The office of Palestinian-born shop owner Munir Yameen is a warm and congenial space, adorned by a black-and-white photo of Yameen as a young man in uniform, a smattering of carefully framed verses from the Quran and the customary photos of children and grandchildren.
But the most striking photo on display is of his grandson Tarik standing ramrod straight in a U.S. Navy uniform.
Every photo tells a story. On one wall, there’s a snapshot of Yameen locked in a congratulatory handshake with the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman. Nearby hangs the portrait of his beautiful daughter Mona, who recently died in an accident.
Although Munir Yameen is a man of faith, he does not find much consolation in religious expressions like “God will provide.”
“God helps those who help themselves,” he says. Yameen also believes that “religion is not just about prayer and fasting. It’s about how you treat others.”
This outlook has led the 83-year-old veteran and former CIA field agent into a life of grace and honor, where loyalty has the highest value.
“Some people may have called me a spy, but I believed in what I was doing. I am proud to be an American, and I swore an oath to defend my country.”
Yameen’s self-confidence belies his life’s rocky start. Born in a small village in Palestine, Yameen’s childhood memories were punctuated by instability. His parents divorced when he was 3.
After his father immigrated to America, his mother sent little Yameen to live with relatives until, at age 14, he was summoned to the States by his father and stepmother, only to be deposited into the care of an uncle with a gambling problem.
By age 16, Yameen found himself jumping off a train in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in an attempt to run away. After nearly freezing to death, he made it to Chicago, where an Arab shopkeeper eventually rescued him. Suffering from tuberculosis, Yameen was finally reunited with his father and spent many months recovering in a hospital bed.
His Dickensian childhood continued when his father disowned him for refusing to marry a cousin.
As unfortunate as his circumstances were, Yameen clung to his motto. And God did eventually provide the Palestinian village boy a highly successful business career, leading to a position as head of the restaurant chain Applebee’s operations in the Middle East.
His life is a testament to a work ethic that still has him busy almost seven days a week. But to hear him tell it, his greatest role was the service he gave to his country, first as a soldier and then as an agent for the CIA.
Not long after permanently parting ways with his father, Yameen married his first wife, Barbara, and then headed to Sampson Air Force Base for basic training.
“Based on my IQ, they appointed me to the military police. In those days, we were terrified of the Soviets and communism. Part of my job was to penetrate other bases to determine if there was any suspicious activity.”
Before long, Yameen was sent to Washington, D.C., and then shipped to Saudi Arabia, where he was put in charge of processing American military personnel.
When Jordan and Saudi Arabia asked U.S. intelligence to help them monitor pro-communist elements, Yameen was assigned the mission.
“My job was to go into the city where we were based and mix with different populations to determine if there were any [communist] sympathizers,” Yameen says. “It was a dangerous assignment, but I accepted it because I believed in it. Some Arabs may view that as my being a spy against my people. But no, my people are American people. I am proud of being an Arab, and I am very proud of being a Palestinian, and very proud of being a Muslim. But I am at the same time fully dedicated to the Constitution of the United States. I took an oath to protect the Constitution. So regardless of what anybody might say about me, that is how I feel as a person.”
Those same values came into play during the first Gulf War when, as a civilian businessman, Yameen was an emissary for the American government to countries in the Middle East.
“In my opinion, I was helping the U.S. maintain their very important relationship with the Arab world,” he says.
Yameen lived in and out of Kansas City beginning in 1969. He finally settled down here with his second wife, Diane, in 1993. In April 2003, he bought Pak Halal, the Middle Eastern grocery and butcher shop where he currently spends most of his time. He has built a reputation in the community for never missing an opportunity to help others, whether it’s through providing them with employment opportunities, or by donating food and time to local interfaith initiatives.
“Religion is between you and God. It’s how you handle yourself. I have been around the world four times, and I have seen good people come from every religious background. There are a lot of good, decent people, period. Regardless of their faith, they all deserve to go to heaven.”
— Inas Younis is a freelance journalist and commentator. To comment on this story, leave one below or find Flatland on Twitter @FlatlandKC.
This story is part of KCPT’s project Veterans Coming Home, an innovative cross-platform public media campaign that bridges America’s military-civilian divide by telling stories, challenging stereotypes and exploring how the values of service and citizenship are powerful connectors for all Americans. This story is also part of the KCPT and Hale Center for Journalism project Beyond Belief, a series of stories and discussions about faith in our city. The project is part of Localore: Finding America, created by AIR, a Boston-based network of independent public media producers. Principle funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This story has been updated. The original version identified Yameen as a military officer; he was a soldier.