The United States of America was my mother’s first true home. She grew up as an Assyrian, Christian woman in Iraq, a region in which her people had lived for thousands of years. Assyrians have been targeted throughout history, perhaps most notably in period immediately after the first world war.
Before our family truly Americanized (my father is from Greece, and proud), my world was that of Greek pop culture and tales my mother would recall from her childhood. My mother grew up between warring factions of Arab and Kurdish forces. Her village was repeatedly bombed, sending the technically-not-citizens Assyrians for cover in the mountains.
Beyond war, she and her siblings were the subject of routine abuse in their home. I remember one horrific story in which her father concocted a poison and demanded she consume it. She drank the mixture and fell limp to the floor. Her father then raised his boot and stomped on her head. My mother could feel blood trickling down her lifeless face just before she began to vomit. (Her father was latter outed as a predator and was essentially exiled from the village/family.)
None of this challenges the fact that her father was brilliant. He translated Assyrian into several other languages and invented contraptions to improve the family’s standard of living. One would carry water from a distant stream to water their gardens. My mother carried after him in this way. She excelled in school; learning served as her only escape from the realities of life in Iraq. Her wish to be a doctor was cut short due to a marriage arranged by her mother.
Citizenship & Freedom
Under direct threat from Saddam Hussein’s brother, my mother and her family, thanks in large part to the connections and assets of her arranged partner, snuck out of Iraq and into Greece. From there, with help from the Red Cross, they came to the United States. They settled in Chicago, and she gave birth to the second of my three sisters. America was not only a way for her to escape near certain death. In the United States she could create opportunity.
She worked full-time at a uniform company, divorced her husband (possibly the first woman in the history of her family to do so), and eventually purchased a building. She met my father at work, and they married – this time without ultimatums – despite the cultural differences of their families. They moved to the Southwest suburbs, had two more children, purchased a home of their dreams, and tried their hands as entrepreneurs.
After a few failures, my mother found that real estate suited her skill set. Our area of town was heavily populated by Irish, Polish, Greek, and Arab immigrants and descendants. So, my mother built her own niche. She already knew English, Greek, Assyrian, and Arabic, then studied Polish. I remember sitting in the Mercedes she bought for herself (“That logo sells houses”), listening to her Polish language cassette tapes.
Her punching honesty and unmatched ambition elevated her to the top of wherever she worked. Clients she worked with followed her from firm to firm, until she decided to work as an independent realtor.
I know of no one person who exemplifies and cherishes the American dream as my mother does. It was the first country to grant her citizenship. Coming here gave her a second chance at life – particularly as an Assyrian woman. She always encouraged us to be whatever we wanted to be, and how could we not? Not only did she (and my father) come from little to nothing, but from a system actively working against her advancement. Living here, to her, was the greatest gift she could offer to her offspring.
Luck + Drive = Opportunity
The City College of New York granted a full ride to any student who met its rigorous academic criteria. America was the “land of the free,” but still very segregated in 1899. In this way, C.C.N.Y. was exceptionally diverse, and recruited students from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, each of its six fraternities were restricted to students of one ethnicity and religion, like all other college fraternities of the time.
A small group of Christian and Jewish C.C.N.Y. students found it impossible to join a fraternity together. So, they established their own in secret. Other fraternities bullied the first Delta Sigs and tried to taunt them into fights. The hope being that the prejudiced administration would expel the new fraternity men and quash their cross-cultural experiment. Fortunately for modern Delta Sigs, our founding members refused to fight back. They chose instead to model themselves after the Sphinx of Egypt – stoic, unyielding, and confident.
Some members recruited students at nearby schools, and a national fraternity was established in 1906 with about a dozen chapters. At that convention, the two members most instrumental to the Fraternity’s growth, Charles Tonsor (Christian) and Meyer Boskey (Jewish), were designated its “founding fathers.” They served respectively as the first Fraternity President and National Secretary (a more primitive version of a modern fraternity CEO).
A More Perfect Fraternity
The founders of my fraternity were either immigrants or born of immigrants. They, like my mother, found acceptance and opportunity in the freedom of expression. Most were no older than 17, and most relied on scholarships to attend C.C.N.Y., but they risked their education (and future) for their fraternity. A support system is essential.
My fraternity – like many fraternities – began and grew underground. Delta Sigma Phi exists today because our founding members believed in themselves, even if it went against their college administrators’ wishes. Against all odds, including internal squabbles over integration, they grew and protected their form of expression: the Fraternity.
For this reason, the Preamble to our Constitution acknowledges first the common ancestry and equality of mankind. It then advises members to serve as stewards of our republic and its educational institutions. Our members memorize this Preamble, but when we analyze it with our history – as was done in the post I link to above – we can better grasp why those two expectations were listed first.
We were born out of the first amendment and of the institutions which teach expression and those which protect it.
Free Speech Zones
College is not the same today as it was in 1899; that is a given. Schools are not as segregated as they were, and an undergraduate education is often peddled as a stepping stone toward the American dream. It is by no means necessary, but every industry survives by convincing others of its essential value to society. Gone are the days where a student might be expelled for falling below a B-average or for violating curfew.
Fraternities do not operate in the free speech zones that many schools set aside for student activists. Every detail of a chapter’s operations is micromanaged by at least two other entities. It is easy to lay blame on university administrators or campus fraternity advisers eager to model a fraternity community in their image, but we all share responsibility for the fraternity experience.
As fraternities grew, most collected local chapters and re-branded them as component chapters of the inter/national organization. In the process, they cleaned the fraternity experience of local offerings, then worked diligently to develop the perception that something local or underground is a less valuable or less trustworthy fraternity experience. But all of our organizations were at one point local or underground, and we all join a local chapter of any fraternity.
The magic which accompanied the creation of my fraternity no longer exists. Those young men were challenging centuries of needless segregation. It was not perfect and it did not work as they intended, but they were building a fraternity for their generation of students. Modern students, and particularly young women, are routinely denied that opportunity. Worst of all – those fraternities and sororities which have sometimes existed for centuries, and which were more often than not established as secret or underground societies, stifle upstarts at every turn.
It is in fact one of the only areas in which the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference excels over its peers. It’s member organizations represent a variety of interests, and some are members of other inter/national umbrella associations. Still, it isn’t enough.
A Founders Day Challenge
On this founders day – December 10, 2019 – I hope that all Delta Sigs (and Pi Kapps and Kappa Sigs, who share this Founders Day) think back to the creation of our organization(s). I hope they consider the value that local, new fraternities can bring to the fraternity experience.
We are operating out of an organizational structure designed for the 19th and 20th Centuries. It seeks first to protect the inter/national corporations established around the undergraduate fraternity experience. I call this Big Fraternity, and will publish a booklet on the topic in 2020. (Subscribe with a U.S. address to get a free copy)
By allowing students to experiment; however, we open the door to a more relevant future for all fraternities. Letting existing Delta Sig chapters be more uniquely themselves (i.e., ditching our ever-growing Checklist O’ Leadership), we allow them to find opportunity in Freedom of Association. We give students the chance and responsibility to define their identity – like my mother, and like our founding fathers.
Then, and only then, will Freedom of Association for fraternities be something worthy of protecting. Let this generation own their fraternity experience. That is how we embody the spirit and loyalty of our founders, and that is how we get students to care enough to change things for the better.