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Nikula Shahin

Nikula Shahin was born in Bishmizzeen, a small village situated in Koora, north Lebanon, in the year 1897, to a family of twelve children. In a taped conversation he related to his grand-daughter, " the family lived in one large room adjacent to the shop which my father owned, next to a small kitchen and a storage room for firewood and coal. The roof was made out of wooden beams topped with chalk (hawwara) to prevent it from leaking in the winter. At the age of seven I was sent to the Under-The-Fig-Tree school which was run by a senior village member (Abdullah Jeha) who was a master of the Arabic language. Sitting out in the open, he taught us the songs of David and a book of Greek liturgy. He had a long switch from a quince tree that he used to snap at his unruly students without having to leave his seat, and when a bird flew overhead he picked up his gun and shot it down. In the winter, the class moved indoors and the students had to provide a mat to sit on and contribute coal to feed the fire. In 1906 when I was nine, my brothers formed a society, (Rajaa'al Watan), and started the first local school. It was financed by donations from the people of the village and those abroad, and by the income of the theatrical performances produced at the end of the scholastic year. When I was barely fifteen years of age I was encouraged to teach the algebra course, which I had first to learn myself. My salary consisted of two gold pounds a month. In 1915 all the national schools were closed down by the Turkish authorities."

In these unusual circumstances, Nikula, having become a teacher with hardly ever having been a student, and without a diploma of any kind, applied to the freshman class at the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut). He was accepted for the 1914/1915 scholastic year. That was only half the battle won as all the funds he had to his name consisted of ten gold pounds that he had saved from his teaching salary. But such was his thirst for learning and his ambition, that he was determined to face this daunting challenge. Along with three other young men from the village who were already studying at the college, they hired a carriage and set out for Beirut, bringing along their mattresses with them. The tuition fee at the college was twenty Usmallis (gold pounds) of which Nikula had only half. He applied for a scholarship and was offered work waiting on tables at the cafeteria, which he did gratefully, because while they served, they also ate well.

At the end of the freshman year the great war had already started, and by the end of summer there were no more carriages, horses or donkeys to rent. Besides, if a beast entered Beirut it was commandeered by the Turkish government for their forces. Determined to continue his education, he walked to Beirut, with a friend, at the beginning of each year and back to the village at the end, with his precious mattress on his back. It took them twenty three hours to make the journey and they rested in the shelter of local inns (Khans) and shops along the coast road. Their progress was sometimes hindered by bouts of malaria when, shivering with chills and fever, they huddled on the ground until the attack was spent. In 1918 conditions had deteriorated considerably and typhoid and typhus were rampant. One month before his graduation, Nikula fainted and was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with paratyphoid. He was frantic about making it to the final exams, but then president Howard Bliss visited him in the hospital with news that the faculty had decided, in view of his exceptionally high academic record, to grant him his degree without his having to sit for the finals. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in physics and astronomy on 15 May 1918. In October 1918, Nikula took on his teaching duties and started working towards his masters degree under professor Mansour Jurdak and professor Arthur Brown. As a graduate student he was selected by professor Mansour Jurdak as Fellow Assistant, to live in the observatory, check the instruments and record important observations and meteorological manifestations. See History for more.

* Source of information from Najwa Shahin Haffar's memoir " We Once Were Like That"