America, for Saleh, was a place of new tastes, smells and customs. People put ice cream on hot apple pie. And men went out with women on “dates” before marrying them.
“I did not even know what the word ‘date’ meant,” Saleh said with a laugh. “When my friend first told me that he was going on a date and that he needed to borrow my car, I was surprised. I thought dates meant fruits.”
In that era, so different from today, dating was a mystery that Saleh -- who would focus intently on his studies and survive a life-threatening illness -- would not investigate until 1951.
Never to Return Home
Life for a Palestinian in America would not all be sweet as pie for Saleh. The strife marking the Middle East in those years would bring his life a dissonance that echoes throughout the United States today. Eventually that discord would also bring his brother, Mustafa, and sister, Nabilah (seen in above photo with Saleh on the left and center) to the Bay Area.
Saleh always thought he would return to his mother and family in Yafa’s suburbs of Beit Dajan once he completed his master’s degree at Berkeley. He even planned to go back and work with the Arabic government there, but never did.
In fact, Saleh could not return home – because it was taken. He learned that his family was forced to leave their home and orange grove in Yafa’s suburbs of Beit Dajan, which became part of Israel.
Saleh could not leave the United States to see what happened to his family. His British passport was revoked after England withdrew from Palestine and he became stateless. Both the governments of Israel and Jordan, which controlled the West Bank then, rejected his letters asking for permission to return to his family.
Saleh said he was told, “You can’t come back; those who were out are out, and those who were in are in. And nothing can change that.”
For an entire year, Saleh received no word from his family and became anxious as he heard the terrible news of Palestinians being killed and forced to leave their homes. He feared that his family members were left homeless or were killed.
His sister, Nabila, who moved to the United States in 1964, recalled during an interview, “We had to leave our home, and we left everything behind because we fled for our lives. In the panic, we even did not take Saleh’s address and lost touch with him.”
She added, “I will never ever forget May 16, 1948, when we were forced to leave our home.”
Survival, Love and Chocolate
As a student, Saleh did whatever he could to make ends meet. He drove a taxi and worked at a cannery in Oakland. He also ate cheap hamburgers every day to save money. Long working hours and poor nutrition took a big toll on him, and he contracted tuberculosis.
The disease would claim Saleh’s right kidney, forcing him to spend a year-and-a-half in Oakland’s Highland Hospital.
Soon afterwards, his left kidney became infected. In early1950, Saleh went to Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, Calif., and his doctors told him to prepare his family for the “inevitable.”
But, again, Saleh pulled through, thanks to a new experimental drug.
After leaving the hospital, Saleh was determined to complete his degree. He got a job at UC Berkeley’s International House, a campus residence and center that still serves multicultural students.
One day there in 1951, a Syrian friend introduced Saleh to an American named Betty. It was the start of a lifelong relationship.
Saleh’s earned $14 a month in his student job. That covered his room rent -- $12 a month -- and he spent the rest on dates, buying Betty hot chocolates for only a dime.
“These were my hot chocolate dates and they worked,” Saleh declared. After six months of chocolate and books she lent him from the bookstore where she worked, he proposed.
He added, “Betty’s friends were asking her, ‘are you really going to marry him with all his troubles?’ It is amazing that she agreed to marry me,” he went on. “It really was a true love story.”
Just when Saleh thought he had put the worst behind him, U.S. immigration authorities rejected his citizenship application, despite his being married to an American. The draft board notified immigration officials that Saleh could not serve in the army and that he did not have the resources to pay his medical bills.
Immigration authorities told him, “We know about your medical situation. You are only married to an American citizen, but that does not mean you are an American citizen.”
They demanded that he find a sponsor, who would guarantee that Saleh would not become a “public charge.” Betty’s father agreed, and that sponsorship enabled Saleh to finally become an American citizen.
Staying Active--With Humor
Although Saleh has lived with only one kidney since then, today he looks 20 years younger than his more than eight decades.
“The trick is not to lose your sense of humor and stay active,” he said.
Life eventually stabilized for Saleh. He obtained his master’s degree and, after a stint as a schoolteacher, he worked as a social worker for Contra Costa County, across the bay from San Francisco, for 51 years.
Initially, he retired as a supervisor in 1994, but the department asked him to come back on the job as temporary worker. In 2008, 14 years later, he was told, “We are running out of money and have to let you go.”
Saleh now lives alone in the same Walnut Creek house where he and Betty raised their family. She passed away 10 years ago. Their son lives in Ecuador and their daughter is married and lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Far from being isolated, though, Saleh remains active in the community. American students from UC Berkeley and other colleges gather once a month at his house to drink mint tea and learn Arabic.
Saleh also teaches local seniors how to play chess once a month and tends his beautiful hillside garden. He and Nabilah make jam with plums they pick from their tree.
Their brother, Mustafa, came to the United States with his Greek wife in 1968. “We were separated too long to live away from each other,” Mustafa said.
Saleh and his siblings never returned to Yafa. But their hometown remains vivid in their memories. “We had orange groves and we even used to pick oranges from the rooftop,” Nabila said.
Mustafa added, “What good does it do us to visit our home and not be able to live in it.”