By Natalia Lehaf
Wearing a blue cap, plaid shirt missing a few buttons, loose jeans splattered with white paint, and construction boots, Samir Youssef warily takes a seat across from me. His skin is dark, a combination of Middle Eastern descent and being out in the sun. His eyes look tired, and his face effortlessly curls into a frown. He anxiously takes off his hat, clearly a sign of respect, and scratches his head. “Hello,” he mumbles.
“Would you like some coffee?” I ask him.
“Turkish coffee,” he nods.
His coffee smells strong; sitting with the cup in hand, he seems rejuvenated in a way. He leans in closer and, knowing what I want to discuss, quietly admits: “Sometimes… ana mish arif …I do not know what I am doing here.”
Seven years ago this past December, Samir Youssef, came to America with his wife, Amira. He was 36; she was 28. Although they did not sneak away hidden in veils at nighttime, it was a modern day escape from persecution in Egypt. Youssef approximates that starting in the late 1960’s Egyptians were migrating outside of Egypt for work. Not just any Egyptian though: Copts. Egypt, comprised of about 87% Muslims and 13% Non-Muslims, is largely in control by the Muslim Brotherhood. Its lawfulness leads to lawlessness because the radical Islamists enforce Muslim regulations upon the entire nation. Youssef, a Copt in Egypt, was a victim of job discrimination for as long as he could remember. The oppression within the workforce in Egypt can be as simple as Muslim officials asking Christian employees to work Sunday morning shifts, thus causing them to miss Sunday morning mass, to as severe as employees simply being fired for their Christian faith. Youssef was skilled in construction but jobless. He saw only one option: “I had to get out. I had to take my wife and leave to a new country.”
Yousef hardly spoke English, a few words here and there maybe; his wife, the more fluent of the pair, was not much better. “Everyone in Egypt wanted to move to Amrika. Everyone around the world wanted to move to Amrika. The freedom here… yanni, you can’t find it anywhere else.” Youssef takes a sip of his coffee, staring off at the wall, deep in thought. “My family was sad to see us go, but they understood. I wish I could have brought my mom…but her life was in Egypt and she was old.” After a tear-filled goodbye to their family and friends in Cairo, Egypt, they boarded a ten hour flight to America, a place where they could raise a family. “We first lived in Brooklyn, but when Amira got pregnant we moved to New Jersey. It was a better environment for kids.”
The transition was neither steady nor simple. Lonely and stressed in a foreign land, Youssef and his wife struggled to find solace in each other. “I would come home and hear Amira crying in the bathroom. She was very unhappy.” Their family and friends called often in the beginning. “They were worried when we didn’t seem happy over the phone, so we would lie.” Youssef began putting on an act over the phone for his family and friends, exclaiming about how great work was and how welcoming Americans were. “I almost convinced them to move here themselves.”
Desperate for a sense of community, Youssef and his wife became members at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Holmdel, the town over from them. Members of the church were welcoming, immediately inviting the couple over to homes for dinner. The abouna, or priest, was especially interested in helping the couple adjust to life in America. When Youssef complained to him that he was jobless and nearly completely broke, the priest made an announcement after the next Sunday’s mass encouraging all of the church to hire Youssef for work around the house. From fixing windows to installing heaters, Youssef could do it all–just, not legally.
Youssef manages his own business on his own today, only working in Egyptian-American households because he cannot communicate with people who only speak English. For big projects, such as installing a heater to the pool or constructing a brick porch, Youssef turns to illegal workers for help. In Red Bank, New Jersey, a fifteen minute drive away from his home, outside of a plaza consisting of 7-11, Dunkin’ Donuts, and more, sits a group of Mexican men. They sit there each day waiting for employment to come to them. Depending on the day’s plans, Youssef will pick up maybe five, maybe seven, maybe ten workers. “I picked up some Spanish because of them: agua, bueno, gracias,” Youssef smiles proudly. His smile brought wrinkles around his eyes and exhibits a set of crooked teeth.
The workers Youssef employs follow him to where ever they need to be in their white van. By the day’s end, Youssef pays each whatever amount is promised, in cash. No major negotiations are ever made because these workers speak most comfortably in Spanish and Youssef in Arabic. Youssef will write down a number to confirm payments if the communication is severely butchered.
Nothing is easy in America if you cannot speak English. At restaurants, waiters and waitresses will grow impatient with Youssef or his wife. “The yell at me a lot,” he shrugs. “They think that will help me understand what they are saying, but it doesn’t.” By the time he and his wife order their food, the waiters are so fed up they roll their eyes and hurriedly grab the menus from them, not returning to the table to check up on them until they see that the plates are cleared. Once, when entering a grocery store, Youssef was stopped by a group of girl scouts simply asking he would like to buy a box of cookies or donate to their cause. “I did not understand what they were asking, so I moved pass them and their mothers looked at me… yanni ana shitton,” Youssef struggles for the words in English. While he is accustomed to the daily struggles of not being able to understand the people around him, Youssef tries to improve his speaking abilities every day. He plans to study vocabulary with his daughter, so they can both learn English together.
“My kids,” he shakes his head slowly. “I want them to learn English but I cannot help.” Youssef’s two children, a boy, who is under five years old, and a girl, who is seven years old, were born in America. They have their citizenships and will, inshallah (“in God’s will”) help Youssef and his wife gain their own green cards. Obtaining a green card is a complicated process, one Youssef tentatively attempted to explain the bare minimum of his complications with it: “When my kids grow up to be 18, they will…invite us to have our green card. I missed the lottery to receive my VISA… mixed the dates up, and it is too late now.” Until Youssef and his wife are legal citizens of the United States, they cannot travel anywhere. When Youssef’s mother was ill and passed away, he could not go back home to be with her during her final days nor could he attend the funeral. He now must rely on his cousin to deal with his lawyer for his inheritance. If he or his wife leaves, they cannot come back. They only have Egyptian passports.
A little bit away from the Youssef’s household in New Jersey lives a seventy year old grandmother. Yvette Sousou moved to America over thirty years ago, prepared to give her children “the best damn education they could get,” she explains. “Now, they teach me,” she nods sternly. She is a petite woman with penciled-in eye brows and long and perfectly manicured nails. She taps her lit cigarette lightly against her glass ash tray. An Arabic soap opera is playing on the television behind her head. On her kitchen counter, there is a display of Costco-bought candy, like Kitkat bars, lined beside a hand-made dessert dish called kunaffa. “I came here for children, not myself,” she repeats multiple times. “I stayed home throughout their childhood to be with them. I never learned how to drive though; my husband had to take us everywhere.” Ballsy and stern, this fierce immigrant had an Achille’s heel, and it wasn’t her accent.
“We moved to this house because it is walking distance from Drug Fair and Wall Greens. I don’t need a car,” she explains simply. “At least in Egypt there were taxis.” Mrs. Sousou puts out her cigarette, taps another one out of her pack, and lights it in very quick, smooth motions. She is a stay at home wife, mother, and grandmother, living to serve her family. When her children were growing up, she dedicated all of her time to studying with them, meeting with their teachers, principals, and later on in life: professors and deans. She sent her oldest son, Steven, to college at the age of 16. He went to Cooper Union in New York City but had to commute back and forth every day. “I did not allow for my children to sleep outside of the house. They had to be here where I knew they were safe,” she explains. “I also had their teachers keep an eye on them.”
Youssef recalls his first parent-teacher conference earlier this year. He, his wife, and a friend from the church attended the event. The teacher was initially confused about the presence of a third party but then understood the situation better when Youssef and his wife greeted her in broken language. The friend was there to help them interpret what the teacher was saying. She was there to translate. “It was embarrassing,” Youssef slightly frowns at the memory. “My daughter is in the first grade and is performing very poorly…worst out of all the kids in the class.” The teacher was very upset that night and the friend felt very uncomfortable relaying the information between the parties. “She was hesitating a lot before she spoke to us,” he explains. “Then before we took her home, she said she was sorry for how the night went.” Youssef was devastated at the news of his daughter and, on top of that, felt guilty for being a burden on his friend.
Regardless of the struggles, Youssef still truly believes that moving to America was the greatest decision for his family. “With what is happening in Egypt right now, my family would not have been safe.” He traces the rim of his cup of coffee with his index finger as he whispers to himself, “We get by, we get by.”