Interviewer: Alya Osman
Location: Canada (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Length of Interview: 32:04
Description: A 22-year-old man who was born in Egypt, raised in Kuwait, studied in the U.S. and currently resides in Canada discusses differences between the countries and how migration has shaped his vision for the future.
Interviewee: I was born on September 9th, 1999, in Mansoura, Egypt.
Alya Osman: Where did you or your family migrate to?
Interviewee: Kuwait and Canada.
Alya Osman: And when did you migrate to Kuwait and to Canada?
Interviewee: We moved to Kuwait in 2005 [and to] Canada, 2017, but officially 2019.
Alya Osman: Do you know why your family chose to migrate and why they chose Kuwait and then why they chose Canada?
Interviewee: Yeah, so my mother actually, she grew up in Kuwait. My uncle, her brother was born in Kuwait, her family spent most of their life in Kuwait. My grandfather was in Kuwait up until 2007/2008. So, it was familiar to her out of all the Gulf countries. She moved to Kuwait because they [my parents] were both on track to become tenured professors, and they knew they could keep that status, but also go to Kuwait and kind of branch out a little bit. I’m an only child, so it was very easy for them to be like “alright, we just gotta focus on this one kid,” give them all the opportunities in the world, try to make a decent living. So yeah, they went to Kuwait. Pretty much, which I think is very common in Egypt, where people have a massive reliance on their parents. Pretty much – and obviously, God forbid – but I feel like most people I know until the day comes that they inherit their parents, they’re completely dependent on them. Not completely, but to a large extent. [My parents] felt like all the opportunities they had in life were owed to their parents, so I think they moved, in hindsight, to do something themselves. In [terms of] Canada, they’ve always wanted to move to Canada. The U.S., not Canada – no one wants to come to Canada. [laughs] But Canada’s obviously the next best thing. Since the beginning, they’ve been trying to come here. The reasons why people want to move to America or Canada, obviously that’s a 40-minute discussion on its own, but ended up working out for them in 2017, like it took them that long, so they came.
Alya Osman: And you mentioned that your mom and uncle were born in Kuwait –
Interviewee: My uncle was born in Kuwait.
Alya Osman: Do you have any idea when your grandparents lived there?
Interviewee: I would like to say they moved there in the 70s and lived there until the 2000s. I know they weren’t there for the [Gulf] war, but they moved back afterwards.
Alya Osman: And [your grandparents] were both working in education?
Interviewee: So, my grandmother was a P.E. teacher. And my grandfather, I know he was an engineer of some sort, and he worked with the Egyptian military in Kuwait. I think he worked at an engineering academy, but he was also a cashier/delivery driver at night, and that ended up transcending into him owning the business. He was a part owner of a business, obviously no one owns a business in Kuwait that’s an expat. But it was a famous – not famous, but if you were in Hawally you’d know about it, it’s like a restaurant bakery. A lot of my childhood memories were when I would visit.
Alya Osman: What was it called?
Alya Osman: Do you remember where it was located?
Interviewee: I remember the street was named after a sahabi [laughs.] But I’d have to check, if I looked at a map, I’d be able to let you know. But it was in Hawally, it was next to a hospital.
Alya Osman: When your family moved, did you know other Egyptians who lived in Kuwait?
Interviewee: My mother already had two family friends over there. We only connected with them down the line, like they weren’t always in the picture for us. Going to Kuwait, we only knew my grandfather and my grandmother who were still there. Those were the only people. Later down the line, it turns like turns out, surprise, surprise, my mother did have friends in Kuwait, but we only hung out with them later.
Alya Osman: And generally, when you were there, what would you say was your relationship with other Egyptians? Did you actively seek out Egyptian community or were you just meeting whoever you were meeting?
Interviewee: In the beginning, I think I actively looked for Egyptians. Like when I was younger, by the time I hit the ninth grade… My mother, most of her best friends are Palestinian. My father, he was either busy or very anti-social, but also all his friends in Kuwait are Palestinian, Syrian, from the Levant area. All his Egyptian friends are back home. Some of his friends from Egypt actually ended up going to Kuwait as well, so they kept those relationships a little bit, but we were always around Levant people. In [my school], it started out where all my best friends up until Year 9 or 10 were Egyptian. I grew apart from some of them, and then my closest friend left, and then after that I only had like one or two Egyptian close friends.
Alya Osman: What are some of your earliest memories of moving to Kuwait? Do you remember what your first impressions of it were? And had you lived in Mansoura up until that point?
Interviewee: Yes, I lived in Mansoura up to that point. I was six years old, so I still remember vividly, of course. I remember the first drive from the airport. I remember my grandfather’s Ford. I just remember that… it looked… it was weird, it was weird. All I know is my family did a very good job of always making it feel homey, whether it was my grandfather – my grandfather put a lot of effort into making sure that we felt welcome. I always felt like through my grandfather, at least, we had a decent safety net over there. I remember I was too scared to go to school, going to [my British school] I cried heavily, like I wouldn’t want to go at all in the beginning. But this was Year 2, my English was not too good – like they’d teach it to us, technically I went to a language school in Mansoura, [air-quotes] “language school” – but I could barely speak English. I couldn’t understand what teachers were saying. I’d go home, my parents would ask me, “oh, what did you learn today?” I’d be like [murmurs in gibberish], I didn’t understand anything. I’d mix up stuff like ‘how old are you’ and ‘what’s your name?’ So, I didn’t feel welcome at all. I remember my first friend was a Kuwaiti guy, his name was Abdullatif Al Shatti. But it wasn’t until Year 3 or 4 that I really started settling in. Took me a year, for sure.
Alya Osman: And you’re kind of talking about this already, but generally, what do you feel like for you or for your family were any challenges or barriers to adapting to the new environment? And was it maybe different for you versus your mom or people who were more familiar with that environment already?
Interviewee: So, my parents moved to Kuwait, knowing that they didn’t want to go back to Egypt. Like, we never, ever had the intention of going back to Egypt. There was a kind of crossroads in our life around Year 9 where my father went back to Egypt for a little bit [after] my grandfather died, and I’d say that was closest we were to going back to Egypt. But I think there was always… in Kuwait, I can only think of a few people – no, no, that’s false, I’d say most people have a permanent attachment to Kuwait. But, for me, we always knew that we were in Kuwait for the foreseeable future, we’re not going back to Egypt, but we don’t know where we’re going to end up either. We always felt temporary. I think it’s the people, like your friends that you make over there that make you feel welcome. No [expat] in Kuwait would tell you – or I’d like to think so, at least, that Kuwait genuinely feels like home, or that this is their country because it isn’t their country. And I think the environment there makes that very clear. But in terms of adapting, we had no choice, and it’s very easy to get comfortable in Kuwait, I think. All you do there is eat and shop and it’s not a bad life – it’s a bubble, massive bubble. Good place to raise kids, too, like, it’s pretty conservative. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Alya Osman: It does. I’m wondering, are there any specific instances or incidents where you felt like it solidified for you that this was a temporary space?
Interviewee: I feel like in Kuwait, every day, if you’re not Kuwaiti there are many ways where you’re reminded that it’s not your country. I don’t like the word microaggression, it’s way too woke, but, you know, they were definitely, like, macro-aggressions. [laughs] Generally, the environment, it’s definitely… Kuwaitis were elite, even though they were a minority in their own country. And, obviously, my parents went there as juniors but [even] as they worked really, really, really hard there, they were making money. but, you know, Kuwaitis were always making more money. You know, their Kuwaiti boss would get old and then they’d hire a younger Kuwaiti to be their boss, stuff like that. It always felt like you didn’t belong there. And just in general, my parents always knew that they wanted to move elsewhere, as in Canada or the U.S. And we always knew that, khalas, from this we’re going to go to university overseas and we’re going to try to stick there and try to stay there, get a job there and just stay there. Like, if Canada hadn’t worked out, I would have been working my ass off trying to stay in America. I had absolutely no intention going back to Kuwait.
Alya Osman: Do you feel like this was a general environment or do you feel like there were any things that were specific to being Egyptian in particular?
Interviewee: [In terms of] things I was exposed to in Kuwait… I met people from our background, which was like international schools in Kuwait. You know, I think whether you’re Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani, Indian, wherever, if you’re like that level of upper-middle class, you have shared pretty much identical experiences no matter what your background is. Like “third culture kids” or whatever they call themselves, it’s a universal experience. But then looking through other things I was involved in in Kuwait, you look at lower – I hate to say ‘lower class’ – but lower socioeconomical class migrants, and that’s when you really start to tell the cultural differences in terms of experiences that people have in Kuwait. Because definitely for expats, since it’s usually people that are bringing people in and it kind of depends on who has a bigger safety net, you really start to see, for lack of a better word, a mob mentality when it comes to certain cultures. And I think that you realize that. Egyptians, especially overseas, it’s super competitive. I feel like it’s usually Southeast Asians that really support each other to get into Kuwait but with Egyptians, it’s cutthroat, they’re almost killing each other overseas. Because they look at other Egyptians like, “oh, this guy is from the same background as me, he’s gonna take my job.” But it wasn’t like that from our background, I don’t think it made a difference to us, but if you were to ask Egyptians from a lower class, I think they’d tell you a very different experience.
Alya Osman: Do you feel like you ever engaged with Egyptians from different social backgrounds while you were in Kuwait, or were there any sort of experiences that you felt that you got secondhand?
Interviewee: The first advice that my grandmother and my grandfather gave my mother, and then the first advice my mother gave me, whether it was going to the U.S. or when I was old enough in Kuwait: don’t associate yourself with Egyptians overseas. That’s the first piece of advice that I got. Dealing with Egyptians [at school], I never knew why. But then, for example, in 2019, I went back for an internship over there and then I understood why. Again, [for] Egyptians from our background, it doesn’t make a difference because I think we grew up privileged, we don’t feel like we need to fight for resources. But then the experiences, for example, that someone like my grandfather had or someone like my mother had in professional circles? Grinding or hustling in Kuwait? It’s cutthroat.
Alya Osman: Did you feel the same thing when it came to your internship? And what inspired you to go do the internship [in Kuwait] while you were living in Canada?
Interviewee: The internship was a unique experience because at that point, I didn’t have my Kuwait residency anymore, so all my ties to Kuwait were done. That was 2019, that was the point when my parents were in the process of moving here to Canada. I kind of dropped a bomb at them when I told them that I’m doing an internship in Kuwait, and that was all of my accord. It was through a friend of mine [who] happened to be a CEO of a company. So, I went back and I was always like the “CEO’s friend,” so no one was competing with me. But I’d look at how the laborers were treating each other, and I could tell what’s going on. But no one was competing with me, I think I had a very spoiled experience there because they were like “that’s the CEO’s friend, he’s gonna get us fired if we do anything.” But you could tell how people were looking at you. You could definitely tell that they were like, “oh, this is the Egyptian kid that made it,” but, yeah.
Alya Osman: If you were to compare your life, or you and your family, from when you first arrived in Kuwait to when they left, how would you say that your lives have changed?
Interviewee: We’re richer. Like, to be fully honest. We’re not loaded, but we’re richer for sure. That’s it. That’s legitimately it. Anyone – I think this is something that I can confidently say – anyone that lived in Kuwait, rich, poor, whatever, they’ll come to you at the end of it and tell you that the country took their life and gave them nothing but money. They’re the exact same people, they’re no farther or no less in their careers, they didn’t do anything that actually benefited them professionally, they just worked for jobs that paid the money. And my dad was a surgeon but now, if he was to move to another country like here or back to Egypt, he’s relatively behind in his field because Kuwait doesn’t really… they don’t send you on courses, they don’t send you to conferences, they don’t sponsor your training. They don’t do what other places do, you just kind of work for them. So, yeah, that’s literally it. They probably feel… I wouldn’t say farther from family. I think because my mother grew up in an environment where my grandfather was always in Kuwait, and my mother and her family would be in Egypt, especially when she was in high school, university, in the 90s, they’re used to that life of being apart. I think that as my grandparents got older, they got sick of it. But my mother kind of always felt that that’s how life is. So that part of it didn’t change. But definitely, they feel like they can’t settle down anywhere.
Alya Osman: Do you feel like living in Kuwait has changed your perception of… either migration or where you see yourself living, or stability in general?
Interviewee: Yes and no, yes and no. First of all, I’m an only child, so [although] I never felt like I needed siblings, I think that what I’m missing in life is that big family experience. And that big family experience isn’t going to happen if you’re bouncing from country to country. That’s not going to happen. Second of all, now that I’m in Canada, permanently… it’s like, I asked my friends, “why’d you move here? What does this country give you that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve when you were in Egypt?” And their answers still don’t satisfy me, honestly. I think that people get sick of their environment, and they dip, and that’s all they know. For me, still, in the back of my mind, I’m like, “oh yeah, you know, if I go to Dubai, I’ll have –” you know, we’ve spoken about this, it’s a little bit more Arab and at the same time I can still live out my ambitions, still make like “Gulf money,” relatively. If I go to the U.S., I will live in a country that legitimately respects my freedoms and liberties and supports my ambition and has all the industries in the world and has this and has that. I feel like I’ve told my parents that I want to move to three different countries in the next three years, but deep down, I don’t want to move anywhere. I just want to stay put because legitimately, there’s no need. You can be comfortable anywhere. You don’t have to continuously move to find something, that’ll never satisfy you.
Alya Osman: I have another question, but there was something that I wanted to make sure that I asked you as well – do your grandparents still live in Kuwait?
Interviewee: No, my grandparents are in Mansoura, Egypt.
Alya Osman: And how do you think it was for them, if you know, moving back to Egypt after such a long time of not living there?
Interviewee: If I understand the timeline correctly, maybe some things are kind of falling out of place for me, but, when the war happened in 90s, they’d moved back to Egypt just before that. After the war, my grandfather went, and they went back to Kuwait and then he kept bouncing back between Kuwait and Egypt. In the 80s, my mother had moved to Egypt for med school, and she was alone there for a little bit. And my grandmother was in Kuwait for a year in the 2000s, but I think it was the late 80s where my grandmother and my mother’s siblings moved back to Egypt. My grandfather cut ties with Kuwait in 2007, I’d like to say. And what was it like for them? Again, grandfather would tell you the same thing, here, Kuwait takes everything from you and doesn’t give you anything but money. That country is nothing but clocking in, clocking out. That’s all it is. And I think it’s the same thing in Egypt, he just went back to Egypt to [inaudible.] But it didn’t take away from anything. His family is massive, I think he’s still a leader in this family for sure, whether it’s on our side, our generation or his siblings… he’s definitely considered a leader figure. I don’t think him being in Kuwait has made them any more or less tied to Egypt, if anything, more, because with the Kuwait money he was able to make certain investments in Egypt that have made people turn to him. And [this] tied him more to Egypt, he’d never leave Mansoura. You know, it’s not really the greatest city, but he’d never leave them. But, right now my aunt is in Egypt with him, but my uncle has moved to the U.S., we’re here in Canada. I think it’s definitely being in Kuwait that made our family much more OK with branching out.
Alya Osman: How do you maintain connections with Egypt, both as a country and with your family that are there?
Interviewee: As someone who’s an only child, my cousins are my siblings. My aunts and my grandparents are my parents, I have very, very, very close connections to them, they’re still the closest people to me no matter what. I call them very often, text them very often, I make an effort. Like a very, very deliberate effort to never lose touch with them. Obviously, I’ll call them on Facetime whenever. I’d say that probably my deepest insecurity is growing apart from, looking at my cousins growing older and being like, “I don’t have pictures with this guy anymore” or pictures where he looks the same, especially in these last five years because I wasn’t able to go back. We go back every year and these trips were really an important part of my life that we’d all look forward to, it was always “when are you guys coming back, when you guys coming back?” And the entire year would kind of be planned around that Egypt trip, in Kuwait. That was the most important part of the year – it was like a sacred time where I’d be excited and it’d be amazing going back to my family. One of my cousins died in 2016. Family dynamic changed permanently since. Because he was definitely a shining light in the family that brought a lot of people together. And I was also around the time, just out of logistics, I wasn’t able to go back anymore. I would have never thought that I’d be gone for this long. I’m itching to go back. I can’t wait any longer. How do I stay in touch with Egypt? Well, I’m fascinated by Egyptian culture. I grew up watching Egyptian movies, especially in summers. Probably if you were to name any movie that came between the years 2000-2014, I’ve seen it in theaters in Egypt. In terms of music, I probably only started listening to English music in 2011, because that was when Egyptian music started being trash. Because of the revolution, no one was funding arts anymore. But yeah, that’s how I stay in touch, culturally. Now, obviously, I predominantly listen to Egyptian rap. It’s an important genre to me. [laughs]
Alya Osman: I’m also curious, have you ever considered living in Egypt, whether in Mansoura or elsewhere?
Interviewee: No. Because it doesn’t support my ambition. I don’t think that at this age, I don’t think I can be in Egypt. [If] l go back, I’ll just live in the shadow of my family. But, you know, if I’m like 40, 50, and I have enough money – because, you know, in Egypt if you have the right amount of money you’ll live like a king. Not a king in terms of, like, everyone’s serving you, but it would be no different to living here, or living in the Middle East or whatever. You’ll have a very successful business, you will get paid in U.S. Dollars., you’ll live in a very sheltered community. It would be a very decent lifestyle, and we can’t have that lifestyle, we’re not there. So, if I’m able to be there someday, maybe. Why not? Who doesn’t want to go back?
Alya Osman: I’m also curious, when you found yourself in the transition from Kuwait to the U.S. for university, did your migration history factor into the way that you introduced herself ever?
Interviewee: Yeah, yeah, of course, of course, that’s a very good question. So, first of all, being in Kuwait and how multicultural school was, there was absolutely zero culture shock involved moving to the U.S. Zero. I didn’t for a second feel like I didn’t belong there because immediately, I felt like these were identical to the people I have always known in Kuwait. I understood their culture, I understood their mentality, I understood the music they’re interested in, the movies they watched, how they interact with each other. And social media definitely helps with that a lot. So, I never felt like I needed to introduce myself as Arab or Middle Eastern. I think you’ll find, if you were to interview Egyptian-Canadians or Egyptian-Americans that have always been in America, they will share a very different experience. They always felt like minorities, they always felt like this, they always felt excluded, they always felt that. I didn’t feel that way, I felt like anyone else. I felt like a White guy or an Indian guy, I just felt like I was there. I never thought of my identity in the context of the situation. But people… obviously every time someone asks, “where are you from?” it would be a very difficult question to answer. Because for these people, they’ve never left [their state in the Midwest]. So, you’d tell them, “oh, hey, you know, I’m Egyptian,” so they’re like, “oh, so you came from Egypt?” “No, I came from Kuwait.” “How long were you in Kuwait?” “10 years.” “So, you’re from Kuwait?” “No, I’m not from Kuwait, I’m not Kuwaiti. Don’t call me that, bro. Don’t call me that.” [smiles] So, yeah, someone would just always call me Kuwaiti, but that’s what they know and that’s how it should be. You live somewhere for 10 years, you’re from there. But it’s not like that. No Egyptian would ever tell you they’re Kuwaiti. That’s why I never understood people who put “Kuwait” in their Instagram bio. What do you mean? What are you claiming? These people don’t claim you, why are you claiming them, you know?
Alya Osman: Have you ever… would you, if there was an opportunity, go back to live in Kuwait, if you felt like it would further your career?
Interviewee: Right now, I make fifty thousand Canadian dollars a year. If I was a math teacher at [my old school], I’d get paid sixty thousand. So, yeah, absolutely [laughs.] You know, if for some reason I can’t move up from where I am, Kuwait is an easy place to live. It’s an easy place to live. And that’s why people like my mother end up going back. I’m pretty sure my mother, if you were to tell her in 1984 when she left Kuwait, “hey, you know, you’re going to work really, really, really hard in university, you’re going to slave at your books and you’re going to end up getting a tenure track position and then you’re going to move back to Kuwait” she’d be like “you’re tripping, who the hell would go back there?!” And then you end up going back. It’s a very comfortable place to live. Possibly, perhaps, who knows? I told you, I could think of four or five different places I could be in three years.