FAITH ALKHATIB: The county engineer is working on big projects — like the county's massive beach renourishment initiative — while serving as a role model in her field
Ever since Flagler County Engineer Faith Alkhatib moved to Flagler County in 2000, she’s taken regular beach walks. They used to be relaxing, but these days they’re less so: Alkhatib will be helping oversee a massive, $24 million dune restoration project on the coast this year, and now she walks the beach to look for all the imperfections — the weakened dune, the damaged walkovers.
“It’s a totally different feeling when you walk and take pictures and look at the erosion,” she said.
They’re complex projects involving grant funding and coordination not only between county departments but also with a variety of outside government agencies. Alkhatib, 56 and president of the Florida Association of County Engineers and Road Superintendents, refers to the work as “fun.”
“Sometimes you have to be creative to get things done,” she said. “It’s a team effort; it takes a village to get things done.”
Tammy Bong, the county’s former budget director and now budget director for Volusia County, was part of that village.
“Faith was determined to get her projects done, and always looking for me to give her her money,” Bong said with a laugh. “There’s always fiscal constraints with every construction project, so she would have to overcome those — from the government (services) building to the (Matanzas) overpass. ... She will fight the fight to the end.”
Far from being a solitary career, engineering — at least, in the leadership role that Alkhatib has — requires plenty of coordination and persuasion — something Alkhatib excels at, said County Attorney Al Hadeed.
“She is a performer,” he said. “She has an uncanny ability to procure outside funding and to deal with the external agencies when we have to make adjustments.”
This year, Alkhatib said, “Everything’s going to be OK and successful and within budget and on a schedule that’s fine with me.”
COMING TO FLAGLER
Alkhatib’s father was the principal at a boys high school in the majority-Arab east Jerusalem neighborhood of Shaufat, where Alkhatib was raised alongside her seven sisters and four brothers.
He pushed his children — especially his daughters — to take their education seriously.
“He would teach us, ‘There’s no difference between a boy or a girl, no matter what you want to do, you have to get it done, and education for girls is more important than for boys.’ Because in his mind, a boy, no matter what, can do any kind of thing. But the girls, they have to have a certain education to have a decent job and make a good living.”
In school, Alkhatib excelled in math and science and knew she didn’t want to work an office job: She wanted to do something more hands on.
She studied engineering at the regionally respected Damascus University, Syria’s oldest university and one which houses a large civil engineering program.
She met her husband, Ray Alkhatib, when he visited Jerusalem from Chicago in order to see family there. He’s also an engineer.
“I met her and we started talking, and that’s it — we got married, and we have five children together,” Ray Alkhatib said.
She flew to Chicago in April 1985, four days before her wedding.
The weather and the cultural differences both required adjustment, she said, but her husband taught her to drive, and, when the couple moved to Florida — initially to Lakeland — he helped her enroll in classes at the University of Central Florida. She became a public engineer and then earned a master’s in business administration before taking a job with the Florida Department of Transportation. In Flagler County, her office — stacked with technical papers and adorned with a painting of butterflies, which she sees as a symbol of freedom and transformation — now sits in a building whose engineering she oversaw.
She returns to Jerusalem regularly to visit her family.
Women are underrepresented in engineering: According to the Department of Labor, just 11% of U.S. civil engineers are women.
“Being an engineer, in this field, it’s really challenging,” Alkhatib said. “Sometimes, as a woman engineer, they don’t take you seriously,” she said with a soft laugh. “It’s really very frustrating. A woman engineer with an accent, you have to work much harder than anybody else to get what you deserve, to give you the opportunity. But I have been lucky; always, I’ve had wonderful people to work with.”
Sometimes, she said, “You have to be firm and hard so that people can take you seriously. But when they get to know you, they start to feel that you are part of the team, and they include you and you move on.”
Tammy Bong remembered seeing Alkhatib hold her own with male colleagues when Alkhatib first took a job with the county.
“When we first got there ... we were in a dirt parking lot building a government complex and surrounded by men,” Bong said. “She had to argue with everybody to get things accomplished. She had a cultural argument and she had an argument because she’s a woman, I’m sure. But she stands her ground, and she speaks very intelligently. ... And she speaks the truth.”
Alkhatib began her career working in the private sector but, with a growing family, wanted the stability of a government position.She began working for the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 5, which includes Flagler County.
One of her tasks there was working on the permitting for the Interstate 95 interchange at Matanzas Woods Parkway. Years later, after she’d been hired by Flagler County, she oversaw the project.
“It hit my desk when I was working at District 5. I never thought in a million years I would be getting it done,” she said.
It was one of her favorite projects. Others included the Government Services Building that houses the county administration at 1769 E. Moody Blvd., the Sheriff’s Office building and the county jail expansion project.
As she’s completed them, she’s enjoyed the chance to take on leadership and mentoring roles. She became president of the Florida Association of County Engineers and Road Superintendents in June 2017 and will serve till June 2018.
One young man, Kris Torres, first met her when he was a student at Matanzas High School. He was interested in engineering and needed community service hours, and he thought he could get a taste for the field by spending some of those hours volunteering with the county’s engineering department.
The county didn’t have an internship program for engineering, but Alkhatib helped set up a position for him.
“She made that happen,” said Torres, who’s now 27. “I guess that’s one of the big things about her; she makes things happen.”
Torres volunteered for about four months in high school.
“Seeing all the projects come to life ... that kind of solidified it,” he said. “Just seeing something go from the planning phase to a constructed, completely built condition, I liked a lot.”
Torres earned a degree in civil engineering. Then, about a decade after he’d first met Alkhatib, he returned to the county engineering department to work for her as a project manager. He stayed for about a year before taking another position in Tennessee as a bridge engineer with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and he calls her “probably the best boss I ever had.”
“She has integrity, she’s honest, understanding. ... She’s good for decision making,” he said. “If you’re stuck in terms of what to do (on a project), all it takes is a phone call from her to solve it. A phone call from me wouldn’t do it, but from her, it would.”
Alkhatib also encourages younger women in the workplace, said Ray Alkhatib, her husband. “She tries to elevate them, to be equal,” he said.
Al Hadeed, the county attorney, said Faith Alkhatib knows how to inspire people to do their best work.
“She drives people very hard, whether within the county or outside agencies, but she also does it in a way that we all smile and laugh,” he said. “So it puts a humorous edge on how hard she pushes her projects, the projects she’s assigned. ... She has this way to bring out the best in people.”