Immigrants Maintaining Their Ties

James Zogby’s Column

A few weeks ago a Lebanese daily newspaper published a wonderful two page feature story on the Zogbys of Kufr’tieh. It was entitled “Jim and John Zogby, between Lebanon and America” and told the story of how my grandmother Barbara had left our village in Lebanon with her five sons and two daughters, how the family had planted new roots in America, had succeeded and was returning, as my brother and I often do, to visit Lebanon.

I was moved by the photos: my father’s original home in Kufr’tieh, the village in the mountains and the 400 year old olive tree in the back of his home. There were also photos of my father’s family in 1924, a Zogby family reunion in New York in the 1970s and a few current photos of my cousins who are still living in Lebanon.

We have grown closer to my Lebanese family in the past several years. They visit us in the United States and on a number of occasions we have traveled with our U.S. families to visit them in Lebanon. It is a relationship that has survived the more than 75 years since my father left Lebanon. It is a relationship that I know would have made my father quite proud.

As I write these words I am about to embark on another visit-this one to Ireland. My son Mathew is spending this semester at University College in Dublin and so my wife, who is of Irish descent, and daughter will go to spend a week with him.

As many times as my family has visited Lebanon, we have also journeyed to Ireland-but with a difference. In Lebanon, we visit my father’s village and our relatives. In Ireland we still look to find my wife’s family roots. Her maiden name is McMahon and her mother’s family name is Walsh. We know the approximate area where they originated in Ireland and, to be sure, the local phone books have many listings of both names and the cemeteries are filled with markers of many past McMahons and Walshes. But we do not know which belong to her family and which do not.

The differences between the early Irish and Lebanese migrations to the United States are great and are a function of two phenomena: the different times in which they occurred and the different conditions that led them to come to America in the first place.

The mass Irish migration to America came in the mid to late 1800s. During the years of the “great famine” 1845 to 1850, one-third of the Irish people died, one-third left for the United States, and one-third remained in Ireland.

The museum the Irish have built in Cork vividly describes the horrors of those years and brutal Irish passage to America. Poor and sick Irish men and women were packed into the holds of ships in inhumane conditions for the long voyage. Many never made it. Those who survived the trauma never looked back and even if they had wanted to, they could not. The passage back was too costly and too painful even to contemplate.

It was tragic that during those years, roots were severed never to be restored. And this tragedy, as much as it harmed those who were left behind, continues to be a poignant theme in Irish song and literature, even until today. There are countless Irish songs that recall those who left and were never heard from again.

Now, four and five generations later, the descendants of that wave of Irish immigrants are returning. For most, it is a visit to the country in general. They are Irish, but they do not know their roots. For those who want to find their personal history, an entire industry has developed to help these Irish Americans attempt to identify their towns of origin and their family.

The Lebanese story is, of course, quite different. The great wave of Lebanese immigration was much later, at the early part of the 20th Century. We, therefore, are still in our first and second generations. The conditions under which our ancestors left were, in many cases, harsh, but not as traumatic as the “great famine.” More than escaping to save their lives, most of these early Lebanese were pioneers who traveled to America for economic opportunity. And more often than not, they sent money back to their families and were able to maintain a connection.

There are still some of these early immigrants with us and so the connection to our history is still fresh. And modern communications and travel being what it is, it is much easier to sustain the connections, if we wish to do so.

I can still recall, quite vividly, when my father returned for the first time to Lebanon in the mid 1950s. He was the first of his family to make that trip, and it was a dramatic event. In Lebanon, his return was celebrated in the village. He told them all about the growing Zogby family in the United States-their additions and their successes.

When he returned to the United States-the situation repeated itself. We celebrated for weeks, as family members came from all over the United States to hear the news from Lebanon and especially Kufr’tieh.

Since then, as travel and communications improved, many more members of my family have visited Lebanon. Many of my father’s brothers returned as have a few of my cousins. My wife and I first visited in 1971. I have returned several times since then. More recently, I have gone to Lebanon either with my wife and all of my children or my brother John.

This summer my brother John and I have planned yet another family visit to Lebanon. This time we will bring not only our wives and children. We have reached out and encouraged our other U.S. cousins to join us as well. For many of them it will be their first visit. The relationship that was growing between the descendants of the immigrants and Lebanon broke down during the continuing long war. It is now time to rebuild it.

If the synergy is to remain, more and more of these visits must occur and, I believe, not only Lebanon, but every Arab country with an émigré community in the United States should develop programs now to encourage and support such visits. We still have the opportunity to give this generation of the descendents of the first immigrants a grounding in the countries of their origins. Soon we, Arab Americans, will be in our fourth generation here in the United States. If work is not done now, our family histories will be forgotten, our connection broken.

It would be a tragedy to lose what we do not have to lose. The pride that my family in Lebanon and in the United States felt when they saw that article in the Lebanese papers should be repeated for every family-before it is too late.