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American Dreamers: Moving to Macon 'Like a New Birth'
May 17, 2004

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Reprinted from The Macon Telegraph, Monday, May 17, 2004


Telegraph Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE - A growing number of first- and second-generation Americans are coming to the midstate to work, to worship, to live. American Dreamers is a four-part series about some of those immigrant communities and how they are changing the face of Middle Georgia. The Telegraph plans to write about other communities on occasion.

Tassmin Yousef came home bawling after she was voted prom queen.

Just ask your parents, her friends said, surely you can go.

That night two years ago, she cried to her mother, saying she felt stuck between letting down her parents or letting down her friends. Yassmin knew it wasn't about getting permission.

There have been other times the young Muslim woman, now a student at Mercer University, has felt caught between two worlds.

Yassmin's parents are first-generation Americans. She says Egypt is "always going to be a part" of her father. Her mother has memories of a Cairo that Yassmin knows only as a tourist.

Like her younger sister, Enas, and 5-year-old brother, Yaser, Yassmin was born in the United States. She speaks with a Southern drawl. Relatives overseas comment on the way she dresses and acts.

"I can be hyper. I can be off the wall. I can be loud," the 20-year-old said one afternoon last winter. "Over there, that stuff is not really common in girls."

Wearing blue jeans, earrings, a white turtleneck sweater and ponytail, Yassmin looked like any other American girl who gathers at the student center after classes or watches comedies like "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days."

She listens to pop singer John Mayer and Arabic music. She watches CNN, and Al-Jazeera. She likes waffle fries from Chick-fil-A, and she says grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables are "to die for."

According to the Yousefs' beliefs, Yassmin does not date. Her college selection had almost everything to do with being an unmarried woman expected to live at home.

She is Muslim inside, mainstream America on the outside. But you won't see her dressing like Britney Spears.

"Even without my religion, I would have no desire to do that!" Yassmin says.

Except at mosque, Yassmin chooses not to wear a hijab, the traditional headdress worn by many Muslim women. It is not a decision she makes easily.

"I think about it every day," she says. "I don't think (my parents) know that every day, every time I go to the mall and every time I look in the mirror, I think about it."

Yassmin says she knows of no one her age in Macon who wears a hijab in public. When she does, she knows her younger sister will be watching. She wants to show everybody that she is comfortable enough with the hijab "to give the air of 'I can be normal just like you.' "

Meanwhile, Yassmin is a "sophomore trying to get through biology."

No taxis or tower buildings

Yassmin's father, Ahmed Yousef, left Cairo in 1982, a 28-year-old physical therapist who arrived in America with scraggly English and a large suitcase.

He landed in Tennessee, where for months he walked to work. Ahmed remembers his first car - a "beautiful" 10-year-old blue Chevrolet Impala. He now drives a Mercedes.

Ahmed came to work in America, where he said he could learn the latest techniques and where hard work pays off.

Moving up the business ladder in Egypt, he says, is often defined by which official is on the next rung. In America, rewards come to entrepreneurs.

"This, you cannot find it anywhere else. In Egypt, you'll find your paper will never reach the (right) office."

When Ahmed moved to Macon in 1987, he searched the phone book for Arabic names. There were none.

He learned alone the simple things, like shopping at Kmart instead of haggling in a city market.

"It's like a new birth for me," remembers Ahmed, now 50. "I have to start from the beginning. This time I am all alone, without Dad and Mom. I have to do it all myself."

Gone were the midnight walks to the Nile with friends, the beauty of the boats on the grand river.

Today, Ahmed considers it a privilege to serve as a "bridge" between two cultures. But being the first generation in a foreign land is not easy.

He has a parent's concerns about supporting a family and a physical therapist's worries about shrinking reimbursements and inflexible referrals. But he also struggles with raising his children in a culture that often conflicts with the values he embraced as a young man.

"Every year is like 10," he said.

Ahmed says that, like himself, many Arab-Americans come to Middle Georgia to pursue medical careers. He says they are drawn to an area that is designated as medically underserved and is therefore full of opportunities for medical workers.
There are at least 3.5 million Americans of Arab descent, according to the Arab-American Institute in Washington. The 2000 census estimated 14,744 Georgians claim Arab as their primary ancestry.

The median income for Arab-Americans in 1999 was $47,000, compared with $42,000 for all households in the United States, according to the Arab-American Institute.

The local telephone book is now sprinkled with Arab names.

He and his wife, Mabrouka, were raised on the same street in a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo. They did not know each other until Ahmed's sister - who worked with Mabrouka - intervened.

"She recommended Mabrouka as the best person to share my experiences," Ahmed recalls. "She was right."

They married in March 1982.

Mabrouka, 48, defies any perception of a hijab-clad woman as subservient. She voices her opinions, interrupting others if necessary. The decision to marry was mutual.

"Not just he pushed me (to marry)," she says. "I accepted him."

Ahmed left Cairo that year for a Chattanooga suburb. Mabrouka came over about a year later.

"I was disappointed in the beginning," she says. "What we see in the movies, this is the America that we know. When I came to the South, I didn't see the tower buildings, the lights. There was no taxi."

'What do we do?'

At the Islamic Center of Middle Georgia, men and women kneel in separate sanctuaries.

Before the center had a building or a name, it was just Ahmed, an Indian, a Libyan and two black American Muslims saying Friday prayers in a house near downtown Macon.

A Pakistani surgeon found out about the gathering and offered 800 square feet in a shopping center. Within five years it had 30 members. A decade later, the center has grown to what it is today, a 5,000-square-foot structure on Bloomfield Road in west Macon. About 100 families are actively involved, says Ahmed, who estimates there are about 500 Muslim families across Middle Georgia.

But not all Arab-Americans are Muslim. The majority, in fact, are Christian.

Mabrouka and Ahmed both attended Christian elementary schools in Cairo and lived on a street where Muslims were outnumbered.
Despite its similarities to other religions, Islam is a topic that often stumps non-Muslims, including Yassmin's friends.

"I can hear them whispering while I'm praying, 'What do we do? Do we leave the room? Should we pause the movie?' " she says.

Yassmin admits to feeling the same nervousness at supper tables when the blessing is said aloud. She wonders: Am I insulting Christians by not knowing the words?
Enas Yousef is preparing to go to Macon State College, so her thoughts were recently on the SAT and the HOPE Scholarship.

When she thinks about American perceptions of Muslims, the 18-year-old Stratford senior blames one-sided news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She says most Muslims are peaceful. Enas remembers, after the Sept. 11 attacks, when one classmate said to her, "Look at what y'all just did!"

Everyone, she felt, was looking at her.

Ahmed says his north Macon neighbors were comforting in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, days when Mabrouka didn't want to leave the house.

Ahmed is sometimes invited to local churches and college classrooms to explain Islam. When in Egypt, he read the Bible, cover to cover, more than once. He did not want to be intimidated by his friends or for them to be intimidated by him.

Ahmed speaks with a gentle, steady voice and touches his chest at his heart as he shakes hands. Religion is the largest part of who he is. It is about justice. It is about a commitment. It is about happiness.

"I can't imagine my life without religion," Ahmed says.

A little bit of home

Mabrouka's thick accent is noticeable here and on visits to her homeland. She is frequently questioned at the Cairo markets.

"They keep asking her, 'Where are you from?' " Ahmed said.

Mabrouka says she tries to ignore vendors who question her Egyptian roots.

"No, you are mistaken," she tells them. "You just do that to raise the price for me."

Mabrouka said she expected to be in America for no more than five years. She misses the busy streets in Cairo, where one can find a bakery or an ice cream parlor open at 1 a.m., where "the city is awake 24 hours."

On a recent trip back from Egypt, some flights had been canceled. The Yousefs were offered a layover in Paris. Mabrouka declined, saying she wanted to get back to the United States as soon as possible.

"This is my home," she says.

One evening in March, Mabrouka was watching "The Other Man," an Egyptian soap opera about a businessman who loses his memory and becomes an honest man. A talk show came on, about divorce, marriage and a psychic. The Yousefs now get nine Arabic channels by satellite.

When the family first got to Macon, the selection of Middle Eastern food - like television channels - was slim.

"We ate French bread for a long time," Ahmed says.

They drove to a bakery in Atlanta about once a week. Now they can get most of what they want at Publix or Kroger in Macon, Mabrouka says.

At a family dinner, the Yousefs sat down to baklava, chicken, puff pastries with ground beef, rice noodles, mixed vegetables and salad. Enas excused herself to pick up her younger brother, who had been to the pet store with a friend.

Later, Yaser trotted into the room jiggling a bag of goldfish.

"Don't shake the bag," Yassmin admonished sweetly. "Remember 'Finding Nemo'?"

The Patriot

Like his sisters, Yaser Yousef is learning Arabic and reading the Quran. He knows the alphabet and has memorized six chapters of the holy book, his mother says. But the Carter Elementary pre-kindergartner probably spends more time watching television shows like "Clifford the Big Red Dog" and "Dragon Tales."

Mabrouka says she wants Yaser to go to public schools for now, so that he can be exposed to students from many backgrounds.

Her daughters are improving their Arabic vocabulary, but mostly know only "nice" words.

"When they get mad, they turn to English," Mabrouka says.

Many lessons of Islam, Yassmin says, do not come directly from a book. She'll tell Yaser to be nice to people because "God will see."

There are different degrees of orthodoxy and adherence among Muslims, just as among Christians. Yassmin doesn't wear traditional Egyptian clothes. Mabrouka admits she gossips more than she should.

It was easier, she says, to obey certain cultural rules growing up in Egypt, where, for example, girls - Muslim and Christian - weren't as tempted to wear bikinis.

Yassmin says she feels bad that her father heads the Islamic Center and she does not wear a hijab. But he says there are more important things to Islam, like the way people are treated.

Ahmed likes Clint Eastwood movies and rates Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" - a movie about the American Revolution - as one of his favorites. He said he is grateful for America. The country has given him dignity, safety, opportunity and an education for his children.

Mabrouka talks now as if they will never leave Georgia.

"We don't feel like there is home or here is home," she says. "Both of them are our home."