Monday, July 22, 2019

Mountain Eagle rejects anti-immigrant views, recalls refugee whose family became pillars of community, state

The Dawahares in front of their first store. Srur Dawahare
is at rear left. (National Museum of American History)
President Trump kicked off a firestorm of criticism with a trio of July 14 tweets which were broadly viewed as racist. Though Trump didn't name names, he encouraged four Democratic representatives, all women of color, to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Only one of the targets is an immigrant:  Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., whose family came here as refugees from Somalia.

The incident reminded writers at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., of another American who fled persecution in his home country. Srur Dawahare immigrated to New York City from Syria in the early 1900s, then at his wife's brother's urging, moved to the town of Neon in Letcher County to seek his fortune, the Eagle recalls in an editorial.

Dawahare soon opened a small store, then expanded the family business. He and his family were pillars of the local community. "They famously supported local charities, public housing, education, sports, and regional economic development. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a family that has done more for Eastern Kentucky," the Eagle writes. The Dawahares were known for fairness to customers and employees, and over the next century his family opened more than 30 Dawahares Department Stores in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

"There weren’t many Syrian immigrants in our corner of this world a hundred-plus years ago," the Eagle notes. "It’s easy to imagine that at some point someone told Srur to go back where he came from, possibly even after he had become a citizen. Think what we would have lost if he had followed that advice. Whenever we hear [that phrase], whatever we think of the source or the target, we should think about what could be lost if we closed our doors and hearts to people whose principal crime is hoping for a better life. We should think about the possibility that in some detention center in Texas today there’s a child who, given a break, might grow up to lead her community, or her nation."

Dawahare's children say he told them about the value of helping each other with "the stick story." He showed them that it was easy to break one or two sticks, but impossible to break a bundle of sticks, and encouraged them to stand together. "As Americans, we should remember 'The Stick Story.' Played off against each other, for whatever reason or purpose, we can be divided, and broken," the Eagle says. "But if we could somehow see past the slurs and figure out how to stick together — well, who knows what we might accomplish?"

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