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Firmly rooted: Sultan Club links local families to a tiny village in Lebanon

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    Randa Jarouche helps her daughter Jameela, 1, play with other kids during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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    Sam Saadeh, center, serves french fries to Juju Orra, left, during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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    From left Dina Jarouche cooks hamburgers and hot dogs as Fatme Elorra lays out cheese during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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    Sultan Yacoub, Lebanon

    MICHAEL ORRA

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    Farouk Barakat

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    Lareen Shaheen, 7, zooms by during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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    Sultan Club sign during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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    Randa Jarouche helps her daughter Jameela, 1, play with other kids during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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    Jamile Burkett

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    Children play basketball during the Labor Day picnic at the Sultan Club in Toledo.

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If you’re headed toward an ill-advised decision on the playground at Sultan Club — if, say, you’re unwittingly barreling toward a beehive or sizing up a rain-slicked ladder — you can pretty much count on someone to set you straight.

It might not be your mom or dad, if they’re off chatting over picnic tables. But it might be an aunt, an uncle, or a grandparent. Maybe an uncle’s sister, a cousin’s grandparent, or a mother’s cousin once-removed. At the picnics and potlucks that the club puts on regularly off Dorr Street in Toledo, it’s essentially guaranteed that someone is keeping an eye on you.

“We’re all related,” said Randa Jarouche, 38, a club member from Perrysburg and one of the several adults who fell into that child-minding role at a recent picnic. “We’re all first cousins, second cousins, third cousins. In some way, we’re all tied together through family.”

Don’t think of these gatherings as a family reunion, though. Sultan Club is better described as a cultural club, its members better identified by their ties to the same village in Lebanon. With fewer than 2,000 residents living year-round in that village, Sultan Yacoub, in the country’s Bekaa Valley, it’s inevitable there are a few shared surnames in Toledo.

Sultan Club organized in 1975, well after the first immigrants began arriving in Toledo in the 1920s, said Farouk Barakat, a founding member and past president. Who exactly those first immigrants were — or why exactly they decided on Toledo — isn’t precisely documented, but Mr. Barakat generally credits a booming automotive industry as the draw.

(Toledo wasn’t necessarily their first stop in the United States, said Mr. Barakat, who can trace one grandfather’s arrival to 1899 and the other’s to 1900.)

Once a few individuals or families did settle in Toledo, they themselves became the draw, as Mr. Baraket can attest from his own personal experience. He immigrated to Toledo in 1971.

“I came because I had some people from my hometown, cousins,” he said. “I didn’t know Toledo. It’s not a famous city. I called my cousin, he said, ‘OK, I’ll pick you up at the airport.’ ”

Today, there are roughly 250 families with ties to Sultan Yacoub in Ohio and Michigan, said Michael Orra, the club’s chairman for programs and public relations; he was raised locally by parents from the village. That’s about 1,000 people who engage with the club for events and activities throughout the year, typically gathering at the property off Dorr Street that they purchased in 1983.

The two biggest gatherings are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, reflecting Islam as the predominant faith among the members and residents of the village. A recent Labor Day picnic was more low-key, with elementary school students kicking around soccer balls, teenagers congregating in clusters, and adults of all ages enjoying conversations over homemade hamburgers and fries.

The gatherings are largely social, really just an opportunity for friends and family to gather and for their children to play together. That’s largely why Chihab Jarouche brings his family, he said; his daughter, Maya, 11, took a break from the basketball court on Labor Day to share that she likes that there are always people to play basketball or soccer with her.

(Mr. Jarouche and Maya are not directly related to Randa Jarouche.)

But these gatherings are also an important way to celebrate and maintain culture: A typical picnic might feature tastes of home like kafta, tabbouleh, and fattoush, said Hana Akra, 57, who helps whip up dishes as part of the ladies auxiliary committee. You’re also sure to hear conversations sprinkled with Arabic, and, more specifically, the distinct inflections of the language that identify a speaker with Sultan Yacoub.

“It’s important to all of us to keep our culture and for our children to speak our language,” said Jamele Jarouche, 62; she was a teenager when the club organized and went on to raise her own children at the community gatherings. “And now we pass it on to our grandchildren.”

(Jamele Jarouche isn’t directly related to either Mr. Jarouche or Randa Jarouche, either.)

Ahmed Smidi, 35, is the club’s current president. Born in Sylvania and largely raised in Sultan Yacoub, he has an appreciation for the way the club brings together the United States and Lebanon.

“My identity is Lebanese-American,” he said, explaining that’s what he represents. “I think the challenge then becomes, OK, my kids were born here. What do I want them to represent? Do I want them to represent something other than Lebanese-American?

“No,” he continued, “that’s exactly what you want them to be. You don’t want them to be purely Lebanese, you don’t want them to be purely American. They’re really both. The challenge is building that identity. This is what helps with that. You have a physical place that you belong to as a Lebanese-American that has its own traditions, that has its own value, that has its own culture — and language too. That’s important to all of us.”

The relationship between Toledo and Sultan Yacoub remains strong today, with pretty much any year-round resident of Sultan Yacoub sure to be familiar with northwest Ohio, either through relatives or through personal experience. Mr. Smidi said his parents weren’t unusual in returning to the village when they retired, for example.

And, in Toledo, nearly anyone at Sultan Club is happy to recall a recent trip to visit family and friends there. Summer is a particularly hot time to visit, as families there tend to welcome relatives from both Toledo and Brazil, where there’s a likewise vibrant immigrant community; locals said they’re perhaps as likely to hear Portuguese as English in Sultan Yacoub.

Additionally, a sister city relationship between Toledo and the Bekaa Valley also ensures that any student from the Bekaa Valley who is admitted to the University of Toledo can attend for in-state tuition. Mr. Smidi said they welcome these students to their gatherings every year.

As they kept on eye on the little ones scrambling over playground equipment, Jamile Burkett and Randa Jarouche said it’s important to them that their children, who collectively range in age from 1 to 10 years old, have a relationship with their heritage.

That’s the way they themselves were raised, they said, Ms. Jarouche locally and Ms. Burkett in Brazil.

To actually take the children to Lebanon, so that they can experience the culture and language there, is ideal, of course, they said. But, short of that, they have evenings at Sultan Club.

It is, as Jamele Jarouche puts it, “like home away from home for us.”

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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