In 1983, Ema Haq embarked on a remarkable journey from his homeland of Bangladesh to the heart of Cajun Country in Lafayette, Louisiana. The differences between these two worlds couldn't be more striking – from the sounds of accordions and the presence of alligators to the unique culture of Louisiana. For Haq, this move marked the beginning of an incredible life journey that eventually led him to become a restaurateur with a heart of gold.
Haq's family, despite their good fortune, always remained deeply aware of the pervasive poverty surrounding them in Bangladesh. They were committed to using their abundance to provide nourishment and encouragement to those in need. Haq remembers, "If you talked to my father for more than five minutes, the conversation would turn to helping others. If you gave him five dollars or a million dollars, he'd take what he needed, and I guarantee he’d give the rest away to charity."
His mother shared the same spirit of generosity, even dedicating her life to charity work until her passing. The Haq family's philosophy was not just about feeding the hungry but also teaching people how to improve their lives and escape poverty. "Teaching people to fish, not only helping them eat, was my father's lifelong goal," Haq explains. "He constantly encouraged everyone, not just his children, to strive for higher education, especially in helping underprivileged people rise from poverty."
The Haq family's strong emphasis on education led them to send their youngest child to an American high school in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where they resided. However, when it was time for college, Haq felt drawn to the United States, following his instinct and choosing to pursue his education there. His determination brought him to Lafayette, Louisiana, almost exactly 180 degrees around the globe from Dhaka.
At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (then USL), Haq found himself dancing between two careers – mechanical engineering and foodservice. He recalls his humble beginnings in the restaurant industry, saying, "I couldn't even cook rice when I came from Bangladesh. To pay for school, my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria. Then I worked as a busboy, a cook, and a waiter. Later, I managed the restaurant Shangri-La. After graduation, I worked in the oil fields as a full-time mechanical engineer. I opened Bailey's in 1993."
One of the most heartwarming stories about Ema Haq centers around his first Thanksgiving in the United States. Alone and facing a foodless weekend, a friend's mother, Barbara Jardell, extended an invitation for him to join her family's Thanksgiving celebration. This act of kindness left an indelible mark on Haq. He recalls the moment vividly, saying, "I didn't know what the holiday really was, and I was just a college student happy to have a few days off when my friend Jeff Jardell called with the invitation from his mother Barbara. Jeff picked me up, and I still remember walking into that house with everyone seated around the table, smiling at me, waiting for me. So, I ate! It was wonderful."
Barbara Jardell's generosity, which included transportation to her home, serves as the model for Haq's annual Thanksgiving feasts for those without access to a traditional holiday meal. For the past 31 years, Ema Haq, along with Barbara, and a team of dedicated volunteers have been serving 300 guests in the dining room of his restaurant, Bailey's, on real China and silverware, providing a special experience for the most underserved in Lafayette.
In addition to the in-restaurant meals, an additional 1,500 Thanksgiving meals are delivered to elderly and veteran residents of Lafayette who may receive meals on wheels, but often face disruptions during the holiday season. Ema Haq fills this gap, ensuring that no one goes hungry on Thanksgiving.
Now, Haq's circle includes that of his three grown children, all of which return to Lafayette to join friends and staff to support this heartwarming tradition. This labor of love reflects on the spirit of giving back instilled in him by his parents.
Ema Haq's journey from Bangladesh to Lafayette is a testament to the power of education and the incredible impact of generosity and kindness. His annual Thanksgiving feast is a living embodiment of the values instilled in him by his family and the love and support he has found in his community.
As we gather around our own Thanksgiving tables, we can all draw inspiration from Ema Haq's story and the warmth of his Thanksgiving tradition.