An unprecedented panel discussion before the monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce this Tuesday drew four Muslim business owners in the area to share their dreams, their striving and challenges to making it. They acknowledged that today’s political climate has made life more difficult for them over the past year.
The unique event was put on by the recently-convened Diversity Inclusion Effort of the Falls Church Chamber under the direction of local CPA and Chamber board member Michael Diener, who moderated Tuesday’s event.
Diener opened the discussion by hailing the Chamber Board’s willingness to form this new group, having considerable diversity among its members, itself. He cited his long friendship with Falls Church City Assessor Sam Khamis, who is of Egyptian descent. He said that while Muslim faith or ethnicity has never come into their friendship, he was shocked to learn that Khamis’ daughter feared for her ability to come back into the U.S. from a visit abroad.
The business owners who spoke were Masgood Chaudhry who owns a chain of Grove Dental Clinics, Liaqat Al Chaudry, a Shell gas station owner, Mohammad Asghar of Solutions Catering and Bentley’s Restaurant, and Marwan Ahmad of Arabesque Media, the Arab-American Voice, an online news provider, and Arab-American Business Council.
All described stories of coming to the U.S., their parents and themselves working menial jobs, but with perseverance moving up to the point of running their own businesses. The unexpectedly moving accounts were made more poignant by their accounts of how 9/11 impacted them, and more recently with the heightened anti-Muslim political rhetoric of the past year’s presidential election.
Asghar, who runs his Bentley’s business in conjunction with Chamber member David Crance, told the story of coming to the U.S. from Pakistan, and his father working as a dishwasher. He, himself, got a job as a busboy and worked his way up in a restaurant such that he was able to start his own business by 1999. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 “hurt us big time,” he said, and he spent the next four years trying to scratch together means to pay the mortgage.
He appealed to communication, to talking, as the best way to overcome fears and doubts, and praised the convening of the panel for contributing to that effort.
Ahmad spoke of the fear of losing business if one becomes known as a Muslim. When his newspaper was produced in print, he said that efforts to even give away ads, as incentives to even as large a business as Walmart were rebuffed. But he said in reality the Muslim community in this region is “a highly educated community” that “makes more on average than the median household income in the U.S.”
Liaqat Al Chaudry spoke about his struggle to make his small business, which he began by working at a gas station in 1975 before taking it over and running it with his brother until he died in 1986.
Masgood Chaudhry, now with dental offices in Falls Church, Alexandria, Herndon, Tysons Corner and Sterling, spoke of the tendency to avoid discrimination by “hiding who you are.” Ahmad said that business is hurting now because of “those who want to shy away from us until the (presidential) election is over.”
He said that “many of us are not out of the closet yet” being “afraid of a backlash.”
Chamber member Gary Hughes praised the courage of the business owners on the panel, saying, “It takes courage to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am.’” As an African-American, Hughes said, “When I was born it was illegal to marry my wife, and in school, there was no money allotted to pay for bringing rural kids to school. We used to have to pack our food when driving to New York, because we couldn’t be sure if a restaurant we stopped at would serve us.”
But now he has a Master’s Degree, he said, as evidence that things get better.
“We are so happy to be a part of the United States,” said Asghar. “This is the land of opportunity.”