Ethnic profile

Many Middle Eastern immigrants are patriotic citizens

Issue: "War in the shadows," Oct. 6, 2001

Chattanooga, Tenn.-In our tense and wary situation, some ethnic profiling at airports and elsewhere is inevitable. At the same time, we should remember that many immigrants from the Middle East, as from other areas of rampant tyranny and poverty, are among our most patriotic citizens: They don't take America for granted, and they know how much it has given them.

Hamid Andalib, owner of The Loft, an elegant but unostentatious restaurant near downtown Chattanooga, is a case in point. He arrived from Iran in 1979, a 17-year-old with a ticket paid for by relatives. He grabbed a job washing pots in a restaurant, hanging index cards with words in English by the sink so he could learn his new country's language.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1982, Mr. Andalib took 19 semester hours of courses (the typical full-time load for American students there is 12 hours) while working 60 hours a week as a waiter at The Loft. Soon he was the youngest manager in any of the 300 restaurants owned by the Krystal Corporation. In December 1985, when Krystal wanted to unload the The Loft, Mr. Andalib at age 24 found that people impressed by him were willing to finance his becoming co-owner. That year he also married a minister's daughter.

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Disaster came four years later, when The Loft burned down and a dispute with the insurance company left Mr. Andalib unable to reopen it for eight months. But in the process of recovery, he saw how members of a Christian businessman's group dealt with problems: "They stuck with me when many of my social friends disappeared." He came to faith in Christ, moving from what he calls a religion of laws, Islam, to a religion of grace: "It's not what you do, but what God does."

That made a big difference in how a driven man enjoyed life: "I found that true love of God is all that matters." A Christian understanding also enabled Mr. Andalib to understand how liberty is to be combined with responsibility, and that "helped me to assimilate, become an American, more than anything." He developed as well a determined but merciful way of dealing with employees.

In 1996, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce named him its Small Business Person of the Year-but that small business is the largest independently owned restaurant in Tennessee, with 70 employees and close to $3 million in sales. At age 40, Mr. Andalib now pays attention to his restaurant and several other businesses-financial development consulting, business gift certificates-as well as local charities.

He's become a success by hard work and by loving America. The Loft has no Iranian food on the menu, nor anything else ethnic. It provides big portions of classic American food: heavy on steaks traditionally presented; no mahi-mahi tuna with mango salsa. It provides a setting that would fit well with a high-toned 1950s American movie: Burnished wood tables tucked away in nooks and crannies are surrounded by high-backed wing chairs covered in bargello tapestry.

Mr. Andalib teaches his three children that the United States is a great country where "working hard" will enable them to go far. Each child has a business plan; for example, his daughter Soraya, 12, wants to own a restaurant but also be Miss America, and she says that when she has that title everyone will come to her restaurant. Each child appreciates the freedoms of America, and that leaves Mr. Andalib not worried about immigrant children and "more worried about the American-born who don't appreciate their country." He says if every American regularly spent at least a week outside the United States, he'd come back very grateful.

Just as Jewish immigrants like Louis B. Mayer became the Hollywood producers who glorified small-town America on film from the 1920s through the 1950s, so some new immigrants like the Andalibs clasp tightly classic American food, décor, and beauty contests. Mr. Andalib is irritated by those intent on maintaining foreign enclaves in their new world: "I see some foreigners still bragging about their own country, but why are they here? ... We should have no room for foreigners who do not assimilate, who just bring their box into this country and live in it."

The Loft, with its soft blue and mauve colors and its oil lamps on each table, regularly wins awards as Chattanooga's "most romantic restaurant." And Mr. Andalib speaks unreservedly about his romance with the USA: "I believe that I'm an American. I love this country. I contribute to it every single day. I love this great country, right after I love the Lord."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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