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Palestinian refugee tells of experience

There have been many chapters in the life of retired North Dakota State University physics professor Ghazi Hassoun. "I was born in Palestine, during the British mandate, in 1935," says Hassoun as he relaxes on a couch in the Pelican Lake summer h...

Ghazi Hassoun on the dock of his family's summer home on Pelican Lake. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes
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There have been many chapters in the life of retired North Dakota State University physics professor Ghazi Hassoun.

“I was born in Palestine, during the British mandate, in 1935,” says Hassoun as he relaxes on a couch in the Pelican Lake summer home he shares with his Fargo-born wife, Linda. Her whose family owned the lakefront property near Cormorant village for decades before the couple bought out Linda’s family and made the home their own.

It is his journey from life as a self-professed “happy-go-lucky” youth in the then-Palestinian city of Haifa, to his family’s struggles as refugees in Lebanon, and eventually to the University of Minnesota, where he met first wife Virginia, earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, and went on to teach physics at NDSU for nearly four decades, that formed the basis of Hassoun’s first book, “Walking Out Into the Sunshine.”

Originally published in 2013, the book was more than five years in the making, Hassoun says.

“I had a story to tell,” he said. “I knew this was something that should be written down, on paper.”


The folks at Windy City Publishers agreed, and some 377 pages later, it is now a completed work, available for purchase at most area bookstores - including Book World in Detroit Lakes, where Hassoun will be on hand to sign copies of the book this Saturday, May 30, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.

His story started out ordinarily enough.

“I was an average student in the early part of my life,” he said, noting that most of his time was spent kicking around soccer balls. “Soccer was a big part of my life back then.”

But even as a young boy, “I was aware that there was a lot of conflict over whose country Palestine was,” Hassoun says.

There were the Palestinian Arabs, who wanted to reclaim their homeland from the British and assert their independence, and there were the Zionist Jews who, displaced and all but wiped out by the Holocaust during World War II, yearned to reclaim the “Holy Land” of their ancestors and resurrect the nation of Israel - though, as Hassoun pointed out, the Jews had abandoned their Middle Eastern roots for the more modernized comforts of Europe hundreds of years ago.

Nevertheless, the Zionist movement had the backing of some powerful political allies - including the United States - and by the time Hassoun was 13, in 1948, the state of Israel had been formed by splitting the territory formerly known as Palestine into two (hostile) nations.

That decision has had a profound effect on Middle Eastern politics and culture that continues to the present day - and made an indelible impression on a young Ghazi Hassoun.

Unfortunately, the home owned by Ghazi’s family fell on the wrong side of the dividing line between Israel and Palestine, and they were forced to flee to Lebanon, as refugees.


“I grew up very fast,” Hassoun says. “My family lost their homes and businesses in Palestine as a result of the conflict.”

In   fact, he said, his family never received any type of compensation for their losses, and were never allowed to return to their homes.

“My hardest years were in Lebanon,” he says. “I had to struggle for every meal.”

And thus Ghazi spent his teenage years as a penniless refugee, who quickly realized that his best avenue of escape from that life lay in the world of academics.

“I managed, through hard work and scholarships, to get a bachelor of science degree in physics from the American University of Beirut,” says Hassoun.

It was his work at AUB that served as “my launching pad to America,” where he eventually came to do his graduate studies in physics at the University of Minnesota, and eventually earned his doctorate in theoretical physics.

It was at the U of M that he met his first wife, Virginia Schultz of Bismarck, N.D., who was doing her own graduate work in home economics.

“My biggest challenge when I came to America was not so much with academics as it was cultural,” he says.


“Marrying Virginia was a big help. She worked hard to help me understand how America ticks.”

The couple got married in Bismarck, and lived and worked in both Michigan and upstate New York before realizing that their hearts belonged to the Midwest.

“Virginia loved North Dakota - what she called ‘the fresh air and open skies,’” Ghazi said.

So when he saw an opening for a physics professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo, he jumped at it.

“I went for an interview during the winter of 1966, and they liked me,” he said. “They offered me a job, and the rest is history.”

About a year earlier, in 1965, Hassoun became a naturalized American citizen, though he says that culturally, he still has “one foot in the Middle East, and one foot in America.” He still has many relatives in the Middle East as well.

Ghazi and Virginia were married for nearly 25 years before her death from ovarian cancer in 1983. “That was a huge blow to me,” he says. “I nearly gave up after losing Virginia.”

But eventually, he met and married second wife Linda, five years his junior, who was herself a widow with three grown daughters - all of whom Linda says have readily welcomed Ghazi into their family, and their children happily call him their grandfather, though he has no biological children.

It is Linda whom Ghazi credits with being his “sounding board” through the creation of the book, and her journalist background allowed her to serve as one of its editors as well as to provide some of the photographs that grace its pages - including the front and back covers.

Even before the book was published, Hassoun was frequently asked to speak about Palestine and Middle Eastern politics from his personal perspective, but now, the invitations are more frequent.

Besides the book signing this weekend, Hassoun will also be speaking at the Pelican Rapids library on June 16 at 7 p.m. He was a guest at the Detroit Lakes Library last year, and has also been invited to speak at the Cormorant Community Center and in Fargo, where he and Linda still have a home in addition to the one near Cormorant.

“The book has been well received,” he says.

Though as a young man he sometimes found himself resenting the injustice of all that his family had endured, today, Ghazi says, “I consider myself fortunate.”

And while he still has strong cultural and familial ties to what he calls “the old country,” Hassoun added, “I consider myself very North Dakotan now. I’ve lived here for almost 50 years, after all.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes .

Tweets by @DLNewspapers

A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at
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