Generations of Arab Americans in Toledo have an American Tale to tell
Toledo Blade Newspaper
By: Betsy Hiel, A Blade staff writer
Five-year old Genevieve Geha lay limp in her father’s arms, her head resting on his shoulder. Clad in a frilly pink dress, her soft black curly hair was pulled to one side by a large white satin bow. She wore rouge on her cheeks to hide her illness.
Elias Geha, her father of Zahle, Lebanon, cradled his daughter in his arms, occasionally tickling the sick girl to keep her lively. Two-year-old Joseph and 4-year-old Albert gripped the hands of their young mother, Carmen Geha of Damascus, as they made their way up the gang plank of the Italian ship Volcania.
They were in the port of Beirut. The year was 1946. “There was a lot of turmoil and unrest in the Middle East then, and America was where we would have a better life,” Ms. Geha, now Geha-Kirkbride, said.
That journey, more than 50 years ago, brought her to Toledo, following in the footsteps of thousands of other Arab immigrants who began arriving as early as the 1880s, helping to shape the history of the city,
The story of Arab immigrants in northwest Ohio is largely unknown, even to some in the local Arab-American community. For years, people of Arab descent were thought of as entertainers or as cartoon or Hollywood stereotypes.
Today, the image of Arabs is often negative – that of the terrorist or religious fanatic. Reality is far more impressive and complex.
Arab-Americans in Toledo have included a nationally famous pioneer aviator, many business entrepreneurs, doctors, and judges. They include a Shi’ite Imam, a prize-winning author, and restaurateurs.
The history of Toledo’s Arab community is as rich as it is diverse. They are defined as people who speak Arabic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.
Within that language family, however, are many dialects, religions, and lifestyles. Arab-Americans are Christian, Muslim, rich, poor, culturally sophisticated, and repressed. But they are all genuinely Arab – and American.
Freedom and economic opportunity were what attracted – and still draw – people to America from the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa. They have come from such places as Morocco, on the northwestern cusp of Africa, and the states of the Arabian Gulf.
The first trickle of Arab immigrants to northwest Ohio began in the early 1880s. For the most part, they were Christians from the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire, which was based in Muslim, but non-Arab, Turkey, and which was doomed to vanish after World War I.
Syria then encompassed not only modern-day Syria but also Lebanon and pre-1948 Palestine, including today’s state of Israel.
The first Arab immigrants tried to assimilate as completely and rapidly as possible.
During the last half century, the third and fourth generations of those early immigrants have been joined in Toledo by waves of mostly Muslim newcomers. They have fled the turbulence and upheaval brought about by the birth of Israel in 1948, the numerous regional conflicts that have swirled since, and the long and bloody civil war that began in Lebanon in 1975.
Because of these conflicts, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Iraqis have joined Toledo’s Arab-American community. The mix of these Arab immigrants continues to weave a multicolored cultural tapestry in Toledo. It is the threads of this community that have contributed, sometimes in hidden ways, to the development of northwest Ohio.
Two Arabs of Lebanese descent, who grew up in the ethnic enclave of the North End actors Danny Thomas (Amos Jacobs) and Jamie Farr (Jameel Farah) – have done much to put Toledo on the national map.
Ohio has the ninth largest Arab-American community in the nation. Although numbers are hard to pin down, 10,000 to 15,000 Arabs live in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. The majority of them are from Lebanon and Syria.
Toledo’s Little Syria, The North End
Many Arab immigrants settled in Little Syria in Toledo’s north end. In a walk through the ethnic enclave in the 1920s and ’30s, one would find many cultural and religious vestiges of the Middle East.
The sound of the oud, the ancestor of the guitar, wafted onto a street lined with grocery shops and confectioneries. Men sat on porches, smoking flavored tobacco in the water pipe known as a narjilah. They played tawula, Arabic for backgammon, as women told tales of their homeland.
They followed the traditional upwardly mobile path, bringing home American appliances and goods that helped them assimilate and enter the middle class faster, said Dr. Alixa Naff, archivist of the Naff Arab-American Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Their children went to public schools and took English home. Soon, many began to forget their native tongue.
Eventually, local Arabs might have abandoned all their ties to the homeland were it not for a fresh set of predominately Muslim immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century.
The civil-rights era of the ’60s and the flurry of other movements that followed made it first acceptable, then chic, for ethnic groups to discover and embrace their heritage.
Unfortunately, that cultural shift occurred at the same time world events were giving Arabs and Muslims a negative image in the United States. Washington’s traditional alliance with Israel resulted in an Arab oil embargo after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, sending gasoline prices in America soaring.
Things worsened after the Shah of Iran was replaced by a radical Shi’ite regime and American hostages were seized by fundamentalist militants in 1979. Iranians are not Arabs, but few Americans made the distinction.
Tensions – and stereotypes – were exacerbated following the 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps. barracks in Beirut that left 241 dead.
Suddenly, immigrants with Arabic-sounding names – no matter how assimilated – found they had to defend themselves against disparaging images.
Living the American dream
Today, Arab immigrants have blossomed into flourishing Christian and Muslim communities. And as with other ethnic communities, as their members have become more affluent they have moved from the city neighborhoods where their parents and grandparents settled to more suburban locations.
St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral and St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church made the move from their original sites in Toledo’s north end in the last three decades: St. George to West Toledo in the 1974 and St. Elias to Sylvania in 1980.
A growing Coptic community, from the main Christian church in Egypt, hopes to break ground this year in Monclova Township.
In 1984, local Muslims moved their former mosque at Bancroft and Cherry streets in North Toledo to a new place of worship off I-75 in suburban Perrysburg Township.
The spiraling minarets and domed Turkish architecture of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, rising out of the surrounding corn fields, are a dazzling sight. Although the center’s opening caught the eye of national news editors, comments made by passers-by during its construction demonstrate how little is known of Muslim religion and community.
When the 26,000-foot base and 60-foot-high dome of white brick was built, some local residents thought it was a palace for a farmer’s wife. When the 135-foot twin minarets were being put in place, others thought they were missile silos. When the two-story, 30-room structure with an octagonal carpeted prayer room was completed, still others thought it was a Mexican restaurant.
Other mosques appeared, such as the Shi’ite Imam Ali mosque in Lambertville, and Masjid Saad on Secor Road.
The Toledo Islamic Academy, the only Islamic high school in Ohio, was established in 1997 to serve this region’s growing Muslim community. It was a way, said the founders of the school, for local Muslims to maintain their religious and cultural traditions.
“We like to think of America as a salad bar instead of a melting pot. This way, people can sample all different kinds of cultures and faiths,” said Dr. Abed Alo, a surgeon and academy board member.
More than hummus and belly dancing
Even with the construction of mosques and churches by local Arab-Americans, it seems sometimes as if the only aspect of Middle Eastern culture that is recognizable to non-Arabs is food.
Hummus and pita bread are easily found in local supermarkets, and Arab-Americans have owned many restaurants in the region for years. The Beirut Restaurant on Monroe Street packs in customers daily.
“We are not just about hummus and tabouli and belly dancing,” counters Najwa Zaki, a teacher of Palestinian origin. “We have made so many contributions in medicine, engineering, and in business. I would like to go beyond the food.”
A look through Arab-American history in this region will turn up colorful figures who have graced the local limelight with style.
Take Tony Nassr, the son of the first Arab immigrant in Toledo. Dubbed the “Daring Syrian” by the press of the early years of the 1900s, the inventor and pioneer aviator performed experimental flights over Toledo in his homemade dirigible to the delight of crowds.
In 1959, Mike Damas, a first-generation Arab-American of Lebanese descent, was elected mayor of Toledo, the first Arab in the country to be elected the mayor of a large city.
Lucas County Sheriff James Telb comes from one of the earliest Muslim families from Lebanon to immigrate to this area.
Amira Gohara, an Egyptian by birth, rose through the ranks at the Medical College of Ohio to its top academic post – dean of the school of medicine and vice president of academic affairs. She is one of only five women to hold that position in the nation.
On the wall of Mike Prephan’s law office on Lagrange Street is a black-and-white autographed photograph of Toledo’s most famous son, Jamie Farr, wearing a dress as Klinger in the popular character in the hit television show MASH. Mr. Farr wrote on the picture: “For Mike, if I had a good attorney, I wouldn’t be in this fix. Your buddy, Jamie Farr.”
Mr. Prephan and Jamie Farr were part of the “Toledo 7,” a north end group of six Arabs and one Greek immigrant. The actor, of Lebanese descent, still retains his ties with Toledo through the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic, the LPGA golf tournament that raises thousands of dollars each year for charities.
“I was so thrilled with the success of the golf tournament,” Mr. Farr said. “It’s great for me to be able to give something back to the area.” Journey to America
For Genevieve Geha, her voyage in 1946 from the shores of the Mediterranean to the heartland of the United States is still fresh in her mind.
An Italian sailor, spotting her in the arms of her father, stopped the Geha family as they prepared to board the ship in Beirut.
“What is wrong with her? Is she sick?” the sailor asked the 5-year-old’s father.
“Oh nothing, she is just sleepy,” Elias Geha answered.
Realizing that the little girl might be ill, the sailor started to make a scene.
Genevieve’s father pulled out a bankroll of dirty old U.S. bills and began peeling off paper and pressing it into the sailor’s outstretched hand.
The sailor flashed his decaying teeth and let the Geha family board the Volcania. They settled down in the belly of the ship, steerage class, as so many migrants had before them.
That is how they made the journey to New York, and ultimately, to Toledo.
Once a considerable distance from shore, ship doctors diagnosed young Genevieve’s illness as typhoid fever, quarantining her for the duration of the trip.
Separated from her parents, the sick young girl sat alone in a brightly lit corner of the ship. Even today, more than 40 years later sitting in her South Toledo home, she can still remember the feel of the slight breeze as her father fanned her with his handkerchief in the hot, stifling air during his daily visits.
“Thank God my dad had the guts to come here,” said Ms. Kirkbride. “Where else can you find the freedoms?”