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Published: Thursday, 9/29/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

Book telling local tales wins nonfiction award

Samir Abu-Absi, a retired University of Toledo professor won an Arab American Book Award for his book 'Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement.' Samir Abu-Absi, a retired University of Toledo professor won an Arab American Book Award for his book 'Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement.'

They crossed the ocean from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern lands to start a new life in Toledo.

Their risks and sacrifices, determination, and hard work helped shape the culture of northwest Ohio, and their stories have been preserved in Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement, a book that will be honored tonight at the 2011 Arab American Book Awards in Washington.

Samir Abu-Absi, the editor and one of 50 contributing writers, will be in the nation's capital to receive the Evelyn Shakir Nonfiction Award at the ceremony to be held in the Carnegie Institution for Science.

"It was challenging and, once the book was done, quite enjoyable," Mr. Abu-Absi said yesterday. "I was so happy to see the community and all the contributors of the book -- the writers and the people who were interviewed -- get this recognition. I really feel the honor goes to them. Without the cooperation of so many people, it wouldn't have happened."

He said he wanted to contribute to the history and involvement of the city's Arab-American community and to dispel some stereotypes of Arabs that have been conveyed too often in television, movies, and the media.

The 2010 book, the first published by the University of Toledo Press, includes chapters on nationally known Toledo celebrities Danny Thomas and Jamie Farr, along with many locally notable names, including Yehia "John" Shousher, Dr. Amira Gohara, Maryse and Ramzy Mikhail, and Michael Damas, who in 1959 became the first Arab-American to be elected mayor of a large U.S. city.

Mr. Shousher, 84, was the first president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo -- the first mosque in Ohio -- when it was dedicated on April 4, 1954, on Bancroft Street. The mosque moved to Perrysburg Township in 1983.

"I came to the United States in 1951 and moved to Toledo in '53," Mr. Shousher said yesterday. "I think newcomers should know who we are and what we accomplished. Many of them receive everything on a silver platter today. We started the mosque with 30, 40 families. The purpose of the book is to preserve our history."

Arab Americans in Toledo is divided into three sections: heritage, profiles, and interviews.

"Heritage" opens with a chapter on the first Arab-Americans arriving in Toledo, most of them Orthodox Christians and a few Catholics, from Greater Syria.

"It's believed that the first immigrant from what was known as Greater Syria, which at the time was under the Ottoman Empire, came to Toledo around 1880," he said. "There was a very prosperous community from that part of the world that lived in the north end [of Toledo]."

The book contains a map of the downtown neighborhood bounded roughly by Cherry, Superior, Magnolia, and Champlain streets that was known as "Little Syria." It included Mr. Farr's father's store, Farr's Market; Danny Thomas' home at Ontario and Walnut streets, and the home of Michael Nassr, Toledo's first Arab immigrant.

The first Arab-American Muslims in Toledo arrived shortly after World War I, Mr. Abu-Absi said.

The "Profiles" section includes stories about Mr. Thomas, Mr. Farr, the Joseph Family, Mitcheal Salem, and Antiochian Orthodox Bishop Michael Shaheen.

"Interviews" features both verbatim Q&A's and interviews with 11 local Arab-Americans, including Beirut restaurant owner Labib Hajjar and Dr. Nasr Mansour.

Mr. Abu-Absi, 73, is a professor emeritus at the University of Toledo, where he taught language and linguistics.

He was raised in a Presbyterian family in Lebanon and came to the United States for graduate school, receiving a doctorate from the University of Indiana. He and his wife, Lucy, came to Toledo in 1968 when he was hired to teach at UT.

The Arab American Book Award program was established in 2006 by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.

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