There’s a misconception that all Lebanese-Americans in Oklahoma City are related. Perhaps it is because greetings are commonly accompanied by a kiss, family or not. Perhaps it is because the annual Mediterranean Food Fest at St. Elijah Church shows multiple generations working side-by-side. Or perhaps it is because when you mention a name like Massad, Naifeh, Farha or Shadid, it prompts a roll call of sorts. Someone is bound to explain how someone’s cousin married another person’s cousin whose daughter then married this person’s brother … until a deeply rooted family tree is unearthed.
No, not all Lebanese-Americans are related. However, many members of the community in OKC share a connection, passed down from those who summoned the courage to immigrate here more than a century ago.
The first immigrants came to Oklahoma before statehood. Most traveled from Marjayoun, a small village in southeast Lebanon, trickling in through chain migration.
“One would come, and they would send back for the next one, who would come and send back for the next one,” says Dini Homsey, an associate professor at the University of Central Oklahoma who has researched and written extensively about Lebanese-Americans in Oklahoma City.
Alexandra Massad Shadid came to Oklahoma from Marjayoun in 1920 with her aunt and uncle. Ottoman rule made life in Lebanon difficult and dangerous; America represented new opportunities and freedom.
“My daddy wanted me to come. Mother didn’t,” Shadid said in an interview recorded by family members before her death in 1990. “He said, ‘Let her go because it’s better for her future.’”
At age 15, she kissed her parents goodbye and boarded a boat for America. From Ellis Island to Oklahoma City, Shadid followed a pipeline previously established by Marjayoun friends and family. She arrived in Oklahoma by train, but many immigrants before her walked and peddled their way southwest.
“They probably didn’t have the fare,” Shadid said. “[Imagine] going around and selling stuff, and you don’t know the language.”
Buying and selling goods provided a way to make a living and learn English – key to the immigrants assimilating, surviving and thriving.
“The Middle East was in the middle of the trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia – the two cultural centers,” says Ezra Ham, deacon at St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church and author of The Immigrants’ Tale: Orthodox Christianity in America.
Among other family histories, Ham’s book tells how B. D. “Babe” Eddie’s family immigrated from Marjayoun in 1903. The Eddies owned a grocery and feed store at the northeast corner of Main Street and Western Avenue before they purchased Stockyards Milling Company, renaming it Superior Feed Mills. Decades later, Babe Eddie had built the family business into a multi-million-dollar company.
Ham’s book also details the founding of St. Elijah, in which the Eddie family played a prominent role. Babe Eddie’s parents, Mary and Diab Eddie, brought Rev. Shukrallah Shadid from St. George Orthodox church – the village church in Marjayoun – to Oklahoma City in 1920 to start St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, now located at 15000 N May Ave. About 30 Lebanese families were living in Oklahoma City at that time, and the church provided more than spiritual nourishment.
“In the first generation, the women did not learn English,” Ham says. “The children went off to school and had to learn English. The fathers had to get a job and had to learn English. At home, it was all Arabic, but you needed a place to meet – that was the church. They could come here and reminisce. They didn’t fit into Oklahoma City – that larger world out there – but they could come here, and there was safety. St. Elijah became the religious center as well as the community building.”
In 1943, as the congregation grew, Babe Eddie helped finance St. Elijah’s move to NW 16th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Youth programs were added, and Arabic services gave way to English to keep younger generations engaged. Lebanese Americans yearned to keep “family” close.
“The word ‘family’ is not just the nuclear unit; it’s a larger understanding of family,” Homsey says. “There was a brother- and sisterhood – a camaraderie and group mentality. Everyone interreacted, even if they weren’t related.”
Shadid attended St. Elijah, which made Oklahoma City feel like home. She recalled a conversation with her godmother when she considered moving back to Lebanon to be with her parents.
“My godmother said, ‘Honey, you’re here now. People die to come to America. Why don’t you stay here, and you’ll have better future? You’ll go to school. You’ll learn. You won’t be lonesome all the time. Later on, you’ll have your home and your family,’” Shadid said. “Well, I listened to her. And thank God I did.”
Shadid served as the foundation of four generations living in Oklahoma City today. They must also be grateful she came here – and stayed.