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Immigration: An Old Solution for the New Economy










Many believe that the key to the new economy is the classic immigrant story: education, work, more education, more work. Yousif Ghafari is one.

Born in Lebanon, he emigrated to the United States in 1970, attained three masters degrees, and established an engineering company that grew worldwide in less than 25 years.

Ghafari is one of Southeast Michigan's most prominent Arab American professionals and philanthropists. As he looks out on Michigan Avenue from his modern office in Dearborn, he sees the future not so much in the young talent graduating from the area's universities -- who, he believes need considerably more knowledge in mathematics and technological sciences -- but in hungry immigrants who are well-educated, skilled, and willing to take risks and out-work their competition. Ghafari looks to Asian, Indian, Middle-Eastern, East European, and Hispanic immigrants as the drivers of the new economy in the region.

"I find that among ethnic groups that spirit is much more noticeable than among people who have settled down here," Ghafari asserts. "It's not a criticism, it's just that they've become used to a certain lifestyle that they don't want to be disturbed or bothered with risk. When you talk about entrepreneurship, you're talking about risk. You're talking about long hours. You're talking about 24/7. When I started this venture my family didn't see me for days at a time. It's not easy to launch a company without deep pockets. The banks are extremely difficult to work with: If you need the money they won't lend it to you, but if you don't need the money, they will lend it to you."

Even with the brain drain, there is a talent pool in the region, he says, but "young people are not studying enough hard core subjects like math, science, engineering. For every engineer there may be three or four openings. And there's a spillover into entrepreneurial type individuals to support (industry)." Ghafari also believes that there's a lack of innovation among the local workforce. "I'd say that there are 10 to 15 percent who have that drive. The rest are content."

Ghafari maintained a full-time job throughout his undergraduate and graduate years. And when he had a semester break, he took on a second job. "When you start with nothing," he says, "hunger drives you to achieve." This hunger is often not found in young people born into American affluence, he adds. "When you look at some ethnic groups, it starts early on. You see it because of the hunger effect. These kids are driving Ferraris. Why should they be motivated to work hard? Things are easy for them, whereas when you are behind you have to catch up, I guess."     

The United States still is a "land of opportunity, if you want it," Ghafari says. "If you work hard, things work out for the best. I worked very hard."

Initially, he wasn't thinking of starting his own business. He thought he could find a job with one of the big corporations and do well. But after working a few years in the corporate sector, his entrepreneurial gene expressed itself. "I noticed that there was an opportunity here for small to mid-sized businesses. I was fortunate that my aunt was in business and I saw what she was doing. I saw my in-laws had their own business and how well they were doing. So I said maybe the road to success was being an entrepreneur."

In 1982, he established an engineering consulting firm with his namesake, eventually expanding to include architecture, serving a diverse client base worldwide. GHAFARI, Inc., has been recognized as the top designer of automotive plants in the United States by Engineering News-Record.

With Ghafari's success came another classic immigrant response -- gratitude. He expressed it through philanthropy, making a $9 million donation to Wayne State University, among other social and cultural causes. Aside from his charitable giving, Ghafari has defined his community service through the political process, becoming active in the Republican Party, which resulted in an appointment by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, as Public Delegate Designate, and later as Ambassador to Slovenia. He was also a founding member of "Partnership for Lebanon," an initiative that helped rebuild the economy of Lebanon after its 15-year civil war.

Ghafari has been part of several international trade missions sponsored by the American Arab American Chamber, notes Fay Bedoun executive director. Ghafari, she says, "is a well-rounded individual. He understands the importance of social responsibility and the importance of giving back to the community that he's come from and helping to support our youth. He's one of the key individuals in our community that leads by example... because of the entrepreneurial person that he is and the success he has accomplished.... in addition, by receiving diplomatic credentials and becoming Ambassador to Slovenia... also, by not forgetting where you came from by maintaining his connection to his roots and home country."

A man of the world, Ghafari remains grounded in the Southeast Michigan region, literally running a six mile course through Dearborn several days a week, as well as remaining connected to the business community in such organizations as Business Leaders for Michigan. He has been less active in Middle Eastern business organizations, believing in yet another immigrant ethic -- assimilation.

Ghafari has helped bridge the differences between Christians and Muslims in the region, says Bedoun. "Mr. Ghafari goes above and beyond your average Christian Lebanese businessman because he is also very involved in all the (business) organizations, whether they're Christian or Muslim -- that is not the determining factor for him to be involved."

Still, Ghafari, nearly 60, regrets that he doesn't have the time or energy to do more to address differences in the local Middle Eastern community. "Each ethnic group has their own chamber," he bemoans. "The Arab American Chamber tends to be Muslim and the Lebanese American Chamber tends to be Christian...The Chaldeans have their own chamber. That is wrong, it should be one chamber."

Despite his inclination to diplomacy, he acknowledges that intercultural work is "a huge undertaking. What you have to understand is that ours is a tribal culture. That's what I admire about our Jewish friends. They do a much better job... I'm sure they have their own conflicts, but at least to the world they are one face. Even in Lebanon, each village has its own face. Even my village, which has less than 1,000 people, there are multiple faces."

If another member of that village were to look to the United States for opportunity, would he look to Southeast Michigan?

"I would say yes," Ghafari answers confidently, but admits the troubled image of Detroit remains a significant barrier -- not without hope, though. "I think there is movement in the city. I'm very optimistic about it. I think we will see a new city." And with it, he says, will come regional recovery, led by immigrants.

If immigrants are most likely to be entrepreneurial and innovative, is there a sufficient number of immigrants to drive this region's economic revival?

"I think so," he says. "I think our future is more immigrants in this area."
 
And what about the second generation of Ghafari's American family?

The father of three looks to his 24-year old son, Peter, as demonstrating some of the hunger and entrepreneurial zeal of his father: "It's a matter of time before he does something," the elder Ghafari predicts. "This young man seems to be hungry. He knows what it takes, I think. ... Maybe he watches me."

Photos by David Lewinski
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