Syrian trailblazer lends his support to McCain

Having arrived in America with nothing, Abe Munfakh never expected success in politics, but he wanted 'to make a difference'.

Abe Munfakh is in Minnesota for this week's Republican National Convention.
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ST PAUL, Minnesota // Abe Munfakh was 16 when he set out from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in the early 1960s, with a single suitcase and some memories: the way his father snored during naps after the family's big noontime meals; his bus rides to the Catholic school he attended with his younger brothers; the fruit and vegetable stands that dotted his hometown city's streets. The ship he boarded in Lebanon took him to Italy. The ship he boarded in Italy took him to America. Arriving in New York harbour after 20 days, he tried to picture the man he had seen in the photograph, his mother's uncle, who was to pick him up and take him to his new home - his new life - in Utica, New York. "When I came off the ship, I was lost," Mr Munfakh, now 64, and the owner of his own engineering firm in Michigan, said. "He called my name and I jumped up. He gave me a hug." "First, you're in awe," he said of arriving in the United States. "Secondly, you don't know what to do. You don't know what people do to survive." Mr Munfakh is among the more than 5,000 delegates and alternates who have come to St Paul for the formal election of John McCain as the Republican Party's nominee for president, still planned for today even though other activities have been scaled back on account of Hurricane Gustav. As an alternate in the Michigan delegation, he may not be called on to cast a vote, but he is ready to do so if asked. There is no road map for Mr Munfakh's path here. He calls himself a "trailblazer" - the first in his family to come to the United States; the first to graduate college; the first to become a US citizen - as humbly as a person can. If, as an Arab Christian immigrant, he seems an unlikely Republican, and people sometimes look at him that way, he has found a home in the party's politics, which match his personal political instincts on everything from abortion to taxes. "People ask: why a Republican?" said Mr Munfakh, whose wife of nearly four decades, Darlene, recently retired as a high school mathematics teacher. "And I tell everybody, I feel more comfortable. I'm a social conservative. I believe in raising a family the hard way. I don't believe in squandering opportunities. I'm also a fiscal conservative. I don't like to spend money when I don't have money." After high school, still working on English he says was "not very good", Mr Munfakh went from Utica to Baton Rouge, where he studied civil engineering at Louisiana State University. Not eligible for federal education grants because he was here on a green card, he got a job near the campus at a typical American cafe and, during the summers, loaded lorries and sold sweets and cigarettes at a train station in Chicago. He went on to the University of Michigan to complete graduate work. "One thing my mom and dad really emphasised for us was education," said Mr Munfakh, whose family of seven was finally reunited in the United States five years after he first arrived. "You've got to have education or you can't get any place." As a student, he aligned, though not actively, with the Democratic Party, thinking Democrats were for the "little guy". But he became more involved in Republican politics after starting work at a Michigan engineering firm - where he rose quickly to partner and then president - and serving on the local planning commission. His first political campaign was for Plymouth Township trustee, representing some 23,000 residents. He had no campaign funds, so he printed flyers that showed his picture and outlined his plan and relied on family and friends to work as a kind of unpaid staff. "Frankly, I didn't expect to get elected, a little kid from Aleppo with a funny name," he said. But he was. "I wanted to be involved," he said. "I wanted to make a difference. To make a difference, you have to be involved." He has been involved in so many more ways. Mr Munfakh, who is chairman of a human services organisation that helps Middle East immigrants establish new lives in the United States, has attended every Michigan state Republican convention as a delegate since 1985. He is chairman of the Republican committee for one of Michigan's 15 congressional districts. And he is pondering a run for state legislature in 2010. Just because he is a Republican does not mean he is without criticism of the Bush administration. He dislikes the soaring federal deficit, saying the government has "lost its focus" and must get back to the business of cutting spending. And he said he has been "really disappointed" with some of its foreign policies, which have damaged America's standing in the world. "We lost a lot of credibility with some of the countries of the world, and we've got to get it back," said Mr Munfakh, wearing a red, white and blue polo shirt made to look like the American flag. "I think the mistakes we made in the Middle East, especially Iraq, could have been avoided," he said, criticising the former secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, for having "too much leeway" and administration officials for being "too set in their way". He also urges the next administration to focus earlier, and more aggressively, on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The Middle East is never going to come to peace or be able to thrive without resolving the Palestinian issue," he said. Mr Munfakh became an American citizen in 1974 at a naturalisation ceremony in Detroit. In some ways, he felt like a newborn, arriving in America all over again, though in a different way. "It was a breath of fresh air, really," he said. "I wanted to be a part of the country. I had a choice, and I picked that choice."