Posted by on November 26, 2010 in Blog

by Randy Couri

All four of my grandparents, five of my great-grandparents and one great-great-grandmother immigrated to the United States from the village of Aytou, Lebanon. My parents were born here in Peoria; they were a part of the first Lebanese/American-born generation; I was also born in Peoria and have lived here all my life. I have never walked the streets of Aytou; I have only been there in my dreams.

Sadly, I only knew a very small number of the immigrants that founded the Itoo Reform and Progress Society. A few of them died before 1920, a few more died in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. The majority of them died in the 50s, only a few died in the 1960s and 70s, the last one being my grandfather Mike Couri who died in 1978. Four-fifths of these people died before I was born in 1956. The reason I am able to speak to you about these wonderful people is because my dad, Joseph M. Couri, left to the Itoo community a wealth of information about the immigrants and our ancestors.

Let me introduce myself again, my name is Randolph Gathos Nakla Gathos Michoyel Khalil Antoun Slyman. Did you get all of that? I not only told you my formal Lebanese name, I also told you my paternal lineage.

My parents named me Randolph. My dad was named Gathos. My grandfather’s name was Nakla. My great-grandfather was Gathos. My great-great-grandfather was Michoyel. My great-great-great-grandfather was Khalil. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a priest named Antoun Slyman. Some of you might be thinking how did someone with the paternal family name of Slyman become a Couri? I mentioned that Antoun Slyman was a priest; the word for priest in Arabic is Khoury. Out of respect for their father, Antoun’s three sons dropped the Slyman name and took Khoury as their last name. If anyone asked my grandfather his name, he would have simply said I am Nakla Gathos, his first name and his dad’s first name as his last name. That is why we have so many Lebanese families with last names that are first names…Albert, Anthony, George, John, Joseph, Tony, Williams, and so on. The full family name was only used for legal matters.

Some of you might be wondering if I am a “C” Couri or a “K” Couri. I spell my last name C-O-U-R-I, but my mom was also a Kouri, her maiden name was spelled K-O-U-R-I; my mom and dad were third cousins. So as you can see, I am both “C” Couri and “K” Couri. All four of my grandparents were born in Aytou. Seven of my eight great-grandparents were born in Aytou, and the one who was not born in the village was raised in Aytou, and his mother was born in Aytou. Aytou has always been a very small village; I don’t think the population was ever more than 750 people. One thing I can attest to is that those people kept a vast majority of the marriages within the village, generation after generation of marrying into the same families.

Aytou, spelled A-Y-T-O-U, is a beautiful village that sits in the northern part of Lebanon, on the side of a mountain and ranges in elevation of 2,900 – 4,300 feet above sea level. It is sixteen miles southeast of Tripoli, and from the height of the village the view to the west is of Tripoli and the Mediterranean Sea . On a clear day you can see the island of Cyprus. The hillsides surrounding Aytou were terraced by generation after generation of our grandfathers for the purpose of growing crops. In an interview, one of the immigrants told my dad that she used to watch his grandfather work on the terraces. He would work for weeks carving out a section of the stone extending the terrace a little further as he went. And then he would take a gunny sack and walk all over the mountain for days looking for soil. He would fill the sack with the dirt to take back to the village and pour it out on the newly carved terrace to create more space to be able to plant crops. He was continuing the project his father and grandfathers had started. The terracing was a project that took centuries to accomplish.

What was the reason for my ancestors to leave their families and homes? They were not so different than many of the reasons immigrants come to the United States today. The families in Aytou were large, usually of seven or eight children. There was very little opportunity for work and an income. There was very little flat land to grow crops and the terracing was also limited. And so, once the first few men immigrated to America and wrote home that there was work and an income to be made, it was inevitable that the oldest sons of most families made the trip to the ‘new world’. Many of them left wives and children behind and sent for them later. Nearly all of them sent money to their parents and tickets for siblings to join them here in the United States.

The voyage across the Atlantic that my ancestors took was not as long or quite as perilous as what the Northern European Immigrants endured in the mid-1800s. On the sailing ships, the Atlantic crossing could take a few months. By 1892 when Ellis Island opened, the newer passenger ships were powered by steam, and by that time many of the old sailing ships had been converted from sail to steam power. The time to cross the Atlantic from Le Havre or Cherbourg, France, to Ellis Island was shortened on some ships to as little as 9 days, but there were still plenty of crossings that lasted two to three weeks.

That did not mean that it was a walk in the park for the Lebanese Immigrants to get here. The usual travel time for them, start to finish, was around eight weeks. I know this because I have a letter written on October 4, 1902, stating that my great-grandparents, Anthony and Howa Mrad, along with their infant daughter, Marianna, my grandmother, left Lebanon on that day. Two months later on December 2, they arrived at Ellis Island.

Aytou is about 70 miles northeast of Beirut. For our early immigrants, their adventure started with what would have been a grueling four or five day walk from Aytou to Beirut carrying their belongings with them. The first leg was an arduous journey down the mountain on twisting narrow dirt roads. Once they made it to the Coastal Plain, the walk became somewhat easier.

At Beirut a ship took them on the first of two sea voyages. This one took them across the Mediterranean to Marseille on the southeast coast of France. This was not a direct voyage from Beirut to Marseille but a two to three week ordeal. The ship they sailed on would have been a small, filthy, slow-moving freighter that stopped at ports along the way to load and unload passengers and various goods including cattle and other livestock. Tragically, at times the livestock would carry diseases that would be passed on to the human cargo. A number of my relatives caught those diseases and died along the way; they were buried at sea.

At Marseille they were at the mercy of the uncoordinated schedules of the railroads and the steamship companies; the layovers were sometimes weeks long. Eventually a train took them to the northwest coast of France for the Atlantic crossing. Eighty-five percent of our immigrants sailed with the French Steamship Lines out of Le Havre. Nearly all of the others sailed on the American Lines out of Cherbourg. They all endured the horrors of steerage.

The following account will give you some understanding of what it must have been like traveling in steerage. It conveys a horrific account of what immigrants had to endure during the Atlantic crossing, for that I apologize, but I feel that it is important for you to understand what your immigrant ancestors endured for you.

There were three types of accommodations on the ships that brought immigrants to America: first class, second class, and steerage. Only steerage passengers were processed at Ellis Island. First and second class passengers were quickly and courteously "inspected" onboard the ship before being transferred to New York. Steerage was enormously profitable for steamship companies. Even though the average cost of a ticket was only $30, larger ships could hold from 1,500 to 2,000 immigrants, netting a profit of $45,000 to $60,000 for a single, one-way voyage. The cost to feed a single immigrant was only about 60 cents a day!

For most immigrants, especially early arrivals, the experience of steerage was like a nightmare (at one time, the average passenger mortality rate was 10 percent per voyage). The conditions were so crowded, so dismally dark, so unsanitary and so foul smelling, that they were the single most important cause of America's early immigration laws. Unfortunately, the laws were almost impossible to enforce and steerage conditions remained deplorable, almost beyond belief.

As late as 1911, in a report to President William H. Taft, the United States Immigration Commission said:

“The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys... the only provisions for eating are frequently shelves or benches along the sides or in the passages of sleeping compartments. Dining rooms are rare and if found are often shared with berths installed along the walls. Toilets and washrooms are completely inadequate; saltwater only is available.

The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food, and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it. . . . Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them... It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.”

Each time I read those lines it breaks my heart.

During the peak years of Ellis Island, the average number of people processed each day was five thousand. On April 11, 1907, a record 11,745 immigrants stepped ashore on the island. As many as twenty percent, thousands of immigrants were detained at Ellis Island each day. Only two percent were deported back to the port of embarkation, but that two percent equaled over a thousand a month in peak immigration years. When my great-grandparents along with my grandmother arrived on December 2, 1902, they became a part of that two percent. They were put in detention for eight days; on December 10, 1902, they were deported back to France where they endured six months of misery. On May 18, 1903, they returned to Ellis Island, and they were allowed to pass through the “Golden Doors”.

The first man that I know of who left Aytou to come to America was named Khaliel Milheim; he later changed his name to Mike Williams. Khaliel arrived in New Orleans in 1881. It took two years, but Khaliel walked all of the way from New Orleans to Green Bay, Wisconsin, doing odd jobs and peddling to support himself along the way. A few months later he began walking to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first Aytou man to settle in Peoria was a man named Tanous LaHood; he came in 1886. A number of men and a few women followed these two; the flood of Aytou immigrants did not start until 1907.

The early Aytou emigrants did not just come to America, some went to Australia, South America, and even South Africa. The ones who came to the United States settled mainly in four places, Mankato and St. Paul, Minnesota; Buffalo, New York; and here in Peoria. A few families went to the Litton, South Dakota area to homestead farms and a few others went to St. Louis, Missouri. For many years, Mankato, St. Paul, and Buffalo had larger Aytou populations than Peoria. Beginning in about 1907, most arriving immigrants settled in Peoria and many families joined them here from the other communities. Today, several families still call St. Paul, Buffalo, and St. Louis their home. As far as I know, none of our families remain in South Dakota or Mankato. As for Peoria, it is estimated that there are six thousand descendants of Aytou living in the vicinity. Another six thousand are spread around the United States and the rest of the world. Aytou today has a population of 350 people.

Peoria offered many opportunities for the early Lebanese immigrants. In the early 1900s, the railroads, factories, distilleries and all of the accompanying industries were booming. That boom offered the new arrivals an abundance of work. I don’t want to give the impression that just because there was plenty of work, these people had their pick of jobs; it was just the opposite. By then the Irish immigrants who had begun their exodus from Ireland in the 1850s had already pulled themselves up a few rungs on the social – economic ladder leaving the low-paying, back- breaking jobs for the latest arriving immigrants to fill. I know that my grandparents would agree with me when I tell you that I am not complaining that there should have been something more or better waiting for them when they arrived. Yes, they heard that the streets in America were paved with gold and they left everything behind and came to make their fortune, but they also knew that nothing would be handed to them and that they were going to have to earn everything on their own. It was no different with the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Irish, and all of the other immigrant groups. At that point in history, we just happened to be the last ones standing in line.

In Aytou, our families grew up in a small village of close-knit people, somewhat isolated on a mountain in northern Lebanon. When our parents and grandparents came to Peoria, most of them congregated along a two block section of South Washington Street with their backs to the river in rundown immigrant housing…they had no place to go but up. When they arrived, all of them obviously spoke Arabic, some of them could read Arabic, even fewer could write Arabic; none of them knew how to speak English.

The main job for the first immigrant men from 1881 until 1903 was to peddle goods. The women and their daughters also peddled until 1910 or 1912. My grandfather, Mike Couri, and many of his cousins worked for the Rock Island Railroad. They labored very hard twelve to fourteen hours a day six days a week for eleven cents an hour. A number of the men and women worked at the Peoria Cordage being paid by the number of items they could produce on their shifts. A few of our men died in rail yard accidents. A number of them died fairly young from cancers caused by exposure to the chemicals used in the manufacturing processes at the Cordage. Quite a few of our men, women, and children died from tuberculosis.

Some of our early immigrants came with the intention of staying a few years, earning enough money to go back to Aytou and live the good life. The reality was that once they were here, they were sending money home to help support their family; they were also sending money and tickets for the next sibling to come to America, along with the fact that most of them married and began having children. Under those conditions, the golden egg must have been very elusive.

In the summer of 1912, an Aytou man named Rumia Sarkis Halhoul arrived in Peoria. Once here, he Americanized his name to Ray Sarkis. In August he was working on a steamboat on the Illinois River when he fell overboard and drowned near Beardstown, Illinois.

Rumia, having only been in Peoria a few months, did not have enough money saved for his own burial. So his cousins in Peoria joined together and paid for his funeral and burial. On August 24, 1912, Rumia was laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. Rumia’s cousins, the people who paid for his burial expenses, were also immigrants and many of them had not been here much longer than Rumia. As you can imagine, this could not have been an easy task for these people.

There was a Maronite priest living in St. Louis, who was also an immigrant from Aytou, named Antoun Slyman. Several times a year he would travel from St. Louis to Peoria, stay for a time, and baptize and marry Aytou people. Then he would move on to St. Paul and take care of the Aytou people there, and then return to St. Louis; he did this for many years. Undoubtedly word spread to the other Aytou communities in St. Louis, St. Paul, and Buffalo about the death of Rumia. On his next visit to Peoria, Khoury Antoun told his immigrant cousins that they needed to be better prepared in the future. He suggested that they should form an organization that would enable them to help each other.

Because of this advice, on July 4, 1914, forty-six men, our fathers and grandfathers, founded The Itoo Reform and Progress Society; today it is known as the Men’s Branch of the Itoo Society. Two years later, on July 6, 1916, the Ladies’ Branch of the Itoo Society was founded. The Ladies’ Branch, along with the Men’s Branch, are equal partners in the Itoo Society of Peoria. Ninety-six years later, we are reaping the fruits of what our parents and grandparents dreamed for us.

In 1917 when the United States entered World War I, the government instituted a draft. At least fifty-nine of our men registered. Fourteen of our brave men served in the United States Armed Forces, many of them fought in France, two of them died while in the service, and several others were severely wounded. I wonder what went through their minds as they sailed out of New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty again? Only this time they were heading in the other direction.

The Turkish government had done all that it could to propagate a famine in Lebanon and the surrounding countries by instituting a naval blockade of the region, instituting high taxes, and confiscating anything they could from the civilian population. In 1915, a plague of locusts invaded Lebanon and destroyed all of the crops and most of the trees. As a result of the blockade and the locust plague, from 1915 through 1918 many of our family members in Aytou suffered and died horrendous deaths. It is estimated that one-third of the Lebanese population starved to death during World War I. When the war ended, the Itoo Society and her members sent money and food to Aytou to help them recover.

By the 1920s, it was our turn to move up from the river to live in better housing. At that time, the Lebanese colony made the move approximately one mile into a twelve square block area around St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the south side of Peoria. In that small area you could find more than 40 Itoo households. Once again they sought the close comfort of family and friends. Most of the immigrants were by this time Naturalized Citizens of the United States. In the 1935 Itoo Supper program book it was proudly proclaimed: “The members of this Society are 100% Americans, either by birth or by naturalization.” A vast majority of them had also advanced from the low-paying jobs they first found to become business owners. They opened grocery stores, dry goods stores, restaurants, and after Prohibition ended in 1933, taverns. They became successful, contributing members to the Peoria community.

In November of 1928, a small group of 18 to 20 women decided to cook a meal to serve to their friends in the Peoria community with the proceeds to help pay the mortgage on the original Itoo Hall. Led by Sadie George, Budwea Peters, Anna Joseph, and Kemla Couri, they planned and cooked the first Itoo Supper. Last week we served our 83rd Itoo Supper; it’s one of the oldest ethnic festivals in the State of Illinois.

Three of our early immigrants, John Peters, Tony Williams, and Charlie Anthony set the stage for our Itoo elected officials of today. John Peters served as the Peoria Street Commissioner in the 1920s and on the Peoria County Board of Supervisors in the 1940s. In the 1930s, Tony Williams was elected Township Overseer of the Poor. And in the 1940s and 50s, Charles Anthony served on the East Peoria City Council and was Interim Mayor of East Peoria for a time.

In December 1941, America found itself thrown into World War II. The Itoo community sent more than one hundred of their sons and daughters to serve in the United States Armed Forces. We lost three men in combat. In 1946, the population of Lebanon once again was starving from a lack of supplies. The Itoo Society collected money from the Aytou communities in Peoria, Buffalo, St. Paul, and St. Louis with the intent of sending flour to the village of Aytou, Lebanon. They purchased thirty thousand pounds of flour and sent it in three separate shipments, ten thousand pounds a month for three months. What an amazing feat.

By the mid 1950s, nearly all of our families had moved out of Peoria’s south side. This time they dispersed all around the cities of Peoria and East Peoria. There was no longer the need to huddle together for familiarity or for a sense of safety.

In June of 1968, the first Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob was held. Organized by Louis Kouri, the Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob became an annual celebration that complements The Itoo Supper. Next June we will serve our forty-fourth Shish-Ka-Bob. The specialty of the Itoo Supper along with the Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob has been the wonderful Lebanese food served along with the legendary hospitality of the Itoo Society. These two annual events have become major fundraisers for the Itoo Society, and they are looked forward to by Peorians all year long.

The first-born generation, my parent’s generation, grew up, fought, and won World War II. They married and had families of their own. A vast majority of the marriages took place within the Itoo community, following in the tradition of the old country where most of the marriages took place with others from the village. The families were large, averaging six or seven children each. Most of the men, like their fathers, were self-employed business owners. Nearly all of the women stayed at home and provided a loving, safe, nurturing, environment for their husbands and children. Only a handful of the first-born generation went to college, but like their parents they worked hard and succeeded.

In one generation, the immigrants and the first-born generation became successful, respected, contributing members to their adopted homeland. Through their example and leadership, my generation, and all of the succeeding generations have been given the opportunity to thrive in this wonderful country we call our home.

I have heard that there was quite a bit of discrimination against our cousins in St. Paul, Mankato, and Buffalo during the early 1900s. That was not the case here in Peoria. I know there would have been isolated incidents of discrimination, but as a whole we were accepted as part of the Peoria community from the beginning. I don’t feel that it was solely on the generosity of the Peorians. I know that our Parents and Grandparents achieved this honor by being honest, hard working people who reached out to their neighbors and contributed in a meaningful way to their adopted home of Peoria.

The Itoo Society and our close bonds with our cousins in Peoria have helped us keep our heritage, culture, and traditions alive. That does not mean that we kept ourselves segregated from our fellow Peorians. It is just the opposite; we integrated in every way with our neighbors socially and professionally. And yes, we are fiercely proud of our Lebanese heritage. After all, Lebanon and Aytou reminds us of who we are and where we come from, all the way back to our Phoenician roots. But we are ten times more proud to be Americans because America has given us the opportunities our immigrant ancestors dreamed for us.

Over the years, many of our women and men have served in the National Guard and the Active Duty Armed Forces of the United States. From World War I and World War II to Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in peace time or war, they have been a shining example as to the love, patriotism, and devotion of the Itoo Community to America.

At its inception on July 4, 1914, the Itoo Society was envisioned as an organization dedicated to charitable purposes. It has lived up to that goal by helping its members and the villagers of Aytou, Lebanon, in times of misfortune. As for our adopted home of Peoria, the Itoo Society works closely with many local and national charities.

That leaves the question as to what legacy the Itoo Society has given to my generation and to all succeeding generations of her members. The Itoo Society of Peoria has been the anchor for most of the Lebanese Americans living in Peoria providing us with a strong foundation of who we are. It has been the string that binds us all together and to the lives of our Immigrant Ancestors. The founders of The Itoo Society, our Parents and Grandparents, instilled in us through their example 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.

The Itoo Society has flourished for more than ninety-six years, making ours one of the oldest Lebanese organizations in the country. The Itoo Society and her members have been a respected part of Peoria and surrounding communities by helping others and by living up to the vision of the founders.

Even though I never knew most of the immigrants, I feel their presence with me daily. When I think about their successes and accomplishments, I’m filled with awe. Each day, I use the example of their lives to help guide mine. I stress to anyone who will listen that the sacrifices the immigrants endured to bring our families here, to America, earned us the opportunities that we have today.

Each time I am at Itoo Hall, I look at the picture of the Founders. I study their faces, look into their eyes, and notice the determination, the confidence as to what they achieved. These men left everything behind them in Aytou and made their way here to the United States, to establish our homes and our families at the expense of great personal hardship to themselves and to their wives. In 1914, these men had the vision to put together an organization that reaches out to us today and begs us to remember who we are, where we came from and most important of all…what we can accomplish together.