Bridging the Gap: George Moffat, Identity Revelation, and ourBRIDGE for KIDS (Part 2)
George Moffat: Hi. This is George Moffat, a.k.a. Victor Eugene ibn Mariam-ne bin Slamen Hanna ibn Sabbagh, a resident at Aldersgate welcoming you to Aldersgate OnAir.
Mike Peacock: Welcome back, friends, to Aldersgate OnAir. This is, of course, part two of our episode celebrating the amazing organization that is ourBRIDGE for Kids. The last time, we talked to Founder and Executive Director Sil Ganzo about how ourBRIDGE is changing lives and we even spoke to some of the kids who have actually had their lives changed by the program.
This time around, we’re going to hear another perspective from a gentleman who lives right here at Aldersgate. He has an amazing story about how he found out his true lineage later in life, how he embraced his new identity, and how he became involved as a mentor with ourBRIDGE. It’s a truly inspiring story and I’m excited to share it with you. Stick around and welcome to Aldersgate OnAir, George Moffat.
Hey, George. Thanks for joining me today. I’ve been looking forward to chatting with you.
George: Very good, Mike. Thank you for asking me today.
Mike: Yeah, of course. As you know, we’ve been chatting with Sil and the kids from ourBRIDGE. Your name came up as someone who has a really cool story and a very unique tie-in to the program. From what I have been able to gather so far, you found out your heritage later in life and, subsequently, you became a volunteer at ourBRIDGE. Through your relationship with a boy who shares your heritage, you also learned, at least subconsciously, that you may have retained some buried knowledge about your language. Am I on the right track there?
George: Yeah, that’s pretty close to it.
George: The ourBRIDGE program, as you probably know, was a service to immigrant children and it was to help them in an afterschool learning situation.
George: I told Sil I would participate, along with some others from Aldersgate. But, if possible, I would like somebody, a child from the Middle East because I had found out that I was of Syrian descent, because I had been adopted and I didn’t know I was adopted.
George: One thing led to another and I told her that I found out on the eve of my 75th birthday that I had been adopted. There was no information at all about what country my parents were from or who they were or anything like that, so I started a search – mostly online. In the process of that, I found out that my mother was Syrian, that she had been taken advantage of was the term used at the time.
George: She was like 16 years old and the guy was like 40, my father, so I was born out of wedlock and, over a period of time, put up for adoption, was in a number of foster homes and things of that sort, and was adopted just before my fifth birthday.
George: I had an Arabic name, but it had been changed to George Moffat by my adoptive parents who never told me that I was adopted. Anyway, because of all that, I finally found my birth mother and met her a number of times in person as well as on the phone. I met a very large, extended Arabic family and had good results of all that.
She died. Well, my wife has passed away six years tomorrow and, one week later, my mother died.
Mike: Oh, wow.
George: I had two people close to me die within a week. Anyway, I wanted a Syrian child or at least a Middle Eastern child because I thought I could relate to them and I did. Sil assigned me to a young boy about second grade, I think, from Syria. We started bonding until the family moved away because they found employment. The father found employment in Charlotte somewhere and he was transferred to a different school, so that was that background.
It was the fact that I was 75 years old. Found out I was adopted. I wasn’t Scottish like I thought I was. Moffat is a Scottish name.
George: I was the president, second to the clan chief in the U.K. Had to resign because I don’t have a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood in me, so I had to resign my position.
George: I changed almost overnight from a Scottish heritage to a Syrian one and met the family, as I say, the Syrian family, in this country. Probably half the family is still in Syria somewhere. That started a whole new life for me.
Mike: That’s amazing. If you don’t mind me asking, do you know your Syrian name?
Mike: [Laughter] You laugh. I’m getting down a rabbit hole, aren’t I?
George: Victor Eugene ibn Mariam-ne bin Slamen Hanna ibn Sabbagh.
Mike: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. You know, something like that.
George: Yeah, something like that.
George: I always joked that I was in Pennsylvania. I was born in Pennsylvania and I was a precocious child and applied at age five for a driver’s license and they couldn’t get that all on one side of the driver’s license, so they just made it George Moffat.
Mike: Yeah. [Laughter] It’s probably not too far from the truth, right?
George: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Mike: You found out when you were 75.
Mike: That more or less, all this stuff kind of came to pass and that you had a different heritage.
Mike: Obviously, that changed kind of your perspective and your sense of identity and whatnot. Did that change the way that you approached your day-to-day activities? Did it affect how you saw things in the world?
George: Oh, absolutely, because there is a Western way of thinking and I was exposed to the Eastern way of thinking, which is considerably different.
George: In everyday life, for one thing, and spiritually also. My folks in Syria were Orthodox Christians and so they have a different view of Christianity—
George: –than Westerners do. The one thing that was in common, I noticed, that the Scotts are pretty much still a tribal kind of people, clans and all that.
George: That’s even stronger in the Middle East, for sure. There was a very rich world history that I was exposed to. It’s amazing. These folks, my family members, know things from their history from centuries back. Hence, the kind of long name, you know, that’s a way of establishing you’re bonified with strangers. You know, I’m the son of this, the son of that, and then finally somebody says, “Oh, I know Sabbagh,” which means dye maker. “I know the dye maker,” or “I know the family,” or “You’re good people,” that kind of thing.
George: Or bad people, you know.
Mike: Yeah, right. [Laughter]
George: The other thing was that some of my first cousins – I have 32 first cousins. I went from about 2 to 32. That’s the American side. A number of them served in the Army. One fellow who is about easily 30 years younger than I am, if not more, served in Iraq during the first Gulf War and spoke Arabic and had a lot of tails to tell about their way of living and what he experienced and how he was accepted even though we were the army of occupation and that kind of thing.
George: I learned a lot about the heritage first-hand. My birth mother, who is another wild thing, read, wrote, and spoke six different languages, English being one, but Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, which she always reminded me was the language that Jesus spoke – Aramaic.
Mike: Very ancient language.
George: French, Italian, and English. I got my eyes opened. I was asking. My wife and I were sitting at her kitchen table visiting. This was the first day we had met her and just getting to know her and she had her younger sister there with her. She was trying to recall an event that had occurred in this country during her adolescent years.
Her father, my grandfather, was accused of something. I’m not sure whether it was illegal or not. I don’t think it was, but I think he was accused of – I don’t know – taking advantage of Syrian immigrants.
It turned out these were bad Syrians. I asked her what’s a bad Syrian. She was searching for a word and she started speaking – we had been speaking in English. She started speaking to her sister in Arabic. Then I could tell the language changed in mid-course and they were now speaking Aramaic. Then it switched to Hebrew and finally French. She came back and said these people who were the accusers, these people were bedu, the bad people.
I thought about that and I said, bedu, you mean like Bedouin? That’s it, the people who live out in the desert with the sheep and they’re bad people. [Laughter] I said the first thing that came to my mind. I said, you know those were the people that the angels apparently came and announced the birth of Christ. She smiled and said, yes, the bad people.
George: Then that opened up a whole way of how they view hospitality and taking care of one another and that kind of thing. Jesus really came to the outcast, not to the rich and well connected.
George: We had a lot of conversations along that line as time went on.
Mike: It took them trying to basically work that word out over the course of six languages to figure out—
George: Yeah, and about ten minutes.
Mike: [Laughter] How do I describe this?
George: Yeah, were the murderers or rapists or robbers, or what are they?
George: No, they’re bad people. You know?
Mike: Yeah. It’s really funny when you get into the etymology and the origin of words, how the translation gets – it’s kind of like that game of telephone, right? You stand with a can on a string and then, 40 people later, [laughter] it’s a whole different message.
George: Yeah, exactly. What constituted them being bad was they were Muslim folks.
George: Our family was Christian, and they drank, and she used the word “philanderers.” That’s a good, safe word. They were philanderers.
George: They drank alcohol.
George: They got drunk and all the things that a Muslim isn’t supposed to do, so that made them a bad person.
Mike: Sure. Yeah. Well, I’m curious then. First, how did you hear about the ourBRIDGE program? What drew you to that?
George: Well, Aldersgate and Sil’s organization had been discussing a partnership. Our CEO, Suzanne Pugh, said that we had a building available on campus that had been a senior center not affiliated with Aldersgate, but we owned that building, and that Sil should take a look at it. If she thought it met their needs, Aldersgate would make sure it was refurbished and suitable for children and that kind of thing.
It did and so Aldersgate and Sil’s organization became partners. Then Sil came to Aldersgate to put on a program to see if there were elders among our residency who would be interested in helping these children basically learn how to read English, how to help them with their vocabulary, help them with our customs and things of that sort. Another words, acclimate them to their new life.
George: Sil put on this presentation for us and, after that, I said I would be interested in participating in it. I would like to help an immigrant child since my family had been immigrants and were accused, at their time, of being peasants and low lives when, actually, they were rather affluent people when they came here.
George: Then they lost everything, of course, in the move and all that.
Mike: Sure. You became aware of this organization and you said, “Heck yeah. I want to help out with this.” At what point did you meet the boy?
George: The first day of the first program.
Mike: Oh, wow. Okay.
George: Yeah, and he had a younger brother and a little tiny sister. They were in different stages of the program. I think, if I recall correctly, my student who was in second grade, so the other boy might have been in first or kindergarten, and the little girl was younger than that. I had contact not just with him but with the siblings as well.
Mike: Oh, the whole family or part of the family.
George: With the family, yeah. I did meet – I never met the father but I met the mother. They were great people, just as you know they would be.
George: They were good people and they wanted to ensure that their children, like any parents would, got a good education, could apply it, fit into society, and become Americans, you know. I made a deal with him, my second grader. I told him I spoke no Arabic. Knew a word here or a word there. He spoke pretty good English, actually. I said, “I’ve got a deal with you. I’ll teach you Americanisms. You teach me some Arabic.” He said, “Okay,” and that was the deal. Boom, you know, he gave me the first. That was the deal.
George: The handshake.
Mike: A fist bump, yeah.
George: Yeah, we did that and probably I spent, I’m going to guess, about six months with him.
Mike: Oh, wow. At that point, did you have any – as you were learning or psychologically relearning maybe some of these words, did anything jog anything in you? Did it seem familiar to you to recite words from that language?
George: The thing that hit me when I met my mother, my birth mother, she had asked me if I remembered anything about my early years.
George: Apparently, I’d been with her about eight months in a home for unwed mothers. Then I was put into foster care and I bippity-bopped around between two or three foster children or foster homes. Was in an orphanage a couple of times. I had a dim recollection of something happening in one of the orphanages, but she was getting to something.
She said, “Well, tell me what your – do you have any favorite songs?” I said, “Yes, I have a favorite song that You Are My Sunshine.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. Why is that?”
I said, “Well, it was written and published in 1935, which was the year in which I was born.”
“What do you remember about it?”
I said, “I just like the tune. I just like the tune.” Then I said, “You know it’s not a—”
I’m sorry. I’m jumping ahead. She said, “That’s interesting.” She said, “I used to sing that to you as a lullaby in Arabic during that eight-month period.”
I got the impression I was sort of patterned to that melody. I didn’t remember any Arabic words at all.
George: Then in response to that, I said to her, “Well, you know that it isn’t really a lullaby.” I said, “It’s sort of a love song.”
She said, “I know.” And she said, “Our family name is Sabbagh, with a phlegm, and that means dye maker. But if you say Sabbagh without the phlegm, it means sunshine, you are my sunshine, and you were my sunshine.”
In fact, the only name I knew, I was called Sunny, S-U-N-N-Y, because she said I had a sunny disposition. I remember that very well, that conversation very well, and I obviously remembered the melody.
That prompted another memory. I went to kindergarten when I was five years old. I was adopted 75 – no, 80. Eighty years ago this month, I was adopted. I was adopted right before my fifth birthday.
I was going to kindergarten with a little girl next door. We grew up in Pittsburgh. Lived in a rough neighborhood. But I went to school, kindergarten, with her. We walked on a busy street to school, which was probably about half a mile, three-quarters of a mile away, hand-in-hand. She said, “We better practice our names because my mother said the teacher is going to ask us what our name is and we’ve got to know.”
Obviously, I had just been told my name was George Greenland Moffat, and so I said, “Okay, my name is George Moffat. My name is George Moffat.”
She was saying, “My name is Patricia Ann McDonald. Patricia Ann McDonald.” The reason why she was practicing her name was she was the youngest in her family and they called her Babe. Her mom told her, “When the teacher asks you what your name is, your name is not Babe. It’s Patricia Ann.”
George: I later talked to her. We ended up going to high school – by coincidence, we ended up going to the same high school and graduating the same year. I called her and asked her if she knew that I had been adopted. She said, “Oh, yeah.” She said, “I remember my mother sitting my brother and sister down at the kitchen table and telling us the Moffats have adopted a little boy and you’re never to say anything about that at all.” She said, “I didn’t even know what adopted meant but my mother had drilled that into us. That’s why you were practicing your name because you had—” I’d only been adopted a couple of days before, and so I was practicing my name.
Mike: They were programming you to it.
George: Yeah. Yeah and, for different reasons, she was reciting her name.
George: She remembered that very specifically.
George: That annoyed me, by the way, that nobody in the family. My family obviously knew I was adopted but nobody in the family ever spoke about it but, relatively speaking, strangers knew it and kept quiet too, you know.
Mike: Yeah, you’re the last to know, right?
George: You didn’t talk about adoption back then, you know.
George: There was sort of a stigma to it and, certainly, if your mother hadn’t been married, there was stigma to that. She was 19 when I was born and my father was 40 and already married.
Mike: Also, the fact that the region you came from at the time was probably not looked upon in the best of light given that timeframe.
George: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. That story about the song is what, I guess, the point of all that was. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
Mike: When you started talking with your new friend, how was that experience for you? Did you guys find that you were in fact teaching each other things about each other?
George: Oh, yeah, because I asked him about where he came from in Syria, and obviously they didn’t come to the United States directly. They came through France, I believe. Did he remember anything about those experiences, and I told him that he should cherish whatever memories he had because someday, as in my case, they might prove to be very important—
George: –to help you orient yourself to who you really are. I remember waking up one night, after I found out I was adopted, crying. Just woke up crying. My wife asked me what was wrong. I told her, “I’m a fraud. I’ve lived my life; I’ve lived a lie all my life and I’m a fraud.” [Laughter] She figuratively patted me on the head and said, “No, you’re not, George. You are who you are. You’re successful. You’ve been successful in your own life but you just have new opportunities now.”
My kids—I have four children—unanimously urged me to find out, to meet my mother, and to find out about it. Two of them did actually meet her before she passed away. She was 99–
Mike: Oh, wow.
George: –years old when she died. Yeah.
Mike: Yeah. What about the program, about ourBRIDGE? What do you think of the program? What does it mean to you?
George: Well, it got me involved in young people’s lives, very young people’s lives. I think, I hope – I think I was of some help to them, like a mentor to them. They had some inferiority – the boy that I was dealing with, especially, had some inferiority feelings and I related that’s the way I remember my childhood, not knowing that I had been adopted but remembering, no doubt subconsciously, being in the orphanage. I was always hungry. I remember that. I always moved around a lot, so I always felt a little bit insecure as a child. I always felt like I was an outcast because I was different.
I didn’t know how or why I was different, but I knew I was. A fair-skinned family. I’m a dark-complected child with dark black hair, you know, black eyes. I was different but didn’t know why and I could relate to him. They related to me and I related to them, I think. I tried to encourage him not to forget the things that they remembered or knew, to cherish them, but also to embrace what was new.
It told me – I grew up in a time and place. We have trouble in this country with racism. We had trouble with racism, ethnicity, religion. Any nasty word that you could think of, we applied to somebody who was different than we were, for whatever those differences supposedly were. It rekindled in me the idea that, still late in life, I could be an influence in accepting immigrants, accepting black people, accepting folks of different religions. There but for the grace of God go I, so to speak. You know?
George: My attitude has changed considerably in the last ten years. I found out about all this in 2005, so it’s been 15 years.
Mike: Clearly, to you, the importance of this program and helping people acclimate to their new surroundings but still maintaining a sense of their true identity, you think is important for a person.
George: Oh, absolutely. One of the things Sil had posted on a bulletin board was a world map and it showed. There was a little flag or a pin on it that showed the countries from which all these children came and it was amazing how many countries these children came from because there were Africa, Middle East, Asia, South America, Mexico, China, Russia. There were children from all over, all colors and complexions and languages.
Sil, I can’t speak highly enough of her. She and her group of teachers who are all dedicated folks, they were school teachers, so they’re doing this on their after-hours time, they had festival days, bring your favorite dish day, share your dish kind of thing.
George: I was exposed and these children were exposed to other folks, other customs. Dress-up day, you know, that kind of thing. Then we got to meet the families and the families had to participate. This wasn’t after school care, just shove your kid into this program.
George: They had to be supportive–
George: –and participate. They had training episodes, too, the classes, in Americanism and where they could help, how they could help their children, things like money, the alphabet, and American, God help us, American slang that doesn’t make any sense to anybody but whomever. Yeah, it was a wonderful program. Aldersgate supported it until the pandemic, but we’ll be back at it again, I’m sure.
Mike: Yeah. With COVID, obviously, things changed, but it sounds like this is a program that you will continue to be involved in when the opportunity presents itself.
George: In whatever way, yeah.
Mike: Well, obviously, Aldersgate has a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. We hear that a lot about Aldersgate.
George: That is very true.
Mike: They live it. They breathe it. It’s not just a saying. It’s really their identity. What does that mean to you now that you’ve kind of found another side to yourself? Does that commitment mean more to you now than it did previously?
George: Oh, you couldn’t have put it better. Absolutely. We, seniors, participate in a number of different activities and programs, not only for refugee children but our neighborhood, which is a diverse neighborhood. They call it a changing neighborhood; I think is the term that’s used. A lot of Hispanics. A lot of African Americans or Africans.
George: People of other origins. Aldersgate is very much committed to being part of that program. For example, a good example, we have a new skilled nursing facility. Asbury, you might have heard that name.
Mike: Oh, yeah.
George: There is a kidney dialysis program, units there. It’s a licensee that’s using the space to take care of folks who have kidney problems. Aldersgate finds out that kidney disease is more prevalent among Hispanics and black Americans than it is among Caucasians. There’s no facility in this area for kidney dialysis. You have to go some distance to a hospital or clinic, which involves, if you don’t have an automobile, getting on a bus, coming home on the bus, six to eight hours on the machine. The family may not be able to – they may not have an automobile. They may use public transportation.
We have machines that aren’t going to be used all the time. We have a bus, several busses. We can go in a neighborhood and pick up people and bring them for their treatment and make that their unit.
Another program is affordable housing. We have 231 acres, most of which is grassland or beautiful woods. A couple of old buildings have been turned on in one of the grassy areas and why not build affordable housing? We’re not talking about public housing. We’re talking about affordable housing for working families, working people who can’t afford the rents, and so forth in this area. We’re sponsoring that and co-partnered with a developer, architects, public health people, and government involvement to build affordable housing for working folks on our property and offer some programs that we have that might be agreeable to them and suit into their lifestyle. There’s another effort.
The board of directors has been changed from all-white male to people of color, females, a board that more accurately reflects this community. The one thing that works against Aldersgate is we’re still predominantly somewhat affluent, white community.
George: Part of this program with the affordable housing is to open up possibilities to seniors, especially—there’ll be senior housing, by the way—programs that would be useful to but not affordable by folks who live in this area. We can do it, and so elders have been part of the planning group. I know we’re going to be part of the welcoming group.
Then Aldersgate is also going into management helping the Jewish community build a Jewish senior center, similar to ours, but managed by the professionals from our campus who are very skilled at managing a group, a group situation, and even the Jewish retirement center is going to be diversified. It’s to appeal to Jewish people, of course, where there’s a Jewish tradition involved but you don’t have to be Jewish to have a home there, just like you don’t have to be Christian to have a home here.
We don’t have a problem so much with the religious diversification. We have Catholics and Protestants and Jewish folks and folks with no religious background at all. Racially, we’re not very diverse – not diverse at all.
George: Working that way.
Mike: Yeah. Not yet, but you’ll get there.
George: We’ll get there. Yeah.
Mike: Well, George, man, you’re a wealth of knowledge and I’m sure you’ve probably got so many stories bouncing around in that noggin of yours that I could just pick your brain all day if we had the time to do so. But what I want to do lastly to kind of close this out is, if you have any final thoughts on the ourBRIDGE program and what would you like to say to Sill and the kids?
George: Keep it up. Keep going. Keep plugging. Tell us what you need. Help us get more seniors active in participating in the program.
We recently have added a number of new apartments that have been, by and large, attractive to a younger older group, youngers folks, people in their late 60s, early 70s. Get them involved. They’ll have more stamina than George had, you know.
George: Get involved also. Sil, don’t lose – she’s a very, very energetic lady.
George: And fun to be with. Keep it up, you know. Keep plugging ahead. You’re making progress. You really are making progress. It’s good for the kids and it’s good for us, too, the older folks.
Mike: Awesome. Thank you for that.
Mike: George, I’d like to thank you for hanging out with us today—
Mike: –on Aldersgate OnAir. It’s been an absolute honor talking with you. I’m sure, at some point, you and I will end up chatting again because there is a lot of cool stuff happening over there at Aldersgate.
Mike: We really, here on this program, like to share—
Mike: –all of your awesomeness, so thank you again. It’s just been a pleasure.
George: Enjoyed it very much. Thank you for asking me today.
Mike: Well, there you have it, folks. Did I not tell you that you were in for an absolutely amazing tail? No doubt, some of you at Aldersgate have heard George’s story already. But for those of you who hadn’t, I encourage you to consider George’s words and the words of Sil Ganzo and the ourBRIDGE kids. There’s still a lot of work to do and a lot of barriers to break down. I’ve had a great time sharing the story of ourBRIDGE with you. Don’t forget, you can reach out to ourBRIDGE directly at joinourbridge.org for more information on how you can help.
While you’re playing around on the interwebs, remember to send us your thoughts, questions, comments, and ideas to [email protected] so we can continue to bring you the best show possible. As always, thank you so much for listening and I’ll talk to you next time at Aldersgate OnAir.