100 Years 100 Stories Evelyn Kaleel

Evelyn Kaleel

Written by Greg Kaleel, Tami (Kaleel) Fay, Deena (Kaleel) Graves, Sonya Kaleel


Evelyn (Farral) Kaleel, also known as Adebe, was born on February 19, 1905, in Clinton, Iowa. She married Nemer Kaleel on September 24, 1922, and soon after called Spring Valley, Illinois, her home. For over 75 years, Evelyn was a proud member of St. George Orthodox Church. At an early age, Evelyn’s life took an unexpected turn. In 1908, she accompanied her mother and two brothers for what was to be a short trip to their village of Ain Atta, Lebanon, to see family.

However, the political events leading up to WWI and the ensuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire that redefined borders forced them to remain in the Beqaa Valley for ten years. By the time her family had secured the paperwork to return to the USA, it was 1918, and she had just entered her teenage years. Evelyn would tell the story of that long journey back to “Amrika” by boat and the approach into New York harbor: “When I saw that Liberty, I knew I was home.”

Upon returning to the US, Evelyn jumped right in to support the family and started working at a factory in Sterling, IL, while living with relatives. A few years later, she met a Syrian-Lebanese man who came from “a good Orthodox family” and from a village not far from hers. His name was Nemer. That was the beginning of 64 years together. As did many of the Lebanese immigrants, she worked hard to raise a family and support the business she and her husband started. They moved from Spring Valley to Earlville in 1939, to open their first store, called Kaleel’s Dry Goods. Nemer continued making home deliveries while Evelyn acted as the backbone to the store while at the same time managing the domestic duties and caring for four children.

Evelyn did not have a formal education, yet she successfully ran a business. “She was a woman ahead of her time,” is a comment you will hear from her kids and grandchildren. Even after they moved to Earlville, Evelyn’s devotion to the church remained strong. She was actively involved in the ladies group activities such as the annual bake sale and cookbook, hosted coffee hours after church, and made holy bread. That devotion extended outside of this Midwestern US community as she attended the annual SOYO (Syrian Orthodox Youth Organization) convention and was a proud member of the Order of St. Ignatius.

Up until her passing on January 25, 1999, Evelyn remained connected to her family and faith. Just as a grapevine is rooted to earth, Evelyn found kinship in the grapevines of her community. This plant surrounded her in her youth as she descended from the hills of Ain Atta on her way to Beirut to the countless drives between Earlville and Spring Valley to attend church as an adult. Her grandchildren remember those Sunday drives through the country roads and pulling over so grandma could pick grape leaves. When she got home, those leaves would get rolled up and cooked—not just any old way but only the best way, which was her way. She did not follow a recipe. She just knew the right mix of rice, meat, and Arabic spices to transform those leaves into the most delicious “yubrak” that was shared with family and friends near and afar.


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