The world is a small place. Many colleagues who now call Milwaukee "home" have experienced the agony and displacement of war. Whether they come from Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Mexico, Venezuela or South Sudan, the challenges of being a refugee are almost unimaginable to those of us who have known safety and well-being throughout our lives.

Some of our GAC member colleagues hail from India, Mexico, Croatia, France, Palestine, Puerto Rico and Lebanon and more than a few of them have known the agony of a war zone.

Today's "Report to the Community" focuses on the journey of Amer Aris, who was born in Lebanon in 1961 and came to the United States with his mother, Rihab Aris, and younger brother in 1990. Their journey was precipitated by the War in Lebanon (1975-1982) and its aftermath.

Here is Amer's story in his own words:

"Hello my name is Amer. I joined GAC in 2006. I work in two units: Business & Retail Management and Membership, Education & Employment.

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1961 and was raised by a three generation family consisting of my grandparents, my mother and father, and my 2 brothers. I had a very happy childhood and many friends. I have wonderful memories of spending time at our beautiful seashore. I loved my country...and Lebanon is a beautiful country that was then known as "the Switzerland of the Middle East.

I was 18 years old when the war started. This war was a disaster and a nightmare for me and my family. In Beirut, we could not escape the sounds of the bombs, the shelling, and the rockets. When I watch the news on television about what is going on in Ukraine, I have to turn it off or go to another room because of all the terrible memories. My trauma from the war comes back to me and causes me great pain.

The war caused a lot of depression for me and my younger brother. Then, my father, my 2 uncles, and both my grandparents passed away. It was death and more death all the time. I began to see a psychiatrist and take medication.

In 1990 we decided to leave because of the aftermath of the war. It was very difficult to leave my country and I cried and cried. My mother, younger brother, and I first went to San Diego because my father's brother was a mechanic there. Then my brother went away to college. He was studying business management at UW-Whitewater and told my mother that people in the Midwest were very polite and liked to help each other.

So, we moved here and my mother, who has always been a fabulous cook, opened the Bon Appetit restaurant on Brady Street, which featured the best Lebanese cooking in the world. The restaurant did very well and we bought a house that we are still living in.

I worked as a waiter at the restaurant. However, I wanted more education. Because I had not finished high school in Lebanon, I told my mother that I wanted to get my high school diploma. I enrolled at MATC and earned my high school diploma with honors. After that, I earned a certificate in Health Unit Care Coordination at the West Allis campus of MATC. I have been doing direct service volunteering at Froedtert Hospital for the past 12 years.

During all this time, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression and seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed medications that were very effective. I also had a therapist who was helpful. I continued to work in our restaurant.

But I was also still very sad. While I have my wonderful memories, I also have a lot of pain. I become very sad when I think about it. When my older brother died in Lebanon last year, we were unable to attend the funeral because of the pandemic. The separation of our family makes this kind of loss even harder than it is ordinarily.

I heard about GAC from the Benedict Center where I was a volunteer in 2006. They told me that GAC was a good place to get a new start. I joined GAC mainly because I was interested in working and because just being at GAC made me happy.

I also got a lot of help at GAC. Carol Meverden, a staff person who is now retired, always helped me with my Social Security issues. I made friends at GAC. I joined the weekly Writers' Group. Here, I have a lot of opportunity to write as part of the work of the Clubhouse. I am known as the member who writes speeches and testimonials when colleagues are being presented with Transitional Employment certificates, or when we are celebrating birthdays, and at every holiday and other special occasions. I love participating in our Colleague Training Program and expressing myself in writing on the International Standards for Clubhouse Programs.

My mother, brother, and I left Lebanon 32 years ago. We have endured many challenges and survived many hardships. We have also accomplished many things. It wasn't easy to resume my education. But I did it. I am proud that I speak 3 languages--Arabic, French, and English. I am proud of the work we have done to create Water St. Boutique. I am especially proud to have so many friends. And I am really, really proud when my mother brings a big pan of her incredible baklava, hummus, or spinach pies to GAC to help us celebrate
holidays or my birthday.

My plans include coming to GAC regularly to be with my friends, to keep GAC going, and to help my mother, who is now retired, as much as possible.

I am 61 years old. Every day I pray that I have many more years."

Amer is a much loved person in the GAC community. We admire his work ethic, his writing talent, and his loyalty to his family. We also adore his mother's cooking and generosity.
Amer on a Transitional Employment position at the Milwaukee County Department of Housing in 2019.
Amer filing membership records on the first floor.of GAC.
Amer and his GAC colleagues celebrating his receipt of his adult high school diploma from Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Amer (first person on the left) and his 3 member colleagues pausing after going on one of their daily lunchtime "Wellness Walks."
Shelby Manuel, Kayla Bockhop, Barbara Davis, Avi Hellman, Amer Aris, and Jenny Teuscher taking a break from their work to take a photo in the Business & Retail Management Unit--today!

The Colleagues of Grand Avenue Club