LAFAYETTE, La. -- "You're looking at a guy who embodies the American dream. I had $1,000 and a suitcase and a whole bunch of dreams.
"That's all I had."
Salah ElDarragi, 60, stresses this point again and again.
The Lafayette businessman supports President Donald Trump's executive order to ban immigration from seven countries — including Libya, the one he immigrated from in 1975.
"I really, truly believe I have a very unique perspective on this whole immigration issue," ElDarragi says. "I kind of have mixed emotions about it."
ElDarragi managed to escape his hometown of Benghazi, Libya, just before things got bad.
Friends he left behind were arrested, tortured and hung publicly for speaking out against the government.
It could have been him.
He, too, had participated in anti-government demonstrations before leaving Libya for Louisiana.
ElDarragi sympathizes with refugees and immigrants who see opportunity in America the way he did so many years ago.
He also believes anybody joining a new society should do so legally, assimilate quickly and work hard. If that means waiting until the ban is lifted, so be it.
"You're speaking to the absolute example of the American dream," ElDarragi says. "If my story can help someone else, why shouldn't I share it?"
Life in Libya
ElDarragi is the first-born of three children.
His father worked for the state department in Libya, and his mother cared for him and his younger brother in their Benghazi home. She was pregnant with his youngest brother the day the dreaded news came.
His father died in an airplane crash on his way to a training mission in the United States.
"I was suddenly pushed into the forefront," ElDarragi recalls. "'Salah, you're now the man of the house at the age of four.' And I don't remember really having much of a childhood because I was just all of a sudden consumed by this intense desire to protect my brothers and my mother."
That was in 1960.
Although his uncles and grandfather helped the family stay afloat, ElDarragi struggled with the loss of his father.
He did everything he could to ensure his younger brothers didn't feel the void as much.
"I was a pretty good soccer player," ElDarragi says. "And I would score a really good goal, and I wouldn't even bother looking to the sidelines like the other kids because I knew there wouldn't be anybody there watching me.
"That void caused me to start skipping school. And I would walk the equivalent of 4 miles to my two brothers' school, and I would stand on the side for them."
ElDarragi was just 11 at the time.
On the sidelines, the other men — because only fathers, uncles and grandfathers watched soccer in this male-dominated culture — eyed him with suspicion.
His grandfather eventually learned that he was skipping school. Even when his grandfather accused him of "going with the bad kids" to smoke cigarettes, ElDarragi didn't tell his grandfather why he'd been skipping school.
"He was trying to do so much for us, and I didn't want him to get the feeling he was missing something," ElDarragi says.
"I knew in my heart I wasn't going to quit doing it because I saw how much it meant to my brothers that I was there on the sidelines for them."
One day on the sidelines, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was his youngest uncle, who told his grandfather why ElDarragi had been skipping school.
That was the only time he saw his grandfather cry.
"You don't see grown men cry in that culture," ElDarragi says. "It's frowned upon. It means you're not man enough. I appreciated it because it showed me that he was a human being after all."
Life in Louisiana
ElDarragi applied for a student visa to live in the United States in 1974.
The process included writing to and obtaining documentation from American colleges and universities, getting a background check, filling out paperwork and paying fees at the embassy in Libya's capital, Tripoli.
About six months later, ElDarragi was on his way to Baton Rouge to attend LSU.
"I was completely unaware of the differences between states in America," ElDarragi says with a laugh. "If you had asked me at that time 'What's the difference between Florida and North Dakota?' I wouldn't have been able to tell you."
LSU accepted him, and that was good enough.
But ElDarragi soon felt overwhelmed by the large campus and his new city. He spoke with his counselor, who recommended that he look into the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
ElDarragi visited, fell in love with the college and community and made the move to Lafayette in 1975 after just one semester at LSU.
He remembers joking with his mother about why he loved Cajun Country so much.
"Son, how do you like it there?" she would ask him.
"Mom, it's perfect," he would reply.
"It's perfect? The weather's great or what? What is it?" she'd ask.
"No, it's not that. I can't speak good English, and they can't either," he'd quip, referring to the prevalence of Cajun French in Acadiana at the time.
ElDarragi spoke decent English when he arrived in Louisiana.
Even though he'd studied the language in school as a teenager, it was his high school girlfriend who helped him master it.
She spoke Greek, and he spoke Arabic. English was their common language.
In fact, ElDarragi said he didn't learn anything new in college until his junior year because his high school curriculum in Benghazi was so rigorous.
What ElDarragi did learn in his first two years was more about Cajun culture. He vividly remembers his first encounter with mudbugs at UL's Lagniappe Day.
"I remember grabbing the plate and sitting down and looking at it — full of crawfish, and that was the very first time I ever laid eyes on crawfish — and I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I just handed it over to the next guy and said, 'No, I don't think so.'"
Now, 42 years later, ElDarragi can easily eat 5 pounds of "very spiced up" crawfish.
ElDarragi never intended to become an American citizen. He planned to return to Libya.
But he likes to say that fate intervened when he met his wife, Laurie, a New Orleans native who was living in Lafayette.
The two were married in 1979, and ElDarragi became a nationalized citizen a year later.
"The reality is that none of this was planned," he says. "I came here to go to school with the understanding that I was going back home after. But looking back, it really is amazing how fate got me to this point.
"It has occurred to me that if I returned to Libya, I'd be dangling from the end of a rope because I was classified as 'one of them.'"
ElDarragi is referring to those who opposed the terrorism happening under Libya's former leader, Muammar Qaddafi.
His priorities evolved over the years as he completed a geology degree at UL, had children and started a marine survey company, Telesis Geophysical Service.
"I came here with the understanding that I would some day go back home and rebuild that place," he says.
"At the tender age of 60, that window is closing rapidly, but it is my dream that some day Libya can join the rank of free democratic nations and allow me the opportunity to travel there safely, to bring my family there."
ElDarragi has only visited his hometown four times since he immigrated to America. His wife and five grown children have never seen the place where he grew up.
Now, it's too late.
His childhood home and neighborhood were recently leveled in the civil war, but it's not something ElDarragi dwells on.
He's an American and honorary Cajun who now speaks English more fluently than Arabic.
"I passionately love this country. I passionately love this city and this culture," ElDarragi says. "And that's because I achieved full assimilation to this society.
"I didn't keep myself surrounded by four walls and practice things that are foreign to this place. I wore what they wear. I ate what they eat. I didn't ask for a button on the telephone that says, 'If you speak Arabic, push number three.'"
A unique perspective
ElDarragi, who is a practicing Christian today, would not have been allowed to immigrate to America if the current restrictions applied when he immigrated.
He was a Muslim at the age of 18 when he left Libya, even though he wasn't actively practicing Islam.
This is the part of Trump's executive order that ElDarragi takes issue with.
"The federal law is clear that the president has the authority to limit or restrict immigration from anybody in any country that he deems to be a threat to the United States," ElDarragi says.
"Having said that, I think that to select a particular group of people — or in this case, a particular religion — is contrary to our values as Americans."
Still, ElDarragi supports most of Trump's initiatives, including his plan to build a wall at the Mexican-American border.
"How can a sovereign country not secure its borders?" he asks.
When ElDarragi speaks about his own immigration, he stresses how lucky he is to have landed in Cajun Country.
The humid climate took time to adjust to, but so many things about Acadiana remind him of the good parts of the home he left behind.
"I came to a place where — unlike many parts of the country — family values are truly important and food and company and companionship are still strong. These are the values that I grew up with," ElDarragi says.
"Had I ended up in Seattle, Washington, God knows what would have happened."
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