Syria: Mike and Roumieh Nedeff

Born 1892 in Saidnaya, Syria—when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire—Mike Nedeff emigrated to the U.S. in 1912 and went on to become a naturalized U.S. citizen as well as a U.S. soldier during WWI, seeing battle in France and Belgium. Like thousands of other immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere, he came to the U.S. with little but managed to build a new life in a new land through hard work and determination. Unfortunately, around the time Nedeff traveled to Europe to fight for his newly adopted country, something Arab Americans were doing at an extraordinarily high rate after the U.S. entered WWI, he would receive some devastating news that would hasten his own travel back to his homeland.  History had interceded in the brutal and arbitrary way it often does, and as it was about to do for millions of others during the turbulent 1910s and 1920s. 

In a supplemental letter addressed to then Secretary of State Robert Lansing and included with his original 1919 passport application, Nedeff stated “During the war my father was murdered by the Turks, and I desire to go to Syria to look after my mother, two sisters and a brother, and bring them to this country.” Such cooly delivered statements about heartbreaking events can repeatedly be found in supplemental material submitted with passport applications.  The tone is almost always formal and factual, emotionally divorced from the harsh reality. Perhaps it had to be.

And so just after returning to the U.S. from the war in Europe, Nedeff would travel back to Syria to locate family members displaced by Turkish aggressions during the volatile 1914-1918 period, a time when Ottoman Armenians, Assyrians, Pontian and Anatolian Greeks fell victim to increasing agitation and violence that culminated in displacement, deportation, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

For his passport application, Nedeff also provided a letter of support from West Virginia Representative Wells Goodykoontz, attesting to his good character and loyalty as a U.S. citizen. Nedeff’s application was approved and in late 1919 he made the journey back to his homeland, remaining in what had just become the Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon for some two years.

In the somewhat sympathetic but still harsh note typed into Nedeff’s 1921 emergency passport application by a U.S. Consular agent in Damascus, Nedeff’s safety as a Syrian Greek Catholic and intention/loyalty as a U.S. citizen living abroad is called into question, resulting in a shortened passport validity period.  Nevertheless, he returned to the U.S. in late 1921 along with his new wife, Roumieh Jarmoush, who had never been to the United States.  

Mike and Roumieh would settle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where they raised 13 children while running a retail grocery store for many years in Parkersburg’s downtown.

Sadly, it appears that the rest of Nedeff’s family was unable to leave Syria, or couldn’t be located during his 1919-1921 visit. However, after years of persistent effort, Mike was able to sponsor and bring his younger brother, Moussa (Moses), to the U.S. in 1937. Like Mike, Moses Nedeff (1899-1963) would become a successful small business owner, marry, and raise a large family in  Parkersburg. 

Mike died in 1951 and Roumieh in 1986; both are buried in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

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