Immigrant of the Week: Charles Elachi, Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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I would tell young people: Don’t stop dreaming. You will get setbacks, I had my own setbacks. The key thing is that when you have a setback, learn from it and make sure you try again. Keep trying until you overcome that. It is all possible, any young kid now could become anything that they dream about and work hard at. The United States, our country, allows anybody from any background, if they put their mind to it, to achieve whatever they want to achieve.” – Charles Elachi

Americans have become obsessed about immigrants from the Middle East in the last decade and a bit. Given the national security issues, that is understandable, but it still flies in the face of fact. The truth is that immigrants from the Middle East have been contributing to American society for decades in as many ways as there are immigrants. One of my favorite stories is that of Charles Elachi, the Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is retiring from that job this week.

“Elachi began his career at JPL in 1970. Over the span of 45 years, he has been an active researcher and science investigator on a number of space exploration missions and projects. He has authored more than 230 publications in the fields of active microwave remote sensing and electromagnetic theory, and he holds several patents in those fields. He taught ‘The Physics of Remote Sensing’ at Caltech from 1982 to 2001.” He will be Professor Emeritus at Caltech starting next month.

Charles Elachi: How a Lebanese Child Fell in Love with America

charles_elachi_scientist_at_nasa_409154486Image Source: Lubnan

Born in 1947, Elachi grew up in the small town of Rayak near Baalbeck in Lebanon, where tourists came to see the world’s best-preserved major Roman temple. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanon was actually a place for the rich and famous to party, once called Paris of the Middle East.

So Elachi grew up in a country that was open and comparatively secular. He said, “I met quite a few American visitors. Over and over again, I was struck by their open, positive attitude toward life, their attitude that anything is possible, no holds barred, regardless of family background, religion or color. I sensed that Americans were not held back by the long-standing, ingrained systems and beliefs found in the Middle East, Europe and other cultures, where one’s life path can be limited by social status, wealth, politics and family connections.”

Elachi explained how he became fond of America. He said, “Growing up in Lebanon, my views of America were partly shaped by my great love of American movies, and especially westerns. My heroes included John Wayne and Errol Flynn. They represented the American spirit of freedom and boldness, the belief that nothing is impossible, and that in the end, the good guys win and the bad guys lose.”

He did well in school, “I was named the country’s top science student, an honor that gave me the opportunity to attend a college of my choice. I chose to study in Grenoble, France. I received a degree in physics from the University of Grenoble, and in engineering from the Polytechnic Institute. When it was time for graduate school, people encouraged me to try for the United States. I had the most positive thoughts about America, plus, I admit, I was rather attracted to the glitter and pizzas depicted in the Hollywood movies. I applied and was accepted to Caltech in Pasadena.”

He continued his education: a master’s and a PhD from Caltech in electrical sciences, a master’s in geology at UCLA, and for good measure, an MBA from the University of Southern California – I wonder whether he finds it hard to decide which college football team to support.

Related Content: Immigrant of the Week: Adriana Ocampo of NASA

Charles Elachi Explains the Infinite Power of Immigration

visionariesoninnovation_mosaictilefull_charleselachiImage Source: Henry Ford

Some time ago, he wrote an essay for the Smithsonian on his life as an American, which is reproduced on the JPL website. It says some things that we Americans tend to forget, and that we need to work harder to live up to.

“It’s remarkable that here immigrants can retain parts of their original culture. I can still savor my native Lebanese foods, like sfeeha meat pies and zatar spice mix, while also sharing barbecued burgers on the Fourth of July. I can enjoy Lebanese music, festivities and books, while still embracing the larger American culture. In fact, I now live in a house that was built by Zane Grey, a classic American author who wrote about the Wild West that had captured my imagination as a boy.

“In other countries, you just don’t find this merging of cultures, this melting pot. I think diversity truly enriches our society and makes the United States more intellectually and economically powerful. People from different backgrounds bring different ideas and thought processes. The best ideas rise to the top. I see that happen at NASA and JPL all the time. How else do you land a rover on a planet no human has ever visited, or design a robot to capture an asteroid?

“Recently, we celebrated our diversity at JPL with our annual Heritage Night, where employees from various backgrounds serve samples of their native cuisine, with international music and dancing on a nearby stage. The amalgamation of backgrounds that make up JPL was on full display. As I savored food from Thailand, Spain, India, Poland, the United States and other cultures, l thought about how no one at JPL cares where you’re from, what color you are, what your religion is. When we need someone to analyze spectrometer data, calculate how much heat a spacecraft will encounter from the atmosphere of a distant planet, or improve our business systems, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or whether you were born in South America, Asia, Africa, or the United States. Your mind and your ideas — those are the things that matter.”

At very least, those are the only things that should matter.

I wish Professor Elachi a very happy retirement, and I offer him my thanks — he made our country better for living in it.


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XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences of ex-patriots living in The United States.

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