My Father: The First Firefighter of San Juan

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Imagine flames engulfing your home, all of your precious possessions disappearing… Your family at risk.  Someone calls 911 and within minutes, fire fighters arrive and battle back the danger. 

But what if no one arrives.  The whole community lines up, all the way up to the river, creating a human chain, desperately passing buckets of water, hand to hand, to attack the inferno.  While praying, and hoping for the best. 

This scenario is factual, occurring pre-1950 in the southern province of San Juan de La Maguana, in Dominican Republic.  Until Juan Andres Namnun Yilbe, my Father. 

My father’s family left Lebanon in early 1920s escaping war and violence and sailed to Mexico; on a restocking stop on the island of Hispaniola, they were enchanted by the lush valley of San Juan and decided to make it their permanent home.  My Dad grew up, in an Arabic home within a Dominican town, always drawn to public service, serving as the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, handling and distributing supplies during natural disasters and more. He decided to address the need to protect his beloved town, and began advocating to establish a fire department. Seeking funding and volunteers to staff the department, he dedicated his energies to building this fire department from scratch… Successfully. 

He led the fire department from 1951 to 1974, with little pay and even less recognition. He didn’t seek or expect glory.  But his dedication to his town and people did not go unnoticed.  Years later, mentioning his name brings forth smiles of pride and gratitude. When I visit San Juan, random strangers stop me to ask if I’m related to Juan Namnun, mentioning the family resemblance… They proceed to share stories of his contributions and patriotic commitment. 

Several years ago, a request was submitted to the San Juan town council and Mayor to honor Juan Namnun.  The request was supported by many, including the current fire department chief, Colonel Tulio Cesar Montes de Oca, and the community.  Several of his children travelled to San Juan, to formally advocate to the Council that he be honored, while alive. 

Amazingly the Council, in an extraordinary legislative session, July 15, 2016 approved said honor.   

On November 25th, 2016, while the rest of America was enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving, I, along with my family and brothers travelled to Dominican Republic to bear witness to the naming dedication of the fire department of San Juan de la Maguana.  After my father.  Epic. 

He was seated at the table of honor, alongside the Mayor Hanoi Panigua Sanchez, Council President Dr. Dagoberto Lorenzo.  A man, who on the surface, appears weakened with age, moving gingerly with a cane, spoke eloquently.  He was lucid, wise and engaging, at 90 years of age. 

His speech was simple, yet powerful, recounting his challenges as he erected the fire department and the fact that this honor was for his town. That we should remember our public duties and the need to be servant leaders.   

As his daughter, surrounded by my children and family, including the extended family, partaking in this momentous occasion was a privilege. To observe his pride and satisfaction, that his work was recognized while still living was beautiful.  A true gift for which I’m deeply thankful. 

This was a reminder that our elders hold history in the palm of their hands and cannot be discounted, but rather cherished.  Should you have grandparents or elderly relatives that still live, call them, take them out for dinner, ask them about their past and their opinion of today’s current events.  Enjoy them now. 

Amigos, I hope your Thanksgiving was joyous! 

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