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Wednesday, July 3, 2013 12:45 pm

Living the American Dream in Springfield

One man’s journey from Kuwait, to Jordan, to owner of Mariah’s Steakhouse

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Sam Al-Khayyat of Springfield, a grateful immigrant, arrived on U. S. soil 24 years ago with “a suitcase full of dreams.” He now owns his own restaurant.
PHOTO BY TERRY FARMER

Although he came into the world in 1964, Bassam “Sam” Al-Khayyat (pronounced Alkite) refers to July 3, 1989, as the day he was born. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “My plane landed, and as I stepped through the door the wind brought the smell of fresh cut grass. The sky was blue with just a few clouds and I knew this was where I was supposed to be. This was my destiny.” Al-Khayyat was in Chicago. He had $300 in his pocket and “a suitcase full of dreams” but knew just a few phrases of English. The next day, he witnessed his first fireworks display. It was Independence Day.

Al-Khayyat was born in Kuwait and grew up in Jordan where he finished college and his mandatory military service but found jobs scarce. “Everyone called me the dreamer, but Jordan wasn’t the place for what I hoped to accomplish,” says Al-Khayyat. “It’s never been about money, but about being a positive impact in my community. I couldn’t do that where I was.” Al-Khayyat, frustrated with locals who treated him well only because of his family name, moved across the world to a country and city where no one knew him. Armed with only his passion and determination, the young man would have to make it on his own.

At first, language learning proved difficult. Although in Jordan English was a de facto second language with co-official status in some sectors, it was Al-Khayyat’s worst subject in school. He learned by talking, listening and refusing to give up. Overall, the young immigrant found himself fitting in. “Everything was exactly how I imagined it,” he says. “Everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – has shaped me for who I am today.”

Al-Khayyat found work washing dishes in Chicago restaurants for just two dollars an hour. After several months, he was promised a better job 200 miles south – in Springfield. He stayed at the job one year and then transitioned to a better job at a local well-known corporate restaurant. There Al-Khayyat remained for the next 13 years, training most new employees and earning every possible award and recognition.

During that time, Al-Khayyat met and married a Springfield woman named Mary, who gave birth to the couple’s daughter – Mariah. Al-Khayyat’s own restaurant, named after his daughter, opened in 2003 against the counsel of friends and advisors. “The bank said I was nuts and my friends thought I was crazy. Everyone told me I would fail after three months, but failure was never an option,” says Al-Khayyat. He found his location – a long-vacant log cabin eatery on Robbins Road – and pleaded with the bank for a deal. “I told them I would take over the place and earn their money back for them over time,” Al-Khayyat says. “They laughed me out of the room.”

A year later, Al-Khayyat returned from vacation to a blinking-red answering machine light. He pushed the button and heard a bank employee invite him in for a meeting with the bank president. Twelve months after being laughed out of the room, they offered him a deal, handing over the keys on the spot. Al-Khayyat drove to his new location and sat at a dirty table of the neglected bar in an enormous building with water damage. “I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into,” he recalls. Al-Khayyat spent an hour thinking – and then he got to work.

And he hasn’t stopped in the last 10 years. After opening in 2003, Al-Khayyat spent 444 18-hour work days without a break. Still today he often stays past midnight only to return at 7 a.m. the next day. Today, after experiencing a tornado in 2006 and the economic crash starting in 2007, Al-Khayyat says business is up. While they once focused on family fare, Mariah’s is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a redesigned logo and menu. Now, Mariah’s Steakhouse serves what Al-Khayyat calls “Springfield’s best steak and pasta dishes.”

Still, whenever he cuts the grass or drives through town with his windows down, Al-Khayyat remembers his “birthday” in 1989. “I am living proof that the American Dream is possible. This is the best country on earth, and I am the luckiest man alive,” he says. Not only is Al-Khayyat operating a million-dollar business – he’s fulfilling his vision of giving back to the local community. Al-Khayyat is involved with the March of Dimes and countless other area local charities and causes. He hopes to help Springfield address and eventually eliminate homelessness. “We all want a good community but we can’t have a good community if we aren’t good people. I believe it starts with each one of us,” he says.

Al-Khayyat became a U.S. citizen in 1992 and occasionally travels to Jordan. Each time, he says he looks forward to coming home. “I always return to Springfield, because this town has treated me so well.”

Zach Baliva is a media producer and filmmaker currently prepping a documentary on the student-loan debt crisis.

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