DEI Committee  |  4/29/2024

Arab American Heritage Month

I am honored to have been asked to add my experience as a first generation Iraqi-American for the celebration of Arab American Heritage month. Many of you may have met my father, Dr Issam F. El-Damalouji. He was surgeon and family physician in Calvert County for many years. “Sam” as he was fondly called, had an integral part in Calvert Memorial Hospital’s history. He arrived in this county, as an immigrant in the early 1960’s and was one of 4 physicians at the time. He “Americanized” his last name so people could pronounce it phonetically. What was Al-Damluji was changed to El-Damalouji : pronounced “Dam-a-loo-gee”. I recall his stories recounting how no one wanted a foreign surgeon with an accent no one could understand. He asked “Is this America? Isn’t this a free country?” and promptly opened a family practice in the small brick building just past the Safeway in Prince Frederick. His practice quickly grew to thousands of patients. “Back in the day” he did it all, delivered babies, tonsillectomies, gall bladder, hysterectomies, casted broken bones..there were no specialists to perform these surgeries. He quickly became a county favorite despite his immigrant status.

Dr Issam F. El-Damalouji

One of his favorite memories was the day he became an America citizen. He always had an American flag on a flag pole in the front yard -he had great pride in his citizenship. Although an American, he still maintained a special relationship with family and dignitaries overseas. Occasionally, an entourage would arrive in Calvert County from Saudi Arabia or in later years from the U.A.E with a princess or Iraqi dignitary that needed surgery. Imagine in the 70’s and 80’s having a limousine arrive at Calvert…it was certainly something. You can look back into the archives of the Washington Post to read the article about the building of the mosque across the street from the hospital. He helped build a place of worship for those practicing Islamic beliefs.

His career at Calvert was marked by his election to he Chief of Staff which he held for many years. He was proud of his efforts as an immigrant to make lasting effects here at the hospital: he helped to establish the first set of medical staff by-laws and he directed the recruitment of physicians in the fields of cardiology, obstetrics, pediatrics, radiology and internal medicine. He was a gifted surgeon, family doctor and friend to many families here in Calvert.

Growing up with your Dad as one of the few doctors in Calvert County wasn’t easy. In this small town, he knew everyone and everyone knew us-my 5 brother’s and myself could never get away with anything- he would know what we did, where we went, who drove, way before we ever arrived home. We were raised to be honest, respectful and to have the values of family first and to have a strong work ethic. We were all expected to perform well in school, attend college and “get a marketable career”. Expectations were always high but achievable.

Part of our life at at home was to eat as a family. Even if we got home from athletic practice before he got home from office hours, we were expected to greet him and check in at the dinner table. It is at these dinners where we shared the events in our lives. It is the food that we made, the laughter that we shared that makes those memories special.

In his later years, he would ask for certain meals to be made for him. Some of the favorites are here today. Our large family dinners would be plentiful and they always have one or more of these foods.. Lamb shish kebob, saffron rice, tabbouleh, hummus, bad un jan, cabbage rolls, losh kebobs with sumac and everyone’s favorite-baklava.

Today is bittersweet as many of the meals and dishes have not been made since his passing in July 2023. Thank you for including me, and my kids Alex Hartwell (Pharmacy) and Nick Hartwell (Behavioral Health) -they are the second-generation Iraqi-Americans here at Calvert that will carry on the traditions and values of the Damalouji family.

Lisa Damalouji Hartwell
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