Mohammad El Akkari, a Lebanese professional basketball player, made headlines on April 4 when he scored 113 points in FIBA Asia league game. The 27-year-old went in averaging 7.8 points per game, but that day he couldn't miss.
Two oceans away, his younger brother Mustapha El Akkari, a BYU-Hawaii student, is on a shooting streak of his own. "I'm hitting every shot I'm taking," he said. And though his comment sounds cocky, people who know El Akkari wouldn't characterize him that way. El Akkari isn't referring to basketball shots, of course (although he's had some luck with those too) but rather a string of opportunities. He was a member of the Lebanese junior national basketball team. At 15 he earned a scholarship to play basketball at a private school in the U.S. Good grades made it possible for him to stay in the states and go to college. And then, perhaps most improbably at all, the boy who had survived war and hardship became student body president of BYU-Hawaii. A practicing Muslim, he is the first non-LDS student to hold the position in the school's 57-year history.
It's easy for El Akkari to relish in what he's accomplished, because things haven't always been easy for him. He knows how it feels to be marginalized because of his Islamic faith. And he knows the frustration of not having the language skills to communicate, as well as the disappointment of having his dreams not work out.
El Akkari is representative of the tens of thousands of immigrants who come to the United States legally every year. Most follow the same path, a fact that has been obscured by the heated policy debates over illegal immigration. In fact, over one million legal immigrants enter the country every year, according to the Pew Research Center; while between 500,000-700,000 enter without documents.
Like many immigrants El Akkari's path has been defined by hard work and finding ways to assimilate in to a society that can seem strange and unwelcoming. What makes his story particularly unique is how he got here, and where he ended up--as the student body president of a school where he is the only practicing Muslim.
What he has learned along the way is common to the experience of many immigrants: Hard work is essential for success, and that sometimes there are as many similarities between different cultures as there are differences.
Bombs and basketball
Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, sits on a rocky promontory overlooking an azure blue Mediterranean sea. Muslim mosques and Christian churches dating back to the time of the crusades dot the coastline of this port city. Vast orange orchards infuse the city with a sweet citrus perfume. In the summer of 2006, however, this idyllic city was embroiled in war between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group that operates within Lebanese territory, and the nation of Israel.
In the middle of this chaos 15-year-old Mustapha El Akkari worked on his jump shot. Already a member of the Lebanese junior national basketball team, El Akkari dreamed of playing ball professionally. As a kid he created his own hoop out of a pole and an old chair. "I'd practice until 11 o'clock at night," he said. "I'd play in the rain, the court would be so wet the ball wouldn't bounce." At 11 he started travelling daily to Beirut, a three-hour round trip by bus, in search of pick up games. During those long bus rides he'd think about what he wanted to do: envisioning himself on the court, on a stage, and as leader.
One night while hanging out with a friend his mother called begging him to come home. In recent days the air strikes intensified, putting everyone in the city on high alert. Although his mother saw war and fighting almost every year of her life, El Akkari could tell by the quiver her voice that this time she really was scared. El Akkari slipped on his flip-flops turned his Walkman on high and began the ten-minute walk home.
His path home required crossing one of the last intact bridges in Tripoli. Walking across the bridge, he heard the F-16's that his mother worried about hovering overhead. He dropped his Walkman and started running and didn't stop he reached home. Tears streamed down his face. "I was sure I was going to die," he said. Before entering his family home, he tried to compose himself, wiping away the tears. "I wanted to be a cool guy. I didn't want my mom to know what happened," he said.
Coming to America
Shortly after the incident, a travel agent from Houston called El Akkari to ask if he'd be interested in coming to the United States to play basketball for a private Christian high school. His parents, knowing that the situation in Lebanon was dangerous, encouraged their 16-year-old son to go. The extended family pooled their resources to pay his way to a new life in America.
Transitioning to life in America was challenging. El Akkari didn't speak any English and the mental effort required to sit though eight hours of language immersion a day followed by intense basketball practices left him mentally and physically drained. Administrators at his Christian school explained that some parents were uncomfortable with the idea of having a Muslim student in their midst and asked El Akkari if he would identify as a Christian to make things easier on everyone. The request stung, but El Akkari acquiesced.
Culture shock wasn't the only issue, however. His resources were very limited. Upon arrival the precariousness of his situation set in: a poor 16-year-old boy from Lebanon alone in an empty apartment in suburban Houston. He had nothing. No bed, no chairs, not even a blanket.
Using what little pocket money he had, he bought peanut butter and cereal. For the first few weeks that was all he ate and his performance on the court suffered. "I couldn't sleep," he said, "I was home sick and crying all the time."
Around this time Andrea Dugat heard about a new international student, a basketball player from Lebanon, at her daughters' school. "He's shy and introverted," her kids said of the new student. "He's homesick and not living in great conditions," they added.
One evening at a school football game Dugat's daughter Callie introduced her to this new student. They made small talk for a few minutes. His English wasn't great and although he looked OK her maternal instincts sensed he was struggling. "What if I was in a position where one of my kids was in a foreign country to get a better life and had no resources? I'd want someone to help them," she remembered thinking.
El Akkari's initial impression of Dugat: "classy." "You know the mom on the Blind Side, Sandra Bullock?" he asked. "Andrea, she's just like that." Dugat has fiery red hair and a soft southern drawl. Like Sandra Bullock's character in the hit film, she is strong willed and tender hearted. Dugat is also a devoted Christian.
Dugat decided to help El Akkari. He initially rebuffed her attempts to reach out. "I think he had no concept of [why] a family that would try to help a stranger," she said. But over time her kindness wore him down and finally he agreed to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner.
"I ate, like, a lot," El Akkari said of this first American Thanksgiving meal. Watching this boy eat broke Dugat's heart. After the meal the family relaxed and chatted. During a lull in the conversation Dugar turned to El Akkari and asked him how he was doing. "I couldn't keep up the show anymore," he said. El Akkari agreed to move in with the Dugat's. "He's been with us ever since," said Dugat.
At Andrea and her husband Jay's house El Akkari learned English, learned to contribute around the house, and learned about their Christian faith. They learned about him too, in particular his fierce work ethic. "He would get up at four in the morning to work out." At 6:30 am he'd go to school to practice with the basketball team before classes. When he arrived home after the team's evening practice he would do his homework, eat and then work out for another couple hours before going to bed. He kept to this routine up seven days a week, even during Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day for an entire month. "He never wanted to miss a day," said Dugat, "because he never wanted to lose a moment of opportunity."
Stateside college basketball recruiting didn't turn out the way he hoped, though Rice University expressed interest, they never came through with an offer. El Akkari ended up at a junior college in Missouri. While playing at a tournament with his juco team he caught the eye of Ken Wagner, head coach for BYU-Hawaii's men's basketball team. He offered El Akkari a scholarship and a spot in their division II squad.
Before making the offer Wagner explained a little bit about the LDS-owned and operated school, in particular its code of conduct for students. "No coffee and tea means no coffee and tea" he said Wagner told him. "Before going to BYUH I didn't really know a lot about the Mormons," he said "I knew they ride on bikes in suits … they knock on doors … some people don't like them." But despite the fact that moving to Hawaii and attending a Mormon school wasn't part of his initial plan, something about it felt right. "I had a good feeling when Coach Wagner said [BYU-Hawaii] is a special campus. I love what he said. I didn't hesitate to sign the papers and send them back to him."
Called to serve
El Akkari played shooting guard for the BYUH Seasiders for two years, riding the bench for most of both seasons. Just prior to the start of the 2011-2012 season he tore his right calf muscle while working out and decided to sit out as a redshirt.
"Up to that point my life had been basketball," he said, "I decided to see what other things were out there for me." He joined several student clubs such as BYUH's Students in Free Enterprise Organization and took classes from BYU-Hawaii's International Institute of Professional Protocol, a program that teaches students skills they need to be successful in the workplace, including time management to personal grooming. Additionally, he started working in the office of the vice-president of special events, a non-elected position, eventually deciding to run for student body president.
He won with 52 percent of the vote, the first non-LDS student body president in the history of the school. El Akkari has big plans for his term in office. His vision for the campus, which includes creating service opportunities for the students, encouraging mingling among the diverse cultural groups on campus and instituting a school-wide recycling program, is fueled by the same tenacity and work-ethic he exhibited as a basketball player. For example, when asked about promoting student engagement, he responds by emailing a document he created, several pages long complete with figures and charts, detailing his strategy.
Before coming to America El Akkari believed his prospects depended on his physical talents, but his experiences at BYU-Hawaii are expanding his vision of what is possible. At school he's meeting business people and entrepreneurs, doing internships, and studying hard. He says he'd like to start a business and get an MBA from Harvard. He wants to be in a position financially to take care of all the people who helped him out along the way. He says he wants to do for other people what Andrea Dugat and her family did for him.
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On that count he is already making a difference, using his immigrant experience to ease the transition for others. There are 76 nations represented by students at BYU-Hawaii. "Many of the students here come from poor countries," he said. "They sacrifice a lot to come to school. Sometimes they don't have the things they need." Though his own situation has changed dramatically, he hasn't forgotten what it feels like to be in a foreign country, alone without resources. "I use 10 percent of my money to help people," he said, "like the Mormons." He doesn't give it to a specific church or charity, choosing instead to use it to help his peers directly. He'll buy lunch for a friend he knows doesn't have enough to eat or pick up the bill for a student who can afford their medical prescriptions.
El Akkari doesn't know what he will do when he graduates. He could play on a professional team in Lebanon with his brother, earning good money. The business opportunities in America are exciting as well. Although nothing is certain, he is surprisingly calm about the looming uncertainty. "Hard work beats talent" he said "I believe in the American dream.