April 2012 Archives

Meet Mustafa

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Below is the text of a paper I wrote for a class called the History and Geography of New York. The assignment was to interview someone who had immigrated to New York as an adult and to present their oral history in the context of the history of immigration. Conveniently, I happen to be dating a lovely man who immigrated from Jordan to NYC in 1999. He was thrilled to share his story, and when I read it to him before I handed it in, he got all teary and emotional (as did I). Since then, he's been singing a take on an old reggae song, "This is my stoooory, I love my stoooory..."

I figure maybe you'll enjoy a story about immigration and pursuing one's dreams in New York City. Or at least, you can see some of why I love and admire Mustafa as much as I do.

When Mustafa Ikhmaies imagined New York City, it seemed like a dream from the movies. His mind swirling with visions of celebrities, glamour, excitement, and fun, he pictured himself walking down the streets of Manhattan as an American, with limitless possibilities. Looking out the window as his plane arrived in JFK, his heart raced with excitement and breathless anticipation, but as he rode in a car through Queens to his first home in Brooklyn, Mustafa realized his experience in America would be a much starker and more difficult reality. Through many hardships and challenges in his thirteen years living in New York, Mustafa has maintained a rare optimism, integrity, and perseverance that characterize the spirit of immigration in pursuit of the American dream.

Born May 24, 1981 in the capital city of Amman, Jordan, Muzafar Faroq Hafez Ikhmaies is the eldest son from his father's first marriage with one sister and seven half-siblings. Muzafar uses the name "Mustafa" with Americans, saying they find that name somehow easier to pronounce, if only because it is a more common Arabic name.

"I love my real name," he says, explaining that Muzafar means "victor in war" or "triumphant one" and Ikhmaies means "lion's den." "Together, it is the one who faces the lion's den and comes out the winner," he laughs. This courage and fortitude in the face of danger and uncertainty has been an accurate prediction of Mustafa's unshakable character.

As descendants of Palestinian refugees in the Jabal Anzha neighborhood of Amman, the Ikhmaies family had a pleasant life, although it was tempered with a sense of displacement. Mustafa's father had gone to college for surveying, but worked mainly in importing and exporting in Asian countries. When Mustafa was eleven months old, his father took a second wife, which the family found distasteful even though it is considered an acceptable practice in Jordan and under Muslim law. His marriage with Mustafa's mother soured, and by the time Mustafa was eight years old in 1989, his father had divorced her and left to seek a new life in New York City. His mother taught knitting and piecing sweaters so her children could continue to have spending money and luxuries while living in her father's house. Mustafa remembers these years fondly, spending most of his time with his large family and friends, playing soccer in large teams of 20 on 20 or 40 on 40, "because we only had one football among all of us, you see."

Most of his childhood was spent playing in nature, inventing games outdoors. "No one had video games or computers like American kids," he said, "we used our minds to make fun." This love of nature and connection to the natural world became central to Mustafa's values and would later inspire one of his greatest dreams.

In 1993, Mustafa's father returned to Jordan from the United States, briefly reconciling with Mustafa's mother before the relationship became violent and abusive. The disgust Mustafa felt watching his father mistreat his mother caused him to question much of the accepted Muslim treatment of women, and he vowed to do right by his mother and sister. By the time Mustafa was seventeen years old, his father had returned to New York and married an American woman. Mustafa's new stepmother sponsored the older children who had finished secondary school for their green cards, and on July 16, 1999, Mustafa arrived in New York with two half-brothers and one half-sister. The decision to come to New York and live with his father was difficult given their tempestuous past, but Mustafa's mother urged him to pursue his dreams and seek a better life.

"When I was coming here, I thought I would complete my education, that I would go to college and be a boxer, that maybe I would study and become an airplane pilot," he mused, "but nobody would help." It quickly became evident that Mustafa's father intended for him to begin working immediately to help support his half-siblings and the father's second wife in Jordan.

"He told me I was the eldest son, I had to help them, and for my family, I would give anything - I would die. But I felt like these people weren't my family. They were just my father's other kids and he was giving nothing to my mother or my sister."

Heartbroken and crushed, Mustafa quarreled with his father and struggled to find work. "I didn't speak any English, not a word," he said, "and honestly, I was still a kid. I didn't have any work I knew how to do." He began working for an Arab plumbing company, for $20 and eventually $40 a day. "I worked like a slave," he sighed. His work closely resembled the 18th and 19th century Irish and German immigrants' experience, taking on unskilled labor at low wages in unsafe conditions and slowly learning a trade. Mustafa's unflappable charm and congeniality helped him make friends and gain opportunities, but he continued to struggle.

After nine difficult months, Mustafa and his father had a great falling-out and in March 2000, he left his father's home. After several nights sleeping in the park and rinsing out his one change of clothes at work, Mustafa ran into a fellow immigrant from Jordan, who insisted he come stay at his apartment. "I am so forever grateful to him, to keep me from being homeless. I felt like I really could make it on my own."

Over the next few years, Mustafa worked long hours in plumbing with gradually increasing pay, and he learned to speak English from his coworkers and friends. "Sometimes I think I speak English very well, like maybe I sound like I was born here," he says, "but other times, I feel like there are animals in my brain." To this day, he laments that he cannot read or write English well, having never had the opportunity to take ESL classes while working erratic hours. When the marriage between Mustafa's father and stepmother fell apart, she became angry and refused to help the children keep their green cards. Because Mustafa was already 18, Immigration Services took his temporary green card and denied his case for permanent residence. Over the nine years of legal entanglement to eventually gain a long-term green card, Mustafa continued to work and pay taxes. "Thank God, I had a social security number that said I was eligible to work, and I love this country. I was proud to pay taxes."

Focusing primarily in new construction plumbing, Mustafa learned the trade, taking on more and more responsibilities at the work sites. He encountered difficulties with corrupt bosses who paid him as little as $2 an hour, and he has never had health insurance. In 2002, while working on a project for the city, he was injured badly and couldn't work in plumbing for several months. "I didn't know about the laws," he says, regarding his employer's dismissal without compensation, "I wish I knew I had rights." He took a short-term job working for a kosher butcher in Brooklyn, taking advantage of skills learned at his uncle's butcher shop in Jordan as a boy, and he began to think of how to establish better job security and pay.

Mustafa found it was initially difficult to find work in New York in the wake of the September 11th attacks, which was a distressingly common experience for Arab men. "People wouldn't say it to me or make fights with me, but I could see it in their eyes: they didn't trust me." He saw friendships crumble, previously cordial work relationships dissipate, and long-time customers saying they'd feel more comfortable with an American doing their plumbing. Mustafa was hurt and stunned. "When I was first working in the city, I would look at the towers in Manhattan and think they were so, so beautiful. They were everything, they were the city." His voice breaks as he continues, "When I looked and they weren't there and so many terrible things happened to people, I felt my heart breaking right open, like these guys took everything from us." Twenty years old and already fully devoted to his home city, Mustafa was taken aback that his fellow New Yorkers should lash out at him with anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments while he was grieving beside them. "I remember one guy on the subway, he glared at me and just said 'F---ing terrorist,' and I felt like he spit on my mother, like he was taking away my home from me again."

In 2006, Mustafa started his own business, Malaak Plumbing and Heating. He was enormously proud of the venture, named after his beloved niece, whose name means "Angel." Business was good for a time, "Thank God, I had a lot of work. I worked hard, and I made good money." Mustafa remembered the bosses he had had and made sure to treat his workers kindly and more fairly. He paid them well and went out of his way to drive them to and from job sites. At 25 years old, Mustafa felt he had succeeded, "I was so happy I made my own thing for myself," and he fondly recalls a used van he bought for $400. "It was a piece of junk, but I felt like that thing was a Mercedes - it was the first car I bought from my own pocket." Mustafa was able to bring his mother from Jordan to live with him in Brooklyn, and he was thrilled to eventually give her the home and support he felt she deserved in Staten Island. When asked about the experience of living with his mother, he is quick to clarify proudly, "No, this is a very important difference. My mother lives with me."

Unfortunately, Mustafa's business would not last. He began losing money from customers defaulting on payments or cheating him entirely. He made liens but nothing happened and when pushed, people threatened to call Immigration Services. As the economy faltered, collecting bills became even more difficult, and many customers revealed surprisingly cruel anti-Arab sentiments toward him that either betrayed their true prejudices or were put on as a guise to rationalize dishonest dealings with him.

In 2010, frustrated and disheartened, he was forced to give up his business and begin working for another company, struggling with long hours on a relentless 7-day-a-week schedule with no health insurance or benefits, unreliable pay, and uncomfortably frequent mistreatment. "I'm so tired of construction," he says with a heavy sigh, "People treat you terribly. They expect you to do the work for free and you give all your time and your whole body for nothing."

Now nearly 31 years old, Mustafa feels he has not come anywhere close to achieving his goals. He wants to become proficient in English and finish his education. He badly wants to become an American citizen, saying that after thirteen years and his entire adult life, "This country is my home. I love it so much, the fairness, the way people are so open and accepting of each other." Because he came when he was young, he says, "In my heart, I feel I am already an American because I am a New Yorker." Like many New Yorkers, he feels disconnected with the rest of the country on national politics, "I hate what the government or these people try to make it."

Mustafa's experience is very different from the Syrian and Turkish merchants and peddlers that typify Arab-American immigration at the turn of the century but parallels the post-1960s wave of approximately 200,000 Muslim Arab immigrants currently in New York City. As the son of a displaced Palestinian family, Mustafa's immigration wave joins with the tide of Palestinian immigration to the United States. Though he grew up in Jordan and loved it dearly, he never felt it was his true home, and he is happy to have settled in New York. Like his deceased grandfather who wished that one day his bones would be returned to Palestine, Mustafa dreams of visiting his ancestral home and seeing where his people are from, but he knows that until the Middle East is stabilized, he cannot live there. He has strong feelings on international politics and deep concerns about Western manipulation of Middle Eastern lands for corrupt motives. Like many New Yorkers, he has found a sanctuary in a city that is so tolerant of the many cultures and beliefs that comingle, mostly harmoniously.

Mustafa exemplifies the values upon which New York was initially founded. He demonstrates an enterprising spirit, while maintaining community-minded, open and accepting relationships with others. "I try very hard to be friends with everybody," he says, "I like people and I want them to like me. I don't know any other way." Building himself up from a penniless teenager sleeping in a park, he learned a trade, founded his own business, and even experienced the crushing defeats of the American economy before he was 30 years old. He believes in hard work and fairness, and he shows that with sufficient willpower and optimism, a man can make his own fortune in New York.

When asked what he most wants to do now, Mustafa shared a dream of an organic, all-natural, free-range farm for lamb, chickens, cows, and goats, with fruit orchards and fields of crops. "I know I live in the city but in my heart I am a farmer," he explains, "and I want to help people, to make the life better for them, not only for me." He passionately describes the benefits of organic foods, more natural sustenance, and an alternative to factory farming and pesticides. "I believe you can make the life better, with the food, and make the animals' lives better too," he says, painting a bucolic picture of sheep grazing in the fields of upstate New York and organic meats and produce imported to trendy restaurants in Brooklyn. As he describes the steps he is taking to team up with his brother-in-law, a former farmer from Israel, Mustafa's infectious enthusiasm spreads and his vision becomes palpable. Meeting with New York-based organizations for organic farming and city organizations that assist small business owners with financing, Mustafa is encouraged once again.

"The beautiful thing about New York," he says with shining eyes, "is that anything you can imagine, you can do it here. In New York, people help each other with their dreams."


Arab American Association of New York. Web. 2001-2012. Accessed March 2012. [http://www.arabamericanny.org/].

Benson, Kathleen, ed. Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City. Museum of the City of New York. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2002. Print.

DiNapoli, Thomas P. and Bleiwas, Kenneth B. The Role of Immigrants in the New York City Economy. New York State Comptroller. Report 17-2010, January 2010. Web. Accessed March 2012. [http://www.osc.state.ny.us/osdc/rpt17-2010.pdf].

Elaasar, Aladdin. Silent Victims: The Plight of Arab & Muslim Americans in Post 9/11 America. Chicago, IL/Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2004. Print.

Encyclopedia of Immigration. "Arab immigrants." Web. June 6, 2011. Accessed March 2012. [http://immigration-online.org/351-arab-immigrants.html].

Ikhmaies, Muzafar Faroq Hafez. Face-to-face interview. 23 and 25 March, 2012.

Immigration Direct. US Immigration Online. Web. 2007-2012. Accessed March 2012 [http://www.immigrationdirect.com/].

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. "Immigration." The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press and New York: New York Historical Society, 1995. Print.

Klein, Milton M. The Empire State: A History of New York. Cornell UP, 2005.

Millard, Rachel. "Arabic Immigration to the U.S." Voices that Must Be Heard, Edtion 338: 11 September, 2008. New York Community Media Alliance. Web. Accessed March 2012. [http://www.indypressny.org/nycma/voices/338/briefs/briefs_1/].

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985/1993. Print.

I have always loved a good refrain. My family and I have our favorite expressions that we repeat regularly, and my dad and I especially return to apt metaphors again and again. For me, it is sailing, choosing and adjusting a course, and for my dad, it is a boxing match.

One of my father's refrains used to be, "Everything worth doing costs a fortune and tends to be a giant pain in the ass." The trick, of course, was deciding if it was ultimately worth it. One of my dad's remarkable talents is setting his sights on a goal and doing absolutely everything in his capacity and then some to achieve it. When he switched gears from a career as a mason to studying physical therapy, he decided that if it was remotely possible for a human being with a brain to succeed in these classes, he was going to do it. And if he could succeed, then damn it, he was going to excel. (My mom was the same way, and when she went back to school, she had a staggering GPA while working full-time, graduating summa cum laude etc.)

The advice my dad has been giving me, for decades now, is that a student cannot let down her guard until the fight is over. Education is a boxing match, he says, and you have to take the hits, roll with the punches, jump at opportunities, and above everything else, stay in the ring fighting until you've delivered the TKO. Both of my parents and my brother did that, and while I've finished three degrees, it feels more like I've done them by accident or default than through any sort of perseverance or integrity on my part.

Every spring, and probably every fall, I get into a whiny self-pity party like the one I just posted. I question what I'm doing, I loll about in existential crises, I rationalize becoming a terrible human being because I get overwhelmed with cynicism, self-doubt, and the exhausting fear that I've made too many mistakes and can't possibly turn my life into what I intend. I overuse sailing and hiking metaphors, I glorify days gone by (and wasted) that seem easier through the filtered lens of memory, and I yearn for simpler, gentler paths. I'm sorry that it probably makes for awfully dull blog-reading, and I know it's old hat, but it always feels genuine and urgent when I'm going through it.

Thankfully, I also know that I will finish whatever apparently insurmountable task was wearing me down, I will get through exams or projects or what have you (or I fall on my face and realize the sun will still come up the next day anyway), and I move forward. Round won or loss, I stay in the ring.

So I know that I've made decisions about what I want to do with my education and my career. I have a plan, and it's a solid, feasible, good plan. When I get derisive and want to berate myself, I tear it all down and call it a farcical pipe dream, but honestly, it's fine. I remind myself of the lyrics from the Ani DiFranco song "Pixie" (embedded below):

Maybe you don't like your job,
Maybe you didn't get enough sleep.
Well, nobody likes their job,
Nobody got enough sleep.

(direct link)

So basically, all this silly self-doubt and anxiety and what all is nonsense of my own making. I do it to myself in all cases, whether I'm studying painting or chemistry, and no matter how much I convince myself that I'm talentless, stupid, and incapable of learning, I get through classes, I learn, I grow, and one day, I'll develop some sense of confidence in what the hell I'm doing. (Knowing me, I'll get downright arrogant about it, provided I don't have to do too much math.)

The goal here is to get a job I do like, to feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. I want to be happy because of how I spend my day, not in spite of it. I really have to believe it's possible, and I gotta get my head back in the game.

Meanwhile, my boyfriend has gotten inspired by my dad's transition from masonry to physical therapy to pursue his own dream of starting an organic, all natural, free-range idyllic little farm. He's obsessed with it, and I have to admit, it is mighty tempting some days to accept his proposal to run off, get married, and live a simpler life surrounded by grazing lambs and fruit trees.

But I've got these dreams of my own I have to get in place first. I'm not giving up the boxing match I've got going with chemistry until I have at least a BS and a job. As much as I am able, I'm going to try to stop stripping all the joy and pleasure out of the experience. I mean, I might not always like it, but I don't have to be constantly down at the mouth and miserable about it either.

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