Claim: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee.
Origins: In early September 2015, after the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, tech entrepreneur David Galbraith tweeted a picture of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs along with the simple caption: “A Syrian migrants’ child”:
The picture quickly went viral and spawned and a variety of related news articles stating that Steve Jobs, the famous founder of Apple Computer, NeXt, and Pixar, was of Syrian ancestry. (This ground had also been covered fairly extensively at the time of Job’s death in 2011). Galbraith’s tweet was a poignant reminder of the plight of Syrian refugees and what young Aylan Kurdi might have become.
These stories rode a brief wave and then disappeared. After the ISIS attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, however, anti-Syrian sentiment rose to a fever pitch. In mid-November, the subject of Steve Jobs’ ancestry again began making the rounds, but this time with a twist: that Steve Jobs’ father was not just Syrian, but a Syrian refugee. Beneath a picture of Steve Jobs holding up an iPhone, memes displayed captions such as “This son of a Syrian refugee gave you Apple. And that iPhone that you love so much” and “Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee. Remember this when Republicans say we shouldn’t take any.”
But was Steve Jobs, the quintessential American success story, really the son of a Syrian refugee?
Steve Jobs’ biological father, Abdul Fattah Jandali, was indeed born in Syria in 1931. Jandali was given a traditional conservative Muslim upbringing, and at the age of of 18 he moved to Lebanon to study at the American University of Beirut. He enjoyed his years in Beirut and even became an activist for Arab nationalism.
Jandali fled the Middle East in 1952 because of protests and demonstrations that would eventually force the resignation of Lebanese president Bechara El Khoury. Instead of returning to Syria afterwards, Jandali decided to move on to New York. (He probably chose New York because a relative of his, Najm Eddin al-Rifai, was at that time the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.) Jandali studied at Columbia University, then moved on to Wisconsin University to pursue a Ph.D. in Economics and Political Sciences.
It was while he was in Wisconsin that Jandali met and fell in love with a Catholic woman, Joanne Carol Schieble. At the time, Jandali was a teaching assistant and Schieble a graduate student. Schieble soon became pregnant, but her father refused to allow her to marry Jandali because he was Muslim. The couple separated before their son was born in February 1955. The 1950s were a time when it was considered shameful to be an unwed mother; and due to her parents’ disapproval of Jandali combined with social pressure, Schieble traveled to San Francisco to have her baby in secret and to work with a doctor who arranged adoptions. There, her newborn son was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs.
Given this history, it is undeniably true that Steve Jobs’ biological father was a Syrian immigrant — but was he also a refugee? This is where the story becomes less clear. Virtually all articles detailing Jandali’s life describe him as a Syrian immigrant, not a refugee. In fact, we found no articles describing him as a refugee published prior to the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. While Jandali appears to have fled Beirut around 1952 due to the unrest occurring in that country at the time, we found no evidence that he could not have safely returned to Syria afterwards.
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), someone who claims refugee status must be a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
In the late 1950s, Jandali returned to Syria with the goal of joining the diplomatic corps. He was unable to fulfill this goal: instead, he worked for a time as the manager of an oil refinery. In 1962 he returned to the U.S. and became an assistant professor at a Michigan university. He appears to have traveled freely between the U.S. and Syria, which is inconsistent with a claim of refugee status.
Jandali did not respond to our request for clarification on this issue, but all available evidence indicates he came to the United States (and remained there) as an immigrant — not a refugee — from Syria.
Last updated: 19 November 2015
Originally published: 19 November 2015