Ghassan Berry, 78, sits with his granddaughter, Joelle Fakih, 19, at the Mardigan Library. Photo Credit: Brighid Driscoll

Ghassan Berry and Joelle Fakih are both immigrants and students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. They are also grandfather and granddaughter.

Berry, 78, graduated with a degree in Journalism at the Lebanese University in Beirut, Lebanon in 1975. He has been in the United States since 1995.

“When I came to the United States, I was nowhere near fluent in English so I took classes at Henry Ford College,” said Berry.

After graduating from HFC, Berry transferred here and received his Bachelor’s in Communication in the year 2006. Although he has a degree, he still audits at least one class a semester with his close friend Stan Goldberg, 70.

“He’s here to learn and have fun,” said Fakih. “I have to get good grades.” Fakih, 19, has freshman standing at UM-Dearborn and is planning on pursuing medical school when she graduates from the university in Winter 2020. Fakih is also an immigrant, moving to the U.S. only seven years ago.

“The only English I knew was from like, watching the Disney Channel,” Fakih laughs. “But I actually picked it up pretty quick once I was getting assigned essays that had to be in English. Writing it out really helped.”

Although Berry and Fakih are both current students at UM-Dearborn, they’ve never had a class together.

“I tell her, ‘we can take a class together! We’ll take Religion and Culture,’” says Berry.

However, the pair has had the same professor. Kevin Early, Associate Professor of Sociology, taught Fakih’s introductory Sociology course and Berry’s Drugs, Alcohol, and Society course. Berry looks mischievously at his granddaughter and starts laughing, “he announced it in class.”

“Oh yeah!” Fakih starts laughing, too. “Professor Early walked into my class and it was early in the semester so I didn’t really know him yet. He said, ‘where’s Ms. Fakih?’ and I got scared because I thought I did something wrong, and then he said, ‘your grandpa talks so much about you!’ It was funny.”

Beyond earning two degrees, Berry has also written a book about his experiences through his travels and as an his experiences as an immigrant in America. The book, A Beautiful World: An Account of Travels, Research and Poetry Written Throughout Lebanon, Sierra Leone and America is a source of pride for Berry’s granddaughter.

“He has a lot of poems in there and a lot of things about what it’s like being an immigrant in a new place. A lot of people can relate to it.”

Berry and Fakih, both Dearborn residents, reflect on cultural differences between here and their home country, Lebanon.

For Berry, the biggest difference between the U.S. and overseas is, “the freedom and respect you receive in America….it’s unlike any other place in the world.”

“For me,” Fakih reflects. “It’s the diversity. Overseas, everyone’s like me. Here you’ll be in a classroom and everyone in it is from a completely different background than yours. I love that. I can’t stand being somewhere where everyone is the same.”

Despite the cultural difference that Berry and Fakih have noticed between the two places, there are also similarities. Dearborn holds the largest Muslim population in the United States and many traditional Muslim holidays are celebrated similarly here as they are overseas. During Eid homes in East Dearborn will be decorated with bright, beautiful lights and flags from the home countries of different Arab American families. Stores stay open later and children can be found playing later into the night.

“It’s the same in Lebanon, probably more loud and more people, though, the cafes and streets are filled,” said Fakih. “People stay up late and socialize, just like here. When Arabs come to Dearborn from overseas, they bring their culture with them.”

As far as being modern students in America, Berry and Fakih’s struggles differ.

“Research papers are too long here,” Berry laughs. “They’re shorter in Lebanon!”

Fakih notes that young people now are expected to work and go to school at the same time.

“I think it was different with the older generation,” said Fakih. “Back then you were either working or you were a student…not both. Now you have to do both. I work as a tutor and I’m a student. Sometimes I feel like I barely have time to sleep!”

Whether she has time to sleep or not, Fakih always makes time for her grandfather. On Sundays the pair have breakfast and “he reviews my essays,” Fakih grins as she looks over at Berry. “We also sit and talk together in the cafeteria every Wednesday.” Berry pats his granddaughters hand, “I’m very proud.”

Ghassan Berry plans to continue auditing classes with his friend, Stan Goldberg while Fakih’s graduation is approaching in 2020.

Special thanks to University of Michigan Dearborn student Stan Goldberg for facilitating this wonderful story.