Multi-Culti

Making folks from everywhere feel at home in Big D

On a Friday morning in early March, the tiny, three-room office of DFW International Community Alliance is abuzz with people entering and exiting and talking logistics, while in the background the phone rings constantly. Conducting the loosely managed chaos is Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, the nonprofit's founder and executive director. The group is about to kick off a month of activities, the largest of which is this Sunday's Dallas International Festival at the Majestic Theatre. The event features international films, theater, poetry and performances by nearly 20 music and dance groups.

"I'm producing five major events this month," Weiss-Armush says breathlessly. A vivacious 50ish woman with black hair and green eyes, she wears a red shirt and a red and black scarf that make her look like a butterfly as she flutters around the office making last-minute arrangements.

The phone rings, and she interrupts her conversation to run over to the desk and answer it. "Hola," she says, then finishes some plan in Spanish. "Gracias. Un abrazo." A few minutes later, the phone rings again. This time she launches into Arabic. But then she returns to English. "Ah, you're Iranian," she says. Apparently she doesn't speak Farsi.

Anne Marie Weiss-Armush is organizing this Sunday's Dallas International Festival at the Majestic Theatre.
Mark Graham
Anne Marie Weiss-Armush is organizing this Sunday's Dallas International Festival at the Majestic Theatre.

Weiss-Armush is not someone you would expect to meet in Dallas; New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco, perhaps, but not Dallas. And yet, that she's made North Texas home after living in Missouri, Mexico and a long stretch in Saudi Arabia actually fits into the fish-out-of-water-but-adapting-to-air narrative of her life. She's eccentric and idealistic, self-possessed and independent in an Amelia-Earhart-meets-Gorillas in the Mist sort of way (while in Saudi Arabia, she wrote for news editors who, as a female, she couldn't meet face-to-face, and delivered her unmarried housekeeper's child, thereby saving the woman from shame and possible banishment). Listening to her talk about her mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island, it's not hard to see where she picked up such traits.

Growing up in Missouri in the '50s, Weiss-Armush used to make foreign costumes for her dolls, and in eighth grade, she got a surprise. Her mother—a nurse who'd dropped out of school to work in a factory and support her brothers, then won a scholarship to finish her own education—announced that Weiss-Armush needed to learn Spanish because they were going to Mexico. For the next few years, each summer her mother would pack the kids and a hodgepodge of suitcases in the family car and drive south to Mexico City.

"I loved it," says Weiss-Armush. "All the things we didn't have in Missouri—the big globos, the warmth of the people, the colors, the vibrant energy..."

She returned to Mexico as a young woman in the late '60s after winning a Fulbright scholarship to study there. But it was later, after she married a Syrian man who got a job in Saudi Arabia, that she really experienced what it's like to be an immigrant in a foreign land.

She stayed at home while her husband worked, covered herself when she went out and was admonished when she considered going places where women weren't welcome, such as the meat market. She couldn't drive, and they didn't have a phone, she says. She describes her 11 years there as "boredom that was broken by intense, extraordinary moments of inspiration." She wrote features and columns for English-language newspapers, penned a book about Arabian cuisine and sold Middle Eastern jewelry out of her home. "Fifty percent of the population is foreign," she says. "With my background, I could bridge that gap—explain local culture to the Westerners."

Weiss-Armush is a dramatic storyteller, and as she recounts how she helped deliver her maid's out-of-wedlock baby and placed the infant on a wealthy man's door, covered in gold and with a letter from a fictional mother saying how much she loved him, she could be weaving a tale from Arabian Nights. "You learned to reach your goals when all the doors were shut," she says. "There's an Arabic proverb: 'Go in the window.'"

After 11 years in Saudi Arabia, in the mid-'90s Weiss-Armush's husband was transferred to Dallas, and they moved here with their three children, who were all born in the Middle East. And so, the pattern of immigration that began with her Italian grandparents continued when her own children enrolled at Prestonwood Elementary as the only non-white foreigners at the school. They were mocked by their peers, she says. "I thought, if that's how my kids are received, what's it like for real immigrant kids?" She got involved with a group called Refugee Services of North Texas and soon joined the board.

A couple of years later, the annual Dallas International Festival was canceled, and she decided to take it on herself to ensure that the event continued and grew. In the decade since then, DFW International has grown to encompass 1,600 internationally focused ethnic organizations in the region and provide links to the various groups' activities and services on its Web site, www.dfwinternational.org. The nonprofit—staffed by Weiss-Armush, one employee and a host of volunteers and interns—has also produced demographic reports such as the 2005 Report on North Texas Immigrants, and a collection of service guides on a variety of topics, from minority scholarships to ESL classes to health care.

When she created the organization, she says, she noticed that local leaders frequently touted Dallas as an international city. "But what makes a city international isn't a museum exhibit, it's not the trade through NAFTA," she says. "It's the people."

Take Joe Chow, mayor of Addison. Originally from Taiwan, Chow says he's the first Asian-American mayor in North Texas and a member of DFW International's "Hall of Fame," with the likes of Trammell S. Crow, founder of the Crow Collection of Asian Art, and the late Joe May, former Dallas Independent School District trustee.

"I'm a believer in cross-cultural education and bridging the gap between different races," Chow says. "Our city is 30 percent people who are not Caucasian; times are changing, and you've got to have an open mind and accept other cultures."

Elba Garcia, honorary chair of DFW International Month and Dallas deputy mayor pro tem, says the International Festival, and the organization itself, celebrates what it is to be American. "DFW International has brought together all the immigrant groups in the metroplex," she says. "When you talk about what our society is, DFW International is the group that represents it."

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