Kouri proud of his heritage

DeWayne Bartels
Ed Kouri looks over a diagram of his family’s ancestry.

Ed Kouri has a good handle on his family’s heritage.

He says that is not unusual in a Lebanese family.

Kouri, 73, of Metamora, an American citizen born here, nonetheless, has a great love for the land of his ancestors and the struggles they went through to come to their adopted home.

Struggle was the hallmark of his family’s ancestry.

Tough start

His mother, Mary Anna Mrad, was born in 1901 in Aytoo, Lebanon.

Her mother headed to America in 1902 with his mother and was pregnant with her second child to meet up with her husband.

“When they got to Ellis Island they needed a sponsor. Their sponsor had moved and the authorities could not contact him,” Kouri said.

“They got put back on the boat to Marseilles, France. They were there for six months.”

Their sponsor was located and the small family moved to St. Louis.

In 1911 Kouri’s grandmother wanted to go back to Lebanon for a visit.

By that time she had five small children in tow.

An accident in Lebanon claimed her life before they could get on the boast to go back to America. They had booked passage on the Titanic for the return trip to America.

After his grandmother’s death Kouri’s grandfather re-married in Lebanon.

He returned to America with his new wife and the youngest child.

The other children, including Kouri’s mother, remained in Lebanon with relatives.

“Eventually they were placed in an orphanage school,” Kouri said.

It was a tough time in Lebanon.

The girls made money by gathering locusts during plagues for 50 cents a bag.

When World War 1 broke out the girls and the nuns in the orphanage were run out by troops several times. Life was tenuous.

“She had no life,” Kouri said.

The siblings were eventually split up.

Two went to work in homes as maids. The other three children lived on the streets.

They had little to no contact with each other.

Around 1921 the children were all re-united with their father in America.

Mrad took up residence in St. Louis.

Fresh start

Kouri’s father, Thomas, came to America from Lebanon in 1908.

“He settled in Virginia, Minnesota. He was a peddler,” Kouri said.

After becoming an American citizen he joined the Army in World War 1 serving in an artillery division.

After the war he settled in Peoria with his sister. He opened a dry goods store.

“He wanted to go back to Lebanon to find a wife,” Kouri said. “He was told to wait, that the beautiful Mrad sisters were coming back to this country. He and a few other guys went down to St. Louis.”

Thomas almost struck out with Kouri’s mother.

“She was not initially impressed with my father,” Kouri said, laughing.

“She said, ‘You go back home and we’ll write.’”

Thomas did not have the patience for that.

“He said, ‘I have a business in Peoria. I don’t have time to write.’”

Her father intervened.

“Her dad arranged for a priest to come to the house. She locked herself in the attic. Her dad told her to come down and they were married,” Kouri said.

Despite her initial bad impression of Thomas, Kouri’s mother got over it. They had nine children.

‘Fortunate’

When business for the dry goods store went sour Thomas converted it into a tavern.

Thomas died in 1942.

But, Kouri said his mother had already discovered the American Dream and was living it.

“She loved it here. She never regretted leaving Lebanon. She loved Peoria,” Kouri said. “We were fortunate.

“Dad lived the American Dream. Mom did, too. There was nothing in Aytoo. Anything can be achieved in America is what we were taught. You take the number of doctors, lawyers and politicians of Lebanese descent here and look at how their parents started with nothing and you can see they created a base for the rest of us.”

Kouri said he has lived the American Dream. He was working a supervisory job at Caterpillar when he left to become co-owner of The Lariat restaurant in Peoria with his brother, Lou. He retired in 1998.

Kouri said he has 100 or more direct family members living in Central Illinois.  

“We’re happy with what we have here,” Kouri said. “But, we never forget our heritage. There’s pride in our heritage. We love our heritage.”

”Celebrate Lebanon!” is a cultural and educational gathering on Nov. 12-14, in Peoria. Through presentations by speakers, displays, and a variety of cultural experiences, participants can experience the heritage of Lebanese Americans and explore relations between the United States and Lebanon.  

“Celebrate Lebanon!” is sponsored by the Peoria Area World Affairs Council. Proceeds from this event will benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A registration form outlining the tickets available and costs can be found at www.pawac.org/