Meet Nabeel Athar.
A foreign born from Pakistan, Nabeel first visited the United States as a Merchant Marine cadet back in early January of 1980. A cargo ship took him to such places as Mobile, Alabama; Charleston, South Carolina; and Yonkers, New York. His ship had just traveled here from Brazil, where weather had been beautiful and quite a contrast to the cold climate in the United States. Nevertheless he still was impressed by how accepting this country was regarding diversity. He decided to learn more about its culture, which he as able to do in subsequent years.
“I have been all over the world and believe that no place is better than the United States in terms of opportunities for advancement, along with the abundance of practically everything. Also, unlike other places in the world, one can easily assess one’s elected officials and hold them accountable.”
Let’s now jump forward to July 2018 when Nabeel—who had immigrated to the United States—was scheduled to become a U.S. citizen.
Nabeel owns Select Jewelers at Great Lakes Mall in Mentor, Ohio, a suburb 25 miles east of Cleveland. He just loves it there. He is quite proud (rightly so) of his endeavors in organizing an event which took place at the mall on Father’s Day 2018. This occasion was planned to honor several members of VFW Post 9295 in Mentor. Among those who attended the ceremony were a representative from the office of U.S. Congressperson David Joyce and Ohio State Senator John Eklund, who was there on invitation from Nabeel to pay tribute to the veterans. For this event and for the veterans, Nabeel was able to acquire certificates of recognition from Ohio State Senator Kenny Yuko and from the President of the Senate, Larry Obhof. In addition, the president of the Mentor City Council, John A. Krueger, was one of the invitees in attendance.
We were already acquainted with Nabeel, having met him previously at several Eastern Lake County Chamber events. He very willingly agreed to be interviewed for iForeignBorn because, as he said, he had been greatly assisted by Ms. Wong and was very appreciative of all her successful efforts on his behalf.
So in July of 2018, we met and talked with Nabeel at Select Jewelers. This was the first time we interviewed an immigrant entrepreneur at the site of his or her business. While we talked, Ms. Wendy Wilmot, assistant manager and longtime employee of Nabeel’s, tended to customers and other matters related to his business.
We learned a lot about Nabeel from talking to him at the store because, though he completely trusted his assistant, he excused himself several times to assist customers, thus demonstrating his commitment to his business. This didn’t bother us at all, as we come from a small business background and could very much appreciate Nabeel’s devotion to his work. Said one of Nabeel’s longtime customers, who just happened to be in the store while we were, “He’s a real sweetheart!”
From our conversation with him, we learned that he was born in 1958 into an upper middle-class family in Sialkot, Pakistan, a region known for sporting goods manufacturing, especially soccer balls. Upon his graduation from a prestigious Cadet high school, he joined the Merchant Marines and spent nine years traveling to many countries. Upon his voluntary discharge from the Merchant Marines, he attended college, and in 1985 earned a Bachelor’s in astronomy and mathematics. He then went on to earn a Master’s degree in marketing and management from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in 1986. LUMS is considered one of the best management schools in South Asia.
After graduation, Nabeel worked for a year at the ShakarGanj Sugar Mills situated in the city of Jhang before joining the World Wildlife Fund, a nature conservation non-profit organization. He was hired there as their very first fundraising manager. Nabeel held that post until 1992 when he left to start his own business with the help of two friends.
Nabeel and his partners began importing and distributing medical and ophthalmic products under the name of MNS International. During the course of this business, he took several courses to understand the science of ophthalmology and the anatomy of the eye, which proved to be quite useful. Offering further assistance to him was his beautiful wife, Ms. Salma Khan, whom he had met while working for the World Wildlife Fund.
MNS International proved to be an immense success and continued until 1998 when Pakistan conducted its Chagai-1 nuclear tests. This resulted in sanctions being imposed upon the country, making the costs of importing materials rise to extremely high levels. Nabeel’s import business took the toll of rising costs and saw a decline in revenues and profits. Finally, in 2001, with both the political turmoil in Pakistan and the dwindling profits of his company, Nabeel had come to terms with the fact that the situation was not getting better and would only get worse.
Since Nabeel was very mindful of the times he briefly spent in the U.S. as a Merchant Marine Cadet, and during the several business trips he had taken here previously, he decided to explore the possibilities of immigrating here and putting his entrepreneurial skills to work in the conducive economy.
Initially, Nabeel came here on a B1 visa—a temporary visa issued to those seeking entry for business purposes—hoping in time to qualify for an L-1 visa, which would enable him to remain here even longer due to his managerial experience and prior entrepreneurial background.
However in the post 9-11 years, the processing of such applications had become very long and tedious. Additionally, Nabeel had to endure the waiting period before he could ask his wife and their two young children to join him here in 2002; and their status was quite tentative.
In the interim, he established the first Select Jewelers in 2004 in the now defunct Randall Park Mall. Over the next decade he opened more of the same in several other locations, including the one at Great Lakes Mall in 2014.
In 2005, however, Nabeel received bad news. The L-1 visa applications for him and his family had been denied. By this time they had established themselves here and definitely did not want to return to Pakistan, particularly since Salma—formerly a Muslim like Nabeel—had converted to another religion here (albeit with Nabeel’s blessing). Thus, they were naturally worried about their safety should they ever return to Pakistan.
To jettison anxiety from their lives, for two years they worked with another immigration attorney, this time with the goal of obtaining asylum. Their endeavors did not seem to go anywhere, however, and proved to be less than satisfactory. Other foreign-born people with whom Nabeel spoke about this attorney didn’t have good experiences either. Nabeel thus decided to double down on his efforts, take the advice of his friends, and arrange an interview with Ms. Wong.
Nabeel described Ms. Wong’s attitude as “comforting,” and he could tell she was “quite smart” in terms of her abilities and knowledge. Nabeel said that due to his life experiences he had acquired a pretty good sense regarding whether or not a person was faking their qualifications and knowledge. And this was never the case with Ms. Wong because, as Nabeel told us, “She knew what she was talking about and I could feel it.”
He said Ms. Wong provided him and his family with a complete guideline or road map as to what would have to happen in order for asylum to be obtained. They, on the advice of Ms. Wong, collected and compiled a copious document about persecutions taking place in Pakistan (then) and the related rise in violence inflicted upon people of other beliefs.
In 2009—largely thanks to Ms. Wong’s expertise, assistance, and efforts—asylum was granted to Nabeel, Salma, and their children. Nabeel’s words for the occasion were, not surprisingly, “I breathed a sigh of relief.”
But Ms. Wong’s services didn’t stop there. We probably should have mentioned this sooner, but Nabeel had two older children (a son and a daughter) from a previous marriage still living in Pakistan at the time. He didn’t want to leave them stranded there too. At first it looked like they would not be eligible for “derivative asylum” because in 2009, one child was over sixteen years of age.
Ms. Wong was determined there still was a chance because Nabeel initially had submitted the application for asylum in 2005, and had mentioned the names of his older children in that application, when the children were under sixteen years of age. Needless to say, she went to work and, even though it took a while, his older daughter got to come to the U.S. to live in June of 2014 and his son followed in August.
We’re happy to report that the entire family is doing quite well now. Nabeel’s two older children are employed by IBM and Hospital Networks respectively. The son of Nabeel and Salma works at Triple A, and their daughter is planning to attend a veterinary school in the Caribbean this autumn.
Ultimately, Salma decided to pursue another career path and obtained her Master’s Degree from Cleveland State University. She is now employed by Cuyahoga Community College. Nabeel totally supported her career move because this, along with her religious conversion, had enabled his wife to find the peace and spiritual joy she had long sought. In 2015, Salma became a U.S. citizen.
Their relationship with Ms. Wong continues to this day. Nabeel’s oldest son, who works at IBM, met a lovely young lady from Pakistan who was residing and studying in the U.S. on a student visa. He proposed to and married her, and recently went to see Ms. Wong in her New York office to discuss the possibility of her becoming a permanent resident based on their marriage.
As for Select Jewelers, there is only the one at the Great Lakes Mall, which Nabeel says is a good thing because he can monitor procedures more effectively to ensure the consolidation is working out to his satisfaction.
Nabeel is an avid reader of U.S. history and takes pride in expressing his knowledge of the history and the philosophical thought on the basis of which this great country was established.
While we were there we discussed a mini-series he is watching called “The Untold History of the United States.” Nabeel told us he is troubled when he finds our country’s digression from the original thought on the basis of which the country was founded. But due to his studies and knowledge about the U.S.’s past, he is confident the country will always correct her path in order to recover from her contentious periods.
He expressed dismay that there aren’t many people who live here that realize what a beautiful country this is, both in terms of possibilities and from an environmental perspective. He then took out his iPhone and showed us some photos of Chapin Forest which he had visited only a few days before.
Due to the legal complications of getting his two oldest children to live in the U.S., Nabeel had to wait longer than Salma to apply for citizenship. But his big moment finally came last month—on July 20 in downtown Cleveland—when he officially took the oath and became a U.S. citizen.