Commentary: A Syrian immigrant's American story

Marie Kassab Helfferich

is a writer in Richboro

My grandfather Wadea Kassab was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1872. At that time Syria was part of the Levant under the Ottoman Empire.

Wadea was the oldest of 10 children and, after completing his schooling at the age of 17 in 1889, he immigrated to the United States. At first, he joined a former schoolteacher in Tennessee to work in an iron foundry. Eventually he started selling imported linens along the East Coast.

As he went door to door in Chester selling these imports, an Irish Catholic family became interested in him and his heritage. He must have made an impression because they introduced him to their friends. This community embraced and encouraged him to study dentistry. They gave him a place to stay, lent him money, and gave him the opportunity to attend Philadelphia College of Dentistry.

Grandpa graduated in 1896 and established a dental practice in Chester. On a visit to Syria he met my grandmother, married, and brought her to the United States, where they built a home in Wallingford. They had six children, and their three sons served in the military in World War II.

My father, George, piloted a B-24 bomber in the South Pacific and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, with an oak leaf cluster. Another son, Joseph, was a surgeon serving in the South Pacific and was part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's landing party in the Philippines. Son John was a lieutenant in the Mechanized Cavalry, landing in France on D-Day and fighting through Europe until the end of the war. Of their three sons and their sisters, there were a doctor, a dentist, a teacher, and a successful businessman.

My grandfather assisted some of his brothers and sisters to come to this country. They established successful lives, raised families, and contributed to their communities. They loved their adopted country.

In 2001, my father and Uncle Wadea, both in their mid-80s, received letters from the U.S. military asking them to reenlist due to the need for Arabic-speaking personnel.

Our Syrian heritage encouraged strong ties among a large extended family. Through marriage our family expanded to include members of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths. We value and support one another as a loving family and are proud of our Syrian heritage.

This is the story of one Syrian immigrant family. There are hundreds of thousands of similar stories throughout this country of Syrian immigrants and their descendants establishing productive lives. Syrians have a culture of warm hospitality even to strangers and strongly value close family ties. They have an industrious and entrepreneurial spirit. They seek freedom and security.

Open the door to Syrian immigrants and they will blossom. And this country will be enriched.

mkhelfferich@gmail.com

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