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March 5, 2012

 

Lebanon native loves Truxton

Ghassan Wehbe came here in 1999 and has been giving back ever since

WehbeJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Truxton Town Board member Gus Wehbe stands Saturday outside the historic railway depot in Truxton. Wehbe, who left Lebanon to attend Syracuse University in 1982, became a U.S. citizen in 1996 and was elected to the Truxton Town Board in 2008.

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

TRUXTON — Town Councilman Ghassan Wehbe, who hails from Lebanon, says there is no place he would rather live than the town with a population of just over 1,100.
The naturalized citizen speaks enthusiastically about his fervor for individual freedom, a passion that led him to join the Town Board about six years ago.
The town of Truxton wanted to pass a curfew law that would not allow youngsters under the age of 16 to be out unaccompanied by an adult, something that Wehbe found intolerable.
“This hit the wrong nerve,” Wehbe said. “I value individual freedom most in the world. The most important thing in life is freedom.”
So he went to the board and spoke out against the proposal. Soon after, he was asked to fill in when Councilman Bill Nicholson resigned in 2004.
Wehbe, 48, and his wife, Gwen, live on Truxton-Tully road. Wehbe is a highway engineer for Syracuse-based engineering firm Barton & Loguidice.
He wanted to be involved in local government to try to prevent laws from passing that would infringe on personal freedom.
Wehbe, who left Lebanon to attend Syracuse University in 1982 and became a U.S. citizen in 1996, said he never thought the people of Truxton would elect to their council someone with the first name of Ghassan.
But they did in 2008 and each time he ran since then. He moved to Truxton in 1999.
“Standing up for Truxton was always top of the list for me and people took note of that and I got elected because of that,” Wehbe said, adding it is “wonderful” that he could be elected to the board of a town that he moved to only about 12 years earlier.
Since being on the board, Wehbe has made it his mission to see to fruition the conversion of the rail depot into a municipal building and courthouse. Wehbe said a federal stimulus grant of about $400,000 is covering the architectural, engineering and construction costs of the project, which should be done this summer.
Wehbe is proud no local taxpayer money was used to fund the project.
When Wehbe left Lebanon in 1982, the Israeli occupation was taking place and the dangerous political environment prompted his parents to send him to America for education. Wehbe still marvels at the fact that in America someone can drive from New York to California without passing through a checkpoint and having to produce identification.
In Lebanon someone could not drive five blocks without being stopped.
The freedom of expression in America is something that Wehbe also cherishes, saying in Lebanon, or the ‘old country’, as he refers to it, people just know not to say certain things at the risk of persecution.
Lebanon operates as a parliamentary democracy, with territories marked by religious groups and people elected to office based on their religion. The president is a Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament is a Shi’a Muslim and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim.
The freedom of religion in America is something that Wehbe thinks is of utmost importance.
“The church has no place in government. You have to elect the best person in government, regardless of how he worships his god,” said Wehbe, himself a Greek orthodox Christian.
But there are certain aspects of Lebanese culture Wehbe retains, as he speaks with pride of the geographic beauty of the country and the cuisine he misses.
Wehbe passed down Arabic family names to his sons, Semaan, 14, and Zehey, 16.
Wehbe’s passion for his citizenship has been honored each year since 2006 as he has been asked to give a speech at the county’s naturalization ceremony, in which new American citizens take their oaths to complete the naturalization process.
Wehbe is a perfect example of a naturalized citizen, said Cortland County Clerk Elizabeth Larkin.
“He is very involved in his community and the Town Board of Truxton, and he brings his children to political events so they can follow him by example,” Larkin said.
Wehbe said he urges the new citizens to get involved in their government because they come from diverse backgrounds and can enrich their communities. He also urges them to realize that their voice matters and to exercise their new right to vote.
“Some people come from countries where laying low is best but they shouldn’t be afraid to get involved,” Wehbe said, adding they ‘have a lot to give’ even if they do not realize it.
The process of becoming an American citizen is a long one that starts by becoming a resident alien and is followed by a five-year period before you can qualify to become a U.S. citizen. This period is shortened to 3 1/2 years for someone married to a U.S. citizen, as was the case with Wehbe.
The applicants undergo FBI background checks and must pass written and oral tests and must also pass tests on history and politics. When the time comes for the naturalization ceremony, it is very emotional and the moment one becomes a citizen is unforgettable, he said.
“You will never forget it as long as you live,” Wehbe said. “I wish there were words that could describe it.”
As Americans, Wehbe said, so much is taken for granted. Turning on the tap to drink clean water, for instance, or flipping a light switch and flooding a room with light.
These things do not happen in other parts of the world, he said. His brother, who is still in Lebanon, lives on a rotating schedule of electricity, receiving power six hours daily. People drink bottled water because tap water in much of Lebanon would make them sick.
Having experienced these things makes him all the more grateful for the lifestyle America affords, said Wehbe, who also has a sister in Texas.
Wehbe said his parents have visited and also loved where he lives. He chose to live in Truxton because he likes country life and did not want his children growing up in a city.

 

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