From shelter to startup: One Egyptian immigrant's success story

Fear, anger over potential 'Muslim registry'
Fear, anger over potential 'Muslim registry'

In the sixth grade, Moawia Eldeeb dropped out of school to work 12-hour shifts at a pizza shop in Queens, New York. His family had fallen deep into poverty and he wanted to help his parents pay the bills.

"My dad never asked me to get a job, but we were living in this one bedroom apartment that my dad could barely afford, and things were just getting worse," Eldeeb said.

Eldeeb was nine years old when his father won the visa lottery in Egypt and moved the family to the United States. They had come seeking treatment for his younger brother who was suffering from Ectodermal Dysplasia, a life threatening congenital disorder that affects the development of the skin and glands.

But getting by in America was a struggle until a strange twist of fate occurred. An explosion in the boiler room of the family's apartment building destroyed their home.

"That was the scariest day, but now when I look back I feel like it was the best thing that happened to my family and it changed the course of our whole lives," Eldeeb said.

The family moved into a homeless shelter for a year and had to rely on food stamps. For the first time since arriving in the U.S., the family didn't have to struggle to pay for rent or food.

moawia restaurant
Moawia Eldeeb at the pizza restaurant where he worked in his youth.

Eldeeb was able to quit his job and focus on his education. He soon discovered an interest in computer science that would eventually lead him to obtain a computer science degree from Columbia University and to start his own company, SmartSpot, which uses interactive mirrors that help athletes train without a human trainer.

Eldeeb and his incredible rise out of poverty was recently honored with the Robin Hood Foundation's Heroes Award.

Here is his American Success Story.

What was life like when you moved to the U.S.?

When my mom, my dad, my sister, me and my baby brother arrived in Queens there was no plan.

My dad had a master's degree in accounting, but everyone told him it wouldn't help here. Other Egyptians said he could either work in a pizza restaurant or as a taxi driver. He knew he needed a job right away so he worked at a pizza place.

Related: The steep cost of underemploying highly skilled immigrants

After a week or two, we found a one bedroom apartment. Rent was around $1,000 a month, which was almost 70% of what he was making. My mom couldn't work because she had to take care of my little brother who had a medical condition called Ectodermal Dysplasia.

Because my brother doesn't have any sweat glands [as a result of the condition], we had an air conditioner always running and our electricity bill was very high. We barely had enough money. Plus, the landlords would find out that there were too many people in a one bedroom apartment, so we would get evicted all the time. I think we were evicted almost every year.

When I was 11, I decided I wanted to help. The only job I knew was at the pizza restaurant with my dad and so I worked there doing anything I could. My salary was $20 off the books for a 12-hour day.

That went on for years.

How were you able to stop working and focus on your education?

The boiler in our apartment building exploded during a repair. My mom and little brother were inside when it happened, but ran out to safety. A second explosion took down the whole building.

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Moawia Eldeeb

We were moved into a homeless shelter for a year. It felt like the best thing ever. For the first time, we didn't have to worry about getting evicted and we had food stamps.

My dad trained for and became a special education teacher.

Related: Teacher returns to his Bronx high school to help kids succeed

I had been working at the pizza shop through middle school and I was supposed to start the ninth grade at the time. That year, I went to a public library next to the shelter in Harlem. One of the librarians asked me why I wasn't in school. She created a whole curriculum for me. For a year, I basically did every single lesson on the Khan Academy website, from pre-algebra until I finished algebra.

A year later, we moved to the Queensbridge projects. It was the first time we lived in a place with more than one bedroom. Al-Madinah, a local private Islamic high school, tested me and let me attend tenth grade on a full scholarship. The school had a special program for early graduation and I went to school, after school and on weekends.

I graduated in the eleventh grade.

moawia robin hood 2016 heroes
Eldeeb is one of three Robin Hood Foundation Heroes named in 2016.

I went to Queens College and participated in a computer science program sponsored by the Robin Hood Foundation called Coalition for Queens. I applied to Columbia University and finished the computer science program there.

Two years ago, I moved to San Francisco to work on my startup, SmartSpot.

The idea for it came while I was studying at Columbia. I like to work out and I was a personal trainer. One of the people that I trained is currently my co-founder.

We built these smart mirrors for gyms. You work out in front of them and they give you live corrections on form, like a personal trainer, without the cost. We applied to Y-Combinator, one of the top start-up incubators in the world, and finished the program in January of 2015. By the end of May 2015 we raised $1.5 million.

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Eldeeb working out in front of one of his Smart Spot mirrors.

What was one of your biggest hurdles?

I didn't think I spoke English well enough to succeed in school. At the library, I was able to do the Khan Academy work and I could go at my own pace and rewind the parts that I didn't understand.

Trying to convince myself that I could actually learn, especially in English. Believing that I had a fighting chance was very hard.

What helps you to achieve your goals?

Everyone is worried about losing their stability and there are so many things they don't do.

I'm always thinking, "what's the worst case?" To me, the worst case, other than death, has pretty much already happened and it makes me feel limitless.

How do you define success?

It's to be able to do what I truly want and not what circumstances have placed me in. That's what, thankfully, I've been given the chance to do.

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"America was never defined by where you came from, it's what you become being here." -- Moawia Eldeeb.

Related: Trump immigration plan could cost the U.S. billions

As a Muslim immigrant, are you concerned at all about Donald Trump's upcoming presidency?

I worry a lot about the future. He wants to ban people like me from coming here. I would have never had a chance to come here. I worry about leaving and seeing the rest of my family. I might not be allowed to come back in.

Immigrants come to work really hard. If you stop letting those people in, I worry about America continuing to be great.

America has given me everything that I've dreamed of and even things that I could never even dream of. I wish people could stop looking at immigrants like outsiders and just confirm how they feel -- American.

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