HIGH POINT — Much of his life’s work he has tried to keep quiet.
When the city’s Chamber of Commerce worked to raise money for a new building that also would house a business resource center, Zaki Uddin Khalifa decided to donate one he was about to sell.
Even though the Oriental rug businessman had a buyer for the building, valued at $1.6 million, he wanted to give back to a city that had been so good to him.
“I had to convince him even to let me tell other people that he gave us the building,” Tom Dayvault, the former president and chief executive officer of the High Point Chamber of Commerce, said in 2006. “He said, ‘If I do that, then I’ve given it to you for the wrong reason.’ I convinced him by saying it would encourage other people to give.”
Just recently, as he eyes retirement after four decades in the Oriental rug business in his adopted city, he decided to give his showroom to a charity focused on building orphanages and educating underprivileged children in Pakistan, where he grew up and has worked for years to give young people opportunities. The charity, Akhuwat, has already put up for sale the 100,000-square-foot building with a $17 million price tag that covers a city block in the Furniture Market district.
“Those who mind do not matter,” the 73-year-old Khalifa said with amusement of just giving the fortune away while standing near a row of awards touting his character as much as his generosity.
“Those who matter do not mind.”
Khalifa, a steady but soft-spoken man with a slight build, unravels a 300-pound room-sized rug made of silk as he recalls selling another for $400,000 out of the business along Main Street.
“It cost more than my house,” quipped the multimillionaire.
He won’t name buyers, but says his clientele includes dignitaries and celebrities, as well as normal people.
A past “High Point Citizen of the Year,” he is described by those who know him best as sincere, reflective and especially sensitive to the pain of others.
And he is someone who believes in returning the opportunities given him.
“Zaki is both charitable and thoughtful,” said Nido Qubein, president of High Point University. “He understands the needs of the community and acknowledges that to whom much is given, much is required.”
His fingerprints are all over town, said Becky Smothers, a former High Point mayor who worked alongside him and could call on him with confidence.
“He’s been a booster and contributor to all good things in High Point,” Smothers said. “We are lucky he chose High Point as home.”
When the young college student came to the United States in 1976, following mentor Carl Wheeless, a professor at High Point College (now university), Khalifa opened a store with 40 small rugs — and a town full of friends.
Those who knew Wheeless, who had taught Khalifa political science at Forman Christian College in Lahora, Pakistan, made a point of getting to know Khalifa upon his arrival, always wanting to know if he had any difficulties.
He would go on to build a small Oriental rug business with 40 rugs into one of the largest in the United States and internationally, all while honing a reputation locally for his humility and goodwill.
As he established himself in the United States, he would also help other new immigrants to his adopted city.
He has helped poor students get through college and is a major supporter of the Al-Aqsa Community Clinic, where most of the physicians and volunteers are Muslims but treat anyone for free, say those who have witnessed his generosity.
Particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Khalifa spoke all over the country about tolerance, acceptance and assimilation among people of different cultures.
In 2012, he received the Brotherhood/Sisterhood Citation award, the highest honor given annually by the National Conference for Community and Justice. He was the only rug seller on the list of 50 Outstanding Asian-Americans in Business, which this year recognizes Frito Lay’s president and CEO, Vivek Sankaran.
The successful businessman also has given away two other buildings, one to the High Point Community Against Violence and the other to Foster Children of North Carolina.
At the same time, Khalifa has long invested his time and energy back in Pakistan, especially in schools where students have to be dedicated and work hard.
Financially, he could rest quite comfortably until his final days. But he wouldn’t be able to rest.
At least not his soul.
Generations of his family had long worked to make life better for the people of India and later Pakistan, when it became an independent nation — something he will continue in a substantive way, by ensuring the charity’s finances for years to come.
Although Khalifa has worked with many charities there and has students he has supported earn college scholarships to American colleges, he was especially drawn to Akhuwat — whose overhead is just 4 percent with a volunteer board and an executive director who does not take a salary. About 6,000 children live in the group’s orphanages.
His grandfather, who raised him, shepherded the largest social welfare organization in the country with orphanages and schools and is seated among world leaders, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in various photos in Khalifa’s office. Eisenhower called the man to Camp David for a discussion after meeting him following an international gathering at Harvard. Little Zaki was often at his side.
“I would put on my tuxedo and go,” Khalifa said.
His grandfather, Khalifa Shujauddin, was one of the leaders in helping India gain its independence from England in 1947.
During those trips back to the Middle East to handpick rugs for the showroom, he also blocks out weeks to inspect the schools and to spend time with the students.
There are long waiting lists to get one of the spots at the Akhuwat schools, where students have access to a doctor, and tuition, uniforms, and a meal — for many students the only one they’ll get that day — are free. The nonprofit also runs a free college and hospitals for the mentally ill, and offers interest-free micro-loans to startups there.
Education is not compulsory in the largely impoverished Pakistan, where a family’s annual income might total $500 and some parents send their children to look for work in repair shops as vendors, which means they might bring home 20 cents a night. Other children might end up in the streets as beggars, disillusioned.
“These are the kids the suicide bombers train,” Khalifa said. “The real problem is extreme poverty.”
About 4,000 students are enrolled this year, but new buildings are under construction and by next year the goal is to increase the number to 10,000 he said.
It was last year, when an American philanthropic couple joined him and his wife on a buying trip back to Pakistan, where they were impressed enough with what they saw to commit their own dollars to the work, that Khalifa decided he would donate the building to the charity and maybe even teach seniors.
“They found it hard to believe,” Khalifa said.
The building is already on the market.