Faces of New Canaan: Amer Salloum

In this installment of “Faces of New Canaan,” we interview a town resident known for nearly two decades to scores of locals through the New Canaan YMCA as well as his own business.

Amer Salloum of New Canaan. Credit: Michael Dinan

Amer Salloum of New Canaan. Credit: Michael Dinan

Amer Salloum, a licensed massage therapist, lives on Millport Avenue with his wife and three kids, and has been a New Canaanite for some 11 years.

Given that Salloum’s story of hard work, opportunity and optimism—from non-English-speaking and, for a time, homeless, to family, profession and community—captures perhaps what many of us associate with this nation at its best, we feel it’s fitting to headline our Independence Day newsletter with this profile.

We met Salloum in a recent afternoon at Kaahve coffee chop on Main Street.

What follows is a transcription of our exchange.

New Canaanite: Tell me about yourself. You said that your name is pronounced ‘Ah-MEER’ with a long ‘e.’

Amer Salloum: Yes.

How long have you lived in town?

I have lived in this town for 11 years but I have been working in this town for over 17.

What do you do?

I’m a massage therapist.

Where do you work now?

I do independent and I work for a place in Fairfield. But mostly independents, people’s houses.

When you moved here 11 years ago, where did you move from?

I was living in Bridgeport.

And where are you from originally?

Jordan.

And when did you come to the States?

July 20, 1989.

You remember the day.

And it was the afternoon. It was raining.

Tell me why you remember the day so clearly.

It’s a new experience for me. I was 21, first time outside of the country.

First time outside of Jordan?

Yes.

And you flew here to JFK?

Yes, and the most important thing is: It was raining in July. For me, in Jordan it does not rain in July. It’s four seasons and in the summer it does not rain.

How old were you on July 20, 1989?

I was 20 years old.

And what was the reason for the travel?

I came here to study. I came here as a student at the University of Ohio at Athens. And I flew to JFK, stayed for three months in New York with family, far family. After that went to Ohio, studied economics and I came back.

Came back to Jordan?

No I came back over here, because at that time we had a recession in Jordan and basically my dad’s money had run out.

So when you came at 20, what was your English like?

No English.

Zero? So how did you attend an English-speaking university three months later?

You go over there and they have programs for that stuff. They have English-learning programs. But English, like anything else, it depends on your ability.

How long were you at Athens?

Not much. About one semester.

One semester. So when you were 20, did you already have a degree from Jordan?

No. I had high school and had just finished from the obligatory Army. Because everybody has to serve when they are 18 over there. I finished two years and came over here.

And you decided to stay on because of the recession?

No it’s not just the recession. It’s a different experience. I wanted to stay on. Life is different here than in Jordan.

How so?

Over here there are more opportunities. The thing I like about this country is that it’s what you put into it. It’s not like Jordan, where it’s who you know and who your family is. So even though my family was OK but I wanted to do it on my own.

I sometimes have the same thought with what I do. I started my own business from nothing and my wife is European. She’s Irish. I have the same thought sometimes about what I like about Americans. When I say ‘I love my job,’ sometimes I think it’s the same thing as saying, ‘I love my country.’ People here don’t have hang-ups. You can do something new and they accept it, whereas over there there’s a set way of doing things. It’s harder to break the mould.

Over there everybody is set. It depends whom you know, what is your background and who your family are.

I want to hear more about the first 20 years of your life. Where were you from in Jordan?

I am from a small town. It used to be small. When I went back I was shocked. It’s called ‘Jerash.’ Originally it was the biggest, most complete Roman ruins city in the world.

Spell it for me?

J-E-R-A-S-H.

You have siblings?

Oh I have eight of them.

Where do you fall?

I’m the third.

You go to high school there. How old were you when you finished high school.

Here’s the thing: I failed my high school, so I run away from my dad and I joined the Army.

How old were you when you did that?

I was 18.

Did you run away because you failed?

I didn’t want to see my dad.

He’d be angry.

Back home isn’t like over here. He doesn’t talk to you.

So instead of telling him you failed, you joined the Army.

I have to do it.

It’s a requirement anyway?

So instead of waiting for three months, I just entered right away over there.

When was the next time you saw him?

About three months after that.

And was he still angry?

Yes, of course.

So you didn’t even get away with it?

No. I had no place to go to.

So you were in the Army for how many years?

Two years. That’s when I got my high school diploma. Like the equivalent of a GED over there. But it’s not like a GED. You study the same courses as you do but in the privacy of your house. And I did that in the Army.

OK, so now you have the equivalent of a high school diploma in hand. You come to the U.S. to study economics for one semester at University of Ohio. Now you finish one semester and where do you go?

I didn’t know what to do. Athens, Ohio at that time—now you’re talking 26 years ago—Athens, Ohio was just a dead town. I don’t know how it is right now. But it was a college town.

That wasn’t the place to stay and work. Where did you go, back to New York?

Yes, that’s what I did, came back to New York. It was January, harsh. No place to stay, nowhere to go to.

Where did you, then?

Anywhere and everywhere. I was homeless for a while.

You were homeless. In the winter.

I came over here for one reason: To better myself. And my aim was still to go back to college. So if one way does not work, there’s another way to do it. No family to see or to house you. So what do you do, the next best thing? You look for a job. So I started looking for a job. I remember the first job I ever did it was shoveling snow. And it was fun. I didn’t know how to do that. A lady told me, ‘Can you shovel snow?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and I went and I shoveled snow and she gave me $5. It was my first $5 ever. And I found a job working or a grocery store—convenience, a deli—and they put me in the basement. They were from my homeland. It just happened by accident. They put me in a basement.

Where?

In New York, Manhattan.

Where?

In the village.

Which village?

Greenwich Village.

And when did you find a living situation?

At the same time.

In the same area?

Yes.

New York in 1989, 1990 was different from the New York we know today. This is pre-Giuliani. This was the New York of David Dinkins. So it was higher crime. It was more graffiti. People were maybe different in their attitudes? It was a grittier New York.

It’s like I told you, it’s what you put into it.

But I want to hear your story, because you went from homeless in New York to living in New Canaan. So that’s a change and I need to hear the whole story. What happened?

It’s what I said to you: Whatever you put into it, that’s what you are going to get. This country gives you an opportunity and you just have to take it. I didn’t want to stay where I am, so its’ a situation that I never had to face. So I worked for one place and found myself work, found myself a place and the first place I lived was in Flatbush, Brooklyn. You’re talking about a rough place at that time. People get dropped in the elevator. Thank God I did not, because my job was at nighttime. So from there you start to pick up things little by little and you learn stuff.

What did you learn?

How to survive. You have to live for yourself.

You’ve been here 11 years and you were in Bridgeport before that for how many years?

Ten.

So for all of the early-‘90s you lived in Manhattan and then Brooklyn.

I lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn and I even went to Indiana. You work in one place and do something and it’s whatever you put into it. When I did grocery stores or convenience stores or a deli, you always try to be the best at whatever you do. So if you are trying to be the best, everybody would notice that. So I worked at one place and a guy said, ‘Can you be with me in Indiana?’ I said ‘Yes’ because I have no ties to this place. I am from another country.

Whereabouts in Indiana did you go?

Gary.

Gary, Indiana. And did you end up in a shop?

Yes, I was running a shop over there for a time. But Gary is a different town. I mean it scared me. If you are talking about New York, New York has nothing in Gary. Gary, Indiana is still a depressed town. It had the highest crime rate in the country if not the world at that time. The town was dependent on the steel mills and the steel is gone. So you ended up with 50 or 60 percent of the people unemployed.

I want to stop you for a second and take a step back. All of your family is still over in Jordan?

Yes.

You have no family, little English, you are learning as you go.

I have something called ‘language talent,’ which is basically that I can pick up languages as fast as you can say it. So within three months I was speaking English.

OK but basically you are still on your own trying to make something from nothing. So you go to Indiana and at some point you come back to New York, I assume. What brought you to Bridgeport?

A friend of mine. I had a lot of friends. In my line of work, you meet a lot of people.

Are these Jordanians?

No he’s from Syria.

Not him specifically, I mean. The people who hired you initially were Jordanian. But I’m curious to know, when you start to make your friends in New York and have a social life, are these other people who are from the Middle East?

Yes, you stick with your own because that is what you are more familiar with.

Let me ask you something: What were your first impressions of Manhattan?

Big, loud and crowded.

So a Syrian friend brought you to Bridgeport?

He moved here and I went to visit him and for the first time in years, I saw the sun. I kid you not. We drove up there and for me to see Bridgeport it isn’t what I see now. Out of New York and into Bridgeport was like the countryside. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s the sun and there’s a tree.’ You fall in love with that. And you drive a car, not the subway. So this kind of freedom you’re looking for, even though I was living in Manhattan. Manhattan wasn’t cheap at that time. I was living in a one-bedroom apartment paying $450. In Greenwich Village, at St. Mark’s Place. Now you can’t touch that for $3,000. The freedom of seeing things, the fishing and this and that.

What was your job in Bridgeport?

Same thing.

How did you find New Canaan?

New Canaan found me. This is how I got to do massages. I was working in Bridgeport and I got to meet a lady, an old lady, she was Korean. Because you work with people, you get to know people. With her, I saw like a mother for me. So I was used to helping older people, and she wanted to do this, I would drive her with my car and she would want to give me money and I said, ‘No don’t worry about it.’ It’s a feeling of family. I was from a big family to begin with.

Where did she live?

Bridgeport.

But what was her connection to New Canaan?

That’s how I got into massages. She showed me and sent me to school.

I still don’t understand the connection to New Canaan.

When I got the massages, I worked in Stamford where I met one gentleman, George, who lives in New Canaan.

So now you start to have clients who are from New Canaan.

Yes.

Where did you go to massage school?

It’s in Saddle Brook, New Jersey.

And you’re licensed.

Yes, New York and New Jersey, and I was driving every day to take classes over there.

You became licensed in Connecticut at some point?

You have to take the courses.

So now we are in a period of your life where your orientation is more Fairfield County than New York City. You’re living in Bridgeport, you’re working in Stamford, you’re coming through New Canaan where you have clients.

Yes, I worked for the YMCA in New Canaan for many years.

What was your job there?

Massage therapist.

When did you start working there?

In 2000 or so.

How long did you work at the Y?

Until last year, and I still work independently.

Are you a family man?

Yes, I have a wife and three kids.

Where is your wife from?

Jordan.

But you met her here?

No, I met her in Jordan. My first wife was here.

Oh you were married twice. When did you marry your first wife?

I don’t want to talk about it.

  1. When did you marry your second wife?

Eleven years ago, 12 years ago.

Right before you moved to New Canaan.

I moved to New Canaan once I married my wife. I wanted something better.

What’s her name?

Abeer.

Spell it.

A-B-E-E-R.

And you met her in Jordan?

Yes. We got introduced through our families.

Did she already live here too?

No she had never been here.

She came back with you?

Yes.

How often during this period were you able to visit home?

Once or twice.

Once or twice a year or once or twice total?

Total.

Was it something arranged to marry her?

No. Our traditional way of marriage is not like over here. When you get engaged, there is a family who is available. You meet them, you like them, you sit down with them, get engaged for three months, six months, if you like each other, you get married. It’s like boyfriend-girlfriend but without the physical interaction.

And you did that?

I did that. I did that for three months, then I went back to America.

You’re an observant Muslim your entire life, and she’s the same, and this is tradition.

Yes.

It’s a Jordanian tradition or it’s a tradition within your faith?

Actually it’s Jordanian. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim, this is the culture over there. It’s basically making sure you are with the right person for you.

Do you have children together?

Yes.

How old are your kids?

I have Ahmad who is going to be 10, Hana is eight and Omar is about four years old.

What school does Ahmad go to?

East.

I went to East.

Ahmad right now he is going to Saxe.

Next year? Big move. He’s going to walk to town on Friday, drop his bag at Mackenzie’s.

Yeah, are you kidding me?

So spell their names, please.

Ahmad is A-H-M-A-D. Hana is H-A-N-A. And Omar is O-M-A-R.

What street do you live on?

We live on Millport Avenue.

Tell me about your involvement in the town. You know a lot of people through the Y, I assume.

And through people who work with me. It’s my town. I love my town. New Canaan, for me—when I got married, I wanted something more stable, less fearful to raise my kids—and I lived in New Canaan to begin with and I worked for years here before that and it’s the most logical place for me. New Canaan is safe, that’s the best thing. It’s quiet. Literally it’s like an oasis amid the cities.

What was your first impression of downtown New Canaan, when you first came?

‘Are we in Europe?’ When you move out of Bridgeport or New York, you think it’s a piece of Europe. It’s different. The names on the signs are different. It’s like a piece of Europe just moved over here.

That’s interesting. What about the people you have met from New Canaan?

Very nice people, 99.9 percent down to Earth.

What is your place of worship now?

I am a Muslim but I don’t have a set mosque, I go to wherever I am.

I am curious about the Muslim community. Are you part of one here?

I don’t think there is one in New Canaan.

Well, then what about the greater area?

There is a mosque in Norwalk and two in Stamford. There’s one in Fairfield. It’s wherever I am at that time. There’s no communities in that way. Actually the Muslim communities are the most integrated in the whole world. They don’t consider some separate from others.

Your kids are American-born. Where were they born?

Bridgeport Hospital, all three of them.

Are you done? Three?

Yes, that’s it. I’m 49 years old. I don’t want to chase my kids with a stick.

What about your kids. Is Ahmad playing baseball or what?

Ahmad is playing football.

American football?

Yes.

What position?

He plays on the line or something.

What’s it like for you to watch him play these youth football games?

I love it.

It’s very American.

My kids are American. I am more American than Jordanian. This is my country.

Well you’ve been here for 60 percent of your life.

When I went back to Jordan, it was the first time I went back from eight years was when I learned my mom had cancer. I went there for a week and it felt like a different country.

Any siblings move here?

No.

Do your kids know their cousins in Jordan?

I am planning to send them next year. For the summer. This is the whole thing: The world is getting smaller. My whole focus was to integrate to this country, the American culture. Once they did that, now I can expose them to a different culture.

Do any of them have your knack for languages?

My son he speaks some Arabic. They speak some Spanish.

You speak Arabic in the house?

Yes, and they answer me back in English.

Is your wife an English speaker?

Yes, she actually got her bachelor’s degree here, from the University of Bridgeport. She’s an accountant. She works in Stamford for a media company.

You both work. Busy times.

We try.

And your four-year-old is in preschool?

Yes.

Where?

New Canaan Day Care.

You seem like a man of diligence and gratitude, a family man.

I try. This is my family and this is my country.

What do you think of this coffee? What’s the verdict?

It’s OK.

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