M. Todd Henderson: I'm Here Because the U.S. Welcomed My Syrian Great-Grandmother During a Pandemic

I Owe the Life I Have Today to the U.S.'s Decision a Century Ago to Welcome a Syrian Woman and Her Family

As we struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to lapse into self-pity and to forget about other human tragedies, many of which have been made worse by the crisis. One of these is the fact that more than 13 million Syrians have been displaced because of civil war, nearly half of whom have left the country. Everyone knows the names Assad and Putin, Erdoğan and Trump. But the stories of everyday people killed or torn from their homes and setting off in search of a better life for themselves and their children are largely unknown.

To be honest, sitting in my comfy house in Chicago, streaming The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it is hard to relate. After all, I’m a privileged, white, rich American, which is about as good as it gets, even in times like these.

And yet the only reason I am here living this life is because of a Syrian woman who set out against all odds 100 years ago in circumstances not unlike those facing Syrian refugees today. Her name was Warde Abi-Habib Salameh, and she was my great-grandmother. In 1919, she was 33, living in Roumieh, a small village in the mountains east of Beirut in what is now Lebanon. The Salamehs were Maronites, a sect of Christians that were tolerated by their Ottoman masters in Constantinople. But then, as now, war and a global pandemic changed everything.

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