Mowafak Alshagra was working the cash register at his tiny kebab restaurant in Oakton a few months ago when he noticed a family at one of the tables staring at him. They were murmuring among themselves.
Finally, one of the men at the table got up and asked: Was he by chance the national water polo coach they remembered seeing all the time on Iraqi television?
“Yes,” Alshagra said, a smile spreading across his face. “That was me!”
The men shook hands vigorously as the family waved from their table. They had recognized him from across the chasm of two decades, two wars and two different worlds.
For Alshagra and other immigrants who were once celebrities in their home countries, starting anew in a land of fresh beginnings often means shedding prestige, status, material comfort and widespread recognition to live in practical anonymity, doing whatever it takes to survive. Although some of the once-famous eventually find a way to recapture a bit of the sparkle from their past, more often than not they first enter a world filled with struggle — to learn English, to find work, to adjust to life outside the spotlight. And the sudden collision of their two lives can bring a complicated mix of emotions.
“It makes me happy that there are people who still remembered me,” Alshagra said. “And it makes me also proud that I did something for my country and people appreciated it and are happy when they see me.”
But the recognition, which comes frequently from Iraqi customers, also brings a pang of wistfulness.
“Just in my deep inside, I feel a little bit sad when they see me inside the kitchen and not coaching. . . . They say, ‘Oh, Coach Mowafak, you’re not coaching anymore?’ It’s a little bit hard for me to hear that.”
For celebrities, immigrating is rarely their first choice. People who are famous or hold high-status jobs in their home countries don’t tend to leave unless they are forced to do so, said Ruben Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine. Looking at the psychological well-being of Laotians, Vietnamese and Hmong who fled communist rule in the 1970s and ’80s, he found that initially, “the people that had the worst outcomes were those who had lost the most status.”
Over time, though, they tended to fare better than other immigrants because they had “more resources, human capital and networks to help them,” Rumbaut said.
Safarsho Merobshoev, 59, a Falls Church resident who was once an actor and executive director of the National Circus of Tajikistan, described it this way: “You know that movie, ‘House of Sand and Fog?’ That was exactly our lives,” he said.
In the movie, a former colonel from the Shah’s Iran leads a double life in the United States, pretending to his family and friends that he has a white-collar job, then secretly changing out of his suit and tie to go to work clearing trash on a highway.
Back home in Dushanbe, Merobshoev had a personal driver and made frequent trips around the world, all subsidized by the Soviet Union’s generous arts funding. A striking, dark-eyed man who had acted in several Tajik films, Merobshoev was a member of Dushanbe’s city parliament and appeared on TV every month to announce the circus’s new program.
But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and a year later his family fled, swerving around dead bodies in the streets of the capital. “I was telling my kids, ‘Look at your city — this is the last time you will see it.’”
The family settled in Northern Virginia. At 40, Merobshoev spoke little English, and his resume was not exactly portable. So, he got jobs flipping burgers at a McDonald’s, delivering pizzas in Arlington County and separating recycled trash on a night shift. Eventually he found work laying carpets and flooring.
“I go from seeing my dad with a driver to seeing him sitting on a carpet roll with a truck,” said his son Seeno, 31, a producer for C-SPAN. (His daughter married an American and lives in Wisconsin.) Seeno, who had once helped his father by volunteering to be “hypnotized” in front of the circus audience, switched to helping his father staple carpeting to floors.
Fearing that fellow Tajiks might see how far he had fallen, Merobshoev grew a beard and pulled a hat low over his face when he went out on jobs. “It feels so bad,” he said. “At night when you finish at 10, 9:30, you put Tajiki music on in the car and you just listen to music and cry. Every night you cry and go home.”
About that time, a Tajik journalist caught up with Merobshoev, hoping to write a profile of the famous man’s life in America. Merobshoev told him he spent his days studying English at a university. One day his daughter warned him over the phone that the journalist had shown up at his house unexpectedly.
It was the end of a workday, and Merobshoev’s arms were blackened to the elbows with glue. He stopped at an Uzbek neighbor’s house, showered, borrowed a suit, tie and briefcase, traded his ancient Chevy truck for the neighbor’s Toyota Sienna minivan, and arrived home to meet the journalist.
But in his haste, he had forgotten to clean his fingernails. The journalist noticed. “He keeps looking and I say, ‘Oh, we just painted yesterday. I painted my house.’ He said, ‘You painted it a dark color.’ ”
Years later, Merobshoev, who now runs an engraving, plaque and custom jewelry shop called Personalized Gifts in Forestville, told the journalist the truth in Dushanbe.
For Alshagra, whose Tigris Grill sits in an Oakton strip mall, scooping hummus and tsatziki into plastic foam cups is not how he once envisioned his life, either.
He received a mechanical engineering degree in Prague, and then his swimming prowess attracted the attention of Iraqi authorities, who sent him to Moscow and Kuwait to train as a coach. He coached Iraq’s water polo and diving teams from 1984 to 1991, traveling often to international competitions.
“Many times they put me on TV, especially when my team got some medals,” he said.
He left Iraq for Sweden after the start of the Persian Gulf War, disillusioned that his government would start a new war so soon after the devastating eight-year war with Iran.
When he arrived in Northern Virginia 10 years ago, he played water polo with an adult team as he ran a catering and frozen falafel business. Three years ago, he opened his restaurant, where he works seven days a week, from early morning until it closes at 9 p.m.
It is a modest operation — a half-dozen tables squeezed into a narrow storefront, the back crammed with grills and ovens where three employees cook kebabs, falafel and fresh wheels of steaming, hot bread.
With his white shirt tucked into cargo pants, Alshagra retains the erect bearing of an athlete as he juggles the rush hour — taking orders, preparing plates and explaining to one customer what kind of catering deals he offers while pointing another to the self-serve refrigerator full of soda pop and salty yogurt drinks.
Last week, a man he had once coached walked into the restaurant and marveled at how well he had stayed in shape. “He said, ‘Coach, except for your gray hair, you haven’t changed.’ That makes me happy.”
But he misses coaching. He recently delivered food to a school where children were swimming in a pool. Some looked promising. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, I want to take some of these kids and coach them. I wish, I wish. But there’s no time.”
As their countries struggle to rebuild, both men have been asked to return to their old positions back home. But Merobshoev has two American grandchildren keeping him here, and Alshagra says Iraq is still too dangerous, especially for someone who is an American now. Instead, Alshagra said he gets a taste of home when he meets Iraqis in his restaurant, or U.S. soldiers who have been stationed in Iraq and miss the food.
Merobshoev dreams of one day bringing Tajik artists to the United States or starting a Tajik arts center.
Sitting in his dining room with his wife and son, below a painting of the Tajik mountains, the teapot covered by a blue velveteen tea cozy reading “Dushanbe” in embroidered Cyrillic, he quoted a Tajik poet who lives in Seattle.
“He said, about his life, ‘I am there and here, and I’m nowhere, and when I put my foot on the ground it looks like I am not on the ground because I am not home.’ ”
But, he added, “I would do it again. Because I love it here.”