Palestinian American, Claude Soudah
Claude was born on June 8, 1937 in Bethlehem and raised in Jerusalem, Palestine to Catholic Arab parents.
"My parents and grandparents were born in Jerusalem.My mother can trace the history of her family to French descendants of the Crusades. I had a happy childhood with my brother and sister, but the situation, in general, was unsettled politically at the time."
Most vivid childhood memories: “During my youth, there was movement to get the British out of Palestine from both the Arabs and the Jews . It was a very difficult time. My father was a British senior civil servant. His office was bombed, but luckily he was not there. With the end of the Second World War, Britain started getting rid of some of their colonies. In 1948, there was a meeting at the United Nations to end the British mandate and declare a division of Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews. Israel was declared a state. But before that, I vividly remember finishing breakfast and hearing a knock at our door. When we opened it, we saw a British Major flanked by four or five soldiers. The Major said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Soudah, are you ready?’ My father replied, ‘I am.’ My father knew of his impending departure but, since it was secret, had only told my mother. He immediately left to Cyprus with other officers of the mandate to assist in the relocation of the British administration, leaving my mom alone to care for the three of us. When he was away, the war broke out between the Arabs and the Israelis. I was 11 years old. Our home was in the middle of "No Man's Land". We were surrounded by fighting and could not move in any direction. We were living in an apartment building with four other families. The head of one of the families was shot in the head in front of us. It was a very sad situation. The Arab Legion advanced all the way to our location. All the families were lined against the wall to find out who we were. I was so scared. When they discovered we were Christian Arabs, they told us to wait for the Arab Legion’s return to take them to the Old City of Jerusalem. Two days later, at night, we were escorted to the Old City and had to leave all our belongings behind. We became refugees. The Catholic Church assisted us, finding us with a room with a small kitchen. My father thought his entire family had been killed and we had no idea how to contact him. It was a very unsettled time. We didn’t have enough money; there wasn’t any work for my mother so my brother Roger and I would try selling pastries on the street to earn a little money. When we needed our father most, he was not there. After two year without any communication, my father finished his assignment with the British and was allowed to return to Jerusalem. Now together, we had to start normal life again. This remains the saddest and most hopeless time of my life.”
"I attended a Catholic parochial school and at one time, I thought wanted to become a priest. I shared with my father the list of goods I needed to take to seminary school. It wasn't much...shoes, underwear, shirts and the like. My father replied, 'My son, there is not any way we can afford any of this stuff. You know that and you know better. I am lucky if I can buy you a pair of shoes once in a while.' The idea to become a priest went to the wayside, which in a way, these are some of the things that happen in your life that you say, 'I am glad they didn't happen.' There is an Arabic proverb, 'Don't hate something that went wrong because it may end up for the good in the long term.' That happened a number of times in my life."
Instead of a career in the priesthood, Claude excelled in his banking career, retiring in 1999 as Senior Vice President of the International Operations Division of Bank of America.
Age when he immigrated: 25 years old with his friend Abed.
What lead to his decision to immigrate: He had done very well in high school, achieving high marks on the British GCE exams, but due to his family’s limited income, he was not able to attend college. While working in a bank, he traveled to Europe with his friends.
“It was my first time away from the Middle East and was a real eye opener to the world. We were all left wondering what we were doing, staying in Jerusalem. My brother was studying in Olympia, WA, thanks to President Eisenhower opening a special immigration quota for Palestinian refugees. I applied to school in Olympia because my brother was there. I received a full scholarship to attend St. Martin's College.”
First memories of the U.S.: "Our transatlantic crossing via ocean liner was in December. It was horrible weather and we were seasick the entire time. I still remember a wonderful man who, during our one-day layover in Halifax, took us to a restaurant. We enjoyed a beer and were introduced to apple pie with ice cream….oh that was Heaven. It was incredible! When my brother met us in Seattle that first day, he took us to a Safeway…we were just flabbergasted, amazed at the abundance, all that was available. Even in Europe we did not see so much abundance. The traffic was also frightening. I remember, I was a bit scared and homesick for about six months.”
“I came with $500 in my pocket. I thought I was very rich. I quickly discovered otherwise. Fortunately I had a full scholarship and the school gave me a full time job in the cafeteria.”
Connections that impacted his life: “My brother had transferred to the University of Washington (where he later graduated at the top of his class in the School of Pharmacy) and my first summer, Mrs. Earnestine Brown gave me my first job at the UW library. That is where I met Sue (Claude’s wife). We would exchange smiles while she was studying and I was pushing the book cart on the floor in Suzzallo Library she always studied. Finally, one day I wrote her a note that said, ‘Don't you think it's about time we got to know each other? I can't resist that smile of yours.' After a year and a half at St. Martin’s College, I realized I wanted to study business instead of civil engineering. I transferred to UW to pursue a business degree. Sue and I courted for two years and married during my last year of college.”
Claude’s brother-in-law and uncle also had an impact on his life. “They were both in banking, so I wanted to go into banking. With strong British GCE exams scores, I was hired by the British Bank of the Middles East. My first job was as a bank teller. I moved to operations and then foreign exchange before leaving Palestine.” Upon his graduation from University of Washington, Claude accepted a job at Seafirst Bank as a management trainee.
What are you most proud of?: "I am most proud of my daughters. They are happy and all doing well. That makes me feel good. That my wife and I did a good job."
A few more thoughts from Claude that continue to resonate deeply with me: "My father always said, 'It is nice to be nice, even if you have to pay the price.' I believe this to be true. Treat people properly. Treat them like good human beings and always be humble."
"In the U.S., people want you to be their friend if they think they can get something from you. When I was high up in the bank, there business contacts and friendships formed, but once I retired, most of the relationships slowly disappeared. However, good friend continue to maintain contact and we get together at least once a year.
A video excerpt from Claude's story: