Via Basel: Uncle Ramzi, A Tribute
Via Basel: Uncle Ramzi, Earliest Family Immigrant, A Tribute
The year was 1957, President Eisenhower was in the White House. Iraq was ruled by a king but had a nascent parliamentary democracy and in general political and economic stability. My maternal grandfather’s family was thriving having settled in Baghdad for nearly three decades after leaving Mosul, their ancestral city.
However, his 25-year-old son, Ramzi was restless and uncertain about his future after dropping out after his first year of medical school. A family friend with international connections told him about an opportunity to work for the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. That was all he needed, and as we fast forward we come to see a whole new world of opportunity for him and eventually his extended family in the new world after having lived in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization for thousands of years.
Ramzi acclimated quickly to this foreign environment. After the army coup of 1958 in Iraq, he settled in NYC, got an engineering degree, met, fell in love, and married Olga who had also arrived recently from Puerto Rico. That Middle-Eastern/Hispanic combination seemed to be a successful formula lasting 61 years.
Even though Uncle Ramzi lived in several states on both coasts and eventually retired to Puerto Rico, he loved Chicago and considered moving here in 2010 after both sisters, Marie and Souad, established residence in the city. Following the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, Ramzi and Olga resettled in Maryland to be close to their son Ramzi Nizzar and his family.
To state that we were close is a significant understatement. Since I arrived in the USA in 1971 following his advice, he was also a mentor, friend, confidant, and somebody with whom I can discuss a variety of issues from the most personal to current affairs in politics and others. On the other hand, he tapped me frequently for my medical and orthopedic expertise, as well as my party-organizational talents such as his 50th wedding anniversary bash in Chicago in 2009.
As I reflected on his life after he passed away on January 24, 2020, certain qualities came to the forefront. Authentic to the core, with no pretensions, he was at ease with both his virtues and his vices. He had the courage at an early age to embark on a journey far from his homeland. As the first member of our family to be an American citizen, he paved the way for many others who followed him. His support came in a multitude of ways, moral, material, and practical. He cared especially deeply and felt responsible for his two sisters, Marie and Souad, in different stages of their lives and over several decades. This giving came more from a generosity of spirit than a sense of duty. It extended to many outside the circle of family and friends and was multiplied exponentially because it encouraged the gifting in all of us who received it from him.
In my eulogy at his memorial mass last Sunday held at the Syriac Orthodox Church in Villa Park, a suburb of Chicago, I quoted St. John’s Gospel (12:24) : “The grain of wheat has to die or it remains just a single grain of wheat, but if it dies it would bear much fruit.” Ramzi’s fruit is all around us in the beautiful memories we are left with as well as a loving wife, Olga, dedicated son, Ramzi Nizzar, and wonderful daughter-in-law, Sasha. I do want to highlight a most special fruit, Isabel, his 16-year-old granddaughter. Beautiful, smart, and grounded, she is well positioned to carry her grandfather’s legacy rooted in authenticity, courage, and generosity.
Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family, and now, retired, he will have more time for that. And for the next adventure.