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Arima mayor lives the Trini dream

By Sasha Harrinanan Monday, June 4 2012

Arima Mayor Ghassan Youseph is living the Trini dream. He left Syria in 1970 as a 15-year-old who knew not a word of English, to seek a better life in Trinidad.

He learned to speak English by working in the Arima clothing store owned by his uncle, Michael Rahael but he was sent to kindergarten to learn to read and write.

“My uncle sent me to a Kindergarten class, full of little children, to learn my ABCs. Picture it. Once I knew the letters of the alphabet in English, I said ‘That’s it. I’m done being in class with three and four-year-olds. I’m not going back.’ From then on I taught myself the language by reading newspapers,” Youseph said.

He was speaking with Newsday last Friday, at his Arima Town Hall office. Youseph, the second oldest of eight siblings, still has three brothers and two sisters living in Syria, which is in the midst of a violent, 15-month-old uprising. (See Page 22A)

The uprising is largely led by members of the majority Sunni population who want the al-Assad regime, which has been in power for more than 40 years and is run by members of the minority Alawite sect, to demit office and hold free and fair elections.

When asked why his family remained in Syria, the Arima Mayor said “they never thought it would get this bad. We figured the issues would be resolved in a far less violent and deadly manner, so they stayed.”

Both of Youseph’s sisters are teachers, one of whom lived and worked in Homs, the province in which the Houla massacre took place ten days ago. Forty nine children and 34 women were among the 108 persons killed in close-range shootings and knife attacks in Houla last Friday.

Two of Youseph’s brothers, both doctors, also worked in Homs but chose to flee the area about five months ago when they realised their lives were at risk.

“My brothers and sister packed up what they could and returned home to our rural village, where another sister and brother still live. They worry though,” Youseph shared, “they worry about their families’ futures, about their lack of income and their homes. Every now and then they go to Homs to make sure no one has broken into or looted their homes.”

While many other members of the local Syrian community have declined to comment on the situation in Syria, the Arima Mayor has been quite outspoken, criticising the Syrian Government for failing to protect its citizens from harm.

“Look at what happened in Houla, how many families were almost wiped out in that attack. It was truly a massacre and the al-Assad regime should have been able to prevent that. The Government has a responsibility to keep its people safe and that is not happening anymore in Syria. That’s why I have been calling for free and fair elections to be held as soon as possible,” Youseph declared.

With a look of sadness on his face, Youseph told Newsday how the uprising led to him missing his father’s funeral late last year.

“I thought it was too dangerous then, around October, to attend my father’s funeral. I figured things would have cooled down by now, so I could visit my family but it has only gotten worse. That’s why I’ve decided to make the journey anyway, because I must see my family, I must check on their safety,” Youseph stated.

This sense of determination has served the 58-year-old well throughout his life, particularly as he transitioned from a young man in Syria to an immigrant in 1970s Trinidad to a businessman; first in Grenada and then in Trinidad, and now as a politician. A prime example of this was how he really learned the intricacies of the English Language.

Youseph told Newsday it was his fascination with the now infamous 1971 murder trial of Trinidadian, Michael Abdul Malik, formerly known as Michael de Freitas, which had him reading the newspapers each day to find out what was taking place inside the courtroom during the six-month long trial.

“Here was this member of the Black Power Revolution, on trial for the murder of an Englishwoman (Gale Ann Benson) at his commune.

“Every day the newspaper would have a word-for-word recount of his trial. Like many other people, I was fascinated and it was through learning the meaning of unfamiliar words used in that case that I truly came to understand English,” Youseph said.

Abdul Malik was convicted and later hanged for murder in Port-of-Spain in May, 1975. By that time, Youseph had migrated to neighbouring Grenada, where he opened a fabric store in 1973.

“I ran that store for three years, until 1976, when I left it for my brother Marwan Yousef to run. He left Syria in 1974 to get his ‘start’ in life with me. I was 20 and Marwan was 18 at the time. So he took over the fabric store and I came back to Trinidad, where I opened another store,” Youseph said.

In 1977, one year after returning to Trinidad, Youseph got married. He and his wife, Angela, who runs her own clothing store, went on to have three children. The oldest, George Youseph, is now a doctor in the United States. Middle child, Nabeen Youseph, chose to continue the family tradition and has opened his own business, also in Arima while Christianne Youseph is pursuing a tertiary degree at St George’s University, Grenada.

The Mayor’s brother, Marwan Yousef, eventually sold the Grenada fabric store and moved to Trinidad, where he too married and started a family. The brother’s children grew up together and remain close but when it comes to politics, like the spelling of their last names, Ghassan and Marwan stand on opposite sides of the Syrian uprising.

Yousef is Syria’s Honourary Consulate to TT and has spoken to Newsday about what he described as an attack by Western-backed forces to destabilise the al-Assad Government.

“Most of these people were killed by the same armed guards, the same terrorists hired by Western nations to embarrass the Syrian President and the Government of Syria. Why would a government that has been in power for 40 years suddenly start killing its own people?” Marwan asked. “That makes no sense.” Yousef made this comment in an interview published in last Friday’s Newsday.

How did his brother, Ghassan Youseph, go from businessman to politician? Although he grew up with his cousin, John Rahael, who went on to become Port-of-Spain Mayor and then Minister of Health under the People’s National Movement (PNM), Youseph said he became interested in politics and how it could shape the direction of a nation, during the mid-1980s when the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) came into office.

“I admired Winston Dookeran and Selby Wilson because they were able to hold the economy together. Yes there were some austerity measures, VAT (Value-Added Tax) was introduced but the TT dollar has remained fairly steady in the years since. I credit them with playing a role in that.”

So Youseph became a party organiser for the NAR but it was when Winston Dookeran became leader of the United National Congress (UNC) and later co-founded the Congress of the People (COP), that he really became active in ‘front-line’ politics.

“When the Local Government elections were held in 2010, I decided to contest for the Mayorship of Arima as a member of the COP. It’s been a busy time ever since. There are frustrating days, yes, but overall, I enjoy working to improve life in Arima. It’s a special place and should be declared a city,” Youseph stated.

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