Diverse student body, simple tastes

Some students say they prefer the Americanized menu options at trucks.

American menu options are popular at Ali’s. | Luis Fernando Rodriguez TTN
American menu options are popular at Ali’s. | Luis Fernando Rodriguez TTN

This year, Temple has approximately 350 new international undergraduate students from 46 countries.

According to Undergraduate Admissions, this is a 39 percent increase from last year, a record-breaking amount in the university’s history. However, the international population at Temple is not limited to just students, as many food truck owners come from diverse backgrounds.

With such a large mix of international and local students, it would stand to reason that students would try many varieties of food, but that’s not always the case. At Ali’s Middle Eastern at the 12th Street Food Pad, some students admit that they haven’t really tried any of the foreign dishes.

Kristyn Giarratano, a junior majoring in legal studies in business, said she enjoys one of Ali’s traditional Philadelphian options.

“When I wasn’t feeling well in one of my classes, someone told me to get a cheesesteak from Ali’s,” Giarratano said.  “As soon as I ate it, I felt a lot better, but that’s all I’ve had from there. I would like to try some of the other dishes though.”

Ali Ibrahim, owner of Ali’s Middle Eastern, came to America in 1981 as an international student at Temple. Of Palestinian descent, Ali was born in Syria but spent most of his adolescence in Kuwait before immigrating to the United States when he was 21 years old. He received an education from three different Philadelphia colleges, and said he’s grateful for the opportunities he’s gotten.

“I took English at Temple in 1981, then attended St. Joseph’s University for business management and the Community College of Philadelphia for hotel and restaurant management,” Ibrahim said. “It never occurred to me that I’d stay in America, but when I got the opportunity to become a citizen, I was very excited. I’m very glad to be an American.”

After catering at an event, Ibrahim was asked to open a truck. He opened one on Temple’s campus in 1987, offering Middle Eastern favorites like falafel and baba ghanoush, along with American staples like cheesesteaks and hoagies.

“I make Middle Eastern dishes well.  There are a lot of Middle Eastern and Jewish students who enjoy the kosher food and visit all the time,” Ibrahim said. “I know all of my customers by name and their order, and there are certain professors who have been coming here for 27 years and ordering the same dish.”

Ibrahim said he isn’t offended if students prefer traditional American dishes. As a business owner, he said he knows he must cater to the majority, but still believes in making the dishes he grew up with.

“I like making dishes that are representative of my culture, but you also need the American foods in there to appeal to everyone,” Ibrahim said. “It’s up to the people to choose what they like.”

Mohammed Alakeel, a senior finance major, said he prefers the traditional Middle Eastern options because they remind him of home.

“I’m a Middle Eastern student, and my dad always told me that I had to go to Ali’s,” Alakeel said. “I think I miss the food the most, and Ali offers the best.”

Now a resident of Northeast Philadelphia, Ibrahim said he has no desire or plans to go back to the Middle Eastern countries that he once called home. He said he likes the typical Philadelphia attitudes that he encounters.

Ali Ibrahim said he doesn’t mind when students prefer American options. | Luis Fernando Rodriguez TTN
Ali Ibrahim said he doesn’t mind when students prefer American options. | Luis Fernando Rodriguez TTN

“If I were to go back to Syria, I would have to serve in the military for two to three years,” Ibrahim said. “I don’t believe in violence or weapons. As for Kuwait, my visa to go back there expired. When I first came to America, I went to Connecticut and Ohio, and the people were too friendly. I was like, ‘I need to get back to Philly.’”

Out of all of the things he’s done during his time in America, Ibrahim said his favorite experience was purchasing his business and the challenges that came along with it, since it eventually enabled him to put his two brothers and sisters through college at Temple after his father passed away.

“My favorite memory is when I opened the truck and it was for real, you know?” Ibrahim said. “It became a big challenge and a big experience, but I like challenges and I was very successful.”

Ibrahim said he originally had a rough time learning American customs, making friends and being separated from his family. To fill the void of the Middle Eastern customs he missed at the time, he played the drums and sang in a band that played primarily Middle Eastern music. Ibrahim also played soccer.

“I still like to play soccer,” Ibrahim said. “I manage a team that plays tournaments in the fall and spring through the Temple Adult Student Association. But I had to cut down on playing music after I bought the business because there is a lot of work.”

Ariane Pepsin can be reached at ariane.pepsin@temple.edu.

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