Whitesburg KY

How a Syrian refugee put mark on Letcher Co., eastern Kentucky

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixty years before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the release of chemical weapons on his own people and the U.S. responded by bombing an airfield there last week, the following article appeared in the April 4, 1957 edtion of the Courier-Journal of Louisville and was reprinted by The Mountain Eagle in its April 18, 1957 edition. The report details how Surur Dawahare ended up in Letcher County after being forced to leave Syria for political and religious reasons and he helped turn the town of Neon into a “Syrian center.”


The year was 1911. The coalfields of eastern Kentucky were just being opened. Mountaineers still were suspicious of “furriners,” especially those who could speak only a little English.

A Syrian pack peddler, weary from a long day of tramping over dusty roads, halted at the gate of a mountain home. It was late, and the peddler had heard gruesome tales of what had happened to another pack peddler in an isolated region.

This Syrian wanderer, driven out of his native Damascus by the Turks, didn’t realize that he was stopping at the home of a notorious character named “Bad”John Wright in Letcher County. A controversial figure, “Bad” John had gone down in Letcher annals as killer. His apologists, however, contend that all his killings were legal because was a law officer.

Anyway, with native mountain hospitality,

Wright insisted that the dusty traveler come in and spend the night, which he was glad to do. Next day, Wright furnished the peddler a horse and accompanied him over Pound Gap and on to Norton, Virginia, where the Syrian had a brother-in-law, a merchant there.

Chain of Stores

The Syrian’s name was Surur F. Dawahare, who died at his home at Whitesburg in 1951.

But before he died, the peddler of clothing and Oriental linens had parlayed his pack into a chain of highly successful stores in eastern Kentucky. These clothing stores now are operated by his eight sons.

Many considered Dawahare a millionaire at the time of his death. He was the forerunner of the many Syrian businessmen now operating stores and restaurants in Letcher, Pike, Perry, Harlan and Leslie Counties. A quick glance would indicate that the town of Neon is a Syrian center.

The founder of the mountain Dawahare clan of good, hardworking American citizens might have turned over in his grave had he known what was happening to his stores when the North Fork of the Kentucky River and the Big Sandy’s Levisa Fork went wild in late January. Of the seven stores he established, four were flooded, according to his sons, at a total damage of more than $200,000.

But all seven are operating now just as though nothing had happened. The stores are at Pikeville, Jenkins, Neon, Whitesburg, Hazard, Cumberland and Hyden.

The Dawahares are a family of eight sons and three daughters of the pack peddler and his Syrian wife, whom he met and married in New York City. At that time, she was earning $6 a week in a sweatshop. At first, that’s all they had to live on. But she taught him to speak a little English and he wasn’t afraid to work. Then he took the open road with a pack on his stalwart back.

The elder Dawahare became such an enthusiastic American that he named four of his sons after presidents who were serving when they were born — Wilson, Harding, Hoover, and Roosevelt. The eldest, Willie, now head of the clan, submitted to six operations so that he could get into the service.

And these boys had seen a fiery cross burned by the Ku Klux Klan in front of their home at Neon. All Catholics, whether Roman or Greek Orthodox, probably mean the same to the Kluxers of that day. As it happens, the Dawahares are Orthodox.

Despite the early threatening gestures against him, the first of the mountain Dawahares never let his patriotism waiver. He was proud of his American citizenship. He saw that his children were educated in the American way of life. Three of his sons are college graduates, two with Master’s degrees.

Once the old man returned to his homeland. But he didn’t stay long. He was a stranger there. He hurried back to his home in the hills of Kentucky, where he died.

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