17 Apr 2017 by Patricia Nyhan
To find an example of someone making America great, look to Amin Halem, who is that American icon, the self-made man. With a natural talent for computers and electronics, the Afghan immigrant applied his broad-based knowledge and intense work ethic to an information technology career any American entrepreneur starting from nothing could envy.
“A riches-to-rags-to-riches story” is how his wife Danni Leifer describes Amin’s life.
In Kabul, he was born into a privileged family. His father was a surgeon and medical director of the Kabul Hospital whose life changed in 1979 when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. The occupiers demanded that he treat wounded Russian soldiers before Afghan citizens, which he refused to do. After three warnings and ransacking of his home, they poisoned him. Amin remembers his father’s sudden death one day after rising from a nap with his three-year-old son.
Forced to leave Kabul, Amin’s mother snuck across the rooftops with her children to an uncle who was a general, who drove them to a smuggler who delivered them over the Pakistani border to Peshawar. Seeing how cruelly Afghan refugees were treated there, they made their way to Rawalpindi, where relatives helped them settle for the next several years while they unsuccessfully pursued refugee status. Eventually, an uncle in New York helped them immigrate to the U.S.
Amin wound up on the rough streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where he was the only Afghan among African-American, Italian, Jewish, Irish and Chinese neighbors. No one cared that he was Muslim. Squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment with his four sisters and mother, Amin felt the sting of showing food stamps at the grocery. Everyone in the family worked, but he felt embarrassed to also have to accept government supplements.
“I knew that whatever it took, I was not going to be on food stamps again,” says Amin, who by 18 was responsible for running the household and finding husbands for his sisters. “I wanted to make sure I was successful.”
Today, he is an in-demand IT sales engineer consulting with clients all over the U.S. He lives in a stately home in Warrenton, Va., large enough to entertain his many relatives. Amin and his wife Danni give back by sponsoring several South Sudanese refugee students at private schools in Kenya. “I try to do direct impact,” says Amin.
Asked if he has ever experienced Islamophobia in his decades in the U.S., Amin answers, “Never.” Recently, though, Amin notices that women in hijab are increasingly frowned upon, especially in Southern states. What has changed?
“A percentage of the country was racist, but had this veil on. (President) Trump unveiled those people,” says Amin, adding that they are out of step with the military personnel who have returned to Northern Virginia having formed positive relationships with Afghans and now flock to local Afghan restaurants. A student of history, Amin worries that growing anti-immigrant sentiment could erode our success as a nation built on immigrants.
“There came a time when the ancient Greeks said we’re not going to accept any more immigrants, and soon after that came their downfall. They lost people with different skills, technologies and talent. I fear that’s what is happening here,” he says.