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March Forth

I have rewritten this story, given its new title.

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Immigrants and America

By Mary Lahaj

Everyone has an opinion about immigrants living in America. To keep America great, some insist that immigrants must change immediately, to fit in. Others insist that immigrants should not change, but be free to retain their identity, because Americans value freedom and diversity.

The insistence that refugees change immediately, so that they look and sound like “us” has a long history in this country. I heard a story recently about the residents of a town in Minnesota, complaining about resettled Somali refugees: “Their food is strange, clothing outlandish, religion is violent, and language odd-sounding.”

Some will remember that the Irish were accused of being “unmixable.” And today, this same view of immigrants begs the question: What if “those” people don’t change? What if we are expected to change and become like them? As one resident stated, “We do not want our values or our children’s values to change or be changed by these immigrants.”

As a second generation American-born Muslim woman, whose parents were born here, and grandparents came from Syria at the turn of the 20th Century, I am an expert on change. For more than 100 years of living in America, change has played a critical role in my family’s history. It is an inevitable, imperceptible process, and like the sun, it touches everyone and everything.

It might be helpful to look closely at the relationship between new immigrants and indigenous Americans. For example, when my mother needed help with the housework, she hired a new immigrant from Finland. One day, she observed the young woman ironing. First, she would spit on the clothes, and then press them with the hot iron. Even after explaining that this practice (and a few others) was unacceptable, the young woman continued to do things her way. That was early on in the process of assimilation. But since the young woman would not change, my mother had to let her go. For many immigrants, change is about survival and keeping a job.

Change has also played an important role in America, when it comes to food. I remember asking my grandfather (of the immigrant generation) why our “Syrian” food had changed and became “Lebanese” food? To get a comprehensive explanation, I had to take a history course about the Middle East; another subject for another essay.

Significantly, our American cuisine has undergone the slow process of change. Take some of our favorite foods, such as Chinese, Italian, barbecue, cinnamon, and chili peppers − all brought to us by immigrants, and changing our indigenous taste buds forever. Maybe it’s our hubristic self-regard, but we have taken ownership of these foods, accepted them hungrily into our American family cuisine, and forgotten all the immigrants who gave them to us.

Food changes from the very first day an immigrant arrives. The process continues, as each new American generation tries to recreate the food of its parents. If my grandfather was still alive to taste my baklava, he would ask me why it changed; and that, after only two generations.

As Americans, not only do we have a unique cuisine, we also fashion our own religions. Dr. Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has pioneered an emerging field that documents the transformation of religions brought to America by immigrants, including the “new” religions of Islam, Hinduism, Jain, Christianity, and Judaism, each being practiced uniquely in America.

Sadly, fear of change has been directed at immigrants, Muslims, people who look like Muslims, and people of color. Blinded by fear, xenophobes have lost faith in our values and strengths. America transforms people, food, and religion and presents unparalleled opportunity for people to actualize their potential. America is not a melting pot that sits on the back burner, waiting to boil down. America is a transforming power.

In my Syrian American Muslim family, my grandparents had to change in order to survive. In the second generation, my parents had to change in order to succeed. Each generation gets to choose what it wants to carry forward in its American life and what it wants to leave behind. As the third generation, I have chosen to practice American Islam. From my family, I also inherited the burning desire to be a good American (a passion that never skips a generation). I passed love of country to my child and demonstrated the value of change.

To me, that torch held by the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the burning desire to be a part of what makes America great. It also represents the eternal faith that immigrants have in America. And by the way, the first Somali (a woman) just won the privilege of representing the state of Minnesota.

The Story of John Omar, Top Turret Gunner & Flight Engineer – Army Air Corps World War II

 John Omar wedding

 By Mary Lahaj and Sheila Omar Malasi

Like other American families, the eight founding families of the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy (the first mosque in New England-1964) sent their sons and daughters to fight in World War II. One came home with the Purple Heart for courage under fire, John Omar.

Before he became well-known as the first religion teacher at the mosque, a crackerjack mechanic, and the owner of Omar’s Garage, located first on Water Street in Quincy, and later, near the Burgin Parkway, John enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served his country from 1943-1945.

At eighteen, after graduating with honors from Quincy High School in 1943, John was the top turret gunner and flight engineer for a B-24 Liberator, dubbed by the crew, “She’s Our Gal.” Assigned to the 8th Air Force, 382nd Bomb Squadron 491st Bomb Group, John and the crew were stationed in Pickingham Air Field in Norfolk, England.

It was early in the war, when the enemy was eager to take down any Allied aircraft, before it could hit its target. But even before they started to fly missions, the crew had a couple of close calls during the training program, including a difficult landing that broke the nose wheel. Another time the hydraulics failed prompting a call from the pilot to “Omar” (the crew’s nickname for him) to manually crank down the landing gear so they could make an emergency landing. The plane landed without the brakes and skidded to within a few feet from the end of the runway.

During the Battle of the Bulge, a heavy snowstorm at the start of one mission caused their plane to crash shortly after takeoff.  Eleven of the 500-pound bombs aboard were jettisoned into a field below.  When the plane hit the ground, the 12th bomb came crashing through the cockpit bulkhead with its nose a few feet from Omar’s back.  Moments after they crashed, Omar heard the pilot screaming for help and was able to help free the pilot from the burning wreckage so that they could both quickly escape from the plane in case of an explosion.

In a mission to Magdeburg Germany, they encountered a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft flak as they were approaching the target. They lost the #3 engine and the rudder cable was severed.  Because the hydraulics system was damaged, they could not open the bomb bay doors to release the bombs.

In response, Omar disconnected his heated flight suit and straddled a 9″ catwalk that ran from the cockpit to the waste door to reach the cranks that opened the bomb bay doors.  In 42 below zero temperatures, clinging precariously to the struts of the catwalk- the only thing between him and the earth below- Omar manually cranked open the doors so the bombs could be released. While performing this task, shrapnel wounded him in his right foot.

Once the bombs were released, he then turned his attention to repairing the severed rudder cables so that the plane could be turned around. With the #3 engine out, the plane kept losing altitude as they were leaving Germany.  A “May Day” call was sent out and someone gave the pilot a heading.  Miraculously they made the landing on a very short runway with no gas showing in the tanks.  The plane’s fuselage had been hit 44 times.  For his courageous actions in that mission, Omar was promoted to Sargent and awarded the Purple Heart. He flew a total of 29 missions, before the war ended.

Many of the young Muslim men in the founding families enlisted, including Sam Hassan (president of the Islamic Center of New England 12 times), his brothers (Ali, Abdu, Moe, and Albert) and sister, Zaida. In the Ameen family, Joey, Michael, and Sam joined up, and two daughters enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), formed in 1943. Jimmy Abraham, Moe Allie, the Derbes, and the Hassan Brothers were among the boys who enlisted in WW II and fought in subsequent wars as well.

Other patriots stayed home. My grandfather, for example, Mohamed Omar, the first Imam of the mosque in Quincy, trained as a welder and helped build warships for Bethlehem Steel at the Fore River Shipyard. Quincy Point, located near the mosque and the Shipyard, is the neighborhood where John Omar and my mother, Mary, grew up. Many in the Muslim community remember John fondly, as a religion teacher in the Quincy mosque, but very few have any knowledge of his heroic war efforts or his Purple Heart.

Meanwhile, John married and raised eight children of his own. Below is John’s wedding picture from 1946.  Almost all eight of the Islamic Center founding family members attended his wedding.

FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Ramsey Ameen Hassan; Fadal Hassan; Mary Omar Hassan; Bride-Mary Omar; John Omar (groom); and Emma Hassan. BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Sam Hassan; Carl Awad (Navy veteran); Ali Awad (bride’s father); Mohamad Omar (John’s father).