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Family Gathers on Zoom to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of Gido's Arrival to America

posted on: Oct 14, 2020

By: Liz Chidiac/Arab America Contributing Writer

I never met my Gido and only knew my Sito during the last few years of her life, well after she had exhausted her legendary activities. Lucky for me and my younger cousins, though, our family got to know them a bit better last week.

My grandfather, Joseph Chidiac, immigrated to the US from Aleppo, Syria, arriving at Ellis Island on September 15th, 1920. He was 23. With only a mattress and a rug rolled up and slung over his shoulder, an eighth-grade education, and a great facility with languages, he disembarked and went in search of his brother, Naim, who had fled to Argentina before the war and was now settled in Paterson, New Jersey.  The two young men found work in the thriving silk mills as had hundreds of other new Syrian immigrants. Gido returned to Syria only once. In 1926, he went to Aleppo to marry my Sito, Josephine Kandela, then a beautiful 16-year-old girl. This began the Chidiac family adventures and roots in America. 

To mark the 100th anniversary of Gido’s arrival in America, my family gathered via zoom. Plans for a week-long reunion in sight of the Statue of Liberty were scuttled by COVID.  Instead, 65 of us from four generations from New Jersey to California, and even Italy, gathered into little boxes for a virtual celebration.  In retrospect, attendance via zoom was far higher than what it could have been had we held the event in person. 

Aunt Pauline, now the matriarch of the family, opened the event with greetings in Arabic.  While most of us knew what she was saying, only five of the sixty-five attendees speak the language of Arabic. Not surprising though, most of the Arabic words that the rest of us know all relate to food. The body part that everyone inherited is an Arab stomach. Fittingly, Aunt Pauline had a pot of yebret cooking on the stove behind her.  We could all smell the distinctive, delicious aroma through our computers.

My father, the only surviving son of Joseph and Josephine Chidiac, was the master of ceremonies.  First up after zoom logistics and agenda were explained were the family updates. This was a lightning round of seeing relatives on “highlighted” screens, learning about expected babies, favorite football teams, college majors, career choices, retirement plans and other stuff-of-life.  Some of us had never even seen one another before. 

It was stunning and a bit frightening to all of us as we thought of how young and inexperienced we all feel at this age – knowing that our grandparents (great grandparents for all except me) set sail to a foreign land at our own tender ages. 

Five of us shared the prize for being within months of the age of Gido when he immigrated, and my cousin, now a junior in high school, won the prize for being closest in age to when Sito immigrated. It was stunning and a bit frightening to all of us as we thought of how young and inexperienced we all feel at this age – knowing that our grandparents (great grandparents for all except me) set sail to a foreign land at our own tender ages. 

The next portion of the program focused on favorite memories. Family members submitted theirs in advance of the event.  Unsurprisingly, the number one favorite memory among my cousins centered on food, platter after platter of Middle Eastern delights, topped off with eye popping and stomach busting servings of baklava and other sweets.

More specific memories included Gido’s famous storytelling, his walking mile upon mile while holding his prayer beads behind his back, praying with arms held open and palms up; picking grape leaves from the vine smuggled into Sito’s luggage during her only return trip to Aleppo in 1957 (One of my cousins has an arbor from a cutting from this grape vine and has cultivated it for over 27 years and five address changes); and, Sito’s remarkable  sewing abilities including making elaborate wedding dresses. 

Participants also submitted questions that they would have for Gido and Sito, if they could talk with them. Most centered on the “why” and “how hard” questions about coming to America. Many wanted to know about the difficulties they encountered as immigrants.  Aunt Pauline did her best to answer based on her knowledge of their stories and experiences. She described the post WWI high unemployment, political instability and lack of opportunity in the Levant. The “how hard,” beyond the images of the long trek across the seas, portrayed a young immigrant couple creating a home for their six children through hard work and perseverance.  As my father acknowledges, “We were poor but didn’t realize it because we always had more than enough to share with others.”  

The program even included a raffle!  Aunt Pauline pulled names out of Sito’s brass spice mortar. For effect, she “grounded” the names first with the well-worn pestle.  Two winners were selected, each receiving an autographed copy of artist Helen Zughaib’s book she co-wrote with her Syrian father, Stories My Father Told Me

Two other highlights were made possible by Arab America Cousins, Wally Yazbak and Mohamed  Khairullah.  Mr. Yazbak translated some of Gido’s Arabic script for us in advance of the zoom call.  One of Gido’s  passages related to thanking God for his wife of then 50 years.  Mohamed Khairullah, mayor of Prospect Park, NJ where Sito and Gido lived for many years, prepared a lovely message honoring the Joseph and Josephine Chidiac family. 

On a very serious note, we discussed the tragedy that has befallen upon the Syrian people today…

Discussion turned to our Syrian heritage and what that means for us today.  My father applauded the participants’ unanimous enjoyment of Sito’s recipes, and the Arabic studies undertaken by a few of us. He pointed the group to Arab America’s mission and offerings as a way to stay connected to our Arab heritage. 

On a very serious note, we discussed the tragedy that has befallen upon the Syrian people today, and learned about supporting the Karam Foundation as a way to improve the lives of Syrians who continue to suffer through the decade old conflict. 

My brother, who speaks Arabic, offered a message to Gido and Sito, expressing how much we all appreciated their coming to America, their sacrifices, the loving home they created, the rich heritage they bestowed on all of us, and the love of family that we each drew a little closer to our hearts during the event.

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