My father’s last remaining sibling, Wadih, passed away this summer at the age of 98. It was, for my family, a transformative event. Ammi Wadih was the youngest of the 5 brothers and two sisters who had come to America to begin a new life in the early part of the 20th century. With his death, my cousins and I became the “older generation.” And with this passing of the torch, we took time to reflect on our immigrants’ story.
Like many immigrant families, our story had an epic-like quality combining a mix of adventure, bravery, and commitment.
It began in 1910, when the oldest brother, Habib, at the age of fourteen, left Lebanon to come to America. Traveling with an uncle and a cousin, his mission was to find work and, he hoped, to prepare the ground for the others to join him in the New World.
World War I hit Lebanon hard and faced with economic problems and threats to their security, my grandfather, Roshide, led the family and others from their village to the relative security of the Baka’a Valley. There they settled and farmed until faced with advancing Turkish forces in 1916. They were forced into resistance. He died in that year and, as he was considered a hero by those whom he led, he was buried in a tomb in the Baca’s.
At war’s end, my grandmother took the family back to their village of Kfartay, and began plans to join Habib in America. As my father was the next oldest, it fell upon him to be the next to travel. Because he could not secure a visa, he found work on a ship to Marseille where he worked for six months until he secured a position on another ship leaving for New York. On landing in America in 1922 he disembarked and remained as an illegal immigrant (he secured amnesty and became a citizen in the 1930’s).
Habib and Yousef were reunited and laid plans for the rest of the family to join them. Six months later, my grandmother and her other five children arrived. We have a photograph of their reunion in 1923. In it there are five young men, two young women and my grandmother, clearly tired and almost gaunt after their month long voyage, but also clearly excited about their reunion, after thirteen years, and ready to begin their new life together in America.
And what a great life it has been. From one home and one small business, they multiplied and prospered. They produced a generation of professionals, business people, and public servants. And they remained a close family unit .Their story is an American story and it is one to be proud of.
And now the last of that great generation, Wadih, has passed away.
Though never formally educated, Wadih read the New York Times and several Arabic newspapers everyday. He annually traveled to Lebanon and retained close ties with our family there and he taught our family here to love and respect their heritage.
Because our father had died when we were still quite young, it was from Ammi Wadih that I learned about what life had been like in their village of Kfartay, where my grandfather was buried in the Beka’a, and the story of our family’s passage to America. It is a blessing that his stories have been preserved by Utica College in their oral history archives.
Wadih and his brothers and sisters taught us well. From them we learned to cherish the tremendous opportunities and freedoms they had found in America, and to continue to hold close to our hearts the land of their origins. The incredible trajectory of their lives, in just one generation, is always with us. From that one room, stone home with a hard mud floor clinging precariously to a steep hillside in Lebanon, to their lives, and our own, in America, it is a story worth remembering and retelling.
And, it was from that group of eight brave travelers that we also learned the importance of family and country. By their example, we learned the importance of helping and protecting each other, of remaining close, and of maintaining honor and avoiding shame.
They were a great generation. But their story, while extraordinary in many respects is also ordinary–”it is the story of so many other families who came in similar ways to America and accomplished so many great things in this country.
While remembering them, it is, I feel, equally important to recall that this American story is still being played out in communities all across our country by new immigrants who are coming with the same hopes and the same determination to succeed. This is our American story.