In 1968, my father, who was an established government supervising engineer in the Cairo Civil Aviation Department, was encouraged by a younger fellow engineer to apply for an immigration visa at the US Embassy. He applied without putting much hope in it. His application was accepted a year later, and we were set to leave in September 1969, after I finished my Junior high education. Immigration at the time was very popular among professionals and recent university graduates, especially after the 1967 Six-Day War that destroyed the Egyptian economy, which was already showing weakness by 1964 following involvement in the Yemen war with Saudi Arabia.
Our social status can be described as comfortable middle class, living in a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, and going to prestigious academic schools in the area. For me, I was always a mentally adventurous person, widely read, and more mature for my age and able to converse on any topic with people much older than I. So, I did not think of emigration as a big step, being barely 14 years old at the time. I was rather excited.
My father had spend six months in the US in 1962 on a training mission from his work. So, it was not an unfamiliar step for him to consider resettling in the US. He did want us to leave Egypt upon seeing how his status and responsibilities at work deteriorated. My mother was dead set against that idea at the time. She was close to her mother, being the only female child. The rest were boys. Also, my grandmother was living with us at the time. As I recall, it was only when my grandmother moved with one of my uncles to take care of his young children that my mother was more receptive to the idea of moving. It was still an emotional scene at the airport, with all her family around us.
I recall my mom telling me, when I went to the barber for a nice haircut before we were scheduled to leave, that I should tell the barber that I am immigrating to Canada and not to the US. The US had a bad reputation in Egypt during the Nasser Regime. The animosity toward the US was mainly due to the lack of support the American administration gave to Egypt during the building of the Aswan High Dam, which brought us under Soviet influence. In addition, the help that the US provided Israel during the Six-Day war in 1967 made the US our enemy, second only to Israel. My father told me years later that he chose emigration for us, because he could not see a future for us in Egypt, even though he was content there. At the time, there was an astronomical increase in the number of high school graduates and less opportunities for us to get into a decent college because few existed in Egypt then.
After we sold everything in Egypt, we had to finance the journey. We made it only as far as the medical checkup clearance required and then Nasser blocked all exit visas for professionals, fearing the country being drained of its skilled workforce. My father attempted for a few months to pursue every possible way to get permission with no avail. Suddenly, in the beginning of February 1970, my father came in the house gleefully saying we got the necessary permission. Nasser just decreed that anyone that had initial approval can leave. No one knew what it was that changed Nasser’s mind. It was just nine months or so before he passed away. Knowing his stubbornness, it was nothing short of a miracle. So, we did all the steps needed again and within a few weeks we left Cairo for a new life in America. Our destination was Los Angeles as my father’s friend was living there. Aside from this connection, we had no relatives or friends in LA aside from a couple of people that my father knew in passing.
The trip took over three days. We made stops for a couple of days in London and a one-day transit in Brussels, where I experienced my first snowstorm. My father’s friend met us at the Los Angeles airport at 3:30 AM and drove us to his house over 20 miles away in the Eastern part of Los Angeles. Arriving on March 1, 1970, we stayed in the house with his family for a few days. Soon my father found us a nice place a few houses down the street, where we stayed until we moved three years later to the Westside of Los Angeles, so that I can be near UCLA where I had just been accepted.
The presence of my father’s friend and his hospitality made a big difference in those early days. In all, we were seven families within walking distance of each other. However, the early days were very difficult for my father, who left a high-ranking job in the government and could not find a starting job in America because he was always told that he was overqualified. He told me later, that if he had money then, we would have returned to Egypt. My father was a very proud man and always well regarded in our Church community. Lo and behold, someone from his hometown in Upper Egypt that immigrated to New Jersey a year before us, though of modest means, started to send us monthly checks without being asked. That helped a lot in easing the financial burden at the time. My father accepted reluctantly the help as a loan, which I believe he paid back after he got a job a few months later.
Lookin back, our living conditions was exceptional. We lived in a two-bedroom house with both front and back yards. It felt like we had too many chores living there, but we were blessed in retrospect. Being with my immediate family – as well as my loner state of mind – I never felt much longing to go back. My mother on the other hand was always pushing my dad to visit Egypt to see her family. As my father couldn’t afford both of them going, he did save enough to send her alone for a few weeks to Cairo. For me, it took 32 years to visit Egypt again, and that was to attend a meeting about Coptic Studies. My sister did go and visit with her husband in the late 1980s for the first time.
What helped greatly was the Coptic Church in LA, which was just starting. It provided a sense of community that eased much of what would have been deep anxiety at physically being displaced from our homeland thousands of miles away. When I went to UCLA, we moved next door to the oldest Coptic Church in the US, on the west side of Los Angeles. I moved a couple of times since 1973, always within one residential block. The Church was the connection I have with Egypt, and I never felt homesick. The same can’t be said for the rest of my family though, who still felt longing for Egypt and our relatives there. But for me, my family was always my parents, sister, and the church, and they were all here in America.
My sister and I were not aware of many of the difficulties facing the family then. We were busy trying to fit in the new school system here. Even though I learned English in the American system in Egypt, understanding the speech was difficult. It is worth noting that I considered American slang to be such that I refused to adopt the American English pronunciation. So, to this day, my English pronunciation is neither American nor British nor Egyptian either, just unique, but understandable nonetheless.
Along with another pair of Egyptians, we spent our lunch period hanging out together. My father insisted that I repeat the 9th grade so that I can be with my sister. I was enrolled first in the ESL classes, except for Algebra, but the school found that I was too advanced for such classes. I was moved, for the final part of the semester, to the regular classes, which was a total cultural shock. In history they were studying South American history, which I knew nothing about. In English, they were reading Shakespeare. I knew only of his name! In Algebra, I was royalty, so it eased the whole experience somewhat. As long as I was surrounded by books, I was happy. In fact, in the summer, I used to walk for 40 minutes to a Junior College library and stay there and read for hours. That passion continued in my college years, though the subject matter changed from science and math to religion and Coptic Studies.
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Dr. Hany N. Takla is a Coptic Studies lecturer at UCLA. He’s a researcher, author, librarian, and the President of the St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society in Los Angeles.