Olajuwon, perhaps the most dominant athlete in Houston history, had a hall of fame career. These days he’s one of Houston’s elder statesmen, period. But he easily could have landed somewhere else. Olajuwon spent more time playing soccer than basketball in his home of Nigeria, but at seven feet tall he found himself being recruited to play college basketball in the U.S. by multiple universities. In 1981 he flew to New York to visit St. John’s, but it was so cold he turned around and hopped on a plane to Houston, pulling into town days before he was expected.
His arrival came as a bit of a shock to then-coach Guy V. Lewis. “[I said] ‘Coach, it’s Hakeem,’” Olajuwon told Houstonia in a 2013 interview. “He said, ‘Hakeem who?’” Fortunately it all worked out. Olajuwon immediately took to the city, especially its weather, and after a wildly successful career at UH, was drafted as a number one pick by the Rockets in 1984 and led them to a pair of championships. Today he is considered one of the 20 best players of all time. Pretty good for a soccer player. —JB
Democratic Republic of The Congo
Alimasi has been a refugee since he was 6 years old. “In 1996 my father was a pastor—still is a pastor—and a human rights activist,” he says. “We had to leave the city where we were living. And on the way we saw they were killing people. They put the whole village in houses and burned them alive. Seeing that, I took off. I started running. I didn’t know where my parents were. I found myself alone, screaming, crying, and nobody would come.”
Alimasi would spend nearly five years as a teenager in a refugee camp before immigrating to Houston in 2011 with his father. Now a case worker at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, he regularly shares his story with lawmakers to advocate for refugees, while thanking God for the opportunity to come here and make a life. Nevertheless, he misses his home country. “The truth is, I miss everything,” he says. “That’s where my legacy is. I belong to Congo. I’m a Congolese. Now I’m a citizen, but I miss my people. I miss the beauty of the country. I miss everything. My prayer for my country is for justice to happen. There’s no peace without justice.” —EH
If Houston has a single sartorial star, it's Armanious. A fixture of the society circuit and creative director of Tootsies since 2011, he embodies the consummate glamour of the local luxury emporium with his famously fashion-forward ensembles and close relationships with Houston’s ladies-who-lunch and PYTs alike. So you’d be forgiven for thinking he was simply born in a leopard-print suit and a pair of Gucci slides.
Not so, though. Armanious hails from Cairo, which he left at 19 in search of a safer life. Things were already difficult being Christian in a majority-Muslim Arab nation, to say nothing of being gay. He arrived in Houston, where a family member already lived, in the late '90s. “It was a complete culture shock,” he says. “It took me about two years to adjust, understand the concept, even speak the language.” In Egypt he was used to British-style English, where “you ask for wa-ter, not wa-dur.”
But while he missed home, he was thrilled to simply be himself and pursue a career in fashion. Long inspired by his mother’s natural sense of style but restricted by cultural norms that required he become something “respectable” like a doctor, pilot, or engineer, Armanious finally followed his passion in Houston. He enrolled in fashion design school and even started his own line before moving to retail, where he’s more than made a name for himself. And like any good Texan, “I do own a cowboy hat and boots now,” he says. “And I’m happy that I do.” —AL
Gabow’s path to America began in 1991, when ethnic violence during the Somali Civil War led him and thousands of fellow Somali Bantus to flee the country. He and his family walked for over three months to seek safety in neighboring Kenya, a dangerous journey during which Gabow’s older sister was kidnapped and murdered. In 2004, Gabow—by then 18, having spent over a decade in Kenyan refugee camps—and his younger brother were resettled in Houston by Interfaith Ministries.
Today Gabow works with Interfaith Ministries, helping refugees like him find jobs in his adopted hometown. “I think there is no other city better than this,” he says, citing all the friendly people and plentiful job opportunities. He adds that he’s grateful to finally live a peaceful life free of violence, and to give back to the community that embraced him all those years ago. The rest of his family remain in Kenya as refugees. —SE