Helene, a daughter to Mansour Chahine Chahine and Christine Karam, was born the year 1894 in Kaftoun during the period of the harsh Ottoman rule of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). This was a period generally characterized by a laissez-faire policy of corruption. Lebanese Christians were mainly restricted to the mountains by the mutasarrifiyah arrangement. They were unable to make a living, and thus many of them were forced to emigrate to Egypt and the Americas in search of a better life.
In 1908 and at the ripe age of 14, Helene married Mousa Deeb Sarkis from Kaftoun who not unlike her was also very poor. However, his family did occasionally receive some remittances from his uncle Antinous who had immigrated some time earlier to Argentina. The next seven years of Mousa's and Helene's married life were very difficult. Although they were blessed with two male children, however, they found it increasingly difficult to provide for them. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 made their family situation much worse. The Turkish government had abolished Lebanon's semiautonomous status and initiated a tight blockade over Mount Lebanon which halted the arrival of any remittances from abroad. [More about Turkish rule]
Abdul Hamid II appointed Jamal Pasha (1872-1922), the commander in chief of the Turkish forces in Syria, with discretionary powers. He militarily occupied Lebanon and abolished the mutasarrifiyah. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attack on the British forces protecting the Suez Canal, in February 1915, he initiated a blockade of the entire eastern Mediterranean coast to prevent supplies from reaching his enemies. This blockade halted the arrival of remittances to the Lebanese from abroad and indirectly caused thousands of deaths from widespread famine and plagues. Up to the present day, Jamal Pasha is still known in the Arab World as Jamal the Butcher. This notorious Turkish military leader and commander of the Ottoman army in Syria (1915-1917), was responsible for executing tens of Syrian national leaders on May 6, 1916 in Damascus and Beirut. The day is celebrated in Syria and Lebanon as the Martyrs' Day. With discretionary powers he militarily occupied Lebanon and replaced the Armenian mutasarrif, Ohannes Pasha, with a Turk, Munif Pasha.
Helene and Mousa faced hunger. Weakened by hunger, Mousa contracted smallpox and succumbed to it the same year. Shortly afterwards their two children also caught the deadly disease. They succumbed to it on the same day! Mousa's family, afraid of contracting the disease, buried the two boys with their mattresses in abandoned family water well behind their house (which is presently located in front of Walid Sarkis' shop). Helene at the young age of 20 was left entirely alone and devastated!
Helene was the eldest in a family of five. Her brother Tanios who was born in 1903 had been sent at the age of seven to attend the Patriarchal School in Hadeth (above Beirut) run by the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Byblos & Botrys (Mount Lebanon). Said Semaan, from Kaftoun, was also attending the same school. Her sister Catherine had married a year earlier someone from the Ibrahim family from the City of Tripoli, and immigrated with him to the United States of America. They also took her younger brother Ghattas with them and settled there in the city of Boston. Ghattas who was born in 1905, was only nine years of age at the time of her tragedy. Her sister Nazira stayed behind with her mother Christine and her father Mansour in Kaftoun.
It is quite uncertain whether Helene returned to live with her own family immediately after the loss of her husband and her two children. What is certain, however, is that shortly afterwards, she and her mother left Lebanon on board a steamship heading to the Americas. They hoped to join Catharine and Gattas in Boston. However, like many immigrants at the time, once aboard ship, they would never have been certain where they would end up: New York, San Paulo or Buenos Aires.
It is hard for us now to fully comprehend the difficulties Helene and Christine must have endured during their long and arduous journey aboard ship from Beirut to Marseille and onward to New York. Poor and hungry, they landed in New York at a time when the United States Authorities had just began tightening immigration control on people arriving from non European countries. They welcomed young men of fighting age who can be readily sent to the front and rejected those who are frail or of another gender. Christine's and Helene's long ship journey must have exerted a great toll on their health, for they were denied entry to the United States by the New York immigration authorities. They were sent back to Marseille on the same ship that had brought them. Shortly after they arrived to Marseille, Helene's mother Christine passed away. Helene had to return to Lebanon on her own after burying her Mother in France. She arrived in Kaftoun towards the spring of 1915.
Somehow Helene and the rest of her family survived the famine and World War I. Her brother Tanios graduated in 1916 from the Patriarchal School in Hadeth. In 1920, he started work in a hardware store at the Place Des Canons in Beirut. Three years later, after accumulating a small capital and gaining some retail experience, he opened his own hardware store jointly with his relative Jurji Hanna Sarkis, also at Place Des Canons. Shortly afterwards Jurji decided to go his separate way. Tanios borrowed some money from his relative Semaan Chahine who had just recently arrived to live in Kaftoun after a long period of productive work in Boston. With the borrowed money Tanios was able to pay off Jurji his share and he become the sole proprietor of the store. Tanios became a person of independent means, married and raised a large family.
Helene took full responsibility for tending the land and looking after the olive harvest as her brother Tanios was busy running his business in Beirut and raising his family.
Catherine and Ibrahim, had a family of three boys and one girl in Boston. Unfortunately, two of their boys died on the same day at the European front in World War II. As United States Marines they were known by the family name of ABRAHAM.
Ghattas never married. He opened his own factory in Boston and became a business person of independent means. He died in Boston at the young age of 35 in the year 1940. This had saddened Helene very much!
Helene lived the rest of her life in Kaftoun in harmony with the land and everyone she came in contact with. Although she never remarried, she was able to be a loving aunt to her brother's children and gave them the love she would have given her own children. She was a good friend to many Kaftonians and especially her neighbors Labibeh and Antoune Jarjura (Ward Daher's Mother and Father) who were also farmers like herself.
Helene had learned midwifery at a young age from her mother Christine Karam (Sit Al Bait's Sister) as well as from the famous physician Dr. Rashid Maatouk from Kaferhalda who used to travel around on horseback visiting his patients in different villages, treating them and dispensing medicine, most of the time, free of charge for those of them who were poor.
From 1920 and until the late sixties, Helene served as the only midwife in Kaftoun and the surrounding villages. Not only she volunteered to deliver the majority of the children, but she also later acted as their Godmother, helping in raising them. Until her death in 1974, she was still being addressed as "???????" (Godmother) by many of the children she delivered!
In spite of all the tragedies and difficulties she faced, Helene loved Life and embraced it! We can all benefit from following her example!
We wish to thank Jean and Samir Chahine for their invaluable assistance in reviewing and supplying material for this article and also Deeb Yaaqoub (Deeb) Sarkis and Wadad Fares Semaan.
For complete information on the Chahine Family Tree, please vist this [LINK] which is compiled by Raja Jean Chahine, based on the original source diary notes of Semaan Chahine. [More about Dr. Rashid Maatouk]
An-Nahar Newspaper, November 14, 2004, published a long article on the biography of the renowned physician Rashid Maatouk, describing him as a tough, determined fighter against the French occupation and feudalism. Maatouk was born at the beginning of the 19th century in Kfar Halda, a town in the district of Batroun on the Jaouz River between Kaftoun and Douma. After finishing his school studies at Douma, he joined the Syrian Protestant College (now AUB) where he graduated as a physician. Maatouk was highly influenced by the AUB culture and ideologies, and was politically active, He became a member of the National Arab Party. After getting his degree at AUB, Maatouk opened a clinic at Douma, where he was known as 'Al Hakim'. During the First World War, he served in the Ottoman military. He opposed the French mandate over Lebanon and after independence served as head of the Douma municipality. He died in a car accident at Maameltein in 1956.
Photograph - Helene Celebrates Life!
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