One grateful immigrant’s personal journey

This is the time of year I start finding myself staring out the slightly cobwebbed bay window trying, albeit never successfully, to trick my mind’s eye into seeing a great expanse of warm, brilliant beach sand against an azure-blue backdrop instead of the melancholic sight of soggy, brownish lawn dotted with remaining traces of dirty snow mounds.

And exacerbating this year’s version of my little late-winter ritual is Mother Nature’s idea to start teasing us a little earlier than usual, what with delivering that generous stretch of May-like temperatures when the calendar still reads February. And then cruelly bringing back the deep freeze.

So situated is my favorite (read: the levers still work) recliner that with a slight turn of the head I’m watching TV, typically wearing out the remote trying to avoid the barrages of commercials that seem to have created a whole new meaning of “annoying.”

In between, I’m almost always toggling back and forth between news and sports channels – pretty typical, I suppose, of an

aging male baby boomer who long ago landed, and set up housekeeping, in the news business.

What is far from typical, though, is the news itself. While I’ve never waxed political in this space – and don’t intend to start now – nobody, no matter what one’s personal take on the grand scheme of things, can deny that the subject of immigration is about as hot these days as a topic can get, even for Washington.

It’s against this backdrop that I’ve found my windowsill daydreams of beach sand and ocean waves have taken a back seat to a particular question, a rhetorical one in that it cannot be answered, just pondered:

What would Uncle George and Aunt Naify, if they were alive today, think about the current state of affairs regarding immigration?

I’ll never know for sure, but I bet anything I’d be fascinated with what they had to say.

George E. Shalhoup and Naify Shalhoup Forzley, who died in 1999 and 1987 respectively, were born just after the turn of the 20th century in a village in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. At the time, Lebanon was considered part of “Greater Syria” by the ruling Ottoman Empire, which, although a predominantly Muslim faction, largely left the region’s Christians alone, according to historians.

George and Naify, my paternal uncle and aunt, were Syrian/Lebanese immigrants who, along with their mother, departed their homeland in 1913 to join their father and husband, who had come to America several years earlier.

“My father had heard, from people who had gone there and come back to tell about it, those fabulous stories about America and the riches one could accumulate,” my Uncle George wrote in an autobiography that so many members of our extended family cherish more and more as time passes.

George shares his appreciation for his adopted homeland more than a few times throughout the nearly 300-page, softcover story of his life, which is chock full of fascinating facts and anecdotes and family history, a lot with which I wasn’t familiar until I read it.

He was 9, Naify about 12, when they and their mother arrived where so many immigrants arrived over the years – Ellis Island. Unfortunately, space doesn’t permit tracing George’s incredibly detailed recollections of their pre-dawn departure from their native village, walking for two days alongside mules packed with their belongings to reach Beirut, boarding, disembarking and boarding again a series of ships until Lady Liberty herself came into their view.

Trust me, it’s fascinating stuff, but more than that, it’s a personal point of pride for us, the second, third and now fourth generation of Americans descended from Eleas (it became Elias) Shalhoup.

For he’s the man we especially admire, even though we of my generation were cheated out of knowing him; he died in 1946, three years before my eldest cousin was born.

Barely literate even in his native Arabic, a sometimes farmer who fed his family off his modest spate of land and housed them in a one-room dwelling with a dirt floor and zero utilities, the grandfather I never met summoned the courage one day to bid his wife, Hannah, and two toddlers farewell and set out for a faraway land, knowing it would be years before he saw them again – if he saw them again – driven by the determination to make a better life not only for his family, but also for the generations to come.

In his autobiography, George tells tales of the final leg of his trip, how he and others were “downloaded” from the S.S. Rochambeau onto a “barge,” floated to a dock, “herded” up stairways and into a big room where dinner was served for hundreds.

An overnight stay later, George, Naify and their mother set out to find transportation to Pittsburgh, where their father and husband had settled. Long story short, they eventually located him, without so much as a pay phone, never mind a cellphone with GPS.

That was the spring of 1914. My other aunt, Rose, was born that fall; my father, Mike, in 1919. By then the family had relocated to Sanford, Maine. They were together again; they were Americans.

My Uncle George couldn’t have chosen a better title for his autobiography: “Through the Years: A Thankful Immigrant Looks Back.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256, or @Telegraph_DeanS.