John Abi-Habib is part of the fabric of Bay Ridge. He has demonstrated his sense of civic duty from the moment he arrived in this country from his homeland in the mountains outside of Beirut, Lebanon.
Abi-Habib and his five siblings learned the importance of faith, family and community service from their father, Joseph Abi-Habib, who instilled in his children the values they have all carried with them since childhood.
Abi-Habib lived in Bay Ridge for 37 years before moving his family, his wife Sonia, son Michael and daughter Jenna to New Jersey so he could take on the role of New Jersey’s Honorary Consul to Lebanon.
In the past he has served as chair of Community Board 10’s Communications Committee in Bay Ridge, Bloomberg Administration South Brooklyn CB6 Economic Development Chair and executive board member for CB 7 in Sunset Park. He has also been very active and involved in many other community organizations including the Fifth Avenue and 86th Street Business Improvement Districts.
But he has certainly not severed ties to Brooklyn and continues to run his business, MSI Net. Inc. at 7333 Sixth Avenue in Bay Ridge. He also remains active within the community and serves on a number of organizations including the Salaam Club of New York where he is a past president emeritus and also serves on the board of the Salaam Club Foundation.
Over the years Abi-Habib has won numerous awards. In 2012 he was named Ragamuffin Person of the Year by the sponsors of the Ragamuffin Children’s Parade. He has been honored by the Boy Scouts of America and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He also served on the inauguration committee for President George W. Bush.
Abi-Habib took the time to answer some questions about his past accomplishments, current activities and the importance of community service and giving back.
Spectator: Tell me about your role as Honorary Consul of Lebanon in New Jersey.
It must keep you traveling back and forth to Lebanon quite often.
Abi-Habib: The appointment was from the president of Lebanon, General Michel Aoun. What’s expected from an honorary consul is full-fledged service. My job is to take care of all the people who need to do any work in Lebanon, including businesses, as well as Lebanese Americans that have anything to do over there. In addition, they want us to do an economic development plan between the United States and Lebanon.
That includes importing items from Lebanon to the United States and exporting items from the U.S. to Lebanon. We need to make sure there is a balance in the importing and exporting. We import a great deal of food products from Lebanon including dates, olives, cheese and wine. These items all have special requirements that need to be looked at. The second thing is subsidies and support because if you put tariffs on items like these then it makes it harder to compete in the market.
It also works the other way around. For example, if you take a BMW and ship it from the United States to Lebanon, by the time it gets to Lebanon it’s cheaper than getting a BMW from Germany to Lebanon.
Spectator: How old were you when you came to live in America and was it a culture shock for you?
Abi-Habib: I was 18 and going to college when I came here. I assimilated easily, but it was different because I grew up in a smaller town with only about 3,000 people, so coming here to New York City was totally different.
Spectator: You attended Brooklyn College and obtained a Master’s degree in computer management information systems. Shortly thereafter you started your own business. How did that come about?
Abi-Habib: I worked for a huge electrical engineering company in Queens after I graduated. After a while I started teaching computer science at Brooklyn College and CSI. I then realized I could do a lot more by myself. I started the computer science department at St. John’s University in Staten Island around 1987 or 88, and then they took me to the Queens campus. They wanted me to stay but I wanted to start my own business.
Spectator: You founded a number of civic organizations in Bay Ridge such as the Festival of Middle Eastern Churches, the Arab-American Association of New York, the World Lebanese Cultural Union and the New York City Unity Task Force. And you currently serve as secretary on the Salaam Club Foundation board. Why is community service so important to you?
Abi-Habib: I guess it all comes down to when I was a child our house was always open with people coming in and out. And my dad was very active and I would sit next to him or on his lap and listen, so I think that’s when that sense of community was instilled in me. I watched him helping people and it inspired me.
Spectator: I know that your faith is very important to you. Do you still serve on the board of directors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral at 113 Remsen Street in Downtown Brooklyn?
Abi-Habib: Yes. Since we were kids on Sunday we’d hear the church bells ring from our house and we would quickly get ready and run to church. That was every Sunday so that when we came here in the early ‘80s the first thing we did was find a Maronite church that we could belong to and that was Our Lady of Lebanon.
After years of being involved you realize that you have to do more. The first thing was to keep all the other Middle Eastern churches connected, so we started the Festival of Middle Eastern Churches so we could all get to know about each other — Maronite, Melkite, Greek Orthodox — and by doing that Americans will get to see our unity and our different beliefs that are really all the same.
Spectator: How has Brooklyn helped shape your career?
Abi-Habib: When I’m in Jersey I tell the people that without Brooklyn I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today. Being part of this city gave me so much. It taught me a lot and brought me close to a lot of groups that I would not have the opportunity to be part of had I not been in Brooklyn.