Basem and Muna Hishmeh learned about the value of generosity early in their lives. Both refugees from Palestine, they came to the United States with their families as young teenagers in the 1950s, sponsored by churches that wished to help Palestinian Christians who had been displaced from their homeland. Now through the Basem and Muna Hishmeh Foundation, the pair are providing support for educational and cultural programs at William Paterson University in New Jersey, and other institutions in both Palestine and the United States.
The ultimate immigrant success story
Basem, one of four children, was born in Jerusalem and raised in Ramallah. He came to the United States at the age of fifteen. His father supported the family by working as a bookkeeper for a chain of restaurants. Basem went to University High School in Cleveland, then enrolled at Case Institute of Technology, where he pursued his dream of becoming an engineer, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1962. Following his graduation, he began to work at Bailey Meter Co. in Cleveland in product development and process engineering. His manager became a mentor, offering him opportunities to explore a variety of positions on the manufacturing side of the business. He eventually became manager of international business for the company. During this period, he obtained his M.B.A. degree from Western Reserve University.
Muna was born in Jaffa. Her family lost their home when Israel gained control of the city after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Her aunt and uncle moved to the Cleveland area, and sponsored her father, who was a welder. He moved to the United States, and cared for his family overseas until he could buy a house. Muna, who was then twelve, found the transition to America difficult. She graduated from high school and went to work for a battery company. Shortly thereafter, she met Basem; their families had known each other in Palestine. Two years later, they married and had two children, Amy and Rob.
“We were the first foreign family in Lakewood, Ohio, and the school didn’t know what to do with us. I went to summer school for three years to learn English.”—Muna
In 1977, after nearly fifteen years of increasing responsibility at Bailey Meter Co., Basem was offered the opportunity to manage start-up operations for a new company that would manufacture vinyl floor tiles in Saudi Arabia. He and Muna decided to take on the challenge. “The machinery was in crates, the location was in a sand lot.” He says. “It had to literally be set up from scratch.” They made a five year commitment to the project. “It was a big adventure,” Muna says. “The children went to an American school with children from thirty-six countries, and they were exposed to everyone’s culture.” By 1982, the company was a success, employing fifty people. But they were ready to return to the US, where Basem became partner in Aerco International, which manufactures commercial water heaters and boilers. He rose to become president, CEO, and chairman, and worked to forge joint ventures in China and Korea. Since the company’s sale in 2007, he has continued to work as a director. He also serves as chairman of Sigma-Netics in Riverdale, NJ, which manufactures electromechanical components for the construction and aerospace industries, among others. In anticipation of selling Aerco, Basem and Muna realized they had a significant opportunity to be philanthropic, so they formed the Muna and Basem Hishmeh Foundation to support cultural organizations in the United States and Palestine.
Among the projects they have chosen to fund is a pilot project to prove supplemental after-school music lessons for needy music students in grades 4-8 in Paterson Schools taught by William Paterson undergraduates. The couple also supports the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which teaches western and traditional Arabic music in several locations in Palestine. In addition, the foundation supports several groups in the NYC area including the New York Philharmonic Youth Programs, Free Art NYC, National Dance Institute, and the 42nd Street Theater.
To view a full list of the programs we support click here.