Egypt to Texas, Giza to Giza
A modest strip mall in Bedford is a long way from the current troubles in Egypt. But for 39-year-old Emad Nagib, it’s a salient reminder of why he left his home there and of all that he has accomplished in his short time in the United States.
Emad, who started out in this country as a cashier at a Granbury gas station, now owns that tiny strip of shops on Brown Trail as well as the two businesses that operate there. He helped bring his brother, parents, and niece over from Egypt and has applied to bring his sister over as well. And he has started a family of his own — with its own extraordinary story.
The Nagibs are among a growing number of Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans settling in North Texas, many of them intent on escaping what they see as oppression and attacks in their homeland. But whereas the tens of thousands of protesters who have thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the past three weeks are seeking the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who has governed Egypt with a heavy hand for more than three decades, Emad and many of his relatives and friends aren’t so sure that’s the answer. They are Coptic Christians, and many of them fear that the removal of Mubarak, rather than bringing greater democracy to Egypt, will shove the country into the grip of extremists, including those who have persecuted Christians in that country for many years.
Emad and his relatives have prayed and fasted for a peaceful resolution of the protests in their native country. Marvat Mousa, Emad’s mother-in-law, speaks often to her sister-in-law and cousin back in Egypt. They are doing OK, she said, “but they can’t leave their homes.”
Emad said he enjoys the religious freedom here but that the basic reason he moved to the United States was to make a better life for himself.
“There is no money [in Egypt],” he said. “You can work hard, but there is no money. I used to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for about $1 a day.” Any regime that comes to power in Egypt will have to deal with the severe economic hardships afflicting families there, he said.
Emad has been in the U.S. for almost 15 years, and he and his family are living what most people would consider the American dream. But theirs is a story of sacrifice and risky, circuitous paths leading to their current level of success. Emad’s wife, Bernadette, works two full-time jobs, including long hours at the family business, while also raising two children. Her mother worked as a translator for the U.S. Army during the Iraq war and has been in the middle of her share of firefights. Emad left behind a business and everything he knew to start over in North Texas.
Coptic Christians are a minority wherever they live. In many parts of Egypt, they face discrimination and violence, often at the hands of radical Islamists. On New Year’s Eve, a Christian church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 21 people. In this country, since 9/11, Copts who moved here from Egypt and surrounding countries have faced the same discrimination and distrust felt by Muslims and others from the Middle East.
Such racial and religious tension seems nonexistent at the Nagibs’ Giza Specialty Foods grocery, named after the Egyptian city that’s home to the Great Sphinx and one of the great pyramids. The store has become something of a cultural hub for local Middle Easterners.
“My store is like the Middle East,” he said. “I have all of the religions coming to my store to buy things: I have Jewish, Muslims, Christians, everyone.”
On a slow Monday afternoon, a handful of elderly Middle Eastern women roam the narrow aisles of Giza Specialty Foods. In back, near the fresh fruits and vegetables, is a shelf with about half a dozen different kinds of teapots. The quaint, not-too-big store holds myriad versions of Middle Eastern comfort foods, from cookies to canned goods. Seven days a week, Emad is there, running back and forth between the store and his restaurant next door, Al Wadi Café.
In Egypt, he owned and operated a 50-acre grape farm and traveled all over the country of around 80 million people selling his products. He managed 25 employees but could barely turn enough profit to feed himself and his family. Fed up, he applied for a work visa in the U.S. and was granted permission in 1996. He had a friend who lived in Granbury, so he chose North Texas as his landing spot. He sold his farm to his brother and father, who eventually sold it to others when they joined him in North Texas later.
The friend who got him the cashier’s job in Granbury also introduced him to the Coptic Church in Euless, where he would eventually meet his future business partners, Mohsen and Marvat Mousa. He didn’t know then that they would also be his future in-laws. He married their daughter Bernadette.
“I found a house next to the gas station, so I didn’t have to drive,” he said. “I didn’t have a driver’s license when I came in ’96.”
Mohsen taught Emad the landscaping business, and, after working full time as a cashier and picking up odd landscaping jobs, Emad saved enough money to buy the house he was renting. From those humble beginnings, he started the Giza store, with the Mousas as partners.
It wasn’t the best time to start a Middle Eastern-related business in this country — in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. However, as Marvat Mousa explained, they viewed themselves as Americans and were undeterred by the anti-Arab paranoia that had cast a dark cloud over the nation.
“People said, ‘Oh, you can’t open that, you are Egyptian, you are Arabs, they are going to be against you,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m an American now, and I’m going to open it.’ ”
When Marvat’s husband fell ill and eventually died, she sold their half of the business to Emad. Several years later, when the landlord of the building raised the rent, Emad purchased the strip center across the street and reopened his store there. With a new business partner, Lebanese-born Salwa Timani, he opened a restaurant next door.
Al Wadi Café features authentic Lebanese and Greek cuisine. Timani does the cooking, and Emad runs the front of the house. The mom-and-pop-ish restaurant is a local favorite. The dining room is almost always packed, mostly with non-Middle-Easterners.
The reason for that demographic, Timani said, is that her recipes are plucked straight from an Arab grandmother’s kitchen — so Middle Easterners can get her kind of food without going to a café.
“If they are Lebanese, like me, then they already know how to cook it,” she said. “I cook as if I am cooking at home — like a mother would cook for her kids — everything is from scratch.”
Timani said she admires Emad’s work ethic and his sense of humor — most of the time.
“I feel like I belong to their family,” she said. “He has a good sense of humor. I have never seen him be serious. He is always playing tricks.”
Emad figures that he works about 90 hours a week. It stands to reason that he would fall for a woman with a similar work ethic. Bernadette Nagib admires her husband’s entrepreneurial sprit and is a crucial part of the success of his businesses.
“He came to live the American dream,” she said. “His mind is always working, he’s always looking out for what else he can do.”
Bernadette, born in Newark, N.J., is assistant director of ambulatory services at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where she has worked for about nine years. Between the family store and her day job, she works seven days a week and never seems to slow down.
“It starts about five in the morning, getting the kids ready and taking them to school,” she said. “Then getting to work, working my day job, leaving work, going to work at the store, going home and doing housework, making sure homework is done, making sure the kids are showered and put to bed, and then I’m ready for the next day.”
She and Emad work those kinds of hours, she said, so they can provide for their children’s education: “I’m doing this for the kids, getting them through college.”
The two could not work their hectic schedules without support from their families. Bernadette’s mother often picks the kids up from school and watches them while their parents work.
Emad doesn’t mind the long hours. He worked a similar schedule in Egypt, but has a lot more to show for it here. He believes he could have never reached this level of success in his home country.
“Every hour you work here, you get paid,” he said. “If you want to be successful in business, you work hard, and you’ll get everything you want. I have two businesses, a wife, and two kids. My mom and my dad and I all have a car. I have two houses under my name.”
Marvat, a 59-year-old grandmother of four, still works as a linguist at a local hospital and pitches in as a babysitter despite a disability. She fell and permanently injured her foot while serving as a civilian translator for U.S. military intelligence during the first Iraq war, from March 2003 to April 2004. Her unit was based in Kuwait and fought at Abu Ghraib, where she said their position was shelled every night. (Her work was in the city, not in the soon-to-be-infamous prison there.)
“We had to wear armored suits,” she said. “We were getting hit every night in Abu Ghraib. You sleep, but it’s not good sleep. You get used to it, I was just happy to wake up the next day.”
When she came back from Iraq, she said, her family helped her through an adjustment period. “You felt like you were afraid, so you wanted to have other people around you,” she said. “I wanted to have my kids around me all of the time.”
Marvat was educated in a French school near Cairo. Her engagement to Mohsen was arranged by their families. When Marvat was 19, just after the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, Mohsen decided to immigrate to the U.S. to look for a job as an engineer. The two married before he left, and she followed him three months later. After living on the East Coast for eight years, the couple and their two children (a third was born here) moved to Texas, because Marvat couldn’t handle the cold weather any longer.
“My sister came here, and we visited for Easter, and the weather was beautiful,” she said. “My husband was very kind, and he said, ‘OK, we’ll move to Texas.’ ”
Family plays an important role in their lives, said Bernadette, 33. “We’re very big on being with the family, supporting the family, and helping out in any way we can. I’m blessed.”
Both Marvat and Bernadette said that it is very important to instill in their children a sense of their cultural heritage.
“It is a balancing act between school and home,” said Bernadette. “You kind of teach them our traditions. They are seven years old and five years old, so they may not get it immediately, but they may get it as they grow and understand more.”
It’s a rich and complex heritage, involving two countries that are both, in their own ways, in turmoil and an ancient religion that many Americans know little about.
About 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people belong to the Coptic Orthodox Christian church, which separated from the established Christian church in 451 A.D. over a disagreement about the divine nature of Christ.
For several hundred years, until followers of Islam came to power, Christianity was the majority religion in Egypt. About 95 percent of Egypt’s Christians are Copts.
To the uninitiated, the pageantry of a Coptic Church service may look a lot like an Eastern Orthodox service, with bearded clerics wearing robes and a lot of the smells and bells of the Roman Catholic Church. Copts celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7; many American Coptic children receive gifts on Dec. 25 (and money on Jan. 7).
In the Middle East, the Copts have long been on the receiving end of religious violence. Attacks on Copts have escalated since the 1970s when Islamic extremism began to gain traction in Egypt. On Christmas Day, 2009, six Copts were killed in a drive-by shooting at a church in Naj Hammadi, in central Egypt off the West Bank of the Nile. Last New Year’s Eve, 21 people were killed by a bomb at a church in Cairo.
Father Ghobrial Samaan, the priest at St. Abanoub Coptic Orthodox Church in Euless, said that many of the Egyptians who immigrate to North Texas are seeking religious freedom and safety.
Attacks against Copts, he said, are “not something new. It has been the case since the 11th century. We’re kind of used to it, although we’re not as strong as grandfathers who were maybe killed for the sake of Christ.”
The population of North Texas Copts has grown significantly since he arrived. “When I first came here in 1998, there was one church,” he said. “And back then we’re talking about less than 200 families in North Texas. When the church in Colleyville opened in 2001, the number [of worshippers] doubled, and another was opened in Richardson in 2004. Now in the Euless church alone there are over 300 families.”
In part because of their experience with radical Muslims, many Copts are devil-you-know supporters of Mubarak: They understand the desire for democracy but also believe that Mubarak is the one thing holding the spread of Islamist extremism at bay. While the protests in Cairo and elsewhere have attracted a diverse cross-section of Egyptians, including the Copts, the Muslim Brotherhood has become one of the public faces of the opposition and is expected to play a role in a new government.
The religiously conservative group has said it wants to turn Egypt into an Islamic state and, though the Brotherhood long ago denounced violence, the Copts and members of other religious minorities fear that the change could fuel persecution against minorities.
“In general our people are very scared for their families,” said Samaan. “They are worried about two things: the future of Egypt and the future of Christians in Egypt. The Christians in Egypt are a minority and are always under the persecution of many extremists. Everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen.”
Emad believes that there just isn’t enough money and food to go around in Egypt, and that won’t change regardless of who is running the country.
“There are a lot of people with no food, but there are so many people — almost 80 million,” he said. “Mubarak said that he is not going to be the president after November. [The protests] should be over by now.”
Marvat believes that Mubarak has protected the Copts in Egypt, and if he leaves, she is certain that radical Islamists will hold sway over the new government.
“I hope he doesn’t leave, I really don’t want him to leave,” she said.
Samaan said that he holds frequent prayer meetings about the international situation, but there is not much anyone in Euless can do about what is going on in Egypt. Some of his parishioners chose to demonstrate, and others have contacted politicians and aid groups to offer help.
“But on the pulpit,” he said. “We preach praying and fasting and that God is greater than anyone else.”