This story was originally published on Forbes.com, in 2017.
When I was traveling through Portland, Maine, over Christmas, I noticed a restaurant serving an interesting selection of Mediterranean dishes, including a version of hummus from Syria, shrimp kabobs from Portugal, and mussels from Turkey. I had dinner, and asked the server about the menu.
She told me the owner, Deen Haleem, is Palestinian and often features Palestinian food on the menu.
There are about five million Palestinian refugees worldwide, people or descendents of people who lost their homes in 1948, when Israel was formed. There are others who left in 1967. But only a small percentage made it to the United States — between 75,000 and 85,000 people of Palestinian descent live here, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. I have talked to a handful, including two who don’t freely reveal their Palestinian roots because of America’s deep alliance with Israel and the fraught situation in Israel/Palestine.
So I was curious.
I talked to Haleem in the late afternoon of a sunny winter day in Maine, in the polished setting of his restaurant, Tiqa. Outside, the streets were busy despite the cold: Zagat has called Portland one of the liveliest dining scenes in the country.
What unfolded was a great story, Haleem’s journey through business to entrepreneurship, which runs parallel to his service in the military. He has been deployed a half-dozen times to the Middle East, where his Arabic made him especially valuable.
“I was one of seven kids,” he began.
A member of a British paramilitary force, Haleem’s father left Palestine in 1948, taking his wife and children to Jordan. They opened a trucking company and owned a hotel, and then, when it burned down, moved further east to Kuwait, where Haleem was born.
In 1972, his father decided to start over, joining family that had already emigrated to the United States. At 8, Haleem, arrived in the Palestinian community in Chicago.
“I think kids are very resilient – in my case, I didn’t really spend much time thinking about the fact that I am now in Chicago vs. the Middle East,” he wrote me in a followup email. “My focus was on learning English, assimilating to the new culture and making the best of things. It was difficult at times and there were some struggles to be accepted – I was also deeply touched by the many that took us in and helped to make this our new home.”
A family member owned a Burger King, so Haleem and his sister worked the evening crew. It was the best part of the day.
“ I got to stay up late, it was one of the few times that the family was together, and we talked and to a smaller degree played most of the night,” he said.
Haleem dropped out of school at 17, joined the Marines and was sent to Iraq.
When he was discharged, he moved to Carlsbad Calif., and started a Chinese restaurant, Chopstick Charlie’s – which, maybe predictably, “failed miserably.” He found himself at the age of 23 with $40,000 in debt. While he managed a restaurant at night, he took college classes.
During the Gulf War, he re-upped, and was stationed in Northern Iraq, helping to create a safe zone for Kurds. His Arabic made him especially valuable.
When he returned, he finished an accounting and finance degree at University of Massachusetts at Boston. Joining Putnam Investments, he worked his way up over a 20-year career and eventually managed a portfolio of $3 billion worth of assets.
At the age of 48, he retired. He and his wife, Carol Mitchell (a niece of former Senator George Mitchell), who also worked in finance, helped one of their sons open the restaurant in Portland two years ago, investing about $4 million in the property.
Gradually, the couple took over the operations. It’s a 300-seat venue, with about 60 employees, serving 40,000 – 50,000 people a year. They’ve added a café and are on track to be profitable slightly ahead of plan, Haleem said.
“I think it’s one of the nicest cities in the country,” he said.
Alongside his business career, Haleem has kept up one in the Army. He’s been mobilized five times since 9/11, eventually shifting into special operations. While in Iraq, when the soldiers were suffering with meals-ready-to-eat, he introduced them to the local cuisine, leading kebab runs.
His service in the military and his restaurant are about “trying to make a difference,” he said.
Key team members in the restaurant have equity. And they bring an inclusive view of the world to their food offerings. When I visited, the chef was preparing for his first visit to Jerusalem.
The fundamentals of Pan Mediterranean cuisine are similar, Haleem points out: tomatoes, the braised meats, kebabs, and honey-flavored sweets. He features dishes from Israel, like, on the night I was there, warm, marinated olives.
From Palestine, he has featured kanefeh, a famous gooey honey-and-cheese treat from Nablus, and pistachio soup. About two months ago, he hired a Syrian refugee to work in the kitchen. Haleem had been helping Catholic Charities with translations in their small program to resettle a handful of Syrians in Portland, which already has Iraqi and Somali communities.
“He asked me for a job,” Haleem said. “He has three kids, he’s taking classes to learn English. He works hard.”
Haleem has put Palestine on the map in Portland – literally – the map that shows his restaurants’ inspirations includes the state of Palestine.
“I’ve had people tell me there is no Palestine,” he said. “I tell them: I’m of Palestinian descent. I know what a Palestinian is and isn’t.”
His objective isn’t to win an argument, “it’s to talk about what we have in common,” he said. “All these things are much more similar than different.”