Dreams from his Father: Steve Jobs and Immigration

For those of us who are steeped in high-tech celebrity minutiae, it was bound to happen. Steve Jobs, founder of the most highly-valued company in American history, has posthumously become a poster boy for those supporting Syrian immigration to the U.S. Jobs was conceived in Homs, Syria, his biological father’s hometown, during a summer visit with his girlfriend. Abdulfattah “John” Jandali had met Steve's mother, Joanne Carol Schieble, at the University of Wisconsin where he eventually completed a PhD in political science. Jandali hoped to marry Job’s mother but Steve was given up for adoption after Schieble’s strict Catholic father of German decent prohibited her from marrying a Muslim.

Steve Jobs’ technological genius rejuvenated the American entrepreneurial pioneering spirit for a new generation. The personal computer, iPod and iPhone changed the world and restored America’s reputation as its foremost innovator.

In his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama described the powerful influence that his Kenyan Muslim father, who abandoned him, had on his life. That outsider attitude has weakened America both at home and abroad during his presidency.

If Obama hadn’t withdrawn American troops from Iraq, the Islamic State wouldn’t have come into existence and control extensive areas of Syria today. ISIS has openly boasted that they intend to infiltrate terrorists into the West along with the Syrian refugees. “There is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like that,” said FBI director James Coney. He added that particularly worrisome are encrypted communications via mobile devices that allow operatives to link to cells around the world undetected.

Ironically, the late Jobs’ personal history is being used to boost Obama’s plan to bring Syrian refugees to the U.S. It began with a tweet by entrepreneur David Galbraith that contained a picture of Jobs, who is highly venerated in the tech community, simply captioned: “A Syrian immigrant’s son.”


Last month, Bansky, the elusive British-based graffiti artist revealed a portrait of Steve Jobs as a Syrian immigrant: sack cast over his shoulder and an early Macintosh in hand. The graffiti was painted on a wall of the refugee camp in Calais, France dubbed “the jungle.” The taciturn Banksy, who refuses to be photographed, released a rare statement about his intention: “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn a year in taxes -- and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”  

America's historic exceptionalism is that we are a country of immigrants, but can we reverse engineer a super-achiever down to the gene-level? What caused Steve Jobs to “think different”?

Barack Obama clearly felt the absence of his father. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, considered his adoptive parents to be his real family. Having located his real progenitors, he chose to contact only his mother. “When I was looking for my biological mother, obviously... I was looking for my biological father and I learned a little bit about him and I didn't like what I learned,” Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson.

Was Steve ashamed that his father, a non-practicing Muslim, was an immigrant? Probably not. Jobs urged President Obama to allow foreigners who earned an engineering degree in the U.S. to be allowed to stay.

John Jandali, 84, is a successful immigrant. After completing his PhD, he taught in various universities before going into the restaurant business. He eventually became vice-chairman of Boom Town Casino in Reno, Nevada. Jandali had some intellectual capital which he must have passed on to Steve. His family in Syria had financial capital as well.

Steve Job's Syrian grandfather was a self-made millionaire with interests in oil and other businesses. He owned “several entire villages” and “at one point pretty much controlled the price of wheat” in the region. In authoritarian clan-oriented Syria, success is rarely based on marketing genius and democratic management techniques. Did Jobs somehow inherit his well-known abrasiveness and authoritarian executive ways from his paternal grandfather? Perhaps not. John Jandali, who until recently managed 450 workers at the casino, had a quiet leadership style very much unlike his son's.

Money is often inherited, but does being the grandson of a millionaire give one a genetic predisposition to become a billionaire?  

Jobs insisted that his adoptive parents “were my parents 1,000 percent.” Paul Jobs worked as a machinist for a firm that made lasers.  He taught Steve how to build beautiful things and the rudiments of electronics. Growing up in Silicon Valley, his neighbors were engineers. He got a summer job at Hewlett-Packard while in high school. These are the influences that helped create Apple. Yet some have called John Jandli "the father of invention."

“Steve is my biological son, but I didn’t bring him up. So if it’s said that I’m the ‘father of invention’, then that’s because my biological son is a genius and my daughter a brilliant writer... but I’m no inventor.” Jandli said in an interview.

That brilliant writer is novelist Mona Simpson, Job's sister. Shortly after Steve was given up for adoption, Schieble's father, who had been so against the union with Jandali, died. They then married. Mona was born, but the marriage broke up a few years later. When he was thirty-one, Jobs established a relationship with his mother and sister but was apparently upset that his father had abandoned the whole family. He never contacted him.

In his State of the Union speech, Barack Obama said that American's “spirit of discovery is in our DNA,” citing examples of mostly women and minority technology pioneers. Steve Jobs was not mentioned. Always looking to push his liberal immigration agenda the president added, “We're every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world.”

The president spoke of a collective DNA. “I really am not his dad” acknowledged John Jandali, “Mr. and Mrs. Jobs are, as they raised him.” His biological father admitted that his Arab origins didn't mean much to Steve Jobs, “I don’t think he pays much attention to these gene-related things,” he said.

Many Middle Easterners did count Steve Jobs as one of them, calling him “the most famous Arab in the world” Yet most were compelled to admit that: “If he had lived and died in Syria, he would not have accomplished anything.” 

America’s success is the result of the confluence of a diverse gene pool in a land of great resources and democratic opportunity. That achievement must be protected by restricting immigration when it becomes a geopolitical danger.

Who knows -- there may great high-tech entrepreneurs among the 10,000 Syrian immigrants that Barack Obama wants to add to the American dream, but there may also be ISIS fanatics who wish to destroy that dream. They may even use iPhones with full encryption as tools of terror. While refugees are as old as history, it’s a brave new world. This requires us to “think different” about immigrants than we have in the past. In the meantime, we can help the Syrians on their own soil. By preserving our democracy, freedoms and entrepreneurial spirit, we can be confident that America’s shared DNA will eventually provide us with the next Steve Jobs.

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