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Middle Easterner makes home in Midwest
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Salma Arabi is owner of Dewey's Copper Cafe at the Moline Public Library. Ms. Arabi is originally from Syria but has been living in the Quad-Cities for the last 19 years.
MOLINE -- On a Wednesday morning in early winter, Salma Arabi stopped at a table in Dewey's Copper Cafe at the Moline Public Library. A customer was seated there. As Mrs. Arabi pulled out a chair opposite the customer, she exclaimed, "Ah! We were just wondering where you were. We hadn't seen you in a while!"

In that moment, it is easy to see what Mrs. Arabi means when she says thatin her six years operating the cafe, the thing she has enjoyed most about being a business owner is the way "customers are not just customers, but friends. We always have conversations going."

It also is clear how this business model arises naturally from her warm regard for the Quad-Cities, a place she never had heard of while growing up in Syria and Libya, but a place she now speaks about with unbounded affection.

"Oh, we love the people. We love our neighbors, love living in the Midwest in general," she said. "I have cousins on both coasts who are always wondering, 'Why aren't you on the coast?' They don't know how quiet and peaceful and nice it is. The Quad-Cities has everything you need, but it's small enough you can still have an easy life."

That's high praise from a woman who prides herself on having lived on three continents. She describes the city of her birth, Damascus, as a place famous for its jasmine flowers, which scent the streets while in bloom. It also is a place rich in history, the oldest continuously functioning capital city in the world.

Her family was a little unsure when Mrs. Arabi and her husband, Moutaz Kotob, announced their plans to move to the Quad-Cities. They had been attending school at the University of Missouri-Rolla, and initially had planned to return home upon completing their degrees. However, Mr. Kotob was hired by Fidlar and Chambers while completing his doctoral degree in computer engineering, and the plans changed.

The year was 1993. Stories of the flooding in the area were making the rounds on news channels. "My mother said, 'You're crazy to be moving someplace underwater!'" Mrs. Arabi said with a chuckle.

Having lived in so many places has given her a wonderful opportunity to see what is distinctive about different cultures and what different people have in common, she said. "The similarities are always more," she said.

It's an insight she hopes is shared by her three children, Hela, Atef and Seema Kotob. They were born in the U.S., but have traveled to their parents' native land many times. "I want them to be as proud to be from different cultures as I am," Mrs. Arabi said.

One of the blessings of a multicultural background, she said, is you don't take things for granted as easily. "When we go to Syria, we miss the States, and when we are in the States, we miss Syria," she said. "It makes what is wonderful about each place easier to see."

For her, one thing that has been particularly enjoyable about her life in the Quad-Cities has been realizing her aspirations of owning her own business.

"It was a dream of mine," said Mrs. Arabi, who describes herself as coming from a family of business owners. Her father was a merchant, as are her brothers. "I didn't realized how much I wanted a business until I owned it."

Although she previously had not worked in food service, she said she was given a lot of wonderful advice when she started out from Karen Brinson, of Dewey's Cafe at the Bettendorf Public Library, where Mrs. Arabi's daughter worked while in high school. She is proud of the special touches that make Dewey's Copper Cafe at the Moline Public Library unique -- the signature garlic sauce for one of the chicken sandwiches and the hummus made fresh on site.

She also is enormously proud of her staff, visibly brightening as she speaks of them. "I have a wonderful staff; I'm very proud of them," she said.

If Mrs. Arabi thinks of customers as friends, her relationship with her employees approaches that of family. It's clear the affection is mutual.

After Mrs. Arabi finished her conversation with the customer at the table, she joined another at the counter. Zain Dada, a former employee, had returned to the cafe for a visit. While chatting with Mrs. Arabi and the staff, he confessed he never had worked a shift during which they baked brownies.

Mrs. Arabi seemed incredulous. Stepping behind the counter, she called to him. "You can't leave before you make brownies. Come! We'll show you how!"


-- Location: Middle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey.

-- Population: 22,530,746 (July 2012 estimate). No. 52 in the world.

-- Languages: Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian (widely understood); French, English (somewhat understood).

Source: CIA World Factbook.

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1939 — 75 years ago: Dr. R. Bruce Collins was reelected for a second term as president of the Lower Rock Island County Tuberculosis Association.
1964 — 50 years ago: Work is scheduled to begin this summer on construction of a new men's residence complex and an addition to the dining facilities at Westerlin Hall at Augustana College.
1989 — 25 years ago: Special Olympics competitors were triple winners at Rock Island High School Saturday. The participants vanquished the rain that fell during the competition, and some won their events; but most important, they triumphed over their own disabilities.

(More History)