When Hani Almadhoun returned to Provo in February, he had a handful of items on his must-do list. First, take his wife and two young daughters to the BYU Creamery for a Raspberries & Cream Cheese ice-cream cone.
(“That’s really the whole reason we came,” he says, only half joking.) Second, speak to students at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies as a way to give back for the experiences he had as a student. And third, attend Jumu’ah, the Muslim traditional Friday prayer, held weekly in a corner room on the second floor of the Wilkinson Center. Almadhoun explains, “I joined a small group of Muslim BYU students every Friday when I was going to school—I couldn’t miss that.”
Almadhoun’s trip back to BYU was the result of an invitation to perform a stand-up comedy gig for BYU Marriott’s Marketing Program Advisory Board’s 2018 retreat. As a BYU Marriott MPA grad, he was delighted to return to the campus that helped shape who he has become.
I Rolled with Kids from All Over
It’s been years since Almadhoun has been on campus; he graduated with his MPA in 2007 and his bachelor’s degree in international studies in 2004. While there are a few new buildings and a lot of new faces, “it’s still the same for the most part,” he notes. “Familiar, friendly, welcoming.”
Those are not the words he would have used to describe BYU when he first arrived from Israel in August 2000. One of two Palestinian students selected to attend the university through a student exchange program, eighteen-year-old Almadhoun knew little English and was completely bewildered his first few days at the Y.“
I arrived on a Saturday night, and school didn’t start for a couple more weeks,” he recalls. “They opened up Deseret Towers for me, and no one was in the building but me and a house mother. I felt pretty lonely. I woke up Sunday morning and went outside and saw everyone walking around in suits and dresses. I freaked out because I thought this was the school uniform, and I didn’t own a suit. I was relieved Monday morning to see that everyone was dressed more casual.”
The next two weeks were brutal, says Almadhoun, as he tried to adjust to a new language, a new country, and a new culture. He was physically ill and incredibly homesick. “The more I talked to people, the worse it got,” he says. “If I could have, I would have headed home. But my dad was smart. He had purchased a one-way airplane ticket for me and tucked $800 in my pocket—just enough to get me by until I started working but not enough to buy a return ticket back to Palestine.
”Thankfully, the moment school started, everything changed. “I started working, took classes, and got involved,” Almadhoun says.
The most significant thing that turned his BYU experience around, however, was the people. “I met students from around the country and even the world,” he observes. “There were more than one hundred Muslim students on campus from India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Jordan, and we became friends. But my Arab friends seemed a little surprised because I rolled with kids from all over.”
He also worked the entire time he attended school, first as a custodian in the Morris Center, then washing dishes and mopping floors at the Cannon Center. “That’s when I fell in love with BYU Creamery ice cream,” he notes.
Eventually he found his way to the Kennedy Center, where he did research and taught Arabic. “They hired me the week before9/11,” he says. “There were maybe ten students in the class the first week, then after 9/11, the room was packed. Everyone wanted to learn because there were huge job opportunities if you could speak the language.”
Of this particular job, Almadhoun notes that he is especially proud of being able to teach a language that played such a crucial role at the time. “Many of my students went on to serve as translators for the us Army and State Department,” he says. “I was proud to play a small part in that.”
“I’m a storyteller”
His experience at BYU prepared him perfectly for what came next, says Almadhoun. An internship in Washington, DC, from January through April 2004 led to his first job with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a civil rights organization that supports the human and civil rights of all people, especially those of Arab descent, and promotes the rich cultural heritage of Arabs.“
They were impressed by me, not just because of my skills but also because I was intense, serious, ethical, and responsible,” he says. “I was professional. Part of that was my natural character, but part of that came from what I learned at BYU. Interns sometimes tend to be kind of relaxed and laid-back, but BYU interns have a very respectable reputation. I did my part to reinforce that reputation.”
Almadhoun was thrilled to get the job. “They offered me peanuts, but it felt like a million bucks,” he says. “I relocated to Washington and dived into research and presentations.” After his first year with ADC, Almadhoun came back to BYU to earn his MPA degree.“
That first semester was the hardest,” he recalls, “but I survived.” BYU Marriott focuses on preparing its students to be leaders, so during the program Almadhoun worked on teams with other students, took invaluable classes, and benefitted from the school’s commitment to immersive learning by combining classroom instruction with real-world experience. “Earning my MPA was a good decision for me,” he says. “And once again, I enjoyed my time at the Y. I was living in a language house, speaking and cooking Arabic, and feeling really great about things.”
Once Almadhoun returned to ADC, he worked his way up to donor relations manager before moving on to the Jerusalem Fund, where he spent almost five years as a grants and accounting associate. In November 2013 he accepted a position as director of donor development for American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA).
“I have looked for work that allows me to be a humanitarian as well as a Palestinian,” he says. “I’ma storyteller, and I’m in the storytelling business. My work at ANERA is to tell stories that inspire people to support our projects. People often want to help refugees, but they don’t know how to do it. I help them figure that out.
“I like it at ANERA,”Almadhoun continues, “because we are divorced from the political commentary. We just want to help people. We’re all about feeding hungry children rather than making a political statement. And because we don’t get involved in politics, we’re embraced by all countries and every faith group.”
In fact, Almadhoun says, ANERA has partnered with the LDS Church on many projects. “I am particularly pleased when we work with the Church,” he says. “Because of my past connection and my understanding of what the Church teaches, it’s rewarding because we are both working to accomplish the same thing—serving others.”
“We Both Passed the Test”
Almadhoun can’t escape politics in every area of his life, however. Despite being a native Palestinian (he was born in the United Arab Emirates, but his parents moved back to Palestine when their children started school), he has been unable to return home since 2009, when he went back to meet Roa, who would eventually become his wife.
A friend introduced Almadhoun and Roa long distance after Almadhoun wondered out loud if he could ever meet someone from home. “I know this woman,” the friend told Almadhoun. “Let me see if she’s still single.” Turns out Roa was dating someone but decided to meet Almadhoun before making any commitments. The two chatted through email and instant messaging, along with an occasional phone call. After a few months, Almadhoun decided it was time to meet in person, so he flew to Egypt then drove across the border to the Gaza Strip, returning home for the first time since leaving for BYU almost ten years earlier.
He had originally planned to stay in Palestine for four weeks but wasn’t allowed to leave the country for four months. “The borders are closed, and you have to sign up to leave,” he explains. “Every time they opened the borders for a crossing, there were people in front of me. I almost lost my job; I was worried they wouldn’t let me out.”
He did make good use of his stay, however, spending valuable time with his family and with Roa and her family as well. According to custom, both families were involved in the courtship. “Her family wanted to meet me,” Almadhoun says, “and my family wanted to meet her. Thankfully, we both passed the test.”
Finally, in November 2009, a now-engaged Almadhoun was able to return to the United States. Roa followed him in January 2010, and the couple had a romantic wedding on the Potomac River. Roa earned her master’s degree in human resources at the Catholic University of America, tutored Arabic, and worked for a few years until two little girls—Mariam, now almost three, and Zayna, eighteen months—joined the family.
“I always tell people that I went to a Mormon school and Roa went to a Catholic one,” Almadhoun says. “We joke that our girls will have to go to Lutheran and Methodist universities so we make sure to cover all our bases.”
Almadhoun and Roa would like to introduce their daughters to family members back home, but politics again come into play. Late in 2017 they got word that the borders might open, so they packed their bags and waited, ready to head to Palestine at a moment’s notice. After several months, they were told that Egypt was going to open its borders for only three days. They booked their flights as quickly as possible, arriving just before the borders were scheduled to close, only to find that the borders had closed early because of a campaign against Islamic terrorists.
“We were twenty-five miles away from home, but it might as well have been a million miles,” Almadhoun says. “We were stuck there for two weeks. They wouldn’t let us go back to Cairo, and they wouldn’t let us into the Gaza Strip.”
Eventually, says Almadhoun, he felt strongly he needed to get his little family out. Roa had previously had a back injury, and they used that as the medical reason for their departure, paying an ambulance driver handsomely to drive them back to Cairo. “We had to stop at checkpoints every ten miles or so,” he says. “We had our passports, and the US embassy knew we were in the country, so the checkpoint guards had to let us through, but there were a few times when I feared for our lives.
“We’re going to try again—we have to,” he continues. “We want our girls to meet their grandparents.”
“I Found Nothing but Respect”
When people find out that Almadhoun attended LDS Church–sponsored BYU, one of the first things they want to know is how a Muslim fit in on a campus full of Mormons. Turns out it wasn’t as difficult as one might expect. “For starters, Mormons fast once a month, give a fast offering, and make family a priority,” says Almadhoun. “So do Muslims. At BYU, alcohol, caffeine, Greek life, and drugs are replaced with root beer, brownies, church activities, and ice cream. The campus was a comfortable home for many Muslims.”
Of course, during his six years at BYU, Almadhoun learned much about the gospel. He occasionally attended church, never missed family home evening, and at one point had seven copies of the Book of Mormon that people had given him. “Many worked hard to convert me,” he acknowledges, “but they also went the extra mile to accommodate my different faith. To this day, I still share a meal with my Mormon friends during Ramadan. We often do it on the first Sunday of the month, when they tend to fast. While many think that a Muslim living in Utah must face major challenges, I found nothing but respect.”
Almadhoun’s sense of humor also helped his transition into BYU college life. Fellow students often laughed at his witty comments in class, and one of his favorite BYU stories is how his Mormon friends often introduced him to others: “They would say something like, ‘This is Hani. He’s not a member of our church, but he is still a good man.’”
That sense of humor led to one of Almadhoun’s most enjoyable opportunities at BYU—helping start Humor U, a stand-up comedy club that still exists. “My first stand-up comedy gig was at a talent show at church,” he says. “The night went well, and people laughed. They are nice that way.”
He ended up performing at class functions and other Church activities, and eventually Tanner Kay, a fellow MPA classmate, approached him about helping with Humor U. “When we started Humor U, we had to get serious about being funny,” says Almadhoun. “We spent a lot of time writing—and then rewriting—jokes, as well as practicing our stand–up.”
Only fifty people attended Humor U’s first show in the fall of 2006, but the club caught on quickly. The group ended up doing two or three shows a month and building an enthusiastic following. A year after he graduated, Almadhoun returned to do a guest gig, which was then posted on YouTube. It was that video that caught the attention of BYU Marriott Marketing Advisory Board members, who consequently invited him back to perform at this year’s retreat.
“I loved bringing my wife and girls back to BYU,” says Almadhoun, who donated the honorarium he received for his comedy skit back to BYU. “In so many ways, my experience at BYU made me who I am today and helped prepare me to be successful in my career path. It challenged me to become a better person, it helped me see and understand others’ points of view. I met a lot of different people at the Y, and we didn’t necessarily agree, but people were always civil and often kind. I learned that you don’t have to compromise in order to succeed.
“And let’s not forget the world-class education,” he continues. “Whenever anyone asks me about BYU, I always talk about the quality of the education I received. It was second to none.”
Before he left campus earlier this year, Almadhoun checked the final item off his must-do list. “I wanted to get a picture of my girls at the Y,” he says. “They might choose to go here someday, and I’d be fine with that. BYU was generous with me—I learned a lot and had a great experience. I would love it if they did too.”
Article written by Kellene Ricks Adams
Photography by Bradley Slade