Making People Feel Welcome

By Gretchen Eichenberg

The Gharfeh Family

Pictured: Photographs by Grace-Marie Brunken, grace-mariephotography.com
Special thanks: Lane's on Austin Avenue

She’s a Syrian-born allergist with a passion for her patients and spreading an understanding about the severity of food allergies. He’s a Jordanian-American health care administrator who grew up in the South and is enthusiastic about joining a hospital in Waco and being a part of the growth and expansion of downtown — and has a great laugh.

Maya and Feras Gharfeh, who purchased a fixer upper in Castle Heights a year ago this month, said they moved their family — which includes Olivia, 3, and Ethan, 2 months — to Waco because of the warm and friendly feeling they got when visiting and interviewing here. One year in, their good vibes about Waco have been fully realized as the Gharfehs have settled into their new life as Central Texans.

“We came to Waco to visit, and we kept having these experiences that made us feel like we wanted to be part of this community, serve this community, be with the families of this community, even though at first I wasn’t sure about the idea,” Feras said. “But we prayed and trusted and were obedient and came to Waco, and we love it.”

Feras hails from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, graduated from the University of Oklahoma, got a master’s degree in health administration at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Maya was born in Syria but grew up in Ohio and lived in Columbus when she was finishing medical school. She met Feras on eHarmony.

“I guess we were a pretty good match,” Feras said, laughing.

Maya was about to start her residency program, while Feras was preparing to start an administrative fellowship in Michigan when they discovered each other.

“We were connected by a ‘flex match,’ and I didn’t know what that meant at first,” Maya said. “I listed that I would like to meet someone from the area, so I thought ‘Ohio must not be that far from Oklahoma.’ But a ‘flex match’ meant we matched on all the criteria, except location.”

In a twist of fate, Feras had just moved to an apartment only 3 miles from where Maya’s sister lived in Michigan.

“It was kind of a God thing,” Maya said. “When I would visit I would stay with my sister, and it was great. He became best friends with all the people I knew, and it was kind of perfect.”

Both Maya and Feras come from families of medical professionals — doctors and scientists. Eventually the couple went to work at the same hospital in Columbus, and they were there for three years or so when the opportunity arose for Maya to do a fellowship in allergy and immunology at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

“I am pediatric trained, but I did an allergy and immunology fellowship training so that I can see both adults and kids,” Maya said.

Feras got an administrative position at the hospital, everything started falling into place and the family moved to Texas where, conveniently, Feras’ parents had also moved. Olivia had just been born and her grandparents were able to watch her while Feras and Maya were at work.

The opportunity in Waco came near the end of Maya’s fellowship.

“We came to Waco and really fell in love with the people more than anything else,” she said. “We thought ‘How are these people so nice?’ We just met the sweetest people.”

But Maya was interviewing in a lot of different places.

“I told Maya, ‘No way are we moving to Waco, Texas. We are not moving to Waco,’” Feras said. “But we decided to just go check it out.

As a northerner, Maya admits to being a fan of “Fixer Upper” and, based on the show, thought Waco would be a neat place to live.

“But I knew more about Waco and had friends who went to Baylor and was just sure we were not moving to Waco,” Feras said. “Still, we came for the interview. Maya and I both are strong believers. I was praying ‘God wherever you want us to go, I’m going to go. We’ll trust you.’ I remember having a thought where I was actually hearing what God was saying to me. This has only happened to me about two or three times in my life. I felt God saying you need to have an open mind to Waco.”

Maya joined the clinic staff of Allergy & Asthma Care of Waco, and they headed north in June 2017.

“We decided to find a great property and fix it up,” Feras said. “We were going around with our Realtor, and this beautiful old colonial-style home had recently come on the market. And our Realtor spoke so highly of the Castle Heights neighborhood. Then when we went down Austin Avenue and saw all the activity that’s happening there and the growth. It felt right so we said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

The Gharfehs had never remodeled a house before. Their home in Katy was brand new. So, they were embarking on an adventure in a home that was built in 1940.

“Like they say on the show, ‘You have to have the guts to take on a fixer upper,’” Feras said. “It’s not a joke. This house was a 100 percent fixer upper. We bought it from the only owners, who had lived here for 60 years. The structure of the house was in great condition, but we replaced everything from the electrical to plumbing to drywall to every little thing you see, except the exterior.”

The most they had ever done to a home was to change the granite. It was a big adjustment going from a brand-new build that still had a warranty to a complete fixer upper.

“Our contractor, Blake Henry with Motex [Construction], was a godsend,” Feras said. “We’ve become such good friends that we get together with our families. We’re now part of his lifegroup at church. We’ve become his model home for the community. Right now, he’s doing a $200,000 renovation just down the street.”

On the exterior, the Gharfehs changed out the front door and added some sconces. Inside, they opened up the old living and dining room, adding more light and openness to the kitchen. Quartz countertops made the kitchen fresh and user-friendly. They refaced a fireplace and put in an entertainment center and added French doors to bring in more light to the family room. And they ripped up the carpet to find fine hardwood floors, which have been restored to their original beauty.

The ceilings are unusually high for a home of this era, and they raised the doorways to create even more openness. Only the kitchen ceilings had been dropped down, and they had them raised back up.

A sun porch with original brick floors was turned into an office for Feras. They added a powder bathroom off the kitchen. To give the house a fourth bedroom, they turned a second downstairs sitting area into a master suite. Before, it was three bedrooms, all upstairs; now it’s master downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs.

“We have a great closet … for Castle Heights,” Maya smiled.

The Gharfehs’ is a smart home. All the lights are on timers and everything, from the garage, thermostat, sprinkler system, locks. All can be controlled from their phones. Alexa and Amazon Prime are some of the family’s go-to technology, they confessed.

Upstairs, the Gharfehs took out a lot of yellow wallpaper, removed wood paneling and redid ceilings. And what was the master bedroom is now the new guest room with a spacious bathroom. The other two bedrooms are Ethan’s nursery and Olivia’s room.

“We kept the floors and tub in the kids bathroom because they are classics and have come back around,” Feras said.

Outside, the Gharfehs kept a fishpond and added some new coy, as well as some landscaping and a new wooden fence. They turned a covered carport into an enclosed three-car garage and planted olive trees and roses near the doors. Finally, they created a rooftop deck with a great view of the neighborhood they love.

“We really want our home to be a place where families feel welcome,” Feras said. “We love to entertain, and we want people and their families to come and enjoy and have fellowship together.”

The neighborhood has already welcomed the Gharfehs in with open arms.

“So we move in and suddenly eight to 10 families bring us food, casseroles, sweets, flowers, pumpkins in the fall,” Feras said. “We couldn’t believe it. People stopped by to meet us. Dr. [Bob] Grayson on Chateau [Avenue] loved telling us about everyone in the neighborhood and what they do. Haley and Judd Griffis, just down the street, have been so nice and introduced us to everyone. We really have enjoyed the welcome.”

Maya said she feels like she’s landed the dream job.

“I love my patients, and I love being there for them,” she said “I take care of normal allergy conditions, and I’ve already been able to use some of the things I’ve freshly learned in training. I love that I can bring that here to Waco. My patients have been so sweet. I’ve had them bring me gifts for the baby. And I’m minutes away from the practice. I’m full time, but it doesn’t feel like it because it’s so flexible.

Ethan stays home with a nanny, while Olivia goes to Academy for Creative Learning.

“They have been wonderful to us, too,” Maya said. “I wish they had infant care but they don’t, so hopefully [Ethan] will start there as soon as he can.”

Olivia, coincidentally, has a severe tree nut allergy.

“She carries an EpiPen, and we are blessed that her mom is an allergist,” Feras said. “So Maya can speak to patients from a place of really knowing what they are going through. So many kids are impacted by food allergies now.

Though awareness about food allergies and anaphylaxis has increased in recent years, many people still don’t fully understand allergies and how severe they can be, Maya said.

“We are working really hard to do more education about allergies in the schools here,” Maya said. “When you say kids are allergic to something, it’s very important to know exactly what that means. Yes, they have to avoid it, but it also means you shouldn’t even have it in the classroom, especially where kids can’t talk yet. It’s also crucial to know what anaphylaxis looks like. Part of my research at Texas Children’s was in the area of education for food allergy and how to use an EpiPen, so I’m trying to bring that knowledge here. We’ve talked to Midway ISD, and we are supposed to be on the docket for [Education Service Center] Region 12 for all their schools this summer.”

While Maya is fulfilling her passion to serve people in the community through medicine, Feras has continued to be employed by Texas Children’s and has commuted for the past year. This month, however, he began serving as interim practice manager at Allergy & Asthma Care but is looking to join a Central Texas hospital soon.

“I have that same passion to serve in the medical community,” he said. “I feel like as an administrator I can serve the staff and physicians and give them the best resources to take care of their patients. That’s the way I love to lead. I’m also an entrepreneur. I’m looking for opportunities to bring more shops and businesses to Austin Avenue. I’m excited about contributing to growth and expansion of Waco.”

Getting involved on the administrative team at a local hospital continues to be a priority — and Feras said he knows with time the right position will come along.

“Our prayer was for the family to be together,” Feras said. “At night we prayed together and Maya said, ‘Jesus, help my dad to get a job in Waco.’ It was a three-hour drive. On one hand, it’s not all about the money, but on the other hand there are bills to pay. By [leaving my job at Texas Children’s], my salary is going down 50 percent. But the message to the kids is that I’d rather take a pay cut and be with you.”

Clearly, the Gharfehs rely on their faith to see them through. Though Feras and Maya’s heritage is Middle Eastern, both of them were born Christian.

“People usually assume all Arabs are Muslim and want to know when we converted,” Maya said. “But my mom was Orthodox Christian, and my dad was Protestant. Feras’ family is Christian as well. Both of our families have always been Christian.”

They speak Arabic fluently and already are teaching it to Maya in order to pass on important pieces of their culture.

“I’m full-blooded Syrian,” Maya said. “I was born in Syria and came here when I was 5, so I grew up in the States, but we still have family over there. Feras is Jordanian, also full-blooded. We’re teaching the kids to speak Arabic. Olivia already knows her numbers, colors and things like that.”

Maya said she had some worries about being a Middle Easterner moving to the South but that everything has been fine. Feras, on the other hand, was born in Bartlesville and considered himself a ‘Middle Eastern cowboy.’

“I was the only Arab in town, but I was very well accepted,” he said. “The only time it got a little weird — and actually it didn’t get weird, but I thought it might — was around 9/11. Everyone in the community knew our family, so it wasn’t a problem at all.”

Another way the Gharfehs share their heritage is through cooking traditional foods.

“I love to cook, whether it’s Middle Eastern food or just fresh, healthy food or new things,” Maya said. “That’s why I wanted a big kitchen.”

Some of her favorite traditional dishes to make are tabbouleh and a homemade stew called bamieh, which is made with okra and meat.

“I don’t really follow recipes very well,” Maya said. “I just put things together.”

Combining her love of cooking and knowledge of allergy issues, Maya hosts a blog called Allergist Mama (allergistmama.wordpress.com) where she gives helpful tips for families with allergies, as well as recipes for healthful foods.

The Gharfehs said they love to go on walks and spend the day together. When they are home, Feras enjoys sitting on the front porch.

“One of the things that drew us to this house was the front porch,” he said. “When we first looked at the house, I came and sat down in a rocking chair on the porch. That’s when I was 100 percent sure about this house and Waco. Now I spend a lot of time sitting on our front porch in the rocking chair, waving to people while Olivia is doing chalk art. I think the Waco Tours people know me by now. I wave to them, and they wave back.”

Saturday mornings you can find the Gharfehs having breakfast at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.

“Olivia loves to dance to the local music there, and we all enjoy the delicious foods,” Feras said. “We’ll come back and spend time on the porch, hanging out and relaxing. Then the kids go down for a nap, and then we get some things done around the house. When she gets up, we might go do something adventurous like the zoo, then dinner and maybe take our dog, Ruby, for a walk.”

At the end of the day, the Gharfehs are happy to get back to their traditional home with a modern flair, even with all its creaks and squeaks.

“This house has taught me to chill out a lot,” Feras said. “I’m such a detail-oriented, perfectionist person. I can detect every dip in the floor, and some things around here are not perfect. I’ve learned that life isn’t about objects or things being perfect, and I’m letting those things go. You can only do so much.”

And that’s part of what Feras and Maya hope to teach their children — that life is not just stuff, but rather, it’s about spending time with the people you love.

“I want them to be people who are generous, both with their time and resources,” Maya said. “And I want them to recognize that everything we have is a gift from God. How will we choose to spend what time and resources we have? We can share with others or keep it all to ourselves. In the end we don’t get anything by keeping it to ourselves.”

Feras agreed.

“We want the kids to grow up really appreciating people and being humble,” he said. “The world is moving at a million miles an hour, but we hope they will stop and enjoy what they’ve been given and give back.”

And that appreciation starts with each other, at home.

“I love how gentle and sweet my wife is,” Feras said, “and how that displays a strength. I admire how thoughtful and sexy she is and that she’s a great cook, a patient mom, she wakes up early, and is so thoughtful. Olivia is very sweet, adventurous and funny. The other day, she told me ‘Boba (which is “dad” in Arabic), you’re being a tata,’ which means ‘grandma.’ She thought it was hilarious.”

Maya said she appreciates Feras’ attention to detail.

“There are definitely things I miss, and he picks up on them,” she said. “His love and devotion to our family is the biggest blessing to me. He has a sense of humor and always keeps the life going. He’s never met a stranger. He’s very much like my dad, very social. He helps everybody he can and wants to be there for everybody.”

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