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Middle America meets the Middle East

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First in a series of occasional articles

PEORIA, Ill. -- It's a tricky business, taking the pulse of Peoria.

As in any town, opinions vary -- from the tugboat operators guiding barges up the Illinois River to the fresh-faced boys, lean as cornstalks, in town for the state high school basketball tournament to the Lebanese restaurant chef whose eyes dart between the war on television and the parsley she is chopping for tomorrow's tabouli.

Go to the One World Cafe, a coffee house on the fringe of Bradley University and you're likely to hear one thing. Go to a working-class tavern like Whitey's Tip Top Inn and you're likely to hear another.

Stop and chat with Anthony Romanus as he tends to his suburban garden and you'll realize, if you don't already, that the conflicting opinions can take place in a single soul as well -- in this case that of a man who knew only a few English words when he came here from the Middle East at 21 and worked his way up from $5 a week as a shoe repairman to the board of directors of a bank and insurance company.

He is one of more than 5,000 residents of Peoria -- often viewed as the epitome of the heartland -- whose roots go back to the same small mountainside village in Lebanon, a country familiar with the ravages of war.

"This is going to be the worst war we've ever had," says Romanus, 87, whose life has been affected by several. "There's no reason for it." The next second he adds, "I'm not that big to say whether it is the right thing. It's no time to criticize. Nobody did that to Roosevelt. It's time to stand behind the president."

How the war "plays in Peoria" -- to use the cliche that originated in the days of fully and successfully absorbed almost an entire Middle Eastern village over the past 100 years.

The village is called Aitou, or Itoo in the Americanized version, a village 30 miles from the Mediterranean Sea that since the late 1890s has seen hundreds of residents leave, in hopes of escaping religious persecution and poverty.

Many of them came to Peoria, following the original recommendation of three fur traders who quickly found work on the railroad when they ended up here in 1885. In fact, there are now more people from Itoo in Peoria than there are in Itoo.

Here in the heartland, the Midwest and the Middle East met, meshed and, over the years, have gotten along quite nicely.

The Lebanese who came here are Christian (though the country is divided between Christians, Muslims and Druze). They are also Caucasian. And, with many taking the first names of their fathers as their last names when they passed through Ellis Island, their surnames aren't seen as strange and unpronounceable.

Equally important to their success story is the pride they take in their new country and their work ethic, impressive even to hard-toiling, flag-waving Midwesterners.

Romanus was born not long after his parents left Itoo and came to Peoria. When he was 3, his parents went back to Lebanon for a visit, but with the start of World War I, they were not allowed to return to the United States.

At 21, married and with a child on the way, Romanus, who attended only one day of school in his life -- he was sent home after arguing with the Catholic priest's notions about America -- decided to come back to Peoria. "I told my wife I have to go back to the United States, so my son can grow up and be a doctor. She laughed at me."

With no skills, no education and little knowledge of the language -- "I only knew three words: sit down, today and tomorrow" -- he took a job repairing shoes in the shop of another immigrant from Itoo, then enlisted in the Army.

Every family that immigrated to Peoria from Itoo had at least one member serve during World War II, according to Peoria's Itoo Society, where service members' photos hang on the wall. Four of them lost their lives.

Romanus returned home safely after at least one close call. While stationed in London, Romanus, who had learned English by watching movies, went to see Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Air raid sirens went off but, not wanting to leave the movie, he remained. When he did return to the motel where his company was staying, he found it had been destroyed.

After the war, he worked on an assembly line at a washing machine factory, laid bricks and bought a restaurant, where a customer introduced him to the business of selling stocks and insurance -- another job that, though he had no inkling how to do it, he jumped into.

"In this country, anything I wanted to do, it came true," he says.

He and his wife would go on to have five children, four more after the one whose pending birth prompted Romanus to return to America.

As for that one, he is now a surgeon in Chicago.


Four flags have flown over this land -- Peoria, not Itoo -- Spanish, French, British and American.

The oldest community in the state, it is where Abraham Lincoln first denounced slavery; where the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist organization, is headquartered; where Charles Correll (Andy on the old Amos 'n Andy radio show) was born and raised; where Richard Pryor, by his own account, grew up above a brothel; and where penicillin was developed during World War II.

By the early 1900s, because of its abundance of corn and water, Peoria was the whiskey capital of the country.

But it's still best known by a phrase.

Midway between St. Louis and Chicago, Peoria was a lesser stop on the vaudeville circuit -- but one that would become important because of its citizens' discerning tastes. New vaudeville acts staged test shows here in the 1920s. If they went over well, the shows moved on to Chicago and New York. If the audience disapproved, the acts were often rewritten, recast or canceled.

Not until later, during the Nixon administration, did the question "Will it play in Peoria?" become part of the political lexicon after John Ehrlichman used it to question whether an idea would appeal to Middle America, the people Nixon called the silent majority.

Though the phrase is now greeted here with a roll of the eyes, Peoria is still used as a national test market for new products. The truth is Peoria isn't any more all tractor pulls, God, country and cornfields than Baltimore is all crabs, heroin and Inner Harbor. Over the years, often to the point of exaggeration, places get an image, be it murder capital or Podunk.

Residents here generally go along with the jokes, or even make them themselves -- "Nobody plans to stay in Peoria," one says, "you just do" -- but talk to them a little longer and even those who bash their town as too unexciting, too bland, will display a reverence for small-town atmosphere and traditional values.

"First-time visitors will be startled to see a full-fledged city," a local tourism bureau brochure says, "complete with towering, gleaming buildings."

Says former Mayor James Maloof, a son of immigrants from Lebanon who owns a multimillion dollar real estate company, "Most outsiders have this picture of a little town out in the middle of a cornfield."

In the last 20 years, it sometimes looked like Peoria was destined to become Podunk. Caterpillar, the heavy-equipment manufacturer that is the city's largest employer, began cutting back in the 1980s, and still is. Other industries have left or shrunk.

"There was nothing, really, to come to Peoria for," says Maloof, recalling how, in the 1980s, families he had sold houses to, unable to make their payments anymore, would show up unexpectedly in his office and quietly hand over their keys. "You couldn't sell a home in Peoria. This town died. It died. Unemployment was up around 18 percent."

Since then, there has been a revival, and more ups and downs. The riverfront is being developed. Technology companies have been recruited. While still in financial straits, Peoria's pulse has been pounding a little harder, though concerns about the war have again dulled the local economy.

What Peoria never lost, though, says Maloof, was its hard-working, God-loving, family minded citizens. And, in those respects, the Lebanese fit right in.

"We are all Midwesterners," says Kurt Huber, a real estate developer. "No matter what country we're from, we become Midwesterners."

"We are the heart of America," Maloof says. "We're what America is all about, traditional values, traditional work ethic and patriotism. What plays in Peoria is patriotism, an appreciation for our country.

"You don't want to burn a flag in this town."


Hanne Sfeir-Rickert, operator of Peoria's first upscale Lebanese restaurant, arrives at University United Methodist Church with maps and photos of her homeland, her 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Izair, a copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and a vat of tabouli.

She is here -- the same church where she attended pre-school -- to speak to a gathering of Methodist women, to tout her restaurant, her cuisine and her culture, and to explain, even though she is not one, that not all Muslims are terrorists.

When she finishes her presentation, she answers questions -- everything from recipe ingredients to the definition of Islam -- then receives a round of polite applause.

Born in Peoria to Lebanese immigrant parents, Sfeir-Rickert grew up in restaurants, working the cash register by age 6. Her mother, Lydia, who came to Peoria in 1977 -- from the Deria village -- first worked at a Steak 'n Shake, then ran a series of sandwich shops before the family in 2001 opened their new restaurant, Byblos, named after an ancient port city in Lebanon.

"That's what the Lebanese do," says Sfeir-Rickert, 24. "They open sandwich shops. Almost every family has opened up a sandwich shop."

But, they've also done much more, notes Sfeir-Rickert, an international studies major who put her plans for law school and her hopes of working at the United Nations on hold to help with the restaurant. Among the ranks of Peoria's Lebanese-Americans are a U.S. Congressman (Ray Lahood), a state senator (George Shadid), a former mayor (Maloof), two City Council members and a judge.

"America gave them opportunities they'd never have had," says Leonard Unes, who was a Peoria City Council member for 20 years and is the son of an Itoo immigrant.

Outside the office of the printing company he owns, Unes displays family photos, his father's old lunch bucket and the shirt and boots that Unes, 61, wore while in the Army in the years before Vietnam. His duties included printing propaganda leaflets to be dropped in countries from the air, not unlike the million the United States dropped in Iraq during the current war.

The first three Itoo immigrants arrived in Peoria, via Buffalo, around 1895, getting off a fur trader's boat and finding jobs shoveling coal for the railroad. They sent letters home to Itoo, saying work was plentiful in "Bioria, Eleenwez." According to Rizk Alwan, a 1950 immigrant and unofficial historian, that is the spelling -- based on how the words sounded to their ears -- many in Itoo still use.

In 1914, the immigrants rented a large house and turned it into a dormitory for Itoo immigrants, most of whom were working on the railroad. Each bed would have two men assigned to it; one used it during the day shift, one used it during the night shift. Later that year, after an immigrant drowned while working on the river, the Itoo Society was formed -- originally to pay the costs of the funeral. Today, it operates a banquet hall and holds two fund-raisers a year for Itoo, the 300 remaining residents of which have used it to build a school and a reservoir.

Sfeir-Rickert says no matter which village they came from, the Lebanese assimilated in Peoria, partly because they shared the same values, partly because of their appearance.

"In school, you never really had a Lebanese clique," she says. "You can't really pick us out of a crowd."

Yet Byblos, the family restaurant, offers Peoria diners a strong cross-cultural experience, right down to belly dancers, only on Tuesdays, and smoking the cedars of Lebanon in after-dinner nargileh, or pipes.

Sfeir-Rickert is the host and does the paperwork at the restaurant, her brother is a waiter, and her father and mother, Antoine and Lydia Sfeir, work in the kitchen.

Sitting together in a booth, mother and daughter have different opinions on the war.

"I don't like war," Lydia Sfeir says. "I came here before war started in my country. But if I say yes or no, it doesn't matter. The White House knows what needs to be done. I don't know why it has started, but maybe we have to do it."

"You wonder why," says her daughter. "I am very much a humanitarian. As for why we are doing it, I don't think the case has been made completely."

"We have to follow our leader," her mother says.

"We have to speak up," the daughter says.

Sfeir-Rickert visits Lebanon every three years, but her mother never plans to go back.

The last time she did, her documents were questioned and -- despite being from a well-known family -- her entry was delayed. "Why they do to me like that?" she says.

Returning from the visit, she handed her passport to a U.S. official. "He took one look and said. 'Welcome home.' I start to cry," she says. "This is really the home."


By the week's end, downtown Peoria is filling up.

Thousands from all across the state pour into the city for the state high school basketball tournament. At a tip-off banquet Thursday night, members of the final eight teams listen to guest speaker Dick Versace, coach of the NBA Memphis Grizzlies, whose brother was captured, caged and after two years as a prisoner, executed by the North Vietnamese in 1965. His fellow prisoners later said the last time they heard him he was singing "God Bless America."

Before Friday's first game, after a moment of silence, Kate Tombaugh, a senior at Woodland High School in Streator, Ill., belts out the national anthem. The crowd whoops. Tears and mascara run down the face of her music teacher, Jean Keck, partly out of pride in her student, Keck says, partly because of "the situation in the world."

As the bombing in Baghdad intensifies, Bellews and Evanston battle it out in the opening game of the tournament, the slogan of which is "March Madness: Playing in Peoria." Peoria High School, one of the final eight, makes it through the first round in the afternoon game.

When not attending games at the civic center, most of the fans are glued to television sets -- not for war coverage, but to watch the NCAA basketball tournament.

On Saturday, Peoria High's Lions win the state championship, and hoops, not Hussein, is clearly the greater focus of attention.

While prayer meetings are many, peace rallies are few and sparsely attended in Peoria. One at the federal building Thursday night, not far from the civic center, drew only about 75 people -- all of them quiet and well-behaved.

It's the Midwestern way, not to mention the Lebanese way, says Maloof, between greeting well-wishers from his front row seat at the tournament. If they disagree, they may or may not voice that disagreement. If they do, it will likely be in a respectful way.

While war protesters were seething in San Francisco, the most negative comments heard in Peoria were these:

From a Pizzeria Uno bartender, just before Bush spoke Wednesday night after the first missiles hit Baghdad: "Is no one else embarrassed that the man can't say 'nuclear?' "

From Maggie Sullivan-Koehler, 24, a minister's daughter who has taken part in five local peace demonstrations -- "I'm just about as liberal as it gets around here" -- as she sits in Rhythm Kitchen, an eclectic downtown coffee shop: "So we want to free Iraqi people by dropping bombs on them?"

Among the blue-collar crowd at Whitey's Tip Top Inn -- where Whitey himself says simply, "No comment, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't bother my customers" -- most support the invasion, though the reviews are mixed.

"I support the president," says Jan Shanks, a hairdresser who has a nephew in the Marine reserves now serving in Iraq.

"I didn't see the rush," says Annette Inman, Shanks' partner in the hairdressing business.

The disagreement is friendly, and they concur that what's important is that the engagement is a limited one, with a minimum of casualties.

Here in the heartland, a place as American as basketball, hot dogs, apple pie and tabouli, the city whose opinion once determined whether a new vaudeville act would live or die, no one seems to feel that great a need to force his or her point of view on another.

That's how it's played in Bioria, Eleenwez.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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