Realizing the American dream

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Bill Marchese

Mike Diab fled Lebanon for the United States in the 1980s. Since then, the Palm Desert resident has created a network of businesses in the desert.
Photo by Bill Marchese

There was a time when Mike Diab of Palm Desert had to work for food. As a 21-year-old immigrant from Lebanon with almost no ability in English, he cleaned the parking lot at Wendy’s in exchange for a hamburger. He was not qualified to flip burgers at the restaurant. He did janitorial work at a gym on exchange for a cot to sleep on in the basement.

That was 28 years ago. Today in Palm Springs as a successful entrepreneur, Diab has 25 employees on his payroll, and he plans future expansion of his business.

As living proof of the American dream, Diab said, “Don’t give up, and don’t wait for someone to make it happen for you.”

Diab tells his story. Lebanon was engulfed in a civil war in 1984.  “My father was killed when a rocket bomb hit his car dealership. He was in his office at the time,” Diab said. The dealership was collateral damage, not a target. Diab was just a teenager.

He admired his father, who started as a taxi driver and moved up to become the largest used car dealer in Lebanon.

As a youth, Diab was a national black belt karate champion in Lebanon and wanted to continue to study martial arts in America, so he traveled to Plano, Texas, a karate center. Karate means “open hand,” Diab said, a style of self defense treated like an art form. It would later serve him well when he was facing a robber with a knife at a gas station.

“I practiced karate all my life. Now my two girls, twins age 10, are learning karate and so is my son, age 5.” One of the girls is number one brown belt champion in California.

From Texas to California

Diab lived in Texas for one year, where he did janitorial work and taught karate at the gym by day. At night, “I rode a bicycle for two hours one way to the library to take English classes.” Through a friend, he was offered a job in California to work at a gas station as a cashier.

While employed in Palm Springs at a gas station, he went to College of the Desert to study English and to a management training school offered by the Shell gas company. He also worked part time, starting at 5 a.m., delivering newspapers for The Desert Sun, and later in the day at the gas station as a cashier.

His karate training came in handy when a knife-wielding robber came into his Palm Springs gas station early one morning and demanded all the money from the register. Diab, cashier at the time, took the metal cash tray from the register and dumped the money on the robber, then quickly twisted the knife from his hand and dropped him to the floor. “I held him down with my foot on his neck until the police came,” he said.

“You can’t have a black belt in karate unless you can take down three or four guys,” which takes a lot of confidence as well as technique, Diab said. That scenario played out at another gas station when “three big guys tried to rob me, and I had to put them down.”

He has been shot at in other gas station robbery attempts, he said, “but I have no bullet holes yet.”

Persistence pays

Diab speaks modestly about his martial arts skills and his business success. He owns gas stations now, including the Union 76 station at the Smoke Tree Shopping Center in Palm Springs.

His education comes mainly from the school of hard knocks, where he learned to “Chase your dreams… don’t just follow them.” He believes in working hard, usually about 80 hours a week, and dogged persistence.

“My boss at Wendy’s said to me, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.’ My English was weak at the time, and it took me years to understand what that really meant.”

“America is a wonderful country. I love it. My kids have opportunities here they would not have anywhere else.” It is not Lebanon, where his childhood and family memories still live. “Palm Springs is home now.”

Future plans for business expansion are still in his dreams. “Probably a used car dealership,” he said.