Circumstance can be one’s friend or one’s enemy. The unanticipated events of life can be embraced or dreaded, and the manner in which these twists and turns are managed is usually the determining factor in a life full of reward, or a life filled with empty promise.
Naeem Khalid knows all about life’s circumstances. In October, 1984, when he arrived in Houston, Texas, at age 26 from his native Pakistan, prepared to earn his Ph.D. in applied linguistics and/or follow in his father’s footsteps (Pakistan Royal Air Force) working in the aerospace industry, the school year was already well underway. Finding a job – any job – was a top priority.
“I came here a little late in the school year, so I had time on my hands and needed a job,” says Khalid, one of four 2016 inductees into Connecticut’s Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame. “A friend of mine was a store manager at a convenience store, and offered me a job. I liked it so much I never went back to school.”
At the time, Khalid recalls the country being in the midst of a difficult economy. “In Houston in 1984, unemployment was high and I realized that any job I got in aerospace could be gone the next day,” he says. “I liked the convenience store business – it seemed recession-proof. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you make, people need gas, they need to buy their milk – if you are happy you buy chocolate, if you are unhappy you still buy chocolate.
“And it was a good opportunity to meet different people, learn different cultures – and as a store manager I got to eat free sandwiches every day.”
At the bewilderment of many friends in the aerospace industry who at the time were making three times his pay scale, Khalid took this twist of fate and ran with it, abandoning continued schooling and aerospace to work at relatively low pay, 60 hours a week managing convenience stores, working at a dry cleaner and working as a security guard (“I was never one to shy away from hard work”). But it was the convenience store world that gripped him, and where others saw, perhaps, a dead end, Khalid saw the opportunity to determine his own path.
Khalid worked long hours for convenience store chains NCS and Circle K, while his new wife Mary, a “Tex-Mex” native of Texas, went to school. And it was then that circumstance intervened once again.
“I had friends at the time who lived and worked in Farmington, Connecticut and I went there for vacation,” he recalls. “I was amazed by the beauty. I had never seen such a landscape, and fell in love with it. Where I grew up in southern Pakistan, the land is flat, and so is Texas – it seemed so lush.”
Khalid was introduced to some local business people. It wasn’t long before he became a hot commodity, with store management offers from chains including Cumberland Farms. Convincing his wife that a move to Connecticut was in the couple’s best interest wasn’t an easy sell, Khalid recalls, but ultimately the couple moved in 1986 and hasn’t looked back since.
It was in 1992, after several years working as an area manager for Cumberland Farms, that Khalid leased his first store on New Britain Avenue in Hartford. A former Chuckie’s, Khalid named the store Sam’s, seeking a brand easily remembered and very American (i.e., Uncle Sam).
Some 24 years later, Sam’s Food Stores, with corporate offices in Rocky Hill, operates nearly 300 locations along the East Coast and Canada, including the convenience store chain DB Mart and the tobacco specialty retailer Smoker’s Discount World.
But as impressive as Khalid’s success as an entrepreneur is, it is in his magnanimous commitment to helping others that he has truly distinguished himself. That commitment is rooted in his appreciation for the opportunities that America has offered him and his family.
“I’ve been to a lot of countries and there is no place like America,” he says. “America will always be the land of opportunity. I strongly believe that this is the greatest country on Earth. I strongly believe that our children should spend some time in a third world country to learn how truly blessed they are.”
Khalid is the founder of Sam’s Children, Inc., which is committed to raising funds for children battling serious life-threatening diseases in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island. Whether it is helping the young mother of a child suffering from a life-threatening disease pay her bills, purchasing a specially equipped chair for a boy with a severe feeding disorder, or providing a bed for a young girl suffering from spina bifida, Sam’s Children has helped countless children and families.
Khalid also gives back to his community in many other ways. He is the chairman of the board of ICCT (Islamic Center of Connecticut, Madina Masjid) in Windsor, which serves the needs of Muslims and offers weekly classes to the general public on Islamic topics. The Center’s goal is to increase awareness of the essence and beauty of Islam upon its correct principles and to educate the public. He is also on the Board of Trustees of Madina Academy in Windsor, the first Muslim-accredited high school in Connecticut. Madina Academy strives to develop conscientious Muslims who will follow the straight path, are devoted to their families, committed to their communities as American Muslims and are beacons of knowledge and character.
Khalid’s friend and associate, Tariq Farid, the founder of Edible Arrangements, the Tariq Farid Foundation and himself a past inductee of the immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame, says Khalid is a unique individual for whom helping others comes as second nature.
“Anytime there is a cause, if there is someone who is homeless or someone in the community in trouble, he’ll call me or others and say, ‘look, we need to raise some money for this person,’” says Farid. “He does things behind the scenes that no one knows about, helping others. He gets it from his parents. It’s about giving back from the blessings that have been given to us. It’s the law of God.”
Khalid, Farid says, has taken on a vital role in Connecticut’s Pakistani-American community, helping new Pakistani immigrants navigate the system and settle comfortably in America.
“Naeem takes it upon himself to intervene and assist so that others, as he has, can settle in America and make a new life,” Farid says. “He goes out of his way to help other Pakistanis with their passports, calling the Pakistani embassy in New York on someone’s behalf and actually having them come to Connecticut to sort out an issue, opening the doors of his home to political leaders and others to promote understanding and awareness or to address a problem.
“He becomes the conduit to make good things happen.”
For his part, Khalid says it is all part of who he is.
“I strongly believe, and learned from my parents, that while we are on this journey of life, we should help others along the way,” he says. “It is in my DNA to be of assistance if I can.”