After a century, US Arabs look for pieces of past

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm •  Published: December 29, 2012
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DETROIT (AP) — Tossing and shivering below deck, Hussien Karoub felt ill. In the cold, crowded conditions, sleep came seldom. When it did, it didn't last long: The cries of children and the moans of those even sicker than he was made certain of that.

It was approaching midnight somewhere in the North Atlantic, aboard a vessel carrying the 18-year-old Syrian and many fellow immigrants toward, they hoped, a better life. If nothing else, he knew it had to beat this arduous monthlong odyssey in steerage, enduring conditions that were, in every sense, below those in first and second class.

It would be days before details trickled down about the doomed ship a couple hundred miles away. Above, in his vessel's radio room, came the first distress call from the foundering RMS Titanic: "Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We struck an iceberg. Sinking."

A couple weeks later, Hussien Karoub arrived in the United States even more anonymously than he otherwise might have. Public attention was elsewhere, focused on the Titanic and its tragic end.

That is the story of my grandfather's voyage to America. Or, more likely, it isn't. And that's part of the point.

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I am a third-generation Arab-American, and I am on a journey to learn more about the journey of my "jiddo," the Arabic word for grandfather. I am sorting through family stories, passed down, that have a way of changing in the retelling. Folk tales are compelling, but I am trying to anchor my story to facts before the channels to history close entirely, in hopes they might offer insight about how I got here.

My quest mirrors those of so many Arab-Americans. They're looking back and trying to unearth their stories, separating myth from truth and — just as important — hoping to show their neighbors that, in the story of America, they are not a "them" but an "us."

Maybe the Titanic tale is true. It's remotely possible, since Hussien Karoub came to the United States in the same year, 1912. My family hasn't confirmed that through records, but by anecdotes like a radio interview from the early 1960s, when he said he came to Detroit in 1915 to make cars after spending three years making hats in Danbury, Conn.

For many Arabs, a version of the story is true. U.S.-bound Middle Easterners were on the Titanic and other ships traversing the Atlantic. In lower Manhattan, an already thriving Syrian community awaited and would be instrumental in identifying and memorializing the dead and helping survivors meet the new world.

"I always tell people who ask that Jiddo's ship crossed paths with the Titanic on the way over from Syria," my cousin Carl, the family's historian, tells me. "The wake from the Titanic nearly capsized his tiny ferry and he cursed the Titanic."

He has no proof, of course. In only a century, the truth blurs in a genealogical game of telephone. Yet why not hitch our tale to that of a great American epic? It's not that big of a stretch. Americans — most Americans, even — have done that since the very beginning.

But I want more than stories.

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"Who's 'Aszim'?" the voice over the phone asks me. It's Diane Hassan, a researcher from the Danbury Museum & Historical Society. Hassan finds a record saying Aszim was born in Danbury in 1913, which brings us closer to confirming the timeframe of my grandfather's arrival in Danbury. This was my father's first cousin, known to my family by his American name, Jimmy. He was the son of Mohammed, my grandfather's brother.

I've sought Hassan's help because I've hit a brick wall. Ellis Island, the entry point for millions of immigrants, contains records of my grandfather coming in 1920 aboard the Kroonland with his wife, Miriam, and their young son Allie. That was Hussien Karoub's second U.S. arrival, but there is no record in Ellis Island's archive of his inaugural voyage as a single man some eight years earlier.

A short boat ride away, they're asking the same kinds of questions on a much larger scale. A group of New Yorkers have worked with curators from the Arab American National Museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn on a new traveling exhibit that documents what had been one of the earliest settlements of Arabs in America.

It's not lost on them that the Little Syria neighborhood in lower Manhattan would become the site of the World Trade Center — the towers whose destruction a decade ago put many of Middle Eastern descent under intense scrutiny and suspicion.

For so many decades, the self-appointed "us" of America had names for the not-quite-white, not-quite-black, not-quite-sure group of "them" arriving from the Middle East: "Orientals," ''Ali Baba," and later, "towelheads."

The increasingly malignant stereotype of Arab and Muslims as terrorists appeared in the 1960s with the Arab-Israeli war but hit warp speed after 9/11. It came in actions — anti-Islamic hate crime cases reported to the FBI spiked after the terrorist attacks — but it came more commonly, casually and sometimes just as cruelly in words:

"Go home."

Go home. It's as perplexing as it is offensive, especially to those whose American story stretches back a century. Where exactly is home for someone who was born in the U.S.? Or came here seeking a better life — and succeeded? Or fled tyranny for opportunity? In times of crisis, the public forgets how long Arab and Muslims have been in the U.S. or what they've contributed.

So, in the face of foes and a forgetful public, it is left to Arabs themselves to remember and remind others of where they've been. That presents difficulties — not only with facts that were never committed to paper but also with facts that bump into something equally potent: family consensus.

I've known since I was little that my grandfather made up his birthdate. Why? Because the village where he was born didn't keep records. His gravestone lists his birth year as 1893; his petition to become a U.S. citizen, filed in 1919, says he was born on Dec. 20, 1892.

That led me to another surprise: learning he registered for the World War I draft in 1917, a full decade before being declared a citizen. The document shows his birthplace as the "Syrian Arab Republic" and his occupation as "grinding for Ford Motor Co." The registration also details back problems, which likely kept him from being drafted. His address is on the same street in the Detroit enclave where, just four years later, he would lead what was likely the first mosque in the United States.

In Danbury, a whole section of town is referred to as "Little Lebanon," where immigrants like my grandfather came to work in fur and hat factories. One Arab immigrant whose time there wasn't lost to history was William Buzaid, who opened a fur-cutting factory in 1910.

Hassan is working with the city's Lebanese American Club to learn more about the paths of its forebears. She welcomes my call for help in finding facts to fill my story, knowing it could in turn help Danbury and Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and many other places where Arab-Americans traveled through or put down roots during the Great Migration of 1880-1924. The peak for those coming from what then was known as "Greater Syria" was from 1910 to 1914.

Even after trying several variations of Karoub — Kharoub, Karoob, Karub, Karroubi — I came up empty. Maybe, Hassan suggests, he was among those who came through Baltimore or Boston. Maybe even Canada. Maybe he didn't enter at Ellis Island at all.

Maybe. A word I can't seem to escape.

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Devon Akmon also wants to fill in some ancestral blanks. He lacks even more basic facts than I do. He knows this much: He's half-Lebanese, like me, and his family came from northern Lebanon. But who came to the U.S., and when?

"This is the hard part. This is what we don't know," said Akmon, now deputy director of the Arab American National Museum. "They first came to Kentucky. That's the story I want to figure out. ... It's family history. Knowing your family's story only back a generation — it seems so mysterious."

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