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Volume 26, Number 2March/April 1975

In This Issue

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Arabs in America

A Special Contribution

Written by Philip Harsham
Photographed by Robert Azzi

Arab-Americans in some of their more self-deprecating moods like to say that no two of them ever really got together on anything—unless it was an agreement to disagree. But that isn't altogether true, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital sits in Memphis, Tenn., as testimony to that fact. For St. Jude's, while it is international, interracial, and non-sectarian, has provided the greatest single rallying point for the Arab-American community; they know that without their help its rocketing expenses—roughly $5,000,000 this year—might never be met.

St. Jude's, named for the patron saint of the hopeless, was founded by Danny Thomas, the Lebanese-American entertainer. Its sole mission is to conduct clinical research into catastrophic maladies affecting children—primarily leukemia and malnutrition—and eradicating them. In operation only 12 years, it's scoring well: roughly 51 percent of the children it's treated for acute lymphocytic leukemia, starting in 1968, have been free of all evidence of the disease for five to six years. That's the form of leukemia most prevalent among children, the form that 10 years ago meant almost certain death within a year. In its fight against malnutrition, in a demonstration area where the infant mortality rate was the country's highest, St. Jude's and a cooperating agency have reduced that rate from 8.4 deaths per 100 births to less than one per 100—and at a cost of less than $100 per year per child. The St. Jude's staff is working, too, on treatments for retinoblastoma, the cancer that causes most childhood blindness, and on ways to stem epidemics of influenza. And it all began with Danny Thomas, in 1940. Practically destitute, his career seemingly stymied, Thomas turned in despair to St. Jude Thaddeus. "Help me find my place in life," he prayed, "and I will build you a shrine dedicated to the hopeless, the helpless, and the poor." Next day, so the story goes, he was given a small part in a sales-promotion film. It was his start toward the top, and a few years later Thomas was ready to fulfill his promise.

Deciding with the help of his archbishop that the promised shrine should be a hospital—something practical and needed—Thomas began laying plans for financing it. A good starting point was the Association of Lebanese-Syrian-American Clubs (ALSAC), the widespread social organization in which his friends were many. Its leaders were willing to cooperate; and ALSAC—now standing for Aiding Leukemia-Stricken American Children—became the name of the St. Jude's fund-raising arm. Now headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind., it was headed by the late Lebanese-American Michael Tamer.

ALSAC sponsors door-to-door solicitations by teenagers that bring in about $1,500,000 each year. And through benefit banquets, at which Danny Thomas and his Hollywood friends usually entertain, it nets considerably more. One held in Miami, where a number of successful Arab-Americans are concentrated, can be counted on for as much as $200,000 each year, for instance. But for the most part funds come as annual donations from individual families scattered across the country—families with names such as Ajhar, Jamail, Coury, Maykel, Ayoub, Harris, Haggar, Elias, Maloof, and Karam, to name a few. And enough comes in to account for 55 percent of the hospital's needs. The remainder is covered by foundation grants and by federal funds. For no parent of a St. Jude's patient is asked to pay a penny for his child's treatment, nor, says Danny Thomas, will he ever be.

Members of the Arab-American community talk a lot about St. Jude's and the good it's doing for children. A few of the more active ones have even talked a bit about the good it's doing for them.

Mr. Harsham, a veteran reporter, writer and editor, has worked for or contributed to the Louisville Courier Journal, the New York Times, Time, Life, and Money. Midway in his career he took time out to study Middle East affairs at Columbia's Advanced International Reporting Program.

Mr. Azzi, who mixed reporting with photography in criss-crossing the U.S. for this issue, now represents Magnum in the Middle East, contributes often to the National Geographic and appears regularly in Aramco World. He has also free-lanced for Time.

This article appeared on page 35 of the March/April 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1975 images.