Fresh out of high school in Kuwait, Nabil Seyam ’85 was working at a cement factory when something so horrific happened that it changed his life forever: “A worker climbed inside a mixer to clean it, and another man, not realizing the situation, turned the machine on, causing that unfortunate worker to be cut to pieces,” he often told listeners.
“I vowed that my future would involve saving lives.”
A Kuwaiti-born Palestinian who was thus a discriminated-against “foreigner,” Seyam was employed in a dead-end job, until he learned that Palestinian families often sent their children to study at universities in the United States to seek better opportunities. He hoped that he had found a way out of a life without purpose or success in Kuwait. And so he made a promise to himself.
Obstacles melted away —“God meant it to be,” he told his father — and, in 1980, he came to Kansas to study at Pittsburg State College’s Intensive English Language Center. In 1982, he enrolled in WSU’s industrial engineering program, which featured a safety component.
He met and married Carrie Allen, they had two children, he graduated from WSU and in March 1986 he became a U.S. citizen. He was well on his way to living the American Dream.
“But Nabil wanted to raise our children in a Muslim country,” explains Carrie Seyam. “So we decided to move back to Kuwait, where he got a job as a safety engineer.”
In 1990, the Gulf War destabilized the Middle East, and the family returned to Wichita with a third child, virtually penniless, to start all over again. He worked as a Sedgwick County engineering inspector and over the next seven years earned master’s and doctoral degrees in safety engineering from Kennedy University in Boise, Idaho. “Then he started working for the local division of York International as manager of health and safety,” Carrie relates. “It was his dream job.”
The couple divorced amicably in 2000, and he later wed fellow Palestinian Susan El-jaonni. In 2001, he landed another dream job when he became corporate director of health and safety for Wichita’s Coleman Co.
“Nabil was acutely aware of the value of education,” says Carrie. “In the evening, he taught as an adjunct instructor at WSU.”
And he became increasingly involved with volunteer administrative activities at the Annoor Islamic School, which he co-founded in 1996, in part to model Islamic respect for education and moral values to the Wichita area.
In addition, this intense, personable and charismatic man was a natural as unofficial spokesperson for the city’s 5,000-member Muslim community. “Nabil wanted to show that Muslims are like everyone else,” El-jaonni explains. “Like people everywhere, they have hopes and dreams, beliefs, a desire for peace and faith in God.”
His commitments ranged from promoting tolerance and peace-building in civic and religious groups, to maintaining a website devoted to educating non-Muslims about Islam, to discussing political and social issues with callers as host of a weekly segment of River City Forum on non-cable TV. Sheryl Nutt, who hosts a RCF program of her own, says, “Nabil was a walking billboard for tolerance and civility.”
In 2005, he left Coleman and became full-time head of the Annoor School. “He said he had finally found his real dream job,” says Carrie. “The school offered preschool through eighth grade,” recalls El-jaonni. “He vowed to add a grade a year.” But returning from an Oklahoma City mosque on Oct. 13, 2006, he died in a two-car accident. Nonetheless, Nabil Seyam had kept his promises — and fulfilled his own.