In 1983, Ema Haq traveled 8712 miles alone in pursuit of an American education. He landed on the opposite side of the globe in the most unlikely place: the heart of Cajun Country—Lafayette, Louisiana. Accordians and alligators were a different reality from his mostly Muslim Bangladesh, a nation the size of Louisiana located between two sections of north India. Bangladesh teeters on the Tropic of Cancer with 150 million people—half the entire population of the U.S., with 2700 people per square mile, and always at the mercy of cyclones and floods. Most Bangladeshis must survive on less than two dollars a day. Haq fortunately came from a family led by a respected entrepreneurial father whose work spanned a military career and public sector achievement.
Remarkably, the family’s good fortune never blinded them to the crushing poverty outside their door—quite the opposite. They still utilize their abundance to bring nourishment and encouragement to everyone they know.
“If you talked to my father for more than five minutes, the conversation turned to helping others,” says Haq. “If you give him five dollars or a million dollars, he’d take what he needed and give the rest away to charity.”
“My mother was like that too,” he continues. “She died at age 63 doing charity work until the end. We never ate a meal without sharing it with someone who didn’t have enough.”
Teaching people to fish, not only helping them eat, was his father’s goal. “He constantly encouraged everyone, not just his children, to strive for higher education. His top priority was helping underprivileged people to rise from poverty.”
They sent their child to an American high school in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where they raised the family. When it came time for college, someone told Haq that Louisiana and Bangladesh had similarly sweltering climates. This intrigued him. Although he had never traveled before, he followed his impulse toward the U.S., landing almost exactly 180 degrees around the globe (Dhakar sits at 90 degrees east and Lafayette at 92 degrees west).
“My older sister and brother had both gone to Brussels to study and remain in Europe. Because I was the youngest child, my parents wanted me to stay in Bangladesh. I wanted to come to the U.S. for my education, and they ended up respecting this,” recalls Haq.
With that choice—and hard work—Haq struck gold. Attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette helped him dance with two careers: mechanical engineering and foodservice.
“I couldn’t even cook rice when I came from Bangladesh,” laughs Haq. “To pay for school, my first job was washing dishes at the University cafeteria. Then I worked at a bus boy, 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 at Mallard Drilling, which is now Parking Drilling. I opened my restaurant Bailey’s in 1993.”
The most widely known story about Haq is that when he found himself alone on his first Thanksgiving facing a foodless weekend (the cafeteria where he worked was closed), his friend’s mother insisted that he join their family at their home. She even insisted that they pick him up at his apartment.
“I didn’t know what the holiday really was, and I was really just a college student happy to have a few days off, when my friend Jeff Jardell called with the invitation from his mother Barbara Jardell,” remembers Haq. “Jeff picked me up, and I still remember walking in to that house everyone seated around the table, smiling at me, waiting for me. So I ate! It was wonderful.”
This generosity – complete with transportation – serves as the model for Haq’s annual Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts for anyone without access to a traditional holiday meal. Typically he and his volunteer staff serve about 300 people.
He also provides transportation for folks to partake of these free, full-service dinners. Another 400 additional meals are delivered to elderly in their homes.
Barbara Jardell has been a constant inspiration since that first Thanksgiving and remains Haq’s adopted “mom.” She also volunteers for every dinner he offers.
“We’ve been doing this for 27 years,” says Haq. “All our friends help that day and some of the staff. Acadiana Ambulance Service helps with the transportation, friends drive and we also use my vehicle. We usually need about 15-15 drivers.”
Haq also teaches table manners to children at seven Lafayette public schools. He has a standing offer with principals to invite to lunch children who deserve special rewards.
“They can be the best reader, the most improved,” states Haq. “I invite the school superintendent. We have lunch with these students to encourage them—any way to impact these children’s lives. When you grow up in a poor country, to impact people’s lives, you know that it takes more than just a little bit. In our own community we need so many things. If we do nothing, these ‘at-risk’ kids are going to be bigger risks in 10 years. Most of the kids I talk to have never had the means to eat in a restaurant like mine.”
But Haq’s generosity doesn’t even stop there. At Christmastime these school principals discreetly let him know which families are the poorest so Haq and his wife, Zakia, can help.
“We give meals, groceries, clothes, shoes, household needs and sometimes bikes for about 20 families. We keep our eyes open for the best deals on things and gather everything up to give away each Christmas.”
Haq believes he has an obligation to his young employees too.
“I tell them, ‘There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to buy me out in 10 years. I started out where you are—you can do anything if you try in this country.’ I tell them they can be engineers, teachers, and doctors if they work hard.”
He must be doing something right; his kitchen staff has a five-year turnover average.
Haq says that Bailey’s Seafood and Grill, created while he was still a full-time mechanical engineer, will always be his baby. But he also owns three additional businesses: Ema’s Restaurant, which serves down-home Southern food like chicken-fried steak; Bailey’s Support Services, a foodservice vendor operating cafes and cafeterias within large corporations; and Bailey’s Offshore Catering, serving hot meals on about 35 offshore and inland oil platforms, drilling rigs, boats, ships and barges in the both the U.S. and internationally (operations reach as far as Malaysia).
Still, nestled within all of his success stories is his original home. “The name Bailey’s comes from the white flower that is the national symbol for Bangladesh,” explains Haq. “We use that flower in our logo too.”
The foyer and banquet room of Bailey’s Seafood and Grill are lined with medals and plaques. Just how many? Around 31, he says, with 15 gold—including Best of Show for the New Orleans Culinary Classic in 1998. Newspaper articles are mounted and displayed, always highlighting Haq’s charity and community service.
In 2007, the Louisiana Restaurant Association named him its Restaurateur of the Year. That same year, he received the Nobel Prize for public and community service, the Jefferson Award. “I was so honored,” he says. “My wife and kids all came with me to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. I love this country and I love Lafayette. Everyone has been so good to me. I want to do everything I can to make this world a better place.”