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Week of 14 December 2001 · Vol. V, No. 17


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Campus Trolley: recipe for the making of a landmark

By Hope Green

At 71, Sarkis Sarkis is a senior statesman of Commonwealth Avenue cuisine. In all kinds of weather he serves falafel, hot dogs, and other fast fare through the window of the Campus Trolley takeout stand, a bright-red, boxlike enclosure scarcely bigger than a tollbooth.


Nadim Kiwan (left) runs the Campus Trolley with help from his father-in-law, Sarkis Sarkis, who has worked there for almost 14 years. One of Sarkis' sons, Manuel, owns the Trolley as well as Al-Misk (formerly Checkers), a restaurant in the BU Medical Center. Photo by Vernon Doucette


Sarkis has worked at the eatery, near the corner of Granby Street, for nearly 14 years. His son-in-law, Nadim Kiwan, has run the place for the past year, and they can often be found assembling sandwiches elbow to elbow in the narrow kitchen.

On some days the orders come in relentlessly. But Sarkis, who immigrated to Boston from Lebanon three decades ago, says he has no complaints.
"Nothing is hard for me because I was born a poor man," he says. "My mother and father were poor people. All my life I've worked."

Sarkis, the son of a cement-factory laborer in Chekka, Lebanon, came to the United States in 1970. He had to leave his wife and four children behind at first, scraping together money for their passage by working at a now-defunct Boylston Street restaurant called the Half Shell. Later he took a job at Durgin Park in Quincy Market, where he remained for 12 years until one of his sons, Manuel, opened the Campus Trolley in 1988.

Sarkis recalls the day he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, 16 years ago. "I felt like I was flying," he says.

A better life
Kiwan was born and raised in the ancient city of Byblos, Lebanon, and like Sarkis, he is from a large Christian family. In 1976, when Kiwan was 16, his father died in a bomb blast while visiting relatives in Beirut. To help support his mother and younger siblings, Kiwan quit school and worked in a cardboard factory. Later he became an athletics instructor at a health club, where he worked for many years until he met his American wife -- Sarkis' daughter -- while she was visiting Byblos.

Kiwan immigrated in January 1997 and became a U.S. citizen this fall. He misses his brother and three sisters but not the ongoing civil tensions and the ubiquitous presence of Syrian troops, who were supposed to pull out of Lebanon in the early 1990s as part of a peace accord. Lebanese resentment of the 30,000 soldiers is widespread and has recently fueled mass anti-Syrian demonstrations.

"The soldiers are always asking you where you're going," Kiwan says. "They ask you a lot of stupid questions. Here no one bothers us, and life is very good."

A BU fixture
The Campus Trolley has a loyal clientele, despite its proximity to taco and burger franchises. Its best-selling menu items include falafel and chicken sandwiches and kafta, a mixture of ground lamb, beef, onions, and Middle Eastern spices. On warm days customers linger on nearby benches to eat and socialize.

"I love my business," Sarkis says. "I know a lot of students and employees by their faces. There's no time to learn all their names, but they know me."
Sarkis has 11 grandchildren, including one who is considering applying to BU. Pictures of two of the younger children hang on the wall: Kiwan's daughters, four-year-old Marina, and Melaney, seven months. Asked if he is content with his life in America, Sarkis' face brightens.

"Honey, it's a beautiful country," he says, his gaze taking in the cars, buses, T trolleys, and foot traffic along the avenue. "It's perfect, it's lovely. I watch all these people walk by and nobody asks anyone, 'Who are you? Why are you here?'"

He hopes to keep working the lunchtime shift at BU as long as possible.
"I'll never retire," he says, and then gestures, grinning, at the brick sidewalk by the benches.

"When I die," he says, "put my coffin under here."


14 December 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations