The Importance of Giving Back

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The Importance of Giving Back

Living the Dream with Jamil Kadoura

By: Tom Griffen

According to Mediterranean Deli owner, Jamil Kadoura, for the past 26 years he has been living the definitive “American Dream.” 

Jamil’s reality, however, is far removed from his refugee camp childhood in the occupied West Bank of Jerusalem. But it is exactly those trying times that influence how he runs his restaurant.

“The time I spent in the refugee camp never left me,” says Jamil. “While I was there, so many people came to help. So much support from strangers.”

Jamil’s resulting philosophy is simple. He believes that everything he does comes back to him. This worldview guides his every move—personal and professional.

In 1979, after countless deflating rejections, Jamil received a travel visa. When he showed his family the travel documents, they thought he was joking. Within 24 hours, he boarded a US-bound international flight and left the occupation once and for all. His final destination—Minneapolis.

The first thing Jamil did was enroll at the Minnesota School of Business.

“During the occupation,” Jamil says, “my parents were focused on one thing—school, school, school. It’s what they always talked about.”

He also took a job as a dishwasher at The Jolly Troll Smorgasbord, a restaurant big enough to feed 500 people.

“I studied, worked a lot, and sent money home to my mother,” Jamil says. “I wasn’t afraid to work hard.”

Eventually he was promoted to the dining room, then later accepted a job at a Sheraton hotel where he worked his way up the ranks. A job at the Crabtree Sheraton in Raleigh brought him to North Carolina. Then a position at the Europa Hotel landed him to Chapel Hill.

“I came here with a lot of experience,” Jamil says.

And it wasn’t long before he knew he could run his own place.

With $16,000 startup cash, he opened up Mediterranean Deli on Franklin Street. His first space (currently occupied by Smoke Rings Smoke Shop) was tiny. It had just enough room for one cold deli case, a couple tables, and seating for twelve. Jamil’s first two employees were his mom and sister who followed him to America.

When he started Med Deli, falafel was largely unknown in most of the US. But Jamil found a ready audience in the heart of Chapel Hill.

“Even back in 1991,” Jamil says, “Chapel Hill was liberal, educated, and connected with the outside world in so many ways.”

In all of Med Deli’s various growth opportunities, Jamil always chose to invest locally. And since moving into the current space, Med Deli just keeps on expanding.

Jamil is proud to share what happened after 9-11. Not only did the restaurant witness an outpouring of love and support from the local community, but September 2001 turned out to be their busiest month to date.

“Everyone came by to ask about me,” Jamil says. “To make sure I was alright. I’m Muslim. And their reaching out says a lot about this community.”

Jamil gets emotional when he relives the unlikely events that brought him here. There’s no doubting how thankful he is for what he has. And he shows his thanks by giving back.

“We are committed to fund raising. Serious fund raising,” Jamil says. “After the Haiti earthquake we raised $18k in one day and gave it all to the cause. We also raised money for the Palestinian flood. It’s very, very important what we do in the community.”

Though Jamil’s been running the place for more than a quarter century, he has no plans to retire. There’s so much sentimental value connected to the business. 

“I am here,” Jamil says with enthusiasm, “living an actual dream.”

“Plus,” he says, “I’m a sucker for downtown Chapel Hill. I love it here.”