From Palestine to Ann Arbor
The amazing Issa family
by James Leonard
When Jordan attacked Israel in 1967, it began an extraordinary chain of events. During the Six-Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank, and afterward, a third of the 900,000 Palestinians living there left. Among them were Marwan Issa, his wife, Aniseh, and their five sons and four daughters.
"My father was police chief there, so we had to leave," says Anwar, the oldest son, a tough-looking man with a happy smile.
In the village of Rammun, "we had an average life," says Mohamad, the middle brother, born in 1958, a soft-spoken man with impeccable manners. "We had a house with three bedrooms, very average for a blue-collar family. But because of my dad's position, we had to move to Jordan."
Life in a refugee camp wasn't like life in the West Bank. All eleven family members lived "in two twenty-five by twenty-five rooms with no electricity or running water," says Said, the youngest brother, who was born in 1966.
Marwan Issa (ISS-a) saw a way out. In 1972, "my dad had the option to retire after twenty-five years," explains Mohamad. And he was prepared to start over in a country where there were more and better opportunities for himself and his family: the United States of America.
"We were blessed," says Said, a well-dressed man with lively eyes. "My mother's brother, my uncle Yunis, was already living in Detroit. He was the main conduit for the family."
"I came with the first group-me and mom and dad," says Anwar. "We came on August 18, 1973." Mohamad and two other brothers joined them the following March. When Said and the final group arrived on July 4, 1974, all eleven family members were reunited-this time in a townhouse at Forest Hills co-op on Ellsworth.
"The culture was different here, and life was completely different," Mohamad recalls. "We had to adjust, to understand the culture, and to make sure we were living, working, and going to school. From day one, the whole family worked as a
"We came here to Ann Arbor because of the schools," Anwar adds. "This country is the land of opportunity. As long as you work hard and put your mind into it, nothing is impossible."
The Issas put their minds into it. Within weeks of arriving, Anwar was going to college while teaching himself English. "I used to have four-by-five cards with words on them," he remembers. "I learned fifteen words a day, and in six or seven months, I was pretty good. When I went to Washtenaw Community College, they asked how many years I'd been here and were surprised it'd only been a few weeks."
They also worked hard. "Dad worked at odds-and-ends jobs when he first got here," Said says.
"It was hard for him coming from a prestigious job," Mohamad remembers. "But he didn't mind because here it didn't matter what the position was. What mattered was the person.
"Our whole objective was education," Mohamad says. "When I got here, I went to Huron High School. I was taught [English] back home as a second language, so I had the basics. I did eleventh and twelfth grade there, then went to Washtenaw Community College and then Eastern Michigan University. But I got so busy working, I had to finish through [correspondence classes from] Central Michigan."
Mohamad started working in restaurants while still in high school. "When I was in college, I was working fourteen days a week-two full-time jobs. When you're working like that, if you take half a day off every two weeks, that's a success … The opportunity is here. But you have to earn the success."
"I started at Biff's Restaurant on William," says Anwar. "I worked there for a few months, then I worked at the Howard Johnson on Carpenter, then I became night manager there. And all this time I also worked at University Hospital on the night shift in maintenance. I'd get so sleepy, I'd walk into walls and hit my head … We were all working like that-and sleeping very little!"
While working and going to school, the Issas were also saving to invest in their future. In 1977, they bought the Milk Depot, a tiny convenience store at Dexter and Maple. "The whole family bought it," says Mohamad, "and Dad and everyone worked there and had another job."
That was just the beginning. "In 1981 we bought the gas station on the corner of Huron and Division and converted it to the Big Market," recalls Anwar.
"The family bought it but I ran it," Mohamad says. "Abdul [another brother] ran it with me, and Anwar ran the Milk Depot." As they got busier at the stores, the older brothers cut back on their outside jobs.
Though the younger brothers were still in middle and high school then, they also put in their time. "We were done with school around three-thirty, and then was the newspaper route, and then we'd come to the store and stock shelves or do the bottles," says Said. "They made sure the work did not impact negatively on our education, but it created a work ethic in us that is still with us today."
"We bought the Liberty Market on Maple in 1986 [now Busters West], and in 1987 we opened Deli-Delight next door," relates Anwar. "We got a contract [to supply] sandwiches wholesale to the university and [also sold sandwiches] all over the state to snack stores and gas stations plus our own stores. We kept that for five or six years."
But even as the family's convenience store empire grew, so did their misgivings about the business. "From the start, we had beer, wine, and liquor," says Mohamad, his voice heavy with regret. "As Muslims, we can't drink or sell alcohol."
They sold it anyway until shortly before Marwan Issa died, in 1996. "He was after us for four or five years to get rid of it," Anwar remembers. "We always put him off. But when he got sick, he told us, 'You've got seven days to clean it out.'" Anwar agrees wholeheartedly with the decision. "It's wrong. It's harming others. We were selling forties [forty-ounce bottles of beer] in the morning!"
What happened then? "For two years, destruction," Anwar replies. "We changed the kind of business we were in." The Big Market became the first Ahmo's Deli. "Raid [another brother] came up with idea for the name because of Tios [Mexican restaurant] next door," he remembers. "'Tio' means 'uncle' and so does 'ahmo.'
"Business came back," continues Anwar, seated at a table in his North Division office facing four screens monitoring security cameras in the four Ahmo's delis. The family sold the Liberty Market and the Milk Depot in the late 1990s, but bought the latter back two years ago and reopened it as Ahmo's. They opened their third Ahmo's on Stone School and Ellsworth in 2004 and the fourth in Adrian this year.
"We're looking now for more locations," Anwar says. "Eventually we'll go out of state and become a chain. Our kids are going to run it."
In the mid-1980s, they also started buying apartment buildings. "I have no idea how many apartments we own now," says Anwar with a smile. "But I know we have a lot more than apartments. We have commercial real estate."
"We have 213 South State, where Mr. Greek's is," Mohamad confirms. "We bought the Jefferson Market … We own the shopping center at Stone School and Ellsworth" (see Marketplace Changes, p. 39). City records show the family owns sixteen pieces of property in Ann Arbor with an estimated market value of more than $13 million-and that's not counting the shopping center, which is in Pittsfield Township.
The baby of the family, Said was exposed youngest to American culture. It shows in his fashionable sport coat-and his advanced degrees. After earning a BS and MS from the U-M, he received his medical degree here in 1996.
"I came to specialize in ophthalmology because of my dad's medical issues," Said says. "I saw what could be involved through diabetes-heart, liver, lungs, and eyes-and seeing him go through visual rehabilitation led me to value vision."
Sitting in the corner office of his roomy clinic across the street from St. Joe's, Said explains that this is only "a satellite office. My main office is in Dearborn. We opened both at the same time in 2000.
"Serving the community is the goal-the Ann Arbor community and the greater Near Eastern community. My patients in Dearborn are from a Near Eastern background. Most can communicate in Arabic and English, but a lot, especially the elderly, can't speak English well enough to understand if I don't explain it to them in Arabic. I feel blessed to be bilingual.
"I enjoy what I do as a physician," says Said, "but I also enjoy what I do as associate director and co-founder of Global Educational Excellence."
Of all the things the Issas have accomplished, perhaps most impressive is the growing network of charter schools they manage. Global Educational Excellence operates three schools in Detroit, two each in Hamtramck, Dearborn, and Dearborn Heights, and one each in Toledo, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor. Together, the schools have 650 employees and 4,500 students.
The Ann Arbor school, Central Academy, came first. "Our kids were in public schools," says Mohamad. "As a graduate of Huron High School, I can say it's a good school. But I'd like to see my kids go where not just education but respect is taught. When I went to Huron, I didn't see the value of the family in the behavior of kids … I don't want to get into details."
Marwan, Mohamad's twenty-nine-year-old son, is more specific. "When I was in middle school, I had cousins in Huron who were constantly being called on issues like fights and skips. Fights were huge at Huron back then. Most of my friends went to Huron, and most from my background dropped out.
"The family discussed either to take the kids overseas for their education or start a charter school here. [Governor] Engler had just allowed for charter schools to operate, so we decided to stay. We got our first charter through Central Michigan."
Anwar started Central Academy in 1996. Mohamad took over when Anwar and his family moved back to Rammun from 1997 to 2000, where Anwar did volunteer work and tutored his kids in Arabic. (All the brothers and their kids have been back, but Anwar is the only one who stayed longer than a visit.)
"At first, we had ninety-one students and ten employees," says Mohamad. "I served on the board as treasurer but I also volunteered doing the school's books. That was forty hours a week on top of my job [managing the family's] real estate, but I wanted to make sure it succeeded.
"I'm old school," Mohamad continues, sitting on a black leather sofa in his office near Central Academy. "First respect, then education. Can you teach if the classroom is not managed? No. You have to have respect."
Central Academy has 550 students now, half from Ann Arbor and the rest from Ypsilanti and Saline. Like every student who preceded them, they all learn Arabic-although these are not Muslim schools, but "public schools funded by the state," Mohamad stresses. "We tell parents, if you want a religious school, this is not the right school for you."
Mohamad's son Marwan works with him at Global Educational Excellence. "My dad's passion rubbed off on me," he says.
They opened three schools last year and have plans to expand further. "I want to have twenty-five mid-sized schools in ten years in Michigan and the states around it," says Mohamad. "And overseas, probably in three years, first into Amman, Jordan, and in ten years to have an exchange program between the schools."
What do they want for their Central Academy students? "We want them to be great citizens," says Mohamad. "We want them to serve this country, to work hard for their family, and to volunteer in their community."
"Community service is a big part of what we have to do," says Anwar. "When there was the tornado in Dexter, my kids said we had to do something, so we filled Ahmo's vans with all kinds of food and took them to Red Cross. Every kid in the family wanted to go!"
It's impossible to overestimate the centrality of family to the Issas. "Unity is what makes us to strong," says Anwar. "We're all thinking in the same direction, all for the family. I'm so blessed to have brothers and sisters who want to keep the family the same unit."
"We bought everything as a family," says Mohamad, including the family's compound on Packard just west of US-23. "We've lived there for years as a family, the whole family in six units. We all get along very well. Most of the nights, we meet in the common area and sit and talk. You don't see that much here [in America]."
"Any individual success any of us have is attributable to the financial and emotional support of our extended family," Said says.
It's likewise impossible to overestimate the centrality of religion. "It plays a big role," says Anwar. "How to respect others, how to take care of others, how to live life in peace and respect."
"Like any other religion, Islam has at its core honesty, integrity, and respect," Said explains. "I have great friends from many different backgrounds, and I found that all religions have the same core values."
Living in Ann Arbor for almost forty years has only strengthened the family's religion. "We're secularly religious but very observant," Said says. "A lot of the traditional ways are very much practiced in our community and adhered to more maybe here than back in the old country."
"We keep our culture and blend it with the good American culture," Anwar says: "how people care for each other, how they like to volunteer, how they value higher education."
"My kids have cultural differences from kids in the Middle East," says Said. "How my parents treated their daughters is different from how I view my kids. My daughters' independence might be seen as rebellion by people from my parents' generation, but I see it as personal growth.
"My sisters are all homemakers, a very important job, but women of my kids' generation are seeking higher education. It's more of a generational gap-and it's no different really from Western culture."
But while the family doesn't live in the past, neither does it live in quite the same present as most Ann Arborites. The Issas are very private about their personal lives, particularly about their women. I learned the names of the wives, sons, and daughters of the three brothers I interviewed, but Mohamad very politely declined to tell me his sisters' names or the names of the wives, sons, and daughters of his other two brothers. When I asked to interview his mother, he once again very politely declined. The family's success story includes women, but it is told by men.
It's a measure of that success that when asked to suggest people to interview about them, the brothers named a banker, a judge, and the mayor.
"They've made tremendous contributions to the local economy," says mayor John Hieftje, who's played basketball with Mohamad at the Central Academy gym. "And they also care deeply about this community."
"I've known them through business for twenty years," says Charlie Crone, a VP at the Bank of Ann Arbor. "I have the highest regard for their family values, and their family values imbue their business values."
Washtenaw County Trial Court judge Archie Brown "met them twenty-five years ago when I was in private practice [as an attorney]. They love to be involved … so don't be surprised if you see more of them in the community as the younger generation gets more involved."
There are about 150 Issa family members in the area, and the younger generation is already confirming Brown's prediction: Marwan was a candidate in the Third Ward city council primary in 2010. He lost, but will likely try again.
The older generation, meanwhile, remains as busy as ever. "When we retire, we'll still keep working, maybe [cutting back to] sixty-seventy hours a week," says Anwar.
Mohamad already has a project in mind. "My dream after I retire," he says, "is to write a book on how you can make it in the United States."
[Originally published in June, 2012.]