A Muslim's Introduction to America
In 1966, a young Palestinian man traveled with his young wife and infant daughter from the turmoil filled and troubled Palestine to live in the land of opportunity, the good old U.S.A.
Now leaving Palestine wasn't easy for them. First of all, this was their home. Secondly, he was barely 25 years of age with a High School education and she was 20 years old with more limited education. America was entirely different than their little villages in Palestine. It was bigger, busier, faster, and a bit scarier because everyone was so different. Both left behind nearly all of their family and friends with the belief that opportunity and a better life for them and their little girl could be found in America.
They found a small apartment in Stuart Gardens Apartments in Newport News, Virginia.
This is a story about kindness, a sense of community, color blindness and compassion. It's about the good people who lived in Stuart Gardens Apartments. It's about a part of the American Spirit that I think needs a little awakening today.
My dad, Ahmad, found work to support his little family while my mother began the tough task of adjusting to life in a foreign land. Having a dear Uncle and Aunt nearby certainly made things easier, but there were many times, while Dad was at work, when Mom had to make things happen on her own. Mom was a very young lady who spoke Arabic almost exclusively, and began to slowly pick up English words here and there, mostly from television. She was a small young lady with beautiful black hair and a sweet face, standing only about 5'2". She spent quite a bit of time in those early years with "I Love Lucy", "All my Children", and "The Young and the Restless", so we have to thank Susan Lucci and Lucille Ball for helping Mom with her English.
Mom and Dad were Muslims and unmistakably Arab. They looked like Arabs, they spoke Arabic, and everyone could tell that they were different.
In the winter of 1966-1967 when Mom and Dad learned that they were having another child. Their financial limitations along with their unfamilarity with "baby carriages" had them going without. You see, in our little village of Deir Ballut, Palestine, in 1966, people didn't use strollers or "baby carriages".
The neighbors in Stuart Gardens noticed my Mom, pregnant with my brother, walking to and from while holding her little girl in her arms. It was about this time that one of the most beautiful characteristics of the American spirit revealed itself to this little Palestinian woman and it came in the form of a little green stamp.
In the late 1960's and 70's, one of the very first shoppers rewards programs, (maybe the first ever, starting in 1896 according to Wikipedia) came in the form of S&H Green Stamps. S&H green stamps were given to you at grocery stores, gas stations and other shops. The way the program worked was that you collected S&H Green Stamps and used them to fill pages of Green Stamp Collectors Books which then could be redeemed for premiums, including housewares and other items, from the local Green Stamps store or catalog.
After a very short time in Virginia, Mom, even with her cultural and communication challenges, began to get to know some of her neighbors. There were sisters Cee Cee and Betty, along with neighbors Mary Ann Felburke and Mrs. Cassidy. I try to imagine what these ladies saw when they talked with Mom. It would have been easy to patronize her with an occasional wave and a smile. It would have been easy to allow a small amount of xenophobia to seep in and keep their distance. You have to remember, this was a time of intense change and struggle for change in the U.S. Our country was struggling with Civil Rights challenges, we were involved in the Vietnam War, and we saw nation-shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King in 1968, JFK in 1963, and Malcolm X in 1965. This time was also a time of riots, and a very active Ku Klux Klan. So for most Americans, "other people", including these foreigners would have been easy to cast aside.
But these folks at Stuart Gardens Apartments didn't do that. Instead, they noticed a neighbor who was in need of a baby stroller. And they took it upon themselves to combine the Green Stamps that they had been saving for their own needs with hers and redeem them for a stroller (or baby carriage) to ease her burden. She can't recall exactly how she befriended these ladies because her English was so limited, but she did. Cee Cee, Betty, Mary Ann Felburke and Mrs. Cassidy, among others took a liking to this little Arab woman who spoke soap opera aided English. They didn't care what she sounded like nor did they care what she looked like. They also were perfectly okay with her Muslim faith.
They didn't stop with the stroller either. When my brother was born, they showered her with gifts in the form of baby blankets, diapers, and other baby needs. Mom says they were a little older than her, and they were Christians. They didn't see a foreigner, they saw a friend.
They didn't see her through a prism of Christian versus Muslim, instead they saw her through the prism of loving thy neighbor. They saw her with the most beautiful eyes Americans can have.
Mom still remembers these ladies fondly. I never knew these ladies, but I am grateful for the kindness they showed my family. I am grateful for the example they showed of what Americans should be all about.
In 2012, we could all learn a lot from these ladies and their American Spirit on display more than 40 years ago.