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Hess Yazji September 23, 2012 Syriac Catholic Church Jacksonville, Florida Esam Alhadi, Interviewer and Translator for the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Edited by Jardee Transcription Also present, Richard Saltzburg Alhadi: Hello. Yazji: Hello. Alhadi: Mr. Hassan, we are happy to have you with us today. My name is Esam Alhadi. I am a lecturer at the University of Florida. This is my colleague Richard from the university library. We are conducting this interview as part of a research project aiming to document the experiences of the Arab immigrants who live in Florida. It is great to have you. This interview takes place at 12:30 PM, and today is Sunday, January 20, 2013. We are here in the Catholic Syriac Church in J acksonville in the state of Florida. You may begin, Mr. Hassan, by giving us a brief review of the early phase of your life before coming to America. Yazji: I spent my childhood in Syria until I graduated as an assistant engineer. Alhadi: We are also interest ed to know about your educa tion before entering college. Yazji: I went to the Sisters School in the city of Al-Nabk in Syria and from there I joined a technical school in Bruj and th en to the Engineering Technica l Institute in Damascus, and after I finished my education I went to the UAE [United Arab Emirates]. Alhadi: Before getting into your period in the UAE can you tell us a little bit about your college education? What did you study in the technical institute? Yazji: I studied survey engineering for two y ears and graduated as an assistant engineer.
Alhadi: What did you do after graduation? Yazji: The only direction I could go in was to go to the [Persian] Gulf region. I went to Abu Dhabi, and that is where I started to gradua lly build up my professional life. I stayed there for twenty-six years. Alhadi: Would you please give us dates? When did you go Abu Dhabi? Yazji: I went there in 1975, and remained ther e until 1998. I was in the city of Al-Ain. Alhadi: Did you have opportunities to travel when you were there? Yazji: I travelled to Syria on a few occasions because all my family members happened to be living there. Alhadi: What did you do after you finished working in Abu Dhabi? Yazji: I went to Syria and lived there for six months. I felt as if I was a stranger there because I had no more family members there. That is when and why I decided to join them here. Alhadi: Where were your family members living? Yazji: They were all here in Jacksonville. My mother was here as well as all of my brothers. We are seven brothers and all of them are he re. They had a gas station and a convenience store. In 2000, we started anot her gas station in Keystone Heights which is not too far from Gainesville. I remained there ever since. Alhadi: Let us back up a little bit. Can you te ll us a little bit about your work in the UAE? Yazji: I started working in a construction compa ny owned by an Iranian man. I kept on building my professional career there unt il I reached a high professional level. All of a sudden I lost everything and I had to leave empty hande d. The situation there is different from here. UAE citizens are in control of everyt hing. Unfortunately, I lost all the business that I built throughout the years I spent there. I worked nine years as an employee, and
then began my own work. I started a comp any of handcrafts, and then established a maintenance company, and then I moved on to the contracts business. My business grew very substantially. In 1997, our financial situation started to decline and our losses became greater than the profits we were maki ng. We became unable to run the business. Our UAE partner took over ever ything and denied us our share of the business. The law there requires that any busine ss must be registered under a native persons name. It doesnt allow foreigners to own a business wi thout having a native partner. If anything goes wrong, you will be left with either having to leave the country empty-handed or to go to jail. I sold my car and furniture and left. Unfortunately, this is how business is conducted in our Arab countries. After co ming here, I felt the situation was way different. If you are a legal resident, then the law doesnt differentiate between you and any American citizen in respons ibilities and merits. This is the difference between the counties that we left behind and the count ry that is now becoming our new home. Alhadi: Can you tell us about the period you spent in Syria after leaving the UAE? Yazji: I remained there for four, five, or six m onths. I didnt live in Syria too long, and for that reason I dont know too much about it. I only lived there duri ng my childhood, but the rest of my earlier part of life was all in the UAE. Alhadi: Did you spend that short period in Damascus or in Al-Nabk? Yazji: We spent it in Damascus. My children had to continue their education at an American school which you can only find in Damascus. Al-Nabk is a small town and no foreign schools exist there. I had to take my eldest son to an evangelical high school in Lebanon because it follows the American school system. After he obtained his high school diploma, I sent him to Grenada to study me dicine there. He obtained his medical
certificate there and came here for a two-year training. He is now working to be certified as a pediatrician. Alhadi: Let us now talk about the period after you arrived in Jacksonville. When did you come here? Yazji: I came here in 2000. Alhadi: Have you been living in the same area since that date? Yazji: Yes. I have been living in Keystone Height s. I come to Jacksonville every week to visit my relatives. Alhadi: That means you currently live in Keystone Heights. Yazji: Correct. Alhadi: Can you tell us a little bit about your bus iness and the nature of your work, how did it begin and how did it develop? Yazji: My brothers owned gas stations and they offered to give me one to help me begin my business life. I picked my current location because it is very beau tiful and its a suburb and not too big. I wanted to be in area that is a bit far from where Arabs are concentrated to get the chance to develop my language. I have always lived away from my relatives. I love the area where I work because the peopl e are nice. People of small rural areas are always nice. This is similar to the case we have in Syria. They keep a distance at the beginning, but when they get to know you they will love you. That is what I like about living in that area. Alhadi: That means you are now a resident of Keystone Heights. Yazji: I am a resident of Keystone Heights and have my family with me. Alhadi: Now, tell us a little bit about the business.
Yazji: I have a gas station, conve nience store, and a liquor store. Alhadi: Are all of them together on one spot? Yazji: No, they are separate from each other. I worked hard. Sometimes I did double or even triple shifts. Thanks to God that everything went well. I was able to achieve the most important mission in my life, which is provi ding a good education for my children. This has been the main target that brought me here. Alhadi: What is notable in your experience is that you shifted your field of work from technical survey work to commerce. Was this shift easy for you? Yazji: It wasnt easy. The nature of work in conv enience stores and gas stations is not that hard. All you need to know are names and prices of th e items you have in store. This is not the kind of business that requires any level of professionalism. Any person with even the minimum level of education can do it. This is what makes it easy for newcomers. This is unlike when you come to do construction. You will need to make a lot of adjustments and do many other things. This is not easy to do at this stage of life. This is why I picked a type of work that is easy which will still provide a good living standard. Alhadi: Tell us a little bit about how your business developed and if you may have encountered any problems. Yazji: The biggest problem that I faced was the la nguage. I realized that I have no other way to continue in the area where I have my busin ess without speaking good English. I began to overcome this problem by getting help from those who work with me. I tried to make them understand what I was trying to say and th ey also tried their best to do the same. Alhadi: Are all of your employees American?
Yazji: They are all American. When I talk to them, they try to make me understand what they are trying to say. One of my female empl oyees has been working for me for eleven years. Alhadi: This sounds like she is from the early days when you started your business. Yazji: That is two years after I started my business. Alhadi: Is she from the same area? Yazji: She is. Alhadi: That means she knows mo st of the people in the area. Yazji: She is making me very popular there. I will have a very good shot if I think of running for an office there. Alhadi: Why dont you think of running for an office there? Yazji: I have no good feelings towards politics. Alhadi: This is one advantage the American so ciety gives you. When yo u are a citizen, then you become entitled for all rights like anybody else. Yazji: That is true. However, my relation with the people there is buil t on mutual love. When there is any problem, they come to check on me and make sure that all is well with me. This is what makes me appreciate the community there. This feeling of mutual love and respect makes me always thinking of what kind of help I can offer to that community. If a person is unable to go to work because he doesnt have money to buy gas, I dont hesitate to let him put gas in his tank. Such an act may seem big to them, although I do it very naturally and out of the Arabic nature of always willing to offer a hand to a needy person. It may take that pers on a week until he comes back to pay for the gas. I am aware of only very few cases when such a pe rson never shows up again to pay back. I
never had any problem during the past thirteen years for me in that area. I never had any trouble with the law. If I catch a person shop lifting, I talk to him ve ry quietly and let him take what he was trying to steal. If one of my employees attempts to report a case like this to the police, I stop him and just ask th at person to never come back to the store because of his wrongdoing. I always try to leave a good impression on them about me as a person of Syrian descent. This is how I pay back to this country. This country accepted us with open arms. I have to respect it and deal with people with good manners and respect. I am sure there will sometimes be some acts that are a little bit above the bar. I have to bear them. Alhadi: Do you have any plans to devel op your business more than what it is now? Yazji: I have already acquired a new location. I am running this new place with a partner. I am aware that my children have already gradua ted from college and they are now on their own. I am satisfied with what I have. I n eed no more. Thanks to God for what he has given me. My ambition has always to be able to provide education to my children and I feel I have achieved that. Alhadi: What did your children study? Yazji: My eldest son is named Anas and he is a pediatrician. The other one, named Wisam, studied business administration in the Islands. I sent him to Argentina to do his Ph.D. I followed advice given to me by a fellow in Keys tone Heights who told me that it will be better for him to study in a foreign country where he can pick up a different language. Studying in Argentina will make him fluent in Spanish, in addition to the other two languages of Arabic and English that he alr eady knows. This will make his opportunity greater in the future. I also knew that life and study are affordable there. My daughter
remained in Damascus. She went to school there and graduated in the department of English literature. She got married and she lives with her husband th ere. There was no problem living in Syria before these events erupted. Everybody had the opportunity to live a very good life as long as they stayed aw ay from politics. Life was very luxurious and was similar to life here, and even better in some cases. Alhadi: Mr. Hassan, we are very happy to know about this rich life experience. We became aware of your life story and experience in Sy ria, UAE, and here in the USA. Let me conclude by asking you one last question. Ba sed on your work experience in the Arab countries and here in America, what woul d you tell us if I asked you to compare the working conditions in the two regions? Yazji: This is like comparing earth to sky. A lthough my feeling of love to my Arab countries and Arab nationalism is unquestionable, I st ill believe drawing a ny comparison between the two areas will always and undoubtedly come in favor of America. People here are unimaginably kind. I am talking based on my experience in Keystone Heights. People there are very social. I receive morning and evening greetings more than what I used to get when I was among my relatives in my ho me country. I experienced many situations where my neighbors in Damascus would not gree t me in the morning. It is way different here. This is from the social side. Fr om the practical and work side, everybody knows his rights and also knows what ot her peoples rights are. I did not have this feeling in the Arab countries such as the case in the UAE You may lose and you never get rewarded the way a native citizen does even if you ar e both doing the same work. Many times I was told that I was there to steal the wealth of the country. My work and effort have never been appreciated. This is what mo re than 70% of the people there believe.
Alhadi: Thank you for this interview. I wish you good health and all th e best to you and your family. This concludes this interview. Thank you again. Yazji: I wish you all the best with your research. [END OF INTERVIEW]