|Illustration by Ed Moyer, BC Magazine staff writer|
But there were many things that led up to it. There was the day-to-day humiliation of existing in an occupied country. There were the endless hours of labour in the white heat of Lebanon as a stone mason for 10 cents a day.
And finally there was Canada beckoning to the unwanted, the unhappy and oppressed; promising them shelter and food, freedom and equality and hope.
Last year, and more than a half-century later, the civic and business leader who was that penniless immigrant boy, rounded off a record of service unequalled in B.C., unsurpassed in Canada.
His Lebanese name in English means “peaceful man”. His life has been a constant battle.
In those early days life was not too bad and Sol attended a Presbyterian Mission where he learned Arabic. He still writes and speaks it.
When he was 14 the death of his father saddled him with the responsibilities of adulthood. He went to work for a stone mason to support the family.
His payment was 10 cents a day and it was sufficient to provide food and warmth without luxury, but young Sol had a bright and insatiably curious mind that hungered for grooming. In the evenings, for three years, he dragged his work-weary body to night school. This life exploded that afternoon in the crack of a rawhide lash and a woman’s cry of pain.
Solomon Mussallem still recalls, vividly, the mounted tax collector and the puzzled upturned face of the neighbor woman.
“He asked for money. I’m sure she didn’t even know what money was. She lived from her land. She had a few chickens, a goat, and a vegetable garden. He whipped her there in her front yard and I stood by helpless. I knew then that I must get out of Lebanon.”
An uncle in a distant village gave Sol $100 to finance his proposed emigration to Canada. The greatest obstacles were the Turkish police and soldiery. Lebanese were forbidden to leave the country and those captured attempting to do so were punished with starving years of imprisonment in filthy windowless jails – a dragged out death.
Sol joined a party of 20 who were bent on escaping from the port of Tyre. The capital, Beirut, was patrolled too diligently.
The band of hopefuls travelled by foot across Lebanon, moving only at night, sleeping in caves and forests in the daytime. It was a long, harrowing journey but one morning they stood on the crest of a hill and looked upon the domes of Tyre, golden in the sunrise.
It was a quietly emotional moment for them – the end of oppression, the beginning of life.
“We were herded like cattle to the local jail, a building without windows, and only an earthen floor to sleep upon. Days passed and then one morning a magistrate came to us and charged us with attempting to flee the country without authorization.”
“We pleaded not guilty, claimed we were traders from the country but we were convicted, fined heavily and released. They didn’t have enough proof to send us to jail.”
For two weeks the party lurked in a hut near the Tyre docks furtively trying to arrange passage to Port Said, a distance, by dhow, of 24 [sic] miles. But there were captains who would do anything for gold and they contacted one who agreed to take the risk. The same night they sneaked aboard.
“We were jubilant. We were sure we would be free of the country in a day or so but even the elements seemed to be against us. For 10 days – for an eternity – we lay becalmed and with each passing hour our dreams and Canada faded further away.”
But the breezes finally quickened and the small vessel sailed down the Mediterranean to Port Said. There the refugees, through an agent, bought passage on a British ship.
“When we approached it we saw that a police launch, obviously suspicious, was circling the ship, but we couldn’t turn back. When it was offside we closed in fast.
“Rope ladders had been lowered over the side. We were clambering up them when the launch nosed into view. The leader of our party, Ferhat Haddad, literally threw me onto the ladder – political sanctuary. The last two members were captured and I never heard of them again.”
When Sol landed in New York he had only four dollars in his pocket and not an English word in his head.
“I didn’t know anything about farming so naturally I didn’t last long. When the farmer told me I was fired I didn’t understand what he was saying. I got what he was driving at when he took me by the hand and led me off his farm,” chuckled Sol.
But Solomon Mussallem was a resourceful youth. He talked a fellow countryman into grubstaking him to a suitcase of novelties. Much later he married his benefactor’s sister.
Despite his inability to speak English young Sol made good, fast.
Nothing demonstrates more forcibly the unswerving singleness of purpose that has characterized Sol Mussallem’s entire life than the swift success he achieved in the first few years he was in Canada.
He went to night school again, this time to learn English. In less than three years he was operating his own shop – similar to the 15 cent stores of today – in Pembroke.
Two years later he made and lost his first fortune gambling in cobalt so he took Horace Greeley’s advice.
In 1905 he opened a warehouse on Higgins Avenue in Winnipeg to cater to pedlars. He hadn’t been there long when Prince Rupert became the Grand Trunk Pacific terminus and reverberations from the ensuing boom echoed across Canada. Sol responded.
He opened a grocery-jewellery store in the frontier town and, like everybody else, began to dabble in real estate. It became more than mere dabbling.
When the bottom dropped out of everything about $100,000 of Sol’s money dropped with it. He evacuated to Vancouver.
“The automobile business was coming to the front. I decided to get into it.”
An inherent shrewdness sharpened by sad experience impelled him, this time, to proceed more cautiously. He surveyed the field, traveled from Vancouver to Edmonton looking for a town with a future and returned to the one he first scouted – Haney. His choice was a prophetically happy one for himself and the community.
He bought an abandoned barn, installed a pump and for six months, ran it alone. Four years later, he was employing 10 mechanics and from then on he has never looked back.
At the end of 1952 he owned and operated three of the largest and most modern auto emporiums in the Fraser Valley and employed a combined staff of 50.
When Sol goes out for anything he means to get it – usually he does. In 1928 he tossed his hat in the local political arena and swept to victory on the most sweeping majority ever counted up by a councilor in that district.
After two years he figured he had enough experience to lead council so he decided he’d better become reeve. He did, most conclusively. As Jack Boothe, one-time Vancouver Province cartoonist, put it in caricature: “the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold!”
Remembering that election Sol said: “My opponent and I were waiting together for the returns. The phone rang and he answered, then he turned to me and said in great bewilderment, ’99 votes were cast in that poll, you got 90 of them, must be something wrong.’
“Gimme that phone, I told him, something is wrong. I want to find out how I lost those nine.”
It was that attitude of “I will not be beaten and I know it better than anyone”; of his complete faith in his own predestined success that swept Sol from one victory to the next, and although the results were monotonous the battles for them definitely were not.
In those days in Maple Ridge electioneering was really something. The last meeting before the ballots were cast was always held in the Hammond Hall and were better than Barnum’s best.
It was a real, downright donnybrook with every candidate in the act and everybody in the district, including the kids, in the audience.
The insults and vilifications were a wonder and a joy to hear. Sol was always the last speaker and he sat in glowering silence, squirming occasionally from the sharper thrusts, while his opponents, often in mule-driving vernacular, heaped it on his head.
When his turn came he would rear to his feet and start to talk, slowly, carefully, enunciating each word with distinction. But as his indignation mounted so did his voice until it thundered through the old building and the voters shivered with delight, dissolving his opponents’ chances in shouts of delighted laughter.
Because of Sol the municipality of Maple Ridge has as good, and possibly better roads and bridges than any other in B.C.
Because of him it has a spanking new city hall as modern as money.
And because of what he’s done for his neighbors it has a liking, respect and admiration verging on awe for this immigrant boy who still has trouble with his English.