Beginning Over Behind the Ballroom Wall
In front of Hussein Hamad stands the hotel wall that separates him from the well-heeled diners whose plates he cleans without recognition.
Barely 21, Hussein is a Lebanese immigrant newly arrived in Houston. There on a student visa, he is taking English classes at the nearby university while holding down an eight-hour dishwasher shift where he earns $3.75 per hour.
It’s a hard life but better—and safer—than the one he’s left behind in Lebanon where a civil war is raging.
The victim of sectarian violence, Hussein escaped the country with his life a few months earlier. A case of mistaken identity, he and friend were kidnapped while the two ate meat pies in a parked car, beside a river, in Baalbek. Known in ancient times as Heliopolis, Baalbek was known for the Sfeehas Hussein and his friend were enjoying when their car was suddenly surrounded by a group of armed men. Pulled from the car, the pair were driven into the hills where they were kept—and brutalized.
Hussein knows that it is only because of his horse trainer father—and the commander he persuaded to intercede on his son’s behalf—that he is still alive.
The commander, whose horse was once trained by Hussein’s father, made him promise to leave the country, which is how he came to be in this kitchen, scraping the plates of strangers he knows only from the leftovers he sometimes takes home at night.
Flash forward to present day.
Hussein’s broad smile flashes before me on Zoom. Dapper and affable in a white collared shirt, he is holding a porcelain coffee cup in one hand; with the other he waves at me.
Friends of mine, who also happen to be followers of this blog, are the reason Hussein and I are in this Zoom chat room together. Ann and Mike met Hussein in a hotel dining room in Texas. No longer a dishwasher, Hussein is Food and Beverage Director for Omni Hotels & Resorts in Texas.
“He’s your story behind the wall,” Ann says, quoting the tagline for this blog. “Hussein said you can call him.”
Over Zoom, I learn from Hussein about his dishwashing days and what came after.
Determined to make his way in his adopted land, Hussein tells me how he worked his way up the restaurant labor ranks to his current executive management position. In the process, he acquired a car and eventually the Jewish girlfriend—Hussein is Muslim—who would become his wife and soulmate, Judith. Children (3 of them) followed along with professional accolades and multiple presidential encounters.
Of his early years in America, Hussein says, “It was a beautiful life compared to what I left behind in Lebanon.”
In his country, the job of restaurant dishwasher or even server is considered a dead-end. “Back home, working for someone wasn’t a good thing. You worked for yourself. It is only people who don’t do well who work as servers and dishwashers.”
In America, this was not case, at least not for Hussein. His dishwasher job provided a springboard to a lifelong career in hospitality. His breakout moment came a few years into hospitality school when he was singled out for a top student award. It happened like this:
Hussein is standing in front of an audience of 600 in a hotel ballroom not unlike the one he serviced years ago in obscurity. Asked to say a few words, Hussein points at a wall separating the ballroom from the hotel kitchen. “Eight years ago, I was standing behind there, washing dishes, not speaking English, an immigrant no one saw,” he told the crowd. “That was my wall. I came from behind there to stand here and receive an award I never knew existed.”