Updated: Jan 8, 2021
CWBA Celebrates Arab American Heritage Month
My name is Samera (pronounced like camera) Habib. I am an attorney licensed in Colorado and I am listed as faculty with the Colorado Bar Association. I am the owner, founder, and managing attorney of The Dadvocates, a firm that specializes in men’s family law and criminal defense matters. The firm is wildly successful and can be found on the radio, billboards, and television in Colorado. I immigrated to the United States, specifically to Los Angeles, California, in January 1991 shortly after turning nine years old. And with that brief introduction, here is my story.
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon during the height of the civil war to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother. My parents lived in Tripoli, Lebanon with my newborn brother but I stayed in Beirut with my maternal grandparents because Tripoli was less safe. It would have been nearly impossible for my mother to run with a one-year-old and a newborn if the situation required. My mother would visit me and sometimes, when the way was calm, I would be taken to Tripoli to see my father.
When I was one year and nine months old, my father sent my mother to Beirut to bring me to him. Shortly after she left with my brother, our home was stormed by armed men and my father, who was twenty-five years old at the time, was asked to march down the stairs and into the street, where the armed men had gathered the rest of the neighborhood. Because my father was young, tall, strong, and politically inclined, he was fatally shot over thirty times in the back by the armed men.
My mother and her family were notified in Beirut very quickly. My father’s brothers came from Dar’a, Syria, the place of his birth and where his family lived, to retrieve the body. He was buried in the place of his birth, Dar’a. My mother, who was twenty years old when he was killed, would take us to Syria for a few days once a year to see his family and visit his grave.
My mother attended the American University of Beirut, specializing in nursing, and excelled at her studies. When I was six years old, her brother who lived in Los Angeles, California gave her the great news that she was admitted to the graduate nursing program at UCLA with an excellent scholarship.
My mother left us with my elderly grandparents and some aunts. It was hard for her but she knew that for undocumented Palestinian children who were legally nothing more than refugees, Lebanon was not a place with any kind of future. After all, in Lebanon, a woman could not pass on her nationality to her children. It never left my mind that my mother left her family and home behind for us. I never wanted to waste that sacrifice.
During my mother’s absence the war in Lebanon became intense. She would try to call once a week but the line could hardly connect. When it did, calls were very brief due to connection failure. Sometimes when someone from Beirut went to California, I would write her letters. When someone came to Beirut, she would send clothes and small notebooks for me to have for school. She managed to visit once, but shortly after she arrived, the bombing and shelling became so intense, we spent a few days in the basement of a building used as a makeshift shelter. My mother was knitting, and I sat next to her with a plastic knitting kit trying to learn. UCLA told her that she would lose the semester if she was late, so a few days after her arrival, she found the soonest flight back and left.
My aunts slowly married during my mother’s absence and my elderly grandmother could not get out of bed and care for us. It was a difficult period for my brother and I fending for ourselves. During our childhood, Lebanon had no electricity, running water, or much food. It became more difficult to manage without healthy adults in the home. We couldn’t heat water on the stove to shower or fill the propane tank so we can have fire to cook. We were about six and five. It was hard to manage.
The difficulty increased when my grandfather died of a heart attack shortly after I turned seven years old. The entire family went into a severe depression and prolonged mourning. My uncles, who volunteered for the Red Crescent, used to come home for dinner (by candlelight) with their other volunteer buddies in the evening and even though the stories from their day were awful, that daily routine provided a sense of family and connection. After my grandfather passed all that was gone, and it felt like the whole family disintegrated.
One of my aunts who was always strong, capable, and could accomplish anything she set her mind to, decided we needed to be with our mother. So, when I was almost nine years old and my brother almost eight, she finagled her way with the two of us in tow to Damascus, Syria, the city with the nearest American embassy. I remember staying with her husband’s distant relatives and one day she woke us up around 1 am and told us it’s time to go. She didn’t have much luggage with her but she brought a bag full of paperwork. We arrived at the embassy around 2 am and stood in a line wrapped several times around the large embassy compound for hours. It was winter of 1990 and it was freezing, well below zero.
The ground was so cold that our feet began to numb and burn and my brother and I would take turns hopping on one foot, then the other, then the other. A kind looking Syrian man saw us. He left his place in line and approached my aunt. He offered to let us sit in his car until the embassy opened or sunlight came up to warm the streets and pavement, and in return, my aunt made sure he stood with her in line so he didn't drive off with us. That freezing car felt so warm compared to the outside that my brother and I huddled together and fell into a deep sleep.
When we woke up it was daylight and we were ushered into the embassy. When our names were called, we were ushered to a window, where a handsome middle aged white American man in a very nice suit met with us from behind the glass. My aunt told him our story: their father was killed, their mother is gone, their grandfather passed, and their grandmother is disabled. You can help them get to their mother or not, but I thank you for your time whatever you decide. I remember as she spoke his voice changed. The professional edge fell from his voice and there was a slight hint of mercy and kindness. He then looked into my eyes intently and asked me where my parents were, how I lived, who took take of us. He was verifying my aunt’s story because so many lied out of desperation. In our situation, no lie was necessary.
Right as he was ready to stamp an entry visa that would be valid for several years into our Palestinian Refugee Travel Permits, an American woman sitting behind him whispered in his ear. It was clear that she was saying, “no visa for them. Tough luck.” She appeared upset. Rather than overturn his decision, he changed his stamp and gave us an entry visa that was valid for only three months. With this challenge in place, we returned to Beirut. My aunts and uncles immediately pooled all their money and figured out how much more was needed to buy two plane tickets. One of my uncles befriended everyone he could at the airport and reached out to all his connections to make sure that the flight that he finally booked for us was the one most likely to leave and not get canceled because someone important was on it. On the day of our departure, our home felt worse than the day my grandfather passed. No one cried because after a lifetime of war and poverty, grief cannot move you to that extent. But it was clear that everyone was grieving. My brother and I cried and sobbed maybe more than the day our mother left.
The sadness was interrupted by the news that the physical tickets were delayed at the travel agency. We were left with little time to get to the airport. My uncle had thought ahead. He immediately pushed us into the back of a Red Crescent ambulance. We sat in the back, where so many had bled out and died. With the siren blasting loudly he drove like his life depended on it. He got us to the tarmac right as the airplane was getting ready to close its doors. I ran so fast towards those stairs, but then I heard someone calling us back. I will never forget his face as he cried because there was no time to say goodbye. We looked back when he called, waved and saw him sob, and ran again towards the plane. We found our seats and sat there with plastic Middle East Airlines pouches wrapped around our necks that held all our travel documents. The flight attendants on every plane were polite and tried to be kind.
We finally landed in Los Angeles and were walked out to our mother, uncle, and some of their Lebanese friends. Strangers were kissing us and looking happy but we were traumatized and grieving. Our mother had changed. We didn’t recognize her. This place was her home but everything to us looked so strange. I had never seen a city without rubble. I had never seen grass. I had never seen a real playground. There were stores and shops with electricity and strange looking food. At school children weren’t required to show the discipline required in Lebanese schools. When my teacher spoke to me, I looked down out of respect and she complained to my mom that I was disrespectful because I refused to look her in the eye. It was a years long transition and even today, I have not transitioned completely.
Although we were taught English from a young age, I spent so many years trying to figure out how Americans speak. Why were we invited to a “baby shower?” Why is it so special that the baby is going to take a shower? How is he going to shower if he’s not here yet? At the baby shower I was more confused that the pregnant mother was not married and more so when she said, “the baby doesn’t have a dad.” I lay in bed at night thinking about all these new things and it persisted until I was about seventeen.
Eventually, I made it to law school- my dream since I learned what a lawyer is. I had a three-year-old and I was pregnant with my daughter. It was tough but I managed. I felt so grateful for the opportunity to be here and move my life forward. My brother completed medical school. My mother attained her PhD in nursing and is a professor now. I felt grateful to my mother for her immense sacrifice and to this country for giving me a chance. I always wonder about the name of that kind consul at the embassy. I have daydreams about finding him and telling him that that day in 1991, when he was told by his colleague not to give us a visa, he took a chance and it was actually worth it. Since that day, with him as a form of role model for me, I have coined a personal motto: be in the service of others. Living that way every day, I can truly say that I put my head on my pillow every night, having served all those who God puts in my life to the best of my ability that day, and I sleep in peace.
Samera Habib, owner of The Dadvocates, is a Super Lawyer, licensed Child and Family Investigator, and an expert Colorado family law attorney who specializes in all matters relating to fathers rights and men's rights in Family Law. She is the winner of multiple awards, including Super Lawyers, and is listed as Faculty with the Colorado Bar Association. She has tried cases throughout Colorado including in the counties of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Conejos, Denver, Douglas, Elbert, El Paso, Grand, Jefferson, Larimer, Routt, Weld, and more. She has forged a solid reputation among the Colorado legal community.