Be As Clean As You Can and Look Good — stay away from drugs, alcohol, negative influences, and potentially bad situations. My dad kept me out of trouble in the most dangerous city in Morocco by putting in sport, so I would avoid all negative possibilities.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mouad Salhi.
Mouad (Mo) is a 33 year old professional jet ski rider who was born and raised in Rabat, Morocco. Mo is the 1st Moroccan, Arab, North African in the sport. From 2002–2008, Mo dominated the waters representing his home country before leaving and making his way to bigger and better opportunities, or so he thought. His road was not easy, and he had to give up his profession for over a decade before resurrecting his racing career in 2019, in the United States. https://www.instagram.com/mouadsalhiofficial/
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a working middle class family in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, and where the royal family resides. From a young age, my father put me in sports, like swimming, martial arts, and tennis. Our family was attached to the water, my grandfather and father worked on the water. One day, I saw jet skis running along the shore line and became obsessed. There was a new racing club that was organizing kids and adults to start racing. For several months, I paid and trained with the club on how to ride and race. When I was 12, the club was competing in the European Championships. Originally, I was there as a spectator and to experience the energy and culture of high performance racing. When we arrived, there was an extra jet ski. The club president put me on the back of it and said go have fun, thinking it was good experience. Little did we know I would win my race, and be the only rider to bring home a title — Junior European Champion. From there, I grew to be the biggest name in Moroccan jet ski racing.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
When I was 18 I achieved multiple titles, trophies, completed around the world, but I wasn’t making any money to survive on my own. My parents still had to support me. The club became the main racing federation with a few people dictating how money came in and went out. All the money I won went into their pockets, not mine. All endorsements and sponsorship funding went to building homes, or buying luxury cars for the federation leadership. The federation leaders were right-hand men to the King of Morocco, so I didn’t say anything. My name was the biggest in the sport, but my pockets were empty. One night after my 2008 season, my dad sat me down with my mom and we had a heart-to-heart conversation about my career. He opened my eyes to the inequality and need to go for larger opportunities. Morocco was no longer an option for racing or finding a good paying job. I had to leave to continue my career. That night, in secrecy, I took only a backpack, kissed my mom good bye, and took the train with my dad to Tangier. My dad sent me off to Spain, by boat, as he traveled back to Rabat. I was so naive and unaware of how the real world worked when I arrived in Algeciras, Spain.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Once I arrived in Spain, I made my way to France where my uncle and his family said they would help. That help only lasted so long. They kicked me out of the house while I worked construction jobs and called my connections in the sport, hopeful to link up with a team. I moved around a lot, lived on the streets homeless a few times, went hungry many nights hoping for my connections to bring about an opportunity to race. My last stop in Europe before arriving in the States, was Brussels, Belgium. I lived in the attic of another Moroccan family. They ultimately connected me with an Egyptian business owner in Pennsylvania. They explained that he had several restaurants and was going to pick me up and take me in. I thought I was going to be working in a nice place, which was not the case. Everything was going well until my flight arrived in New York. My Egyptian contact ghosted me. I sat in the airport with no ride, no idea where to go, and no options. After a half a day of waiting in the airport, I took a cab, which tried ripping me off, to Times Square. The cab driver tried telling me my ride was over 300 dollars, a total scam with no meter, and he dumped me at the curb when I offered to pay less. I was lost completely on what to do, where to go. I felt like I had been dropped in a whole new world. I finally got a call from the Egyptian entrepreneur while roaming the city. He told me I had to make my way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and meet him at the train station. So I made my way, by several trains, to Lancaster. This guy was waiting for me at the station and asked if I was hungry, I said yes and he took me to a diner. The Egyptian was not an upscale restaurateur; he was just renting one diner. He fed me and said I was going to work at the diner, managing the place, and will be living with a guy who was a server at the diner. The next day, I showed up in my best clothes and was thrown a mop, broom, and potato peeler. I was told I was the new dish washer, not manager. I had to work my way up through the restaurant which I did, learning to cook. And that skill was the most important lesson to get up and going in the US.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
The chef at the diner, Khalid Abulenin, was my biggest advocate. He said I was too young and clean cut to be just a dish washer. After a few months of working at the diner, he took me under his wing as his unpaid apprentice. I would work in the morning from 6 o’clock to Noon, and then I would start my afternoon shift as a dish washer from 2:00pm — 11:00pm. Within a week, I was promoted to line cook. That afforded me more money and movement to grow within the diner, eventually becoming a cook at one of the most desirable chef jobs in Lancaster County, the Lyndon City Diner. Without Khalid, I would have known nothing and been taken advantage of. Khalid was my bodyguard/father figure in the US.
So how are things going today?
Things are looking better. I relocated to Florida in 2013. Thanks to my ex-girlfriend, Nicole, I started racing again in 2019 after working hard and saving money. I work in the marine industry as a jet ski technician. I am raising my six year old son to love the sport as much as I do. Though I am still struggling to re-establish my racing career with acquiring sponsors, I am grateful that I am a 2021 P1AquaX Ambassador for the sport. The P1AquaX is the largest jet ski racing circuit in the world, and I am proud to represent the United States.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I occasionally teach children back in Morocco about the sport. My goal is to start a non-profit in the near future to teach kids from all backgrounds how to ride jet skis and race high performance jet skis. I want to bring more people into this fun and exciting sport. I also am working towards building a racing team, 915 Motorsports, that will feature minority and inspirational rider/drivers across multiple motorsports.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
In my opinion, the abuse of immigrants is very real. If people are contributing to society with working and paying taxes, let them have a pathway to citizenship. When people hide their immigration status, greedy employers will exploit those workers. Secondly, due to the ignorance of immigrants, we don’t know what our rights are. I personally didn’t know about employment rights or if I was permitted to ask for time off, or get a lunch break. Immigrants should have easy access to advocates that can explain their rights or petition on their behalf. The thought of paying an attorney or completing paperwork is a scary thought when you have no money or think you have no rights. Thirdly, I would make a law that immigration reform cannot be changed through each political administration. Laws change too frequently and enforcement is inconsistent. I suggest reviewing immigration policy every ten years, just like the census. The movement of citizens and immigrants will influence change in legislation.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Consistency –keep moving forward with what you want in life. Don’t change who you are to appease others, you have to keep true to who you are.
- Be As Clean As You Can and Look Good — stay away from drugs, alcohol, negative influences, and potentially bad situations. My dad kept me out of trouble in the most dangerous city in Morocco by putting in sport, so I would avoid all negative possibilities.
- Kill Your Enemy/Haters with Your Success — you don’t give your attention, energy, or time to those who don’t want you to succeed. Let them read about your successes, that’s how your reply to them.
- Trust Yourself and Your Shadow — the world is full of opaque people, those who are hiding things. You have to always keep your guard up. Why? Because, you don’t want to wait till something happens and have regrets. We know there are up and downs in life, but keep going up by controlling the downs. This has been my experience.
- Love and Respect Your Parents, No Matter What — I’m going to keep this short and sweet. There is a saying in Morocco, ‘terf del kebda,’ a piece of my liver. The parents give a part of their liver to their child, meaning the child cannot live without their parents. Being a father myself, it made me realize the importance of having your parents.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- The Biden Administration’s reversal of the Muslim ban legislation was a major change. As a Muslim, it disheartened me when fellow brothers and sisters were targeted in bigoted opinions. It affected students, green card and legal visa holders, and others just looking to come for opportunity. Having people from a variety of backgrounds makes us, the United States, better. I look forward to seeing families reunited and be able to travel again without fear of being rejected at the border.
- With COVID, outdoor sports became popular. The jet ski industry has seen a major boom in personal watercraft ownership. It’s difficult for racers to get new jet skis at this time because manufacturers are on back order. I see growth within the industry and sport as we start the season up again in mid-April.
- I have to say, living in Tampa Bay (Champa Bay), I’m most hopeful about our growing popularity and sport titles. This area is full of champions, and athletes that flock to Florida for off-season training and residence. I think this energy and excitement will continue for years to come, including an improved economy and vacation desirability, along with my successes to be added in the ‘Champa Bay’ legacy.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have a private lunch with the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI. I would love for the King to recognize what I’ve done for the sport and country since 2002, and what I’ve been through. I was the 1st Moroccan, Arab, North African in the sport, along with being the 1st Moroccan to raise the flag in the Bahamas at the World Finals, the 1st Moroccan to race P1AquaX and win one of the toughest races in the circuit, the 1st Moroccan who won the first jet ski title… and I would go on, but it’s a lengthy resume. The King is the biggest supporter of the sport, it’s his favorite sport, and the most popular sport in the country. I need the recognition and support of him and my homeland to feel restored and whole after leaving Morocco the way I did.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
If people would like to help fund my racing season, I have a crowd funding site, https://sportfunder.com/mouadsalhi. People can also follow me on social media with Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube at the handle @mouadsalhiofficial. I love connecting with fans and creating awesome content about jet ski racing.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!