Jihan Salem, a native of Egypt, wants to open a food trailer in Waco offering Middle Eastern dishes. She has recruited the help of her son, Fadi, and her daughter, Nourhan, who are 17-year-old twins, and a company in Speegleville is building a vehicle for their use and installing appliances.
Tackling such a task might prove daunting for many, but the Salems have encountered obstacles that make this challenge pale in comparison.
Jihan’s husband died of a heart attack in Beirut, Lebanon, three days before she gave birth to Fadi and Nourhand. The stress of delivery aggravated Jihan’s already shaky medical condition, which included high blood pressure because of the pregnancy. She lapsed into a coma that she awoke from 10 days later, shocking the hospital staff.
“They said I had no chance, but God had a different plan,” said Jihan, who suddenly faced life with two infants to support and meager finances.
Her husband had been employed as a gardener for a wealthy businessman who owned a factory, and she worked as a nanny for his children.
With help from the United Nations and the Egyptian embassy in Lebanon, Jihan applied for refugee status in hopes of immigrating to the United States. She managed to secure benefits that arrived every two months and health insurance as she waited for authorities to complete a lengthy background check.
The process seemed to progress smoothly until Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists commandeered commercial airliners and slammed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing thousands and turning the world upside down.
“I thought everything would be put on hold, but I was told, ‘No, you and your kids come to the airport at the same time you were told,’ ” she said. “A lot of refugees had their plans changed or canceled, but we arrived in Seattle, Washington, on Sept. 18, where we were met by Hunger Relief, which had been working with missionaries on our behalf.”
Jihan landed a job with Goodwill Industries and attended classes to learn English. During breaks, she visited her children in a day care center.
This routine lasted about nine months, during which Fadi suffered from chronic ear infections that had doctors scratching their heads.
“I was told the best thing for him would be dry weather, and the next thing I know, we’re on our way to Waco, Texas, with help from Meadowbrook Baptist Church,” she said.
The family in 2003 found an apartment that it still lives in today, and Jihan went to work for Chick-fil-A, her first job in a fast-food restaurant.
Determined to keep the family afloat as her youngsters attended school, Jihan left the restaurant to take a job at Richland Mall. She also attended McLennan Community College, she said, to pursue a nursing degree, but struggled with the written part of the training. She later worked for two Waco-area nursing homes.
Icy conditions outside her apartment as she rushed to take Fadi and Nourhand to school caused Jihan to slip, fall and injure her back. After months of continuing to work in pain and visiting a host of doctors, she qualified for Social Security disability and today receives regular injections of morphine.
“I’m feeling better now, can clean and cook and bake,” said Jihan. “The road has been tough, and I could not have made it without the Lord.”
Fadi and Nourhand work part-time at the Bush’s Chicken restaurant on Hewitt Drive, and have been described as model employees. Both graduated from Harmony Science Academy, and Nourhand hopes to attend George Washington University to become an English translator in South Korea, while Fadi wants to become a business major at Baylor University.
Fadi said he probably will attend MCC before transferring, and hopes to make money from the food truck when not in class.
“My first idea would have been to open a Middle Eastern restaurant, but I had a conversation with my godfather and decided on a food truck instead,” said Fadi. “I’m really doing this to help out mom and Larry Gee, our business partner. It’s really their business. I’ll just operate it on the side, but school comes first.”
He said he would like to get permission to place the truck at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, 400 S. University Parks Drive, which operates on Saturday. Other locations he’s considering are Magnolia Market at the Silos, Sixth Street and Webster Avenue, and the collection of food trucks at University Parks Drive and Franklin Avenue.
“I cook normal Egyptian recipes, including dishes with rice and chicken, okra, peas and carrots prepared the Middle Eastern way,” said Jihan.
She likely will serve shish kabobs prepared with barbecue; finger foods that feature popular Egyptian spices; and Middle Eastern desserts.
Larry Gee, meanwhile, said he will prepare more conventional American fare, including smoked turkey legs, smothered steak, chicken and sides.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 13 years old,” said the 54-year-old Gee, who prepares meals for up to 200 people each Friday night at Freedom of God Ministries, a nondenominational church in Speegleville that welcomes the community to enjoy an evening meal and worship service once a week.
The Rev. Larry Cathey, who serves as pastor of the church, also owns a trailer-building business called Cross Trailer, where work on the food truck continues.
“Reverend Cathey said we have about $28,000 in our food trailer, including accessories, and now I’ve got to come up with a way to get that thing paid for,” Gee said with a laugh. “I’m just believing in God for this food trailer. That’s what I’m doing, and it’s going to get done.”
Gee said he met the Salem family through Ron Madera, 67, who launched a handyman business after retiring from The Grounds Guys franchise about three years ago.
“It’s more of a ministry than an income producer,” said Madera of his business. “Larry (Gee) has done some dirt work for me, and I heard he was interested in opening a food truck. I knew that Jihan and Fadi had something like that in mind, so I mentioned it to Larry, and now they’re making progress.”
Madera said he heard about the Salem family through friends, and has tried to serve as a father figure to Fadi, recently taking him on a camping trip to Colorado.
“He’s the kind of kid you’d want your daughter to marry,” he said. “He’s very polite and works his tail off at Bush’s Chicken. He’s a real people person, a good marketer at just 17, and I think he would prove to be a tremendous asset to someone after he completes his education.”
Madera said in his opinion the family has become a success story, “though for years they haven’t had two nickels to rub together.”
Despite the hardships, Fadi said, he believes he, his sister and mother have led a charmed life.
“For some reason, we’ve always been taken care of, regardless of the situations and circumstances we’ve come across,” he said.