How This Immigrant Shop Owner Is Helping Make Cleveland A 'Cultural Hub'

A tea house proprietor talks multiculturalism in light of the RNC.

A little cafe near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio is embracing the city’s vibrant multiculturalism in the best of ways.

The Algebra Tea House is a cafe and art gallery located in the city’s Little Italy district that was opened by owner Ayman Alkayali to showcase his artwork and as a “hangout for artists and intellectuals.” He opened it just two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He said the idea of sharing cultures and religions in one space wasn’t initially embraced. 

“Now we are hip, but before that we were strange and different,” Alkayali said. ”People were not used to Asians, blacks, Arabs, Jews, Muslims hanging out together and talking about communism and socialism and Obama and Hillary Clinton. And we should be discussing that. That’s our life.”

Alkayali was born to Palestinian refugee parents in Libya and came to the U.S. in 1988 to attend college. He initially studied biomedical engineering, but was quickly pulled toward the arts, specifically ceramics and wood working.

“I figured the best way to sustain myself [was] by opening a cafe [and] a gallery,” he said. 

The cafe’s embrace of multiculturalism creates an interesting dichotomy with its close proximity to the RNC. Presidential GOP nominee Donald Trump has consistently touted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout his campaign. In December, he called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. In a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” he advocated for “extreme vetting” of anyone entering the U.S. from “territories” such as Syria. 

Alkayali has felt the weight of discrimination from the GOP this election season. “It’s really sad that a person that’s running for the presidency bases his campaign on hatred and anti-immigrant [sentiments],” he said. But he spoke of the value of having immigrants in the U.S.  

“Immigrants add a lot of energy,” he said. “We are looking to work hard. We are looking to figure out a way to survive. So basically you have this extra very powerful workforce that you could use to your advantage to elevate your city and elevate your neighborhood.”

Despite any prejudice brought into Cleveland by the convention, the area has remained a cultural hub fueled by respect, Alkayali said.

“The best way to deal with my neighbors is respect me as a human being, I respect you as a human being,” he said.  

This video was produced by Becca Halperin and Annie Thomas.



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