Wafeek Wahby experienced an eye-opening moment when he realized some of his international students had never imbibed in a true American Thanksgiving dinner.
Having once been an international student himself, the Eastern Illinois University technology professor has always reserved a special place in his heart for those students who come to the U.S. from various other parts of the world. Five years ago, after discovering many of “his” students stayed on campus instead of experiencing the traditional turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie meal of the season, he became determined.
“I always tell my students it is not the equations or formulas they will remember,” he said, “It is the people and outside experiences that you will remember 60 years from now as you tell your grandchildren about your years in America.”
It was in that moment Wahby made a promise. He promised to offer all EIU international students a holiday dinner, even though he did not have the logistics nailed down. Luckily, local business owner Frank Zendeli and his son, Gici, offered their help.
While searching for discounts on food or donations, Wahby approached the Lincoln Garden restaurant. By then, he had become slightly discouraged.
Sitting down with the owner and his son, Wahby shared his story. Without hesitation, the father and son agreed not to provide a discount, but, rather, host the entire dinner at their restaurant — for free. “He (Frank Zendeli) looked at me, and said they are on me,” Wahby remembered. Although filled with relief, he couldn’t help but ask again with disbelief.
“They are on me Dr. Wahby,” he stressed to Wahby, “Any number (of students), if you get them here, we will give them a real dinner like Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
And five years later, the Zendeli family are still true to their word, now planning to offer the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner on Monday, Dec. 14.
“Since we are open on Thanksgiving Day, we see a lot of individuals without family or whose family is too far away,” Gici Zendeli said. “It is important to sit down and share the holidays with someone.”
The dinner is typically offered during finals week. Wahby even includes the dinner as part of a final for his Global Technology class, stressing it is important to teach students in the classroom, but also give them experiences outside the classroom, as well.
For Wahby, the dinner represents a sense of unification among different nations, with more than seven nationalities attending the dinner. “We are eating here from the same bread, the same loaf and the same turkey,” he said.
Wahby’s compassion for international students comes from a certain understanding that both he and Frank Zendeli share. Both men immigrated to the United States, Wahby from Egypt and Frank Zendeli from Albania.
They understand the difficulties of transitioning into the American culture. For Wahby, it is common for his students to visit his office to discuss the hardships of transitioning into American life. “My students can feel my open heart, open mind and open door policy,” he said. “My door is always open.”
Wahby’s compassion for his students has been recognized nationally. He is the recipient of the ATMAE Faculty Excellence Award, a national reward that recognizes superior performance in teaching, research and service. He is also the recipient of the 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor and Eulalee L. Anderson International Friendship Award from EIU’s Office of International Students and Scholars and the Office of Study Abroad.
But, for both the Zendeli family and Wahby, the reward for the dinner isn’t in the recognition. It is providing a sense of family for those students thousands of miles away from the warmth of home.