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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 March 4th

By Mary Lahaj

Many people have said that miracles happen. But before I could ever believe that such a thing is a reality, I would have to experience it myself. I am that kind of a believer. No blind faith for me. Not if there is empirical evidence. After that, I always get a big jolt of faith. People of faith always say not to expect faith to stay strong all the time. Rather, it waxes and wanes. But on March 4th, 2011, I was introduced to faith in an unknown reality.

I had been living with my mother in her condo, taking care of her for almost ten years. When she died in July of 2010, I suddenly needed a full-time job and a new place to live. My siblings (two older brothers and one younger sister) were very supportive and told me I could live in the condo for as long as I needed. But ultimately, profit from the sale of the condo would be divided between us for our inheritance.

I had done mostly part-time work and adjunct teaching, so I started my search for an actual teaching position and sent out many resumes. Meanwhile, I busied myself tying up the loose ends of our mother’s possessions, furniture and other things. We put the condo up for sale in December, despite the slow economy and the advantaged buyer’s market. Luckily, we owned it outright and agreed on setting the highest asking price we could, 275K.

By March 2011, I had not drawn a single response from my resumes. As if by compliance, there had been no interest in our condo. The two key changes in my life were like bookends, on either side of a deafening silence, reminding me of my lonely, temporary occupation of a home, in a life I could not afford, and a future I could not ascertain or imagine.

Where was I going to live anyway? I had put my name on a waiting list in September of 2010, at a new apartment complex in town. They set aside a few apartments for an Affordable Housing program, to help house teachers and firemen (and other middle-class relics), who could not afford the full rent the complex was charging. Actually, the complex had called me twice that year, but I had to decline. We needed to sell the condo first, before I could move. Until I got my inheritance, I had no money. Until I found work, I had no income. By March, the silence from the complex had joined the deafening choir, as I anxiously waited.

On Friday, March 4th around 11:30 AM, the complex manager called me with news of an available apartment. My reply was the same as before. Please keep me on the list. Meanwhile, I was getting ready for my weekend plans, to drive down to Yale in Connecticut to attend a conference, checking my email for the last time before leaving.

At 11:45, there it was: An email from our real estate broker and old family friend, Deb. She happened to be in Aruba on vacation, but being vigil, had seen that someone made a serious offer for the condo. The offer was for 260K.

I needed to consult with my siblings. My sister, Donna, and her husband Tom were on vacation in Florida. My two brothers, Mike and Richard, were together in Mexico. I called my sister first on her cell, while I Skyped my two brothers. I also called the complex manager back and arranged to see the available apartment on Saturday. This was serious, after all.

My sister’s voice was hard to hear over the sounds of the wind and ocean, blowing through her phone on the beach. But I’m pretty sure she was saying: “That’s a good offer. Let’s take it. WIND WIND WIND… The economy is bad. Let’s just sell!”

When I talked to Mike, he said, “I think our counter offer should be on the high side still. Mom took really good care of the condo, so let’s see what we can get.” I agreed with that. Richard proposed the opposite of my sister, “Let’s not budge from 275.”

Since I was manning the communication headquarters, I made the decision to go with Mike’s idea, and we gave Deb our counter offer of 273. Despite the fear of losing the sale and the accusations of being “too greedy,” we prevailed, for within half an hour, the buyer had moved up from 260 to 268. And Deb was asking, “What do you want to do now? Take the offer or not?”

Mike and I felt empowered by this huge jump in the counter offer. Mike on Skype said, “Don’t we have a picture of mom mopping the floor the way she used to, to make it shine?” I said, “Yes we do.” At his prompting, we sent the picture of Mom mopping the floor to our two other sibling, and to Deb, with the message that we would be making a counter offer. The big question that Deb left us to debate was: how much to counter? My sister was insisting that we take the 268 offer and not counter. Richard was complaining that we shouldn’t have made our asking price too low to begin with. But Mike and I were convinced that within that last half hour, the buyers had tipped their hand and shown how much they loved the condo.

During the debate, our beloved brother-in law, Tom, got into the act to support Donna, increasing the pressure on me and Mike. The discussion ensued: “Let’s not get greedy;” and “it’s a bad economy;” and “you don’t know anything about selling a house;” and, “What me? I’ve sold more houses than you…”

Mike and I agreed to counter with an offer of 271. Mike had an idea to make the negotiations with Donna and Tom more interesting. He asked if they would be willing to pay the $3,000 difference, if we were to accept the 268 offer. Their response was predictable. But the idea created a kind of breeze from Mexico to Florida that temporarily cooled the heated debate.

I remained glued to my computer at the kitchen table, having canceled my plans to go to Yale. We had been going at the negotiations and the more stressful sibling rivalry for 7 hours straight. By 7:30 PM, my ear was sore. Our 271 offer was on the table. Deb was waiting to see if the buyers would accept.

Given that everyone was on vacation while I was holding down the fort, I was beginning to feel a little sorry for myself, when my cell phone rang. It turned out to be an old friend I hadn’t talked to since 1988. I was taken aback.

Linda and I had a short, but meaningful history. She was an Arab-American activist and in 1988, had called to introduce herself to me. Her mission was to enlist as many Arab American delegates for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign as possible. Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, had an opportunity to send Arab American delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Arab Americans being at the bottom of the political power pole were looking for a step up, and Jim was determined to increase the number of delegates for the 1988 campaign. In 1984, there had been only 4 delegates. In 1988, there were 54.

The delegates had a purpose. They would be surveying the other 4000 delegates to see who would sign a petition in favor of a plan that called for a “Palestinian state, with security for Israel.” An impressive number of signatures would show the popularity of the plan and lead to a debate in the public forum at the convention. A long shot, but we did it. As it turned out, 75% of the delegates were in favor of the plan. The survey was published in the LA Times, and the debate took place at the convention, but sadly, not during prime time.

Linda and I had met once, after I agreed to become a delegate, but our relationship ended as soon after our goals were achieved. That is, until about two years prior to this evening’s phone call, when we accidentally discovered each other in the same freelance editors’ email group. I had done some editing for a short time and joined the group. But I wasn’t a serious editor. I didn’t realize that Linda was in the group (a very serious editor), because she was using a different handle. We emailed a couple of times after that, but never got together.

On the evening of March 4th, Linda was calling to ask if I had seen the job she had posted to the editors’ group a few days ago. I vaguely recalled seeing something about a job, recruiting for the law firm where she worked. I remembered seeing the words, “law firm,” and deleted the email. I didn’t know anything about the law. Even though she had no idea that I was looking for a job, Linda wanted to know why I didn’t apply. I told her that I had reinvented myself as a teacher and was hoping to land a teaching job.

For some reason, Linda persisted. “You can do this job, Mary.” For some reason, I resisted. It was the end of a long day, and I had been so focused on selling the condo, I couldn’t wrap my head around what she was offering me. Linda went on to explain what the job entailed. When she said I didn’t need to know anything about the law to do the job, my interest was finally piqued.

I was going to have to redo my resume and reinvent myself again, to make me look like a writer/editor. Linda offered to “eyeball” my resume, and then, “send it to my boss.” Allaying my concerns, she said: “Don’t worry, Mary. You’re a shoe-in.” Coincidentally, she had said the same thing, when she encouraged me to become a delegate. And she was right, both times!

At 9:30 PM, Deb emailed me. The buyers had countered with an offer, up from their 268 to 270, but down from the 271 we had asked for earlier. Would we accept? At that point, it had been nine hours of negotiations. After calling my siblings, we finally all agreed to take their offer.

Next, I turned my attention to revising my resume and sent it off to Linda by 11:30 PM. As planned, I went to see the available apartment in the morning, and it was beautiful. I was told that if I met the criteria, I could move in by April. The condo sale papers were scheduled to be passed in May.

For the past six years I have been working for the law firm as a freelance writer and researcher, with Linda as my mentor. I work from home, in my beautiful discounted apartment. I don’t know if anyone would believe this story and that all these life-changing events happened on one day, March 4th. But I had to write it down, so I could celebrate every year on the anniversary (now 2017). I guess I still like to pinch myself to believe that this story is really true. Most importantly, I am truly able to say that I believe miracles can happen.


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).