Many think of growing up with two parents and a sibling and always eating dinner around the table after a long day of school or work.
Georges Chamoun, 37, experienced another kind of childhood, one that spurred his interest in constructive communication and value in diplomacy.
Chamoun, founder and vice president of TriPride and a senior mechanical engineer at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, was born in New York City to an American mother and Lebanese father. His parents divorced when he was a 1 year old, and his father took him back to Lebanon, where he lived until he was 8.
“I didn’t have the Disneyland childhood that many American children have,” Chamoun said. “I spent a lot of time living in bomb shelters in Lebanon due to a civil war there between Christians and Muslims. We were stuck.”
In Lebanon, his father met and married a Lebanese woman, with whom he had Chamoun’s two half-sisters. His youngest sister was but a month old when the family fled the country for Cyprus in the middle of the night.
“A week before we fled, I remember seeing on the news another ship that had been taken down by Syrian forces,” Chamoun said. “We still did it, though. We escaped in the middle of the night from the coast of Lebanon on a ship to Cyprus. I was 8 years old. My sisters were 2 years old and a month old.”
Chamoun stayed in Cyprus for a few months before traveling back to New York City, where the family stayed for six years before returning to Lebanon to care for his step-mother’s aging parents. He graduated from high school in Lebanon in 1999.
After graduation, Chamoun wanted to rekindle his relationship with his biological mother, who lived near Los Angeles, so he attended the University of Southern California. There, he pursued aerospace and mechanical engineering and obtained his bachelor, master and doctoral degrees.
He accepted a job offer at Virginia Tech, which introduced him to the Blue Ridge Mountains and sparked his love for the East Coast.
“After a few months, I found that I made the best move of my life,” Chamoun said. “I fell in love with the mountains, hiking, music and way of life. I decided maybe big cities weren’t for me.
“I found a job at Eastman in 2011. Next March, I can say I’ve lived in Tennessee for more consecutive years than anywhere else I’ve lived. I grew up around the world, but I found my home in Northeast Tennessee.”
His travels around the world ignited his enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion.
“I value different cultures and the way people live,” Chamoun said. “Traveling shapes who I am and gives me appreciation for the way I live. Upon settling in the Tri-Cities, I noticed the very common trend of local LGBTQ actively looking to move away.
“A lot of them already have. I’m talking engineers, doctors, lawyers and business people — the whole spectrum of a job market are trying to move to other neighboring cities like Knoxville and Asheville. Why? They’re perceived as being more welcoming and inclusive.”
Chamoun spent three months researching ways to keep workers and professionals happy and thriving in the Tri-Cities rather than continuing to watch them move to surrounding areas.
“I felt it necessary to take the initiative to make a difference,” he said. “I looked at other cities and asked myself, ‘What are places like Knoxville and Nashville doing right to attract people to want to live there?’ These cities are growing at faster rates and attracting and retaining more people.
“They have pride organizations. What they do is put together large-scale free festivals. On the surface, it looks like another party, but I came to realize that these festivals impact communities in very fundamental ways. When local businesses publicly support these festivals, they are sending the signal that the city is a welcoming and inclusive place to live and that people can create a life there.”
After his research and organizing his plan, Chamoun pitched his idea to organize TriPride, the Tri-Cities’ first Pride Festival, in October, and since then, he and the other board members have been overwhelmed with support.
“The reception has been phenomenal,” Chamoun said. “The team has developed into a beautiful collaborative culture and a life of its own. That’s the goal we want to achieve for this to be a legacy organization.”
Adventuring the world might be an effective way to experience diversity and a rich selection of culture, but you’ll need to look no further than your own backyard on Sept. 15 at Founders Park in Johnson City to experience a festival featuring a judgment-free environment.
“By joining this festival, you’re sending signals to an LGBTQ friend, family member or coworker that they’re welcome here,” Chamoun said. “It’s a celebration of love, unity and inclusiveness. We don’t want them to move away. We want them to stay in the Tri-Cities where they can build a life.”