Ilham Dawood, 61
Ilham arrived in Houston with her husband, two boys and one daughter over 5 years ago as a refugee from Iraq. As the #1 resettlement city in the country, Houston is known for assisting refugees, but they face many challenges upon arrival. “When I was in Iraq I just took care of my children and husband. I left in 2004 after the war. I lived in Egypt. It was a very difficult time. I came to America. My older son came to study in 2006, me and my husband and daughter came as refugees.” Ilham is one of the most active artisans of The Community Cloth, an innovative microenterprise initiative empowering refugee women in Houston, knitting two pieces a week. The Community Cloth provides refugee women with economic, educational and social tools empowering them to transition into life in the U.S. Through participating in the program and knitting shawls, hats and baby clothing, she is able to make new friends and earn supplemental income. She says, “It is freedom for me. It is freedom for me because no one has to give me money, I can earn it on my own.”
JR (Bob) Shannon, 91
Born on April 19, 1925, at Memorial Baptist Hospital (which is now torn down but used to be across the street from the Julia Ideson Library), JR grew up in Houston and went to Montrose Elementary which is HSPVA today. Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, JR was 16 and attending Lamar High School. “I went down to the post office to join the Marine Corps. They turned me down, because even to be in the infantry then, you had to have 20/20 vision, which I don’t have.” A few years later at 18 years old, he was drafted and became an original U.D.T., which later became known as the Navy Seals. After the war he graduated from Georgetown and worked in his father’s prefab metal building business and later started his own corrugated cement asbestos. “One of those is a terrible word now to your generation. For about ten years, it was a gold mine.” JR is married to his wife Cloye, going on 46 years. He’s been blessed with the big car, the big house, the boat and even an airplane. “I had a lot of stuff. Now here I am and I’m happy as a clam and I think that if I don’t live much past a hundred I’m going to come out pretty much even.”
Ayokunle Falomo, 25
This Nigerian American poet uses his pen as a shovel to unearth those things that make us human. Ayo moved to Houston with his father upon high school graduation in 2007. He completed his undergraduate degree at UH and currently, as part of his graduate program at Sam Houston State, is interning at HISD, Humble as a school psychologist. A lover of almonds, the color blue, hymns, grapes, conversations and turkey bacon, he is a TEDx speaker and the author of the collection of poems thread, this wordweaver must! and kin.DREAD – an upcoming collection of poems and thoughts that seeks to explore the relationship between our fears and those closest to us. Ayo has embraced the path that has led him to where he is now, a chance attendance at a TEDx simulcast at UH where he raised his hand at the end to share a poem and which led to the TEDxHouston curators noticing this bright, young talent. Before he knew it, Ayo found himself speaking at the TEDxHouston event in 2013, and most recently hosting one of the sessions during TEDxHouston 2015. He still laughs in amazement. www.about.me/AFalomo.
Keiji Asakura, 62
Keiji came to California as a teenager, after his father passed away, in 1969 to live with his father’s elder sister and her husband, a veteran of Korean and Vietnam Wars. He attended Santa Ana High School and California State Polytechnic University. “During my high school and college years, I worked at a retail nursery owned by a Japanese American man who served in the U.S. Army during WW II, in the same unit with late Senator Daniel Inouye in the famous 442nd regiment. During those years, I learned about hard work, the Japanese American history and most importantly. I was introduced to the profession of landscape architecture.” Keiji moved to Houston in 1982. “Like most people come to Houston, I didn’t come here for the weather. (He shares, laughing.) I was working for a landscape firm in Laguna Beach, CA. I used to walk to work, I was 29 years old. Where else would you want to live?” Houston was booming in the 1980s. In 1983 he teamed with a group of partners and created Asakura Robinson a planning, urban design and landscape architecture firm, creating permanency in Houston.
Karen Walrond, 48
Trinidad & Tobago
Karen lives in Houston with Marcus (her English husband), Alex (her American daughter) and Soca the WonderMutt. She’s a former engineer and an attorney, holding a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Texas A&M University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Houston. Karen’s bestselling book, The Beauty of Different, is a chronicle of imagery and portraiture combined with written essays and observations on the concept that what makes us different makes us beautiful – and may even be the source of our superpowers. In addition, her fine art photography pieces and projects have been included in exhibits around the country. Karen is also the creative mind behind the award-winning website Chookooloonks, an inspirational source for living with intention, creativity and adventure, and featuring travel, art, food and life. A sought-after keynote and TEDx speaker, Karen has spoken around the United States and abroad to individuals and organizations on the topic of thriving, through leadership development, the magic of creativity, the valuing of cultural and racial diversity, and the power of social media. She is a proud and awestruck member of the ONE Girls and Women Advisory Board, a part of the ONE Campaign. She is currently working on her second book, featuring portraits and essays on what it means to thrive.
Amina Belouizdad, 32
Amina was born in Algeria and grew up in Abu Dhabi. She went to college in Canada and lived in China for 6 years before moving to the U.S. After graduating from business school (she got her MBA at Wharton), Amina moved here with her significant other for the opportunity. “I guess you could say that has been a recurring theme in my life – moving to places like China for sheer opportunity.” Houston has been her home for two years and she doesn’t plan on leaving. She speaks 4.5 languages: English, French, Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish (“Spanish is the 0.5 – it’s a little rusty!”). She’s a real estate investor by day and focuses on Bartaile, a modern travel brand designed for – and inspired by – people going places. Amina likes to wear many hats, speak to many people (in as many languages as possible) and read as much as she can. She has a mild obsession with dim sum. We asked her what she loves about Houston: “Houston is oddly familiar to me; it reminds me a lot of Abu Dhabi where I grew up. The energydependent economy makes for the similar environment, attracting the same cast of characters and personalities. The sense of optimism in the city – it’s a place where people make things happen. Tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday.”
Melanie Espinosa Pang, 29
Missouri City, TX
Raised by a Filipina mom, a Chinese dad and three older siblings, Melanie Espinosa Pang graduated from the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, in addition to her BA in communication and a minor in LGBT Studies. Voted as the “Social Worker of the Year” by the National Association of Social Workers Houston in 2015, Melanie has since spent her time serving others through the Houston Food Bank, The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Legacy Community Health Services, Planned Parenthood, Equality Texas, Children and Neighbors Defeat Obesity Houston (CAN DO) and First Person LLC. What inspired her to become a social worker was when she first interned at the Houston Food Bank at a Food Fair where she saw lines of people waiting for a ration of food; many kids were holding “potato sacks and laundry bags” so they could take home whatever they could carry. “When you think about poverty and you think about how some people don’t have as much as you do, you don’t often think that they might be living right next door.” What started as a requirement for a journalism class ended up being a way of life for Melanie, and that’s when she realized that every life endeavor moving forward must matter and make someone else’s life better.
Minal Patel Davis, 40
Minal relocated to Houston from New York City in April 2013 and served as the Executive Director of Comp-U-Dopt, a nonprofit computer bank that redistributes refurbished computers to Houston area children for free. Currently, Minal serves as the Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking. Since being appointed on June 29, 2015, Minal planned a Human Trafficking Symposium with worldrenowned panelists to raise the level of dialogue around the issue. City Council also unanimously passed amendments to the Massage Establishment Ordinance to more effectively address illicit massage businesses that are often fronts for human trafficking. We asked Minal if she felt she was making a difference. “Yes, the position’s structure provides an opportunity to institutionalize initiatives. I also have the privilege of working with a group of people that represent service providers, prevention groups and law enforcement that are members of the Mayor’s Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking (HAC-HT). Terence O’Neill from the City’s Department of Neighborhoods helped build HAC-HT out in early 2015 after Mayor Parker approved a proposal to double this task force’s size.” Minal and her husband Anthony attend Lakewood Church.
Mario Alberto Rodriguez, 27
Mario is an American producer, entrepreneur, audio engineer, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist born and raised in Houston to Gustavo and Gloria Rodriguez, who moved to Houston from Mexico City in 1979. He is one of five children. Mario began playing music in his early teenage years and was self-taught using his brother’s guitar and parent’s tape recorder for demos. While attending Cesar Chavez High School, located in Southeast Houston, he and his close friends played music together and would later form Tax the Wolf. In 2011, Mario met his fiancée and business partner, Elizabeth Salazar, and with drummer Vik Montemayor, formed Bang Bangz – an award-winning pop-rock, electronic band. In late 2014, Mario founded Wonky Power Records and most recently added a recording studio. The producer and musician has worked in the music industry for over 10 years and is now taking the “record label” and molding it into an inspiring journey for artists.