On the Trail of our Ancestors
By Dr Josyann AbiSaab
It seems symbolic during this season of reflection and sacrifice culminating in the celebration of Easter, a time of hope and renewal, to contemplate the sacrifices our immigrant ancestors bore and to celebrate the hopes they carried with resilience and grit.
When considering the dozen millions of Lebanese which comprise the Diaspora, I cannot help but reflect on the grueling journeys the early immigrants endured in order to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and to provide them with better education and opportunities. I became even more acutely aware of the magnitude of their sacrifices while conducting research about the Lebanese on the Titanic. After incredulously learning that there were as many as 174 passengers from Mount Lebanon out of a total of 2200, I wondered why so many were leaving in droves, what kind of odyssey they had to brave before landing in America and what did they exactly do once they reached their destination?
There were several waves of Lebanese migration starting in the second half of the nineteenth century mainly to Egypt and to the “New World” (North and South America, Australia and New Zealand) and peaking at almost 10,000 annually in the pre-World War I years of 1912-1914. The “Travel-to-America” fever spiked coincidentally the year of Titanic’s first maiden voyage in 1912 as stories of the successes of the early immigrants reached remote villages in Mount Lebanon. Letters from the pioneer emigrants sometimes inflating their riches or by return visitors displaying signs of prosperity fueled the exodus to America. When news of the Titanic’s flamboyant launch reached the villagers of Mount Lebanon, imagination ran wild and many scrambled to purchase a ticket on the world’s greatest “unsinkable” ship. Another reason why Lebanese came to America in great numbers in the early 1900’s is because of the influence of the American Protestant missionaries. They established hospitals, printing presses and several schools including the renowned Syrian Protestant College in 1866, today known as the American University of Beirut. Although not successful as proselytizers, the missionaries made a clear mark as educators by promoting education and literacy in both English and Arabic and spreading information about America, its schools, institutions, customs and opportunities. Additional key factors to the extensive migration of Lebanese at the time are political and economical. Turkish oppression during the Ottoman era combined with the depressed state of the economy due to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 leading to a sharp decline in the silk industry and deficit of arable land all resulted in poverty and famine.
Further highlighting the arduous journey our Lebanese ancestors endured to make it to America, I was surprised to find out that it took about eight weeks of travel time from start to finish to finally arrive at Ellis Island. Their adventure started with either a donkey ride or a grueling four or five-day walk carrying their belongings down the mountain to Beirut. They would board a French liner, typically a small slow moving freighter, which would sail for two to three weeks, loading and unloading passengers along various Mediterranean stops before debarking in Marseille, France. Some ships carried cattle and other livestock, which would occasionally carry infectious diseases that would be tragically passed on to the human cargo. If any of the passengers fell ill and died along the way, they would be buried at sea. Once in Marseille, they would have to wait, sometimes weeks, for a train to take them to the northwest coast of France for the Atlantic crossing. Eighty five percent of our immigrants sailed with the French Steamship Lines from Le Havre. The rest sailed on the American Lines out of Cherbourg, including those who embarked on the Titanic on that fateful day of April 10, 1912. Crossing the Atlantic was not a walk in the park and could take two to three weeks before steamships such as Titanic shortened the trip to about nine days. The accommodations for third class passengers were typically dismal with crowding, little light, poor ventilation, foul smelling air, substandard food and unsanitary conditions. While the Titanic accommodations were plain and simple in steerage, many Lebanese survivors found them adequate and even luxurious because of the open-air promenade and the long tables in the steerage-dining hall. After the much-anticipated arrival at Ellis Island, the immigrants were often detained in inhumane conditions in dormitories before passing medical and legal inspections. To provide a better life for themselves and their families, in this new land known as “Amrika” where they heard that “the streets were paved in gold”, our immigrant ancestors endured the horrors of steerage on ships and detention at Ellis Island.
Once cleared for entry in the United States and spurred by their mercantile Phoenician and Canaanite inheritance, immigrants fanned out onto the streets of Manhattan to peddle and sell small articles of merchandise. Goods from the “Holy Land” were popular based on the geographical proximity of Mt Lebanon to Jerusalem. Many immigrants gravitated to large port cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia where prior Lebanese communities had settled. Interestingly, oral reports suggest that a “Syrian banker” or “simsar” in Arabic often met Lebanese immigrants at Ellis Island. Taking into consideration what part of Lebanon they were from, he would send them to peddle into mountainous places like Vermont or Massachusetts if they lived in high altitude in Mt. Lebanon or to the Southern Atlantic States such as South Carolina and Georgia if they came from Sidon and Tyre. The destinations of the Lebanese passengers on the Titanic were mostly to Ontario and Ottawa in Canada, Youngstown, Ohio and the Northeastern states of New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Lebanese peddlers, comprised more often of women, traveled into farming communities, often walking twelve to fourteen hours a day six days a week carrying bags or pulling carriages to sell their goods door to door. Once the immigrants saved a few dollars and learned to speak English, they established businesses of their own such as grocery stores, restaurants and ice cream parlors. Shaanineh Abi-Saab, one of the Titanic survivors and my great grandfather’s first cousin from Thoum, Batroun, helped support her family by peddling and doing domestic work and laundry for years in Youngstown, Ohio; she even worked in a steel mill, Sharon Steel, located in Pennsylvania prior to helping her son, daughter and son-in-law run their grocery store in Sharon, PA. In 1918, they started an ice cream company and Shaanineh worked tirelessly in the factory making ice cream cones. Created by Lebanese immigrants almost one century ago, it is known today as the Joy Cone Company, the largest ice cream cone company in the world, baking over 1.5 billion cones/year!
The worthy heritage bestowed by our immigrant ancestors is best echoed by Khalil Gibran’s message in July 1926 to young Americans of Lebanese origin: “Here I am, a youth, a young tree, whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful. I am the descendent of a people that builded [sic] Damascus, and Biblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.”
Let us honor with gratitude and humility the sacrifices made by our immigrant ancestors who paved the way for our own dreams and aspirations. They marched and toiled so we can shine and soar.
Josyann Abisaab, M.D. – New York, NY
I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Dr. Nick Kahwaji and the “Lebanese Heritage” for asking me to write this editorial for the month of April.
“We are the meeting point of ancestors and descendants. The track leading from the past, and the road heading off into the future, are joined, here and now, with us” – Anthony Murphy
Dr. Josyann Abisaab is an emergency physician at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and a member of the teaching faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Born and raised in Beirut, she is a graduate of AUB (American University of Beirut) and the University of Rochester Medical School. Her interest in Titanic and Levantine History was spurred by a personal family story, that of her great grandfather who perished on the Titanic. On the occasion of the centennial of the ship’s sinking on April 15th, 2012, she wrote about his tale on a blog as well as other Titanic stories (http://abisaab.wordpress.com). She is a member of the International Lebanese Titanic Committee and of the Titanic International Society.