Getting to know the lives of immigrants

Seven days a week, at eleven in the morning, Imad Khachan opens the door of his Greenwich Village chess shop. Chess Forum is the last of the old-style chess parlors in New York City—a holdout in the Big Apple’s rapidly homogenizing retail scene. It’s a place where grandmasters, beginners, celebrities, students, seniors, kindergartners, subway train engineers, policemen, and firemen rub elbows at the well-worn tables. At Chess Forum, $5 an hour gets you a spot for a game of pickup chess or backgammon. If you’re a senior, you’ll get your board time discounted for $1 an hour. And true to Mr. Khachan’s commitment to families and his hope that one day he’ll be lucky enough to help mentor the next big chess champ, kids play free.

Most days, it’s midnight when Mr. Khachan closes up shop. Sometimes, if the competition gets intense, Mr Khachan keeps the lights on until dawn—or at least until the last of the most indefatigable and determined of his regulars have exhausted either their game strategies or their caffeine-induced wakefulness.

Mr. Khachan, a Palestinian immigrant from Lebanon with an abiding love of the written word, emigrated to America with the intention of earning a PhD in literature. Instead, he became a shopkeeper and a chess vendor with writers’ portraits and quotes lovingly arrayed across his shop’s walls. It’s a display that not only seems to broadcast Mr. Khachan’s lifelong commitment to writing and writers but also serves as a gentle nudge to his patrons to take some time out from the game and the daily grind to reflect on some of life’s lessons as illuminated by the writings of some of the greatest of America’s wordsmiths.

In the bittersweet video below, directed by Molly Brass and Stephen Tyler and featured on The Atlantic’s online video series, we get a glimpse into the life of the extraordinary Mr. Khachan.  The portrait of this warm and reflective gentleman is deeply moving. As we get to know Mr. Khachan, it seems inevitable to be reminded of how little many of us know about the distinctive life stories of the millions of immigrants, both legal and illegal, living amongst us as our neighbors or working alongside us or for us. After watching the video, I was struck by how important it is not just to listen to the stories of immigrants but also to actively seek out and share those stories as the most powerful antidote to the corrosive and false anti-immigrant rhetoric bandied about by Trump and others. If the intention of Molly Brass, Stephen Tyler, and Imad Khachan was to encourage us to question   stereotypes and to always be reminded of the distinctiveness of each individual’s life experience, then they have succeeded in that and more.

Immigrants’ economic contribution to society

There is another dimension, too, to Mr. Khachan’s story that goes beyond a single individual’s life story. There is the much larger narrative of how essential immigrants like Mr. Khachan are to the economic life of their adopted homes—whether that’s New York City or cities, towns, and villages across the country.

And how essential to New York’s powerhouse economy are individuals like Mr. Khachan and others who make up the city’s immigrant communities? The answer is unequivocally that immigrants are an irreplaceable part in the engine that powers the city’s economy. The numbers are simply staggering. The facts are nothing less than a deep rebuke to the false narrative that paints the immigrant as a burden to society.

Here are the facts—not the spin—according to the New York City Comptroller’s Office:

  • 3 million workers, or 46% of workers, in New York City are immigrants.
  • There are 83,000 immigrant business owners, representing 51% of all New York City businesses.
  • Immigrants account for $100 billion in earned income in New York City, or 32% of the city’s total earnings.

Watch the video here: