Open Your Arms!

Editing, Storytelling, writing

Written by Jim Toukatly. Edited by Jessica Toukatly. Shared with the author’s permission. 

 

In 1915, the Toukatly family were Syrian immigrants fleeing an Islamic government which was carrying out the first genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian Massacre. They fled their home in Mardin, Turkey. My grandfather, who was about 25 years old, had no education. His wife was 14 years old. They offered America nothing in terms of skill. They didn’t speak English, could not read or write, and they had no money, yet America let them in. The US soon after passed laws to forbid immigration from Asia. (The Middle East is considered part of Asia.) Court cases ensued and after a lot of fighting and confusion Arabs from the Middle East were allowed to stay.

Americans didn’t hate them because they were different. They were given a chance. A chance that they didn’t have in the Turkish/Syrian town that they were from. Although Mardin is in Turkey, it is just across the border from Syria and the people there are predominantly Syrian. Borders weren’t a big deal at that time and everyone there said that they were Syrian.

In America, specifically Utica, NY, they failed. They lost their home in the Great Depression. My grandfather worked in President Roosevelt’s CCC. They got back on their feet and opened— like so many other Arab immigrants— a corner grocery store. Their kids got free education from the government. They all graduated from high school. Three of their sons fought in World War II. My dad was nominated for the Silver Star and won the Bronze Star twice. My grandparents never learned much English and, as they got older, they spoke less and less English and more and more Arabic. They belonged to their own church— The Syrian Catholic Church (AKA the Maronite Church). They played Arabic music at home and served up the best Arabic food you could ever hope for.

They didn’t assimilate. They were Syrian all of their lives. They just lived among Americans—whom they loved. Every day my grandfather would look into the mirror and as he shaved he would say out loud, “God Bless America”. Their children were bilingual. They belonged to the local Syrian American Social Club, along with the Knights of Columbus, and the VFW. One foot in the old world, one in the new.

All of them were Democrats. They worshiped FDR for what he did for them.

Their grandchildren are a mixed group and fully assimilated. Some went onto college, some didn’t. They are technicians, managers, business owners, and whatever else you can think of. Their politics are more diverse. They are much less religious.

However, they feel the bond that our name carries with it. Although we fight, argue, and drive each other crazy we continue to love each other with no exceptions. It’s amazing! Having a name that isn’t “American” immediately causes people to consider you an “outsider”. It’s not a big deal, because once they begin to know you, they let you in. However, that initial experience pushes us together. We know that Toukatlys are our base. The rock that we can always count on. It’s strange, but I don’t see non-immigrant families having that same sense of unity. Nobody loves America like an immigrant.

Let them in! Open your arms! The reward is far greater than the risk.
We have to take chances, be willing to suffer losses to be able to move forward as Americans. We can’t be American and be walled in and alone. We need to be the beacon of hope that we were for my grandparents.

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