City of Dreams

Finding a Home a World Away: Middle East

Eight Middle Eastern immigrants share their stories.

By Timothy Malcolm, Abby Ledoux, Schaefer Edwards, Catherine Matusow, and Erica Hernandez March 2, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Mo Amer

Mo Amer 


Amer’s family is Palestinian, but he was born in Kuwait, which—in 1990, when he was 9—was invaded by the Iraqi Army, launching the first Gulf War. His mom moved the family to America, and they landed in Houston. His dad, an engineer, later joined them. “America completely shaped my entire life,” says Amer. “It introduced me to standup comedy, which is an indigenous form to America. It’s jazz, hip-hop, and standup comedy.”

Amer fell in love with comedy after watching a show at the Houston Rodeo and decided to give standup a go, entering the Houston’s Funniest Person Contest in 2000 and making the finals. His early shows doubled as a way to educate audiences; he wanted people to understand the Muslim experience from a Muslim perspective, to share what it’s like to wait 20 years to become an American citizen. “It’s really, really important to own that, and for it to come from within the community,” he says.

Two decades into his comedy career, Amer now does more bits about daily life, speaking as a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, Houstonian, and American, with a Netflix special—The Vagabond—under his belt, along with a performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a gig touring with Dave Chappelle. He appears poised for international stardom. “It’s a very, very important moment for me,” he says. —TM

Gilad Katz 


When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered Katz the opportunity to serve as Israel’s Consul General to the Southwest, he jumped at the chance. Wife and five kids in tow, he moved to Houston and rented a house. In mid-August 2017. In Meyerland. Hurricane Harvey, of course, touched down almost immediately. The Katzes evacuated to Dallas. “To say ‘flooded’ is an understatement,” Katz says of the house they returned to a week later.

“In Israel there’s a saying that ‘what doesn’t kill you toughens you,’ so we got a little tougher,” he says. The family found another house in the neighborhood, where they stayed during the four-month renovation of their original home. In the meantime Katz’s Hebrew (and English)-speaking kids—now ages 7 to 18—started school in a foreign place they’d never so much as visited before.

Through it all Katz was struck by the unexpected similarities between Texans and Israelis, who he says are both overwhelmingly welcoming and warm-hearted. “It was a very, very good experience for me to see that I am amongst friends,” he says, especially in the aftermath of unprecedented devastation. “That’s how I started my tenure: I saw a bleeding city." He went on to coordinate with Israeli ministry officials to secure a $1 million cash donation to Houston’s Jewish community—a first in that government’s history. “You see the real power of humanity—people that you’ve never seen, you don’t even know their names, and all of a sudden they come as your saviors,” Katz says. “That is something I’ll cherish until the day I die.” —AL

Adam Yaqot

Image: Thomas Shea

Adam Yaqot


On a given evening at Ouisie's Table, the most fascinating man in the dining room is likely the one at the piano.

Yaqot, 45, was born and raised in Iraq. His career as a professional musician took him to Jordan in 2003, but he always planned to return to his home country. That changed after a conversation with his dad. “When I want to come back,” he remembers, “I talk with my father. He said, ‘You can’t come, because in our area all the musicians are dead. They were killed.’” ISIS had taken over the country and declared music “haram”—forbidden.

Yaqot stayed in Jordan, where he ended up spending eight years working as a music teacher and hoping to be granted refugee status in the U.S. Along the way he fell in love with a fellow music teacher, a Jordanian woman named Ilhan.

In 2010 Yaqot’s application finally was granted, and he moved to Houston, but Ilhan wasn’t able to join him yet. He received much-needed help through Catholic Charities, but his first year here was difficult. Yaqot was unable to speak English, confused by just about everything, and absolutely lovesick for Ilhan. “I want to talk with her all the time,” he says. “I’m very sad. And then, my God, she come here, and we marry.” That was 2011.

It was while taking an English class that Yaqot made a friend who got him the job at Ouisie’s, where he’s been playing four nights a week for the last four years. He also teaches piano at the Fort Bend Music Center and has played professionally with Ilhan, presenting an original composition about their story during a gala at the Arab American Cultural Center.

Yaqot feels lucky to have built a life in Houston with his wife. “I’m very happy,” he says. “My language is not 100 percent, but I can talk. When you can work and have love, you are happy.” —CM

The Hajjar Brothers


One by one, the Hajjar brothers moved from Damascus, Syria, to Chicago in the 1970s and '80s, to study things like accounting and chemical engineering. They went on to have professional careers, but their destiny, as it turned out, was in the pizza business. It was Fawaz Hajjar—also known as Fuzzy—who first moved to Houston and, in 1986, opened the very first Fuzzy’s Pizza, on Antoine near I-10. The delicious deep-dish was a hit, and soon his brother Rafik joined him here. Today there are multiple Fuzzy’s locations—each owned by one of four different brothers—and the Hajjars are an integral part of Bayou City pizza history.

Fuzzy’s famously found a fan in President George H.W. Bush. “He decided to visit us,” remembers Rafik Hajjar, of the day around 1993 when Bush popped in. “He became a regular customer and a good friend, and he always said, ‘You guys are the American dream.’” The President wasn’t wrong. Hajjar speaks with pride about the success of his family, particularly of seeing his daughter graduate from UH last year. “She graduated in two years with the highest honors in the school,” says Rafik Hajjar. “I am so proud of her.” —TM

Sanya Wafeq

Image: Thomas Shea

Sanya Wafeq


In 2011 Wafeq and her sister started a line of casual, work-appropriate women’s fashion in Afghanistan, employing female tailors. But after they hosted a fashion show, they began receiving daily threats. On the street people would tell her she wasn’t allowed to run a business. The Taliban sent strongly worded letters and called her father demanding he put a stop to her work. She was frustrated, but she persisted. “I’ve never been scared of anything in my life,” she says. “You know, if I die, I’ll die, it’s okay.”

She finally sought asylum, first living in the Washington, D.C., area in 2015 before, later that year, moving to Houston, drawn by its diversity, friendliness, and warm climate.

Today Wafeq channels her creative energy into visual art, using charcoal and pencil to draw stunning portraits that share the struggles and emotions of the Afghan people, while working as a case manager with the YMCA of Greater Houston International Services, driven to empower women at every opportunity.

Wafeq is now married, and gets to video-chat with her family in Kabul every morning. She misses them—her sister remains in Afghanistan but wants to come to the U.S.—but she’s free. She has her life. “My mind is quiet, and I’m not feeling that frustration anymore,” she says. “I can breathe, I can do what I want. I’m doing everything on my own terms.” —TM

Jina Khan 


Khan’s memories of her childhood in wartime Afghanistan are nightmarish. “All I remember is, we were trying to hide underground from all of the bombs and all of the shooting. We were not allowed to go outside. There was nothing open—no grocery stores. We were just hidden in one room.” She and her family escaped to Pakistan and—finally—in 2001, arrived in Houston. “We had no idea of where we were going,” she says.

By then she’d lost her father and missed five years of schooling. She spent much of seventh grade trying to learn English while catching up scholastically. With the help of tutors and a desire to set an example for her younger siblings, Khan not only graduated high school, but earned her bachelor’s degree from UH–Victoria. Today she’s an accountant for a Houston law office, grateful that the U.S. welcomed her, and that she’s been able to pursue a career and become independent. “Giving another human being an opportunity to come here to this country is a big thing,” she says. “It will help them a lot having those same opportunities as everybody else.” —EH

A. Kadir Yildirim 

A. Kadir Yildirim


The son of a stay-at-home mom and a public-school teacher, Yildirim moved often during his childhood, as his father was assigned to teach in different small towns. With the future in mind, Yildirim’s dad eventually secured a job in Izmir, a large city on Turkey’s western coast where he knew his children could get
a better education. Yildirim’s intellect and drive earned him a full scholarship to study international relations in Turkey, and a subsequent chance to move abroad to earn his Ph.D. from Ohio State.

Since 2015 Yildirim has conducted groundbreaking research on the Middle East as a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. With multiple prestigious grant-funded projects under his belt, Yildirim’s latest endeavor is a book examining religiously affiliated political parties. “Houston is one of those cities where immigrants are vital,” he says. Though he misses his parents and Turkish food, he’s thrilled to live somewhere as dynamic and diverse as the Bayou City. And when he’s especially homesick, Istanbul Grill in Rice Village will do in a pinch. —SE

Kaiser Lashkari 


Lashkari had just two years left of medical school in Pakistan when he informed his parents, who’d recently moved to Houston, that he wanted to quit and learn the hospitality industry in America. They were devastated, but they let him join them here, and in 1981, after a semester at the University of Kansas, he enrolled in the UH Hilton School of Hospitality.

Initially Lashkari’s plan was to earn his bachelor’s and master’s, become a teacher, and take his knowledge back to Pakistan. But although he dearly missed his extended family and, it should be noted, cricket, he fell hard for the kitchen and for Houston, whose climate reminded him of his home in Karachi. In 1992 he opened his first restaurant, Kaiser’s, in the Alief area, and in 2004 he opened Himalaya in the Mahatma Gandhi District.

The rest is Houston culinary history. At Himalaya, Lashkari prepares perfectly executed Indian and Pakistani dishes such as biryani and curry chicken while cooking up whatever else he finds interesting, like Indian shepherd’s pie and Indian-spiced fried chicken. The place is rightly famous, with none other than Anthony Bourdain famously praising it after making a visit for Parts Unknown. But don’t think for a second that Lashkari is satisfied.

“I’m still looking for that one recipe that will catapult me into ...” he says, trailing off a little. “I don’t want fame, but I want to be remembered for something that is unique, extraordinary, and above average.” When that’s done, maybe he’ll become a teacher, as he’d planned. The irony is that at Himalaya, he’s been doing that all along. —TM


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