An envelope arrived. Khaled Missaoui almost forgot what he’d gotten himself into when the letter inside read, “Congratulations! You’ve won the Green Card Lottery.” He was a 24-year-old college graduate in Tunisia with a mathematics degree. With a green card in his hand, Missaoui, the curly red-headed Tunisian whom we call the “hummus guy,” moved to the United States six years ago in pursuit of his dream: traveling.
“Samples?” Missaoui reaches out to students walking by his booth on Ring Road. He turns and scoops ice into the tray of hummus to keep them cool.
Missaoui sells hummus for a company called Baba Foods in several farmers markets in Orange County and Los Angeles as well as here, on campus.
Three years ago while boothing at the UTC Farmers Market on Saturday, a UCI student said to him, “come [to UC Irvine] and sell hummus there.”
Missaoui applied for a vender permit at UCI, and for the past four years, has been returning to a campus that he calls “the best” with “friendly and honest people.”
“I like to talk to people, that’s why I stay [at UCI],” Missaoui said.
Even off campus, he gets spotted by fellow anteaters. “Sometimes [when] I go to Wholesome Choice, students would stop me and say, ‘Hi, hummus guy!’”
When he is not selling hummus all over the place he chills at home in Pacific Beach, San Diego.
During a Vendor Fair week at UCI, Missaoui wakes up at 5 a.m. and heads to Baba Foodsto stock up the supply. Right around 6 a.m., he’s already heading toward Irvine on the freeway with his venti hot coffee and a plain bagel with honey and cream cheese in hand.
It may come as a surprise that Missaoui enjoys Panda Express and sushi, but these have been some of his favorites ever since he moved here six years ago..
For the majority of his life, Missaoui grew up in the picturesque desert region of Tunisia called Tataouin, playing soccer and camping with childhood friends. Bordering the Sahara desert, Tataouin became famous when the Star Wars crew filmed in Missaoui’s hometown and shot for Luke Skywalker’s fictional home planet, Tatooine.
The closest place he could find that reminded him of Tataouin was Borrego Springs in San Diego County.
“When I go there, I feel at home,” he says.
Although he appreciates an occasional getaway to Borrego Springs to soothe his homesickness, Missaoui loves living and working here in California. For decades before a revolution in 2011, Tunisians had suffered from oppression by its government.
“If you’re a vendor [selling things on the street], the government would come and you would have to give them what you have so they don’t take your business away,” Missaoui recalls.
“Stunned” was the word that came to mind when he first saw Muslim students gathering and praying together here, on campus. Then he remembered the moment that changed his life. He was going to be a math teacher in Tunisia. He dreamed about traveling around the world. He was thinking all of this when his friend read about the U.S. Green Card Lottery in the local newspaper. They applied, thinking “we’re in this together.” But when Missaoui got his green card lottery notice, his friend didn’t. Family and friends also told him to consider it carefully because of how dangerously foreign the United States seemed to people on the other side of the world.
However, eager to go out and travel, Missaoui made his own decision. Weeks later, he flew out and landed in San Diego, first staying with a family friend. Then he looked for a job and rented a room. Before selling hummus, he was a barista driving a rented car.
Now Missaoui makes a living sharing food to health-minded individuals of all ages and is happily engaged to his fiancé in Tunisia. Hoping to build a family here, Missaoui is in the process of doing paperwork to bring his fiancée to California.
Meanwhile, he still wants to go back to school for a math certificate or degree. And he still has a list of places he is dying to go to, such as Hawaii.
So next time you see Missaoui offering you a sample of hummus on Ring Road, ask him about his traveling dreams. He may just ask you to recommend a place to add to his bucket list.
Filed Under: Features