I Owe the Life I Have Today to the U.S.’s Decision a Century Ago to Welcome a Syrian Woman and Her Family

As we struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to lapse into self-pity and to forget about other human tragedies, many of which have been made worse by the crisis. One of these is the fact that more than 13 million Syrians have been displaced because of civil war, nearly half of whom have left the country. Everyone knows the names Assad and Putin, Erdoğan and Trump. But the stories of everyday people killed or torn from their homes and setting off in search of a better life for themselves and their children are largely unknown.

To be honest, sitting in my comfy house in Chicago, streaming The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it is hard to relate. After all, I’m a privileged, white, rich American, which is about as good as it gets, even in times like these.

And yet the only reason I am here living this life is because of a Syrian woman who set out against all odds 100 years ago in circumstances not unlike those facing Syrian refugees today. Her name was Warde Abi-Habib Salameh, and she was my great-grandmother. In 1919, she was 33, living in Roumieh, a small village in the mountains east of Beirut in what is now Lebanon. The Salamehs were Maronites, a sect of Christians that were tolerated by their Ottoman masters in Constantinople. But then, as now, war and a global pandemic changed everything.

The Ottoman Empire, dubbed the “sick man of Europe,” was already in decline before the “great powers”—England, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary—brought their war to Syria. World War I ended the centuries of Ottoman rule, and, in turn, brought incalculable suffering to innocents. In the three years before Warde left for America, half the population in what is now Lebanon—some 200,000 people—starved to death. The Spanish flu of 1918-20 killed countless more. The horrors of surviving those times reverberated through the hollers of West Virginia, some six decades later. I remember sitting on the laps of old women speaking Arabic and drinking arak, listening to them wail in remembrance of the lost.

Perhaps one of the victims of the Great Famine or the Spanish flu was my great-grandfather. Or perhaps he was killed by a Russian bullet. Or maybe he died from a heart attack in an olive orchard. I’ve heard all these possibilities. But, whatever the cause, he left Warde alone with three young children: Camille (15), Emil (9), and Jacob (6). (Her oldest daughter, Amalia, was married and stayed behind.) They must have been without hope. The Armistice of Mudros that ended the war in the Middle East changed nothing for them. It didn’t bring them food or work or opportunity. Syria was in limbo. (The San Remo Resolution of 1920, which gave the French control over Syria, was in the future.) As the great powers jockeyed for position and power, Roumieh was not high on anyone’s list of priorities.

Warde’s daughter, Amalia, and her grandchildren. | Courtesy Todd Henderson

So Warde gathered up what little she had—a few suitcases full of clothes—and headed off for America. She had some relatives who had traveled there when World War I broke out, ultimately settling in the area around Wheeling, West Virginia. Did she get word from them that there was hope there, or did she just hope there was? In either case, setting out for America was an act of pure desperation.

Records from Ellis Island tell me that Warde and the children arrived on the French ship La Touraine, which set sail from Le Havre, France, in 1920. The Atlantic crossing took about six days then. But that was the easy part. From Roumieh to Le Havre is some 4,400 kilometers by land or sea. If they traveled by land, the journey would have taken them through war-ravaged Serbia, the carcass of Austria-Hungry and what was left of villages in Germany and France. The flu still haunted every village. More likely, they went by boat, traversing the Mediterranean Sea during the stormy and cold months of winter. The journey took several weeks at that time. In total, Warde and her children—my grandfather Jacob the youngest—likely spent a month in transit. What did they eat? How did they entertain themselves? What were they thinking awaited them in America as they huddled together against the cold, the sea and the flu?

I have three children—Warde’s great-great-grandchildren—between the ages of 9 and 15, about the same age as my grandfather, his brother and his sister when they left Syria for America. Traveling downtown in our seven-passenger Volvo can be arduous, as we fight over space, the music and whose iPhone gets the charger. We are all tremendously spoiled, even today. Even when I try to feel humbled by the toughness of my ancestors or try to use it to recalibrate, the rush of my relatively petty concerns overwhelms me. Yet I suspect Warde would be proud of her great-great-grandchildren, and believe her sacrifice was worth it.

The citizenship papers of Henderson's grandfather. | Courtesy Todd Henderson
The citizenship papers of Henderson’s grandfather. | Courtesy Todd Henderson

My family came ashore at Ellis Island. Viewing their scrawls and chosen names and made-up birthdays—Jacob chose January 1, like so many other immigrants—in their immigration records, I try to imagine them. I try to imagine what they felt waiting in line—the uncertainty, the possibilities, the cold. I try to imagine them in quarantine. I try to imagine how they felt when their quarantine ended and how they felt when America opened to them.

The spirit of welcoming that America showed my family then is increasingly closing. In 2018, the United States welcomed fewer than 100 of the millions of Syrians wishing, as Warde did, for a better life here.

How Warde and her young children made it overland to West Virginia and what awaited them there is unknown to me. I know that she started her own soda shop and rarely stopped moving. Everyone remembers her as stern and focused. How could she not have been?

Jacob went to military high school, studied at Ohio State and became a doctor. He had three children, my mother the middle. She grew up a Jacobs, not a Salameh, because my grandfather changed his name to fit in and leave the strife of the Old World behind. He was reborn and lived very much the American dream.

But it was never easy. He worked constantly at Warde’s side as a young boy, and there was always a shortage of something. By the time they found their footing, they suffered again through the Great Depression and more war. Even in the best of times, it wasn’t easy for the Salamehs. PapPap Doc, as I called him, often talked about being different, about wearing a costume and about the struggles of integration.

Being different didn’t go away. When my mom fell in love with an Ohio farm boy, the facts of her ancestry were a problem, not a curiosity. She was the wrong color and the wrong religion. She ate the wrong food. Associated with the wrong kinds of people. My parents persevered, and again I benefited from the toughness of my ancestors.

It is not too late for me to thank my parents, as I did my grandfather before he died. He characteristically shrugged it off. I never met Warde, who died before I was born. I never got to hear her stories or understand what it took and how she felt. Knowing what I do about her and about people of that time, I likely wouldn’t have heard much. What needed to be done was done. The good fortune that made her survive the famine, the flu, the war, the journey and work that awaited her here was the hand of God, I suspect she’d have said. I credit her instead. She survived what few did or could. She made it all happen.

But her greatness was only possible because a door was opened and a hand extended. She was welcomed by a country confident enough in itself to realize that several generations later, Warde’s descendants would not only reap this country’s benefits, but sing its praises. When this pandemic ends, as it will, here is hoping we open our doors again.

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