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Immigrant's journey from civil war in Lebanon to college president in Buffalo

Bassam M. Deeb knows what it's like to be a stranger in a strange, new land.

Deeb climbed to the top rung of higher education leadership in 2012 when he was named president of Trocaire College. But decades earlier, he fled civil war in his native Lebanon and resettled with his family in Buffalo. Deeb was 15 at the time and spoke no English.

It's an experience that gives him a perspective in the ongoing fiery debate over American policies on and treatment of refugees and immigrants.

Deeb said he understands the instinct of people who want the country "to be more protective" and better gird itself against danger. But he's also concerned by the attitude of some Americans to keep out people not born in this country.

"I don't disagree that there has to be caution in vetting people through," Deeb said. "I understand the need for that. I just don't get the reason to do a blanket statement saying if you're from this country we're not going to let you in. That's not right. I'm concerned about what that would do.

"At the end of the day an immigrant population serves as a way of renewing your environment, because they come in with different ways of thinking, different foods, different cultures. It kind of creates an exposure," he said.

Caught in civil war

Deeb's own immigration story is a blend of perseverance, hard work and good fortune – and in many ways similar to the stories of newly arriving refugees.

The Lebanese civil war started in 1975, when a group of gunmen attempted to assassinate prominent political leader Pierre Gemayel and killed four of his associates. A retaliatory attack the same day resulted in the death of 26 passengers on a bus believed to be carrying the assassins. More fighting broke out in Beirut the next day.

"It started in the part of the city where we actually lived, and literally down the street from my school," said Deeb, whose working-class parents rented an apartment.

Deeb's father and older brother couldn't get to their jobs because of the fighting. Deeb's school shut down for weeks at a time. There were times when Deeb would dive under the kitchen table at the sound of mortar blasts in the neighborhood.

"No electricity for days. The only water you had was the water that you saved in the tub until there was enough water pressure the next time around," said Deeb. "I don't ever remember a time we didn't have something to eat. That was never an issue with my family."

The war displaced an estimated 600,000 to 900,000 people in its first few years.

Immersed in education

Deeb's aunt had moved to Buffalo in the 1950s, and she was able to sponsor Deeb and his family to immigrate to the United States. The Deebs moved to Damascus, Syria, for nearly a month so they could get their immigration status hammered out with the U.S. Consulate office there. Today, Syrian families displaced by the civil war there frequently move to Lebanon in their quest to be accepted into other countries as refugees.

The Deebs landed in Buffalo in the fall of 1976. Back then, the Buffalo Public Schools weren't set up as they are now to handle English as a second language learners, so Deeb was on his own.

His aunt, a cook in the rectory at Holy Spirit Church, asked the parish priests if Deeb could sit in on classes at the parish school as a way to get daily exposure to English.

"I literally would just sit and listen to people talk," said Deeb, who spoke Arabic and a little French at the time. "It did two things. It allowed me to hear the language being spoken. The other thing is it gave me a socialization opportunity I wouldn't have had somewhere else."

Monsignor J. Patrick Keleher, who was associate pastor of Holy Spirit, remembers the young Deeb as a very quick study.

"It was a matter of months," said Keleher, who is director of the Newman Center at the University at Buffalo. "He adapted extremely well."

Deeb also studied at the Adult Learning Center on Virginia Street. In the summer of 1977, he took exams in English and math and was able to enroll at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School. He graduated in 1980, cramming four years into three by taking summer school classes and enrolling in extra credit courses.

In 1984, he earned a bachelor's degree in geography from the University at Buffalo, where he worked as a peer adviser, including helping new students learn about the institution at orientation. That experience led him to complete a master's degree in student personnel, which in turn led to his first higher education job at Briarcliff College in Sioux City, Iowa. Deeb later earned a doctoral degree in higher education from Kent State University.

Welcoming community

After a variety of higher education jobs, he moved back to Western New York in 2002 to become a vice president at Niagara County Community College. For the past five years, he's helmed Trocaire, a primarily two-year college of about 1,500 students.

Deeb, now 55, credits the help he had as a teenage immigrant for launching him to where he is now.

"I stand here because of people who made it possible for me to be here. I don't forget that and I try to pay it back however I can," he said.

Deeb's brother also earned a doctorate and is a researcher for Exxon-Mobil. His sister is retired from Williamsville schools.

"We established a life and part of it is this is a community that was very welcoming to people like us, because the makeup of this community is people like us. And, you know, I'm forever grateful for that," he said.

Deeb hopes new refugees to Buffalo and other parts of the country continue to get the kinds of opportunities he received.

"Some of those folks who are here have an incredible capacity. They just need a chance," he said.

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