Muslim immigrant first non-LDS student body president of BYU-Hawaii

By Mercedes White

Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, May 8 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

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.

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