of the organization.
Couri and the members of the Itoo Society have remained true to the organization’s core mission as it was envisioned by those who founded it: to provide aid to those in need and to create a sense of community among Aytou descendants. The society provides assistance to villagers in Aytou, Lebanon and works with local and national charitable organizations, including Peoria’s longest running food festival, which honors military veterans. The Itoo Society also hosts the annual “Itoo Supper” and “Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob” events, which are regarded as important occasions that bring the Lebanese community of central Illinois together.
AAI President, Dr. James Zogby has visited with the community frequently for their celebrations. Moreover, Ray LaHood, a U.S. congressman and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation is a prominent Itoo Lebanese-American.
Perhaps Couri best describes the ways in which the Itoo Society has changed the lives of the Lebanese population living in Peoria:
[The Itoo Society] has been an anchor, not just for Itoo members, but for most of the Lebanese-Americans living in the Peoria area, providing us with a strong foundation of who we are. It has been the string that binds us all together, to the lives of our immigrant ancestors and to Lebanon. Through their example, the founders of the Itoo Society instilled in us our faith and devotion to God, our love of family, how to be a contributing member of society through hard work, how to be proud of our Lebanese heritage, and a profound love of the United States of America.
For more information on the Itoo Society’s endeavors and the history of the society, read Randy Couri’s article, “The Itoo Society: Celebrating 100 Years” in the August 2014 issue of InterBusiness Issues magazine, as well as this blog post, which Couri wrote for AAI in 2010.