A Lebanese boy and a legacy of immigration in America
It was 100 years ago that my father’s oldest brother crossed a continent and an ocean to come to America. Habib Rashid Zogby, 14 at the time, made the long trip with his uncle, leaving his mother, father and six siblings in Lebanon. The intention was that Habib would establish himself in the New World and prepare the way for the rest to join him.
He immediately set out to learn the ways of his new home. He established himself, found work as a peddler and dutifully sent money back to Lebanon, as was expected of the oldest son.
The First World War disrupted the family’s plans. Forced to flee the oppression of the Ottomans, my father’s village evacuated to the relative safety of another part of Lebanon. There my grandfather became ill and died. Only after the war ended were they able to return to their village, and it was not until 1922 that my grandmother, father, uncles and aunts were finally able to join Habib and take up residence in upstate New York.
Because of the anti-immigrant backlash that had been fostered by the war, my father Yousef was unable to get a visa and so, in order to join his family, he entered the US illegally. He lived and worked for years in fear of deportation, until the 1930s when he qualified for amnesty and was able to become a proud and productive American.
The brothers worked at odd jobs, pooled their earnings and opened a small business, which led to another and still another. A few decades later, the five brothers and two sisters were doing quite well with children in college, realising the dream that had brought them to America in the first place.
Of course, I only knew my Uncle Habib as an older man, the patriarch of the clan, who passed away 40 years ago. But I often think of him as that 14-year-old boy. He was a young teenager, alone in a strange land, and must have heard tragic news from home months after events had transpired, including his family’s exodus from their village and the death of his father. I often wonder how he survived each shock, whether his hopes for the future ever dimmed and how he found the strength to keep going.
People of a certain age tend to mark the New Year by looking back instead of forward to the next. Well, I am of that age and make no apologies for it. And because this year marks a century since my Uncle Habib arrived in America, I am especially drawn to reflection.
I often think of the sweep of history that has brought me to this time and place. In just one generation, my family left their one room, stone house clinging to a hillside in the mountains of Lebanon and planted new roots to prosper in America.
What is so remarkable about this story is that it is so unremarkable. It is the same story that can be told by millions of immigrants. And it is playing out today for millions more. I love to talk to taxi drivers, cleaners, waiters and small store owners – all new immigrants – and hear their stories. Whether they are from Ethiopia, Somalia, Mexico, El Salvador, Bosnia, Yemen or Pakistan, more often than not, they are selfless heroes, like my uncle, taking risks in a new land to pave the way for their families.
Because I know where I come from, I feel a responsibility to my family’s history – to the sacrifices they made allowing me to be where I am today. I know that I am the heir of their dreams and the beneficiary of their hard work. I also feel a responsibility to new immigrants whom I believe deserve the same opportunity that was provided to my father and his generation.