Josephine Sarafa, August 16th, 2016


Josephine Sarafa, August 16th, 2016


In this interview, Sarafa discusses growing up in Detroit's Chaldean community, where her family owned stores, including a store that was destroyed during the events of July 1967.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Josephine Sarafa

Brief Biography

Josephine Sarafa is a member of the Detroit area Chaldean community. Born and raised in Detroit, she taught school in Birmingham, Michigan, and now lives in West Bloomfield.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

West Bloomfield, MI



Interview Length



Julie Vandenboom

Transcription Date



WW: Hello, today is August 16, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I'm in West Bloomfield, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I'm sitting down with—

JS: Josephine Sarafa.

WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

JS: Thank you.

WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?

JS: I was born in Detroit, at Providence Hospital on the Boulevard. On Grand Boulevard. In 1938. September 23, 1938.

WW: Did you grow up in the city?

JS: Yes. My father had a store on Third and Brainard with his nephew, and we had—there were some four-family flats that were nearby, about a block down from there, and we lived in one of the upper flats. And my sister Vicky was also born there. My other sister Mary was born in Detroit on Virginia Park area. But my other sister and I were born on Third Street—in the home on Third Street, but at Providence Hospital.

WW: The neighborhood you grew up in, was it integrated?

JS: The Third Street one? There were a lot of southerners there, but not — there were some black people, but it wasn't like the blacks today. I mean, blacks today have become, you know, more conscious of their situation and are fighting for, you know, more social justice. At that time they were very quiet and hard-working, and they took on odd jobs and other things, so it was a little bit different.

WW: Did you enjoy the neighborhood you grew up in?

JS: The one on Third Street, I was only there until I was about four years old, but then we moved to Virginia Park and we had a very nice home there, and we lived with my father's nephew so we were two families. My father and his nephew had come to the United States in 1929, and they experienced the Depression, and they worked—they had come to make some money, because they had heard that, like most immigrants that America is—the streets are paved with gold, you could come and make your fortune, and they thought they would work here for a few years, save their money, and then go back and live a wonderful life back home.

After about five or six years, around 1935, they decided to go back home. So they went there and in a few months they married my mother, and then his nephew also married a young lady there. And my mother was only thirteen at the time—they were very young the women were. As soon as they went through puberty and just a little bit after that they were married. But the men were always a little bit older; they were in their 20s. So it seemed that the lifespan of women at that time wasn't so long, because they had a lot of hardships and a lot of pregnancies. You know, they had big families and it was nice for the rural community because they had people to help on the farm and their fields. Every family had a plot of land and they worked that plot of land and grew their vegetables and their things that they needed for their family's table.

So my father married my mother, and he was introduced to her through his older brother. But my father, having been to America, wanted one that was a little bit educated. So he started asking her questions. "Do you go to school?" She said "Yes." He said "Do you like school?" and she said "Yes." "Can you read and write?" "Yes." So he was impressed with that, and she came from a good family, and had a good reputation. Her mother had died when she was nine years old, so she was brought up by her step-mother. And she had two younger brothers and her father had been conscripted into the Army by the Turkish Army, during World War I, and when he got a chance to run away he did because that army was kind of cruel to their help. They were pretty much asked to be aides to the soldiers so they had to do manual labor.

So he ran away and came back to the village, but he couldn't stay in the village because he didn't want to be found again. And then after the war, he went to another little town that had a cantina. Because during World War I the British Army was in Iraq, and they were working with the Allies at the time. And so the cantinas were left behind after the British soldiers went back. And so my father acquired one of those cantinas and that's how he made his living for his family. Until he finally decided to go back to the village. [Note: interviewee says "father" but I think she must mean grandfather.]

WW: What brought him to Detroit?

SJ: What brought my father to Detroit? Okay, because he had his uncle here and the first people that came to the United States the first Chaldean that's recorded that we know of came to Philadelphia. And he worked in a hotel. And then after a number of years he went back home and opened up a hotel there in Baghdad. But most of them, when they came, the first ones that came, like around 1910—this one that was in Philadelphia came in 1889. There's a lady that has researched our community, Dr. Mary Sengstock, and she has written a number of books on the Chaldeans and the history of their coming to the United States. And she was in the sociology department at Wayne State University. She passed away a couple of years ago, but her books are still available. Also, she wrote about the Chaldean community and how they started here and she wrote one about their businesses, and she wrote another one about the more modern Chaldeans and the later years. And so there's a lot of history that you can find through her books. Mary Sengstock.

What was the question that you asked?

WW: Why did your father come to Detroit?

JS: The first ones that came, around 1910, and then in the teen years and the early Twenties, they said "Where can we find work?" And they were told by the immigration officers, "Well, Detroit is thriving, and Henry Ford just built factories, auto factories, and he's willing to pay five dollars a day to any man who is able-bodied and willing to work." So that was a big draw for many immigrants who came through Ellis Island. So they came to Detroit, thinking they were going to work in the factories, but they actually went to work with their family members that had come here a little bit earlier than them. So they had established their businesses along the Woodward and Jefferson areas, and so a lot of the Chaldeans, the first families, they lived close to the downtown area, and then later moved further north. You know, so there were a lot that settled in Zone 2 of Detroit at that time, so eventually we moved to Virginia Park after a few years.

WW: Did you enjoy growing up in Virginia Park?

JS: Oh, I loved it. We had a nice, big, beautiful home, and we shared it with my father's nephew, so his children. Three boys and we were three girls, as Mary told you, and we grew up like brothers and sisters, and we had a home that was about seventeen rooms for the two families. We had a big basement, a big attic, and we had a huge yard, and we had a little rose garden. And there was another lot on the corner that belonged to us also, and we used that to baseball and football. It was really a wonderful life. It was really nice.

I went to the public schools for kindergarten and first grade—I didn't know a word of English when I started. Whatever the teachers were telling me, I didn't understand, but I would watch the other kids and just imitate what they did. If they stood up, I stood up. If they sat down, I sat down. If they were doing fingerpaints, I stuck my finger in the paints and drew. So whatever they did, I did. I just copied what they did.

And by second grade, I was starting to understand. I don't remember anything about first grade except walking into a science room—at the time I didn't know it was a science room. I just walked into this room that had strange things all around the walls, and I didn't know what they were. I had never seen some of these things before, and it was cold in there, and I always felt very cold and chilly while I was in that room, and I didn't like that room. Now I realize why—it was cooler than all the other rooms because of all the plants they had in there, and all the specimens and everything—but I hated that room.

So then we were transferred to Catholic school. It was called Blessed Sacrament. It was a cathedral school, do you know? Blessed Sacrament, the cathedral on Woodward? And so that was in second grade, and by that time I was starting to learn English and I could follow the directions of the teachers. But I didn't offer to answer anything because my English wasn't that good and I wasn't sure if I had the right answer or not.

So the teacher used to have, like, this chart, the pocket chart, and they would put words and parts of words, like syllables in there—and I would listen to what the children were responding, and in my mind, eventually, I started knowing the sound that I should be responding to, and then I would wait for someone to give the answer, and I realized that I had figured out that sound, and how to say that word.

So one day, I just kind of raised my hand like this, just halfway up, and the nun saw it, and she said "Josephine, you tell me what this word is." And I said it, and she said "That's right! That's right!" So I had a little more confidence and then I did it again the next day, and again I had gotten it right. So after that, my hand was just waving. [laughter]

And after that, I started getting really good marks, and I was learning fast, and learned English by second grade, so that was really good.

WW: Very nice.

JS: Uh-huh.

WW: Growing up in Detroit, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around more?

JS: Well, we pretty much stayed in the block. You know—Hamilton—we were between Third and Hamilton. And all the stores were on Hamilton, and so we would walk to the stores with my mother to go grocery shopping for just a few things that maybe my father didn't have at his store. And there was a cinema there, and we would go to the movies every Saturday and Sunday. So that was the time when our mothers would be cleaning the house, and they'd send us to the movies, and they were always like two cowboy movies and four cartoons, and so we learned about Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and all those famous cowboys.

And there were a drug store on the corner, and we would go there for ice cream and comic books. And there was a little dime store, also there, and eventually our mothers started letting us go by ourselves, you now, because the neighborhood was safe and there were lights there that we knew how to navigate to cross the street and so we would buy little things with like maybe a quarter or a dime, to get into the movies at the time was five cents, and you could see two full-size movies and four cartoons for five cents. And we could get ice cream cones for like seven cents and dime comic books, you know, so we did a lot of that.

And then eventually, another Chaldean family moved down on that street and so we kind of played together, and they also went to Blessed Sacrament school also so we would ride to school together. And we really didn't—there were not too many other children in our neighborhood. We were the only two families that had children. The rest of them were mostly older couples, and then the house across the street a couple of them were boarding houses. And during the war, the house across the street had a lot of young ladies in there. And they would go to work in overalls and they would come back and they would dress up and they'd go out for the evening or whatever. And after the war was over a lot of soldiers came back and every time I would see a soldier go to that house where all these young ladies were, and they'd come back—you know, they'd take one of the ladies out and everything, and I would see them get married, and so they had probably boyfriends that had been overseas and then they moved out of that boarding house.

And next door we had another boarding house, and there were young men that came after the war and lived in that boarding house, too. But there weren't too many children in our neighborhood. It was an upscale neighborhood to some degree, and bigger homes and that's why some of them were boarding houses, because they were bigger homes with lots of rooms and everything. And so it was a very nice neighborhood, and we were close to the Fisher Building. I could see the orange ball at the top of the Fisher Building, and my parents' room, it was like a bay window, with an area to sit down in or you could lie down there, and I'd lie down on that area and I'd see the lights go on and off, on and off, and airplanes going over, and it was really nice, and even during the war, every once in a while you would see an airplane go by. You didn't have airplanes flying by as much at that time as you do now. So every time we'd hear a plane we all ran outside and look at the plane and wave at it. [laughter]

So it was a good life and I remember we used to go to Demery's Department Store near the Boulevard, and we'd have to walk from Third Street to Second Street to Woodward, and then go to the department store there, and we would sometimes go to see some movies at the Fisher Building, so as we got older—we lived there until I was about 15. And I loved Detroit. It was just beautiful.

As I got older sometimes I would have to take the bus to go to my father's store if he needed help. If some worker didn't show up he'd say "Well take the bus" and head out on Brainard Street, and I would be right by the store. It was a corner store.

And on weekends the Chaldeans would get together and they would go to Belle Isle. There were probably about a hundred families at that time and so sometimes we would spend Saturday night right on the grounds in the park area and we'd all bring blankets and pillows and we'd bring food, and everybody had their baskets of food, and we'd sleep out there overnight at Belle Isle. That's how safe it was. And then in the morning we would go to the casino there and use their facilities, you know, to freshen up and everything and buy some ice cream or whatever or sandwiches and we also had food that we brought with us and sometimes we would do little canoe rides, or you could rent bicycles, or we loved the most was the fountain. The fountain that had the dancing waters, turning colors at night, they had all like a dancing flow of water, you know, at Belle Isle, the fountain, the Scott Fountain. We loved that area. So we would go almost every summer weekend to Belle Isle.

And later on, as we got a little bit older, my father would take us on picnics. My father always closed the store. His nephew always opened. And my dad preferred that because he could sleep in in the morning a little bit, and he could have fun with his friends in the evening, also. So he would take us on picnics during the day, like around noon, we'd have lunch on the picnics and we'd watch the barges go by on the Detroit River. And it was just wonderful. I loved Detroit.

And as I got older my parents would even start eventually let me take a bus downtown to go to Hudson's or Crowley's, or those stores, mostly Hudson's. And we used to love to go to the thirteenth floor to see Santa Claus and see all the toys. It was just a great experience. I mean, you felt—you felt proud of Detroit. And when they started building the expressway, it was going to be the most advanced expressway in the world practically. This was the auto city. It was the Motor City. And so when they built it, it was just beautiful. It had lawns, and flowers, and nice bushes and everything. And so we felt really, really proud of Detroit and it was just a wonderful, wonderful city.

And the—we always had—my father had the store, a small store and also the bigger store. He would even hire some blacks to work in the store. They would be stockboys, and so—and they were very gentle, those families. The black families. They were very kind and very respectful. They were not demanding or anything like that, so they were really nice.

And when I went to Blessed Sacrament school there were a number of black families there too, in the Catholic school. And in my high school, when I graduated, half my class was black. We were only like 19, 20 girls by senior year. We started out with about 40 in the ninth grade, and each year we lost a few. And then by twelfth grade we had just about 19 or 20 girls. It was an all-girls school. And right next door was an all-boys school. And they had hundreds of kids at their school, but ours was a very small high school. And I still keep in touch with the girls we graduated with. We have a reunion every five years or so and we just had one this year, and we went to the Whitney and had lunch there and it was nice to see some of the girls again.

WW: Did you stay in the city after you graduated high school?

JS: We moved out to Seven Mile Road during my sophomore year, and my father's partner, Tom Maddy, he moved out also, on Curtis, and we were on Seven Mile, both on Woodingham Street. And his sons went to Cathedral Central, which was that larger boys school, which was next store to the Blessed Sacrament, where we went. So they would pick us up and take us to school every day and bring us back home. So that was really nice. It was really convenient for us and I got to finish out my years at Blessed Sacrament.

My sister Mary started at Immaculata, and she finished, you know, at a much larger school than we did. And then I went to U of D [University of Detroit], I was actually the first Chaldean girl that graduated from college. My father didn't really want me to go—although he always favored an education. He was always very much wanting us to do well in school, and he valued a good education. But he didn't think that girls needed a college education and none of the girls in our community had finished college. A few of them had started and had gone for a year or two, but for the same reason, their parents didn't encourage them to finish. But I wanted to finish, so I graduated and I became a teacher and I also had studied—I had two majors, education and psychology—and I got an elementary certificate, and so I started teaching at Jesu Elementary right after I graduated from U of D.

My father didn't want us to date while we were growing up, and in college when I started getting asked to go out, you know, I would say I'm not allowed to go out. And they said—would say, "This is the twentieth century!" You know. And finally I accepted a date and I was afraid to tell my father. And I thought that he was going to just tell the boy to leave. And he always threatened that he was going to do that and I really thought he would. So when this boy knocked on the door and my father answered, he was surprised to see a young man there. And I said dad, this is so-and-so, and he's asked me to go to a movie tonight, you know. And I was just—my heart was pounding and I just didn't know what he was going to do. And I really thought he was going to tell him "leave. She's not allowed to go out." But he saw that he was a nice young man, you know, and this was a Catholic university, and so he had been brought up in the Catholic faith also, and he thought, "Well, maybe this is going to be okay but you have to be back before midnight."

So he let me go. I can't tell you the relief I felt. But I didn't over-use that, but gradually he loosened up a little bit. But when it came to marriage, he still wanted me to marry within the community. What they were afraid of in sending me to college was that I might get other ideas, and start having a looser lifestyle, and be influenced by the way that many Americans just are not into a lifelong commitment and things like that, and that I would change. But I didn't, and I realized that whatever I did, being the first Chaldean girl to graduate from college, that it was going to influence a lot of other fathers and daughters. So I was very careful to always abide by the rules and do everything the right way, and my father—one of his friends, his daughter wanted to go to college too, and at first he had said no. But when they saw that my father had let me go, he let her go, and we both graduated around the same time. I graduated just a little before her. But when they saw that I had not changed, and that eventually I married a Chaldean, more and more fathers were letting their daughters go. So the ice had been broken. So, yeah.

So now, today, almost every Chaldean girl goes to college. Almost all of them. A lot of the boys of my age group, they didn't all go to college. Some did and some didn't. A lot of them just went into the family business. If the father had a fairly good business going, they didn't see the need for a college education. They already had a future in their father's store. The stores were doing well; they were supporting the family. And so the boy just stayed in that business. A lot of them from my generation.

But a few of them did go on. Mary mentioned my father's partner's son who became a PhD in math and taught college classes. He went on and became a professor, and other—another one of my father's nephew's son also went to college, and he became a psychologist and so little by little, more of us started going to college. Many of the boys but not all the boys. Many of the girls but not all from my generation, but later on. By Mary's age more were going. And then today, practically every—wouldn't you say almost every girl? No?

Unidentified voice: I was the only one of my group who went—

JS: You were the only one? Okay? They went later.

Unidentified voice: When their children were growing up.

JS: So—

Unidentified voice: I was the only one. I was the only one. I was by myself when I went to college. You had Vicki, you had Julie Hallahan—

JS: I had well, Fariel had started for a year or two. Some of them went a year or two—

Unidentified voice: My friends either went directly to work or went to beauty school. Nobody went to college.

JS: Really, Mary? I'm surprised. Rosemary—but Rosie Sarafa went later, yes.

But as time went on, more and more girls went to college. Wouldn't you say today a lot of them—most of them go to college now? Many, many of them. So the boys also—not a hundred percent but quite a few. Quite a few. And today we have a lot of lawyers, a lot of doctors, a number of dentists, we have a lot of people that are in IT and so quite a few. And almost all the grandchildren are going to college, so it's really great. I mean many of them have stayed in the grocery business but they branched out to other things. Other businesses. They're into telephone stores, they're into construction, almost any business that you could think of, many of them are in. Also gas stations, many different kinds of businesses that they're in. And a lot of them have become professionals also. Quite a few.

WW: In what year did you graduate from U of D?

JS: 1960.

WW: And what year did you get married?

JS: I got married the following year. I was teaching at Jesu Elementary and my father's teacher in the old country came to America to get his doctorate in guidance and counseling. And when he went back to Iraq he became Deputy Minister of Education for the entire country. He should have been the Minister of Education because he had taught for 40 years and he had a doctorate degree from America. The person that they chose to be Minister of Education was Muslim and they preferred that to a Christian. We were only a very small minority, maybe three to five percent of the population. And that individual had a Master’s degree and 30 years of education, so he was not as qualified as my father-in-law. But because he was Christian, he couldn't get the highest position.

But he was in charge of putting all the high school teachers throughout the country into the schools in every village. And he also brought in a high school for the girls in the village. We never had a high school before. My mother only finished up to the fourth grade. And they were going to start a fifth grade the year that she  came to America, and the nuns said to her, "We're sorry to see you go, because next year we're going to have a fifth grade. You would have been one of our best students in it!" But she came to America instead.

And we grew up in a wonderful home. Both parents dedicated to us and taking care of us and my father was very well thought of in the community. He was, to me, when I would try to describe him, I would say he was almost like an Indian chief. Because he had such wisdom, that people every time they had troubles they would come to our house to talk to my father to try to solve their problems. So he was very, very respected in the community. And my mother was such a good woman and always a good homemaker. Always having good meals for us. Day in and day out. And people—and she was very religious. Having lost her mother at such a young age, she was such a holy woman. And still is. She's going to be 94 this September.

WW: Wow.

JS: And she used to go to mass every single day, you know. And once she learned to drive, my father said to her, "I don't think you're going to be able to learn how to drive." She said "why not? So and so just learned how to drive." these were all women in our community. "And so-and-so learned to drive. I will be able to drive." And she did. So she would drive my father to work in the afternoon, then she'd go back and pick him up so she'd have use of the car to take us to the park. And I told you, we used to go to Belle Isle. But after a while, people who had moved a little further liked to—we were now on Seven Mile Road—she would take us to Palmer Park.

And a lot of the women would gather while their husbands were at work. They would take all their children to the park and they would all gather together and they would bring snacks, and they would sit there and say the rosary together or some of them played cards or whatever while the children would go on the play field and everything. So it was—we had a lot of socialization, with all the cousins. And even if they weren't our cousins.

And I remember at  Christmas time my father would drive us from house to house to house. We would drop off gifts to the children of that house and also receive a gift from them. So a lot of really nice, wonderful activities that we had. And in the early Forties, Tom Maddy, who was my father's partner in the supermarket, he had bought a cottage on Cass Lake. And so he was the first person in our community to buy a cottage on a lake. And then there was a lodge that was not too far from there that was also on the waterfront, and he suggested that some of the men buy that lodge, and then we would have many families there. So we bought that lodge—a group of about seven, eight gentlemen—and they would bring their families there and we'd spend the whole summer there, in this big lodge that had several rooms. And then there was like a little house next to that lodge, and we ended up in that house because we were like two families that lived together, and so they said well you take the house, since you're two families, and other ones took like rooms in the lodge.

So every summer we would be out at Cass Lake. Now if you go to Cass Lake half that lake is owned by Chaldeans around the lake. So we grew up with a good lifestyle. We weren't just—we now had a summer place we could go to and we also had a regular home. And there were lots of weddings and lots of baptisms. Lots of first communions. Lots of bridal showers, so there was a lot of socialization in our community. We would go to a lot of different activities. Sometimes it got too much. You didn't want to go to everything.

WW: After you got married, did you continue to live with your parents or did you move out?

JS: No. No. My husband had a business back in—he had a paint shop, and he also had a crew that did some painting. So he wanted to sell that business, so that after we got married and he wanted to be able to bring the proceeds from that here so we could get started in finding our own business here. But it was taking him too long, so I went there and I went when my father went too—

WW: Where's "there"?

JS: Iraq. Baghdad. And I ended up spending a year and a half there. And then we finally sold the business and brought a little sum of money to be able to start a business here. But he wanted to learn the business first so he worked for his uncle in their store. They had a nice size store also, it was called Big Dipper—and my father's store was called Tom Eddy's Market. So he worked for his uncle for a little while, and at that time, you know, he was paid like a dollar an hour, he was just learning the business. And then he went to work for my father, and my father gave him like a dollar twenty five an hour, so it was a little bit more. But he was learning. And then when he felt that he could, you know, start a business, he did.

One of the first businesses that we had—I think it might have been the first business—well, it was on Twelfth Street, and he bought it from his uncles. And his uncles said it was a really good business, and then I wondered why they were selling it. But his uncles were very well-educated, and I don't think that—the one that was working the store—I don't think it was the kind of business that he wanted to be in, because he was a civil engineer. He had his engineering degree from Baghdad. And he also was thinking about getting a law degree.

So he sold us the business. We bought it in December of 1966. And we took over in the beginning of the year in January. We had to pay for the goodwill of the business, as well as for all the inventory. And we didn't have enough money for all of that so we bought it on land contract so that we could just make monthly payments. And then in July, July 23, my husband went to work that morning—he had closed up the night before, on the 22, on a Saturday. And just as you see happening in Milwaukee right now, is what happened in Detroit.

There was a blind pig on Claremont, which was about five or six blocks away from us, but on Twelfth Street, and we were on Twelfth Street, too, and we didn't know what had happened overnight. My husband went to work in the morning and he saw all these policemen and people were being stopped and he saw smoke all over, and he didn't know he was going to make it all the way to the store. So he was stopped by the police and asked where he was going. He said "Well, I have a store right down the street" so they let him through, but he saw other buildings on fire. And he was thinking, "Gee, I wonder if I should open or not."

So he went in, and seeing these other stores all ablaze, he was afraid the same thing might happen to our store. So he decided he was going to bring the—we had an SDD and SDM license. SDD—one of them is a liquor license and the other one is a beer and wine license. And also the land contract, papers that we had bought that proved that we had the deed to the store, and also the insurance papers and everything, and he just took them with him and brought them back to our house.

And I didn't know what he was going to do because I was watching television that morning after I fed the children—I had three young children under the age of five—and we were watching TV and they were telling us what happened, that there had been a blind pig and that the police had raided it because they were selling liquor without licenses and everything and so my understanding is that two veterans had come back from Vietnam and they were having a big party and at three o'clock in the morning the police had come and raided the place. They had expected to find only about eight to ten people in that blind pig at that hour, but there were about 80 people there and so it just became more of a riot, when they walked in and tried to close the place down, and they met with a lot of resistance and then they had to call in more help and then the situation just escalated and the people were rioting and starting to throw things at the police and the police also called the fire department, because fires were starting and then rocks and stones and bottles and other things were being thrown at the police and at the firemen. After a couple hours of that the police department called in for more help, and the fire department decided they were getting hurt trying to put out these fires so they stopped putting out the fires and the police just kept bringing more and more people in and then Mayor Cavanagh decided to call in the National Guard and then the National Guard came in about twelve hours later and they started patrolling. And then Cavanagh also called the president, that was Johnson at the time, and he said "I'll call it," because it was just escalating, not only on Twelfth Street, but in other areas of the city, so he wanted to call in the paratroopers.

So he called in some paratroopers, and it was decided that the paratroopers would patrol the east side of Detroit, east of Woodward, and then the National Guard and the police would take care of the west side. And the east side wasn't having quite as much problem as the west side, and so the police, at first and the soldiers from the paratroopers were told "Take your rifles, but don't load them," so they weren't loaded. And so they didn't have as much trouble as the west side, and they were able to calm down about after three or four days. After the third day it started getting a little less, and then by the fourth day, by Thursday— maybe it went from Sunday to Thursday, about five days—so then there were thousands of soldiers and National Guard and police that were patrolling the city, and the people on the west side—the National Guard wasn't as well-trained as the paratroopers. The paratroopers had also been in the war in Vietnam, so they were more experienced, and they were not as quick to pull the triggers as the National Guard who were a little more scared; they were inexperienced and they started shooting real bullets. And the police also I don't think all of them had gotten the message to unload their pistols.

So the riot just escalated, and then it took about five days—by Thursday, there was calm in the city. Well, President Johnson, after that—we were paying for that store for 17 years and we had only had it for six months. Only six months, so we didn't get our money's worth out of that but we still had to make all the payments, especially since we had bought it from my husband's uncles we didn't want to default. We didn't want to ruin our family reputation, and our relationship with all the Sarafa family so we continued to make the payments, and we were paying rent for that building. We did not own the building. We had bought the stock in the store, and we had bought the goodwill, which was a large amount of money, but we decided we weren't going to declare bankruptcy, because my husband felt if he ever needed to start another store, the banks wouldn't loan us money if we declared bankruptcy. So we didn't declare bankruptcy, but we didn't know what we were going to do. And then the government decided that they were going to start making small business loans to people who had suffered through and lost their business during the riot. And so the Small Business Administration made small loans available. But we still wouldn't have been able to buy a store at that time. We had lost everything. All our life savings, my husband's savings from all the years he had worked back home in Iraq as well as what he had saved here. And I had three little children, I couldn't go to work because they were still very young, the youngest was two years old, and I had a four-year-old and a five-year-old. So I couldn't go back to teaching with them still home. So we just had no idea.

Then we were interviewed. My husband was interviewed by The Detroit News or The Detroit Times, I'm not sure which one—I think the News, and they took down his name, and said "What are you going to do?" and he said "I don't know what we're going to do."

So then eventually the SBA—Small Business Administration—also said—the government also said we would make re-training for people who had lost their jobs or their businesses.  And my husband decided to take a course in butchering, because that would go along with if we ever wanted to build another store again or get started again. But in the mean time he needed to support the family. So he took a job training—well, he was trained through the SBA funds, and he got his butchers' training, and then he got a job at A&P Market. So he worked in a supermarket in the butcher department for a number of years, and then little by little we started saving our money to be able to buy another store so we bought another store on Puritan and near Livernois, but it was in the neighborhood, it was about two or three blocks west of Livernois.

And that store—I don't even remember the name of that store—but the store that was on—that got burned, it was called Tiny Tim's Market. And it was somewhere between Blaine and Pingree, on Twelfth Street, so it was only about maybe five, six blocks away from the Claremont area.

But the other store he started, he had to hire—and in that store Tiny Tim, we hired stockboys from the neighborhood, and cashiers from the neighborhood, so we were hiring from the neighborhood that was primarily black—oh, and another thing, when we were offered the chance to buy that store, and we were told, this is going to be one of the best stores in the neighborhood because it was doing really good business, and we thought why are they selling the store, but I thought well, because his uncle probably didn't like this kind of business. So I said to my husband, let's contact the city and get a demographic picture of how many people live in this neighborhood. And so I asked the city to send me a map telling us how many families lived in that neighborhood. And they sent it, and it was one of the heaviest populated neighborhoods in the city of Detroit. So we thought okay, this has a really good future, if we run the business right and everything. But we only had it for six months. We lost everything and the owner of the building refused to rebuild. He collected the insurance company money and we only got a little fraction of what the stock we had, because we no longer had the papers; they got all burned in the store as to how much stock we had, that we could produce bills for, because those all got burned up. So we just got a fraction of what the stock was, and so we just lost everything, and we were really down in the dumps about it and everything, and so, but I—

WW: What year did you open your new store?

JS: I'm not quite sure. Probably about four years after that, probably. And my husband had a friend that, you know, he felt he could trust, and he would take one shift and my husband would take another shift and then one time on a Saturday morning my husband was home and he got a call from the store saying there had been a hold-up and our manager was shot. And so my husband rushed to the hospital, we closed the store up, and that gentleman had been shot in the stomach, and he had to have about five operations to get back to health. And we helped him through that period with his family, he had three little girls also and so we felt responsible and we thought gee, if my husband had been here, he would have been the one that was shot. And so he felt very bad for him and tried to help him through the years. So we ended up selling that store. And here it had been in kind of a nice neighborhood. It wasn't a really terrible inner-city type neighborhood. It was near the university, and now we had to start all over again.

And this kept happening to us: hold-ups, and people would break in in the nighttime, and you live on pins and needles. You know how the families of the policemen are right now? That's how we were having stores in the city. I mean, the neighborhoods had changed. A lot of the white people with white flight from Detroit, after the riots, a lot of people didn't want to have businesses in the stores.

But as Mary said, in 1965, Congress loosened the restrictions on immigration quotas. Most countries had quotas, and they were based on how many Americans came from which country that had come and settled here. European countries had more quotas and they weren't using all of them—by the 1960s, in '65, the European countries were doing well. It was after the war, they had rebuilt, they had re-established themselves, they were doing well in Europe. So they weren't using their quotas.

So Congress redistributed the quotas to other countries that had long waiting lists of people that wanted to come to America and couldn't come. Iraq had only a hundred people that were allowed. Places in Europe had thousands that were allowed to come in. And before 1965, usually one member of the family would come, and they would try to learn a business, and start, get established, and then gradually, when they became citizens they would bring their families. And sometimes they had to wait five years. They'd be separated from their family before they could come here.

But after 1965, when the quota system had been removed and it was now based on if you had family relationships, if you had a brother in another country, that you wanted to bring you were allowed to bring the whole family. For the first time, whole families could start coming.

And so the Chaldean population just exploded. We went from about maybe two or three hundred or four—no, probably like six or seven hundred families, to about six or seven thousand families. So they could all come at once. The whole family could come at once. And those that had come previously were sending for their brothers or sisters or uncles or parents or grandparents. So our community just exploded.

And then the schools were starting to feel the impact of this and they said "These children are coming without any English. You know, we have to do something to help them. It's going to take them years to learn on their own." So that's when they started the bilingual programs. And I became a bilingual teacher. Mercy College started having a program to train existing teachers to become bilingual teachers. And since I already knew the language I was a natural to go into that.

So I did, and then I got certified. It took two years to get that, but you could still be teaching in the meantime. In 1975 I started back to teaching, because by then all my children—I now had six children—I had twins the last time, so I ended up with six children—and once they were all in school—by 1975, my twins were five years old, they were starting kindergarten and they were just half-day kindergarteners, there was no full-day kindergarten—so my husband, at that time, had sold another store where we had been having a lot of break-ins in the middle of the night, and he was looking for another business, so he would stay home with the kids in the morning, and I would go off to school teaching. I taught in Birmingham Schools, and I taught there for 27 years.

So I started teaching at Birmingham and then my husband would go to work in the afternoon, and I would be back home by then. So he would work through until eleven o'clock at night. So that was just for the kindergarten year. After that, you know, the kids were in school. We sent them to Catholic schools. And I taught in Birmingham. As soon as I got home, you know, I would have to start making dinner, and then the bilingual program also said you could get a masters degree in teaching, and the government paid for that.

And so I got my masters degree in two years. So I would come home, make dinner, feed the kids, and then I would go off to my evening classes. And so we had a very hard time, a very hard time, because it was store after store. We'd have to buy, then it would get broken into, it became very dangerous, and then we would go to another store. It was really very difficult. You know, the people of the inner city that were doing all the rioting and the break-ins and everything, they thought they were getting back at the establishment. But it's not. Not when you're ruining the lives of the business people who put all their hard-earned savings—their life savings—into that business and was providing a service for the people. They were not getting back at the establishment. They were just hurting innocent people who were just struggling to make it through life, just as they were. So it was really sad to see this happen in Detroit.

I remember when I had my third child, and that was in 1965. I was watching TV. My son was born August 10, and I saw on TV Watts, in Los Angeles, having a race riot at that time, and I thought wow, I'm glad that's not Detroit. Because I just made that connection they were burning down all the businesses and everything. And two years later, it came to Detroit.

WW: While you and your husband were opening up new stores did you continue to live in Detroit?

JS: We lived, first we lived in Oak Park. The first house that we had was in Oak Park—just a small little, like a one thousand foot home, just a very small - it was made from asbestos. I'm glad I didn't get asbestos cancer from living there, or my children, and then we moved to Southfield. So we stayed in Southfield for 30 years, until my husband passed away.

My husband was never the same after that. I didn't realize how depressed he was from losing all his life savings but he never gave up. He just kept trying again and again and again. He couldn't give up because we had six children. We were a big family. We had to have a working person and until I could go back to work, and I just realized I had to go back because we weren't making enough and saving enough up for our family. And so I went back to work and I worked ever since until 2003. I retired. But my husband's health—we found out he was diabetic a few years into the marriage and then after all these tragedies that were happening in our businesses—break-ins and hold-ups, and shooting—he just got worse and worse. His health got worse. He felt all the pressure of having the big family, and all the expenses of a big family and everything, and he had a mini-stroke a couple times, he had a heart problem—developed a heart problem—and then his diabetes just got worse, and he passed away in 1994.

By that time my kids were in high school and college and when the kids were old enough to start helping out, he would only let them work on weekends and summers. He didn't want them to lose time from their studies so he didn't want them to work during the week. And he knew the neighborhoods were dangerous so he was always worried about them and he tried to minimize the amount of time they would come to the store. Most other families their children would be working in the store. But my husband—just his father being Deputy Minister of Education, education was really high on their list so every one of my husband's family were all college graduates, and some of them had a doctorate, some of them had Master’s degrees, and my husband had a business degree. And he went into business. But education was very high on the list so he wanted all his kids to go to college. So we helped put our kids through college. We couldn't pay for all of it. We paid for one third, they worked for one third, and then we would apply for student loans for the other third, and they paid those off when they finished college, when they got jobs so it was really difficult, but today I have a son that's a doctor, another one a daughter that's a lawyer. I have a son that's an engineer. I have another two or three that are—two that are MBAs, and a daughter that's working in the schools now. She didn't finish her college degree—she got married and so she's working in the schools.

So all of them are doing okay. I wish my daughter had finished college because now with this downturn—her husband was in the mortgage business and the mortgage business went down and they're kind of struggling right now. If she had finished college, she would have been able to get a teacher's degree and get a better salary. So—

WW: A couple wrap-up questions.

JS: Sure.

WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?

JS: I am now with Duggan as the mayor. Because I can see the changes that are happening. Our brother is an architect and he said "You know, it's going to be a long—" a few years ago, he said "It's going to take twenty years for Detroit to come back." You know, it's just so much needs to be done. But it's coming back now! It's really coming back, and it's amazing that people are now investing in Detroit. I think the leadership that we had in Detroit took advantage of Detroit. They were more interested in filling their own pockets than taking care of the neighborhoods but the neighborhoods are all coming back too. When I fell, I went to Henry Ford Hospital to recuperate and to have my surgery, and I looked out the window and there were all these plots of land that were empty. All the buildings had been torn down. And now people are thinking about growing their own vegetables and fruits in the city. So they're starting little gardens and they have started making new projects for the workers of that are around Henry Ford. The doctors and the nurses and all those that are in training, they're living in these beautiful little complexes, each one having their own little condo—mini-condo—whatever it is. And at a low cost and it's wonderful that the city can turn around and do things like this. Maybe those are built by Henry Ford, I don't know, by their hospital and medical center.

But other places around Detroit, they're starting to build better living situations. They're tearing down the bad, broken down areas, and they're—I think what Detroit needs, even though Detroit is one of the—the school system is not so good, I would hope that now with new leadership, that there will be a lot more concentration on the education. As Mary said, if you educate people, they can get better jobs. And I think the high schools need to start doing trades in the schools. Teach people, teach young men and women the trades. Make it a class with credits so they can get their credits. Have like a shop where they used to do that years ago—a lot of schools have cut that out—but not only shop, but maybe teach plumbing. Do a series of different trades that they can learn in school because if they get them while they're still in high school, there’s a good chance, even if they don't go to college, there's a good chance they could still get a job.

And so if they learned plumbing, or they learned auto repair, or they learned just how to use the registers to get jobs in the supermarkets, and how to put stock on the shelves. I mean, so many things that they could learn right in high school. They don't necessarily have to learn calculus. There might be kids that are not going to get to that level where they—or might not have the funding to go to college or something. But get the trades, not just after high school graduation but during high school years.

Mary was a high school teacher. Do you think that could happen, Mary?

Mary: What?

JS: Now, college is so expensive—I mean, my children had thousands of dollars they had to pay, even though we were trying to help them as much as possible. My son that became a doctor, he had a 160,000 dollars he had to pay back. That became a doctor. But still, took him years to pay it back because he got married after he finished, and he was raising a family—he now has four children. So little by little, he had to pay it back. But that's a lot of debt on young people's shoulders, and I know that they can't really give them free college like Hillary [Clinton] and Bernie [Sanders] were saying because that wouldn't be affordable for the country to do. But if you could start teaching trades in the schools—give them cooking classes so they can become chefs. Give them, well they already  have beauty school for the girls who want to do that. But, you know, plumbing and electrical and auto repair and construction work. Teach them these things while they are in high school so they can get out and get a job.

And if the government now would concentrate on getting them jobs, just like they had those work crews that built infrastructure during the Thirties—you know, they built dams, they built highways, they built huge buildings. Look at the Fisher Building. All those things were built in the Twenties and Thirties. And if we could get back to that kind of infrastructure and give these jobs to the inner city kids, then all this black revolution that's going on, these rioting, give it to those kids, give them the jobs, teach them during high school, while they're in class. They don't have to take calculus. They don't have to take all these other frilly classes; they have to have the basics. They must know the basics. They must know English, they must know math, they must know certain classes that absolutely are requirements. But for the electives, give them job training. You know, there's so many things that they could do.

You know, and then they would have jobs. If they had jobs, we wouldn't have these problems. They would then be able to afford fairly nice homes and be able to feed their families and be able to take care of them, and the men—you know, President Johnson started the war on poverty. He made it a requirement that there would be no young father in the home. The women that were getting the subsidies were supposed to be like widows with young children, or single women with children. But if they found a young man, or the father, in the house, they would not get the subsidy. So that broke up the black family. We need to get the black family back together and make it an incentive. And instead of just giving them freebies, have them earn it somehow. Let them work for part of it, so there's a little bit of responsibility involved in it, and then you feel the dignity of working. You know, now they're all sitting home, just on the dole, and no responsibility. Nothing is being asked of them. They need to have something—some sort of responsibility to have that check coming in. Yes, maybe mothers that are by themselves with little children—but even they could learn something. They could do piecework maybe in the house. Teach them to sew, teach them to do—make different things in the house that they could sell. They're doing that in Africa—they're teaching the women in the huts how to make things that they can sell on the market. Maybe they can do that for the women that are having children at home that can't go out and get jobs. I know how it was when I had children at home, I had to be home for them. But they could do some things in the house. Give them piecework to do, sewing, or embroidery, or making dolls—making other things that they can do at home. There are a lot of women that are starting businesses right at home, and they could do that for the black women too, to teach them how to take care of themselves and feel a sense of pride and have a skill. This is what we need.

WW: Thank you for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.

JS: You're welcome. 

Original Format



1hr 07min


William Winkel


Josephine Sarafa


West Bloomfield, MI




“Josephine Sarafa, August 16th, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 3, 2023,

Output Formats