Mrs George Joseph Whabee (Shawneene Abi-Saab)1, 38, the daughter of Thomas George Abi-Saab and Katoole Deeb Abi-Saab, was born in Thoum, Lebanon on Palm Sunday, March 29, 1874. (In Arabic, the name Shawneene means Palm Sunday.) According to Lebanese custom, when Shawneene married George Joseph Whabee, she took his first name as her last name and Whabee as the family name (Shawneene George Whabee). When Shawneenes family emigrated to America, they dropped Whabee and used George as their last name. Shawneene used the nameJenny when dealing with Americans.
It was a Lebanese custom to give some kind of dowry such as land, jewelry or money to a daughter when she got married. However, because Shawneene was the youngest of seven siblings, by the time she got married, there was nothing left to give her. Therefore, Shawneene first came to America around 1906 with the hopes of making enough money to go back to Lebanon and buy some land for her family and build a house. However, when her husband, George Joseph Whabee, died in 1908, Shawneene stayed in America and eventually brought all of her children, Joseph, Thomas, Albert, Rose and Mary to come live with her in Youngstown, Ohio.
(Photo: © Shayen George)
Around 1910, Shawneene's son Thomas, who was 17 years of age, became very ill while living in America. Shawneene was told by Thomas' doctor that her son should return to Lebanon, thinking that the fresh mountain air would better suit him. She sent her son Joseph to accompany Thomas back to Lebanon.
Sometime in late 1910 or early 1911, Shawneene received news from her sister that Thomas was rapidly deteriorating. She left her daughters, Rose and Mary in the care of the 'Christ Mission Society' and boarded a ship back to Lebanon. By the time Shawneene arrived in Lebanon, her son Thomas had died ten days prior. Shawneene spent the next year getting her family affairs in order before making plans to return to America in the Spring of 1912.
Shawneene traveled by ship to Cherbourg, France, where she boarded the Titanic. She paid 4 pounds 4 shillings for her third class ticket (#2688.) Shawneene boarded the Titanic with three of her cousins, Tannous Thomas, Gerios Yousseff and Tannous Doharr, all of whom planned to come to America and get jobs in one of the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, and Banoura Ayoub, the thirteen-year-old niece of one of her cousins, who was coming to America to be re-united with her family in Detroit. Shawneene's three male cousins all perished in the sinking.
There were approximately 165 Lebanese immigrants on the Titanic occupying cabins close together as well as having their own dining room. According to Shawneene, the steerage accommodations were very good, far better than any other accommodations she had had on her previous trips. The Lebanese immigrants passed the time together on the ship, very much enjoying themselves.
After the Titanic hit the iceberg and once the chaos and commotion began as passengers were scrambling to get aboard lifeboats, some crew members as well as passengers, who according to Shawneene were "very finely dressed in their beautiful suits", came down into the steerage department where Shawneene was located and "pushed and pulled us up to the deck." This act of bravery on the part of the first class male passengers had a great impact on Shawneene, and she would later comment on her incredulity that these men not only stood by so that she, a poor immigrant, could get in a lifeboat and be saved, but that they actually helped her get out of her steerage compartment, up onto the deck in first class, and into a lifeboat (probably collapsible C).
Up on the deck, there was confusion and chaos everywhere:
"I saw George Joseph, [Gerious Youseff] one of my cousins. He pushed me toward one of the lifeboats. Sailors armed with revolvers drove the men away from the boats shouting, "Women and children first!". They shot into the air to frighten the men. Many passengers were overcome with fright. A woman I had met on the ship held a small child in her arms. Her five year old son, Tommy, was lost [i.e. had become separated from his mother.]"
"Banoura and I were placed into the next to the last lifeboat to be lowered from the ship. A scared young man leaped over the side of the liner and landed in the bottom of the lifeboat. Women shielded him with their night clothing so the sailors wouldn't see him. They would have shot him." "After we had pulled about a half-mile away, the sailors stopped rowing. We watched the lights of the big boat with our hearts in our throats. Then we saw it sink."
Dressed only in her nightgown, Shawneene remained in the lifeboat for six hours, suffering greatly from exposure to the extremely cold temperature. According to a later newspaper interview, Shawneene said that several passengers froze to death in her lifeboat. Some of the women burned their hats in hopes that a nearby boat would see them. Next to Shawneene in the lifeboat, sobbing hysterically, was the woman whose son Tommy had become separated from her and whose present whereabouts was unknown.
Once the lifeboat reached the Carpathia, the passengers were hauled aboard the ship by rope and the children were drawn up in baskets. Several more passengers died on the Carpathia from the exposure to the extreme cold.
"I was moved by the sight of the mother who had lost her son. She cried continually, hugging the smaller child to her breast. Several hours after we had been taken aboard and given clothing, I was coming from my cabin when I saw a nurse carrying a child wrapped in a blanket. She passed close to me and I recognized the child. It was Tommy! I told the nurse and she handed the little boy to me. I took him to his grief-stricken mother. The reunion was a sight I will never forget."
Upon arrival in New York, Shawneene was cared for by the 'Hebrew Sheltering Arms Society'. She then boarded a train back to Youngstown, Ohio, and later made a $150.00 claim for her trunk and its contents.
When Shawneene had originally left for Lebanon to attend to her dying son her hair was jet black. Upon returning to America after her traumatic experience on the Titanic, however, her hair began to turn gray and within a year, it had turned completely white.
(Photo: © Shayen George)
Back in America, Shawneene resumed her grueling job of going house to house doing laundry and housework. She even worked in a steel mill, Sharon Steel, located in Sharon, PA, for a short time during World War I. Several years later, her son Albert and her daughter Rose and Rose's husband Thomas opened a grocery store and Shawneene worked in the store. In 1918, Albert, Rose and Thomas started an ice cream cone company and called it George and Thomas Cone Company. Shawneene worked in the factory making ice cream cones. The family later moved to Sharon, PA, which is where Shawneene remained until her death on 21 April 1947. The George and Thomas Cone Company is still in business today and is now called Joy Cone Company. It is owned and operated by Albert's son, Joseph George.
(Photo: © Shayen George)
Shawneene's youngest and only surviving child, Mary, age 93, incredibly still has clear and vivid memories of her mother. According to Mary, Shawneene was a very loving, affectionate woman given to great sentiment and always having a smile on her face. However, she also possessed great strength and character in dealing with the many hardships she faced in her life; poverty in Lebanon and for much of her life in America, the death of her husband, the death of her son, the deaths of all three of her sisters and two of her brothers during World War I, the death of her remaining brother, who lived with her in America, when he was struck by a train, her Titanic experience that claimed the lives of her three cousins, and the grueling, hard work that she endured in America as did so many other immigrants.
In an interview taken on the 25th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Shawneene reminisced about the disaster and the way she and Banoura Ayoub had managed to survive when so many other people were lost. Shawneene ended by saying:
|" Banoura is married now and lives in Canada. She has two fine children and I am a grandmother now. That was a long time ago eh?"
The Sharon Herald, April 14, 1937