Mediterranean Deli owner reflects on adverse childhood and success in America

By Laura Brummett

“I can’t. I can’t open it I’m too scared,” Jamil Kadoura, 19, said. The embassy in Jerusalem had rejected him at least a dozen times before. This time, he had traveled to the consulate in Tel Aviv. This was his last chance.

His friend took the papers from him and ripped them open. He slowly turned back to Kadoura, shocked.

“You got it,” the friend said. “You got the visa.”

After waiting for eight hours in a chair outside the consulate’s office, Kadoura saw a beautiful eagle staring back at him from the colorful documents.

It was 5 p.m., and he returned to his home for the past 11 years, a refugee camp in Israel. Kadoura was on a flight leaving the country by 7:30 p.m. He was leaving behind his entire family, all of his friends and the close-knit community where he had grown up.

Yet, he was lucky. Most Palestinian boys his age had dreamt of this opportunity ever since the first time “Charlie’s Angels” aired on their TV. Kadoura was going to America.

When he was 8 years old, Kadoura and his older brothers were playing with marbles on his father’s citrus farm. He had grown up on his father’s 100 acres of land with his two mothers and multiple brothers and sisters.

His “first mom” married his dad and had four sons and four daughters. Once most of the children had grown up and moved out, his dad married Kadoura’s biological mom.

His father was 41 at the time, and his mother was not quite 16. She had four more sons and four more daughters.

Just as the marbles game began to intensify, his mothers came running toward the boys, yelling.

“We have to go, we have to go right now,” his mother said.

The Israeli-Arab Conflict had reached them. It was 1968, and Kadoura’s family farm was located in Qalqilya, an area that the Israelis called the West Bank of Jordan. The Israelis were coming to claim the area as their own.

Kadoura’s family joined the line of Palestinian people escaping through the mountains with their belongings. Kadoura’s job was to carry the radio. He was young, so he didn’t have much to carry.

After about a day of walking, they stopped to rest in a cave for the night. When entering the cave, Kadoura stepped over a sleeping man’s body.

When he awoke the next morning, the man had not moved.

“Is he still sleeping?” Kadoura asked his older brother.

“Yes. Just let him be,” his brother said.

The sleeping man was actually dead. Kadoura would vividly remember seeing the man’s limp body lying on the ground for the rest of his life.

After one more day of walking, they made it to a United Nations refugee camp. The Israeli occupation was fully underway and Kadoura’s life would never be the same.

“Look how nice these people are, and we caused this”

Kadoura lived in the refugee camp until getting a student visa at 19.

The opportunity to move to the United States was a dream come true for Kadoura, which most Americans don’t understand.

“You have the freedom. Forget the finances and the money because not everyone that comes here does well, but you have America,” Kadoura said. “The America I came to was the most beautiful country in the world.”

Even though he had big expectations for what life in the United States would look like, Kadoura was never disappointed. In fact, he was shocked that the society was even nicer than he thought.

Kadoura, now 58, lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife and three children. Together, they own three restaurant locations, a market and a catering business.

The flagship restaurant, Mediterranean Deli, has won countless awards, including being named Business of the Year in 2012 by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m 100 percent sure that it’s because of my background and what I went through,” Kadoura said of his success.

His oldest daughter, Ambara Kadoura, started working in the restaurant five years ago when she was 15 because she wanted to be around what he had built.

“I felt like I needed to be a part of that because of how much he’s been through,” she said. “How could I be selfish?”

A few years after the deli opened in 1991, Kadoura experienced a drastic spike in business. The month of September 2001 brought the most sales the deli had seen to the date.

The community was coming to support Kadoura after the terrorist attacks, now known as 9/11. He was struggling with not only hurting for America, but also feeling guilty.

Kadoura tried to eject himself from American society, feeling like he didn’t belong. He referred to the attack as being done by “us” despite his friends reminding him that he was nothing like the terrorists.

As more people in the community showed support for Kadoura, he felt even guiltier.

“Look how nice these people are, and we caused this,” he said.

Kadoura’s close friends, along with his wife, worked to make sure he knew he was not to blame just because of his ethnicity.

“A lot of people didn’t realize we also went through difficult times because we’re Middle Easterners,” Kadoura said. “We were agonized, we were broken, but it made us love America more.”

You can have nothing and come back from it without hate

Kadoura wanted his children to have a good understanding of both his Middle Eastern heritage and their mother’s American heritage.

“I tell them to be proud of both cultures,” he said. “They’re very Middle Eastern but they’re very American at the same time.”

Two summers ago, the family visited Jerusalem to see Kadoura’s homeland.

“I miss everything about it. I miss the togetherness. I miss that people are close, not for financial reasons. It’s a very simple society,” he said. “Here it’s like life is on the run, but I wouldn’t change it for the world, being here.”

Kadoura’s childhood farm was never the same after the occupation began, and is now mostly a Jewish settlement.

Despite watching his father lose the land he had worked so hard for, Kadoura holds no bitterness in his heart toward the Israelis.

“Jerusalem belongs to everyone. I hope one day they make it a United Nations city where everyone can visit,” he said.

As the conflict around Jerusalem escalated over the past year, Kadoura has worked to share his experience with the community.

Ambara admires her father’s ability not to show hatred to any Jewish or Israeli people, despite the occupation. Kadoura uses his struggles as a learning experience, instead of a source for pain.

“Sometimes I don’t think like that. I get mad and think it’s not fair,” she said. “It’s a really hard thing to do.”

Ambara uses her dad as a role model for her own life. He’s taught her that you can have nothing and come back from it without hate.

“He has an impact on anyone he knows or comes across in life,” she said. “Everyone I know says how lucky I am to have him as a dad.”

Edited by: Madeleine Fraley and Jack Gallop