My Mother Is a Chain Immigrant

February 10th, 2018

My mother is a chain immigrant. She is not a terrorist, criminal, drug trafficker, rapist or murderer.  She would give you the clothes off her back.

My mother is an Egyptian Jew who was born in Cairo in 1942 as Manya Shoueka. Her mother was born in Egypt but my grandmother’s family was ultimately from Poland (they were Ashkenazik Jews).  My mother’s father was a Syrian Jew born in Aleppo who moved to Egypt as a young man (he was a Sephardic Jew).  They lived a comfortable middle-class life in Egypt with my grandfather (I called him Baba) working as an accountant.  My mother attended a private school run by nuns and was taught mostly in English.  My mother and her older sister and brother would play at the beach and walk along the promenade eating sweets.  However, it became more dangerous for the Jews in Egypt in the later 1940s, especially after the creation of the modern state of Israel.  Luckily, my grandfather’s brother, who had become a US citizen, sponsored my grandfather and his family.  When my mother was seven-years-old, they embarked on a ship from Egypt with very few resources and landed in New York City.  More chain immigrants had arrived!

My mother grew up in a house in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. This was a close knit community of mostly Italians, Americans and Jews and they knew each other well and helped each other.  My mother’s family was one of the first to arrive from Egypt and they stood out because of their different culture, language and food.  My mother’s family spoke three languages at home – French, Arabic and English and my mother mostly spoke French and English.  Not only were there languages exotic but their food was considered strange, such as pita bread and grape leaves.  People in my mother’s life thought that Egypt was a desert filled with camels whilst Cairo was really a dynamic, bustling city.

One of the hardest aspects of my mother’s “difference” was her unusual name and peoples’ inability to pronounce it. Manya is pronounced “Mon-yuh” and Shoueka, a Sephardic Jewish name, is pronounced “Shway-kuh.”  She remembers being embarrassed about it and wanting to change it.  Luckily for her, she would eventually have half of her wish realized when she married and her surname became Harrison.  I don’t think that I have to help you with that pronunciation.

Her parents were able to find work relatively quickly because they both spoke English. My grandfather continued to work as an accountant and be able to support his family.  My grandmother (I called her Nona) also was able to work and raise her growing feisty teenage children.  My mother remembers how hospitable and welcoming her parents were to relatives and those who simply needed a helping hand.  Immigrant families would stay with them until they found a home in America and once they even took in a teenage boy who had no home.
My mother overcame the assimilation challenge and became a typical American, wearing the skirts of the 50s and dating young men. She graduated from high school and then from Brooklyn College.  She became a first grade teacher in a public school in New York City.  Her sister married an American, raised three children with him and then became a salesperson.  Her brother married an Egyptian Jewish woman living in America and they had three daughters.  He worked as a New York City police officer until retirement age and then continued to work in private security roles.  Her brother and sister are both still married and their families are close knit and supportive.

My dashing Brooklyn-born father convinced my mother to marry him. The bound wedding album shows a traditional American wedding with bridesmaids and others walking down the aisle in tuxedos, top hats and elegant gowns.  My parents look terribly young, stern and nervous but otherwise Hollywood-attractive.  I was born in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital not long thereafter.

My mother became a housewife after my birth and we moved to Newington, CT, a shock wave to my mother’s urban psyche.  She was now living in slower suburbia with far fewer immigrants and Jewish people and separated from her family who had migrated from Brooklyn to Long Island.  My parents joined a 10-pin couples bowling league and she played mahjong and canasta.  She brought me to the library where I learned to love to read.

My mother was uprooted again when I was 10-years-old and we moved to Newton, MA, a wealthy suburb of Boston. It was difficult for her to acclimate to the newer and relatively affluent crowd, but she managed to make good friends.  It could not have been made any easier by her driving my father’s old Ford that sounded like a bomb exploded whenever she turned it on or idled too long.  She started working again as an administrator for the Newton school system and would work until her retirement a few years ago.  For many years and until her retirement, she served as a teacher’s aide in several of the public elementary schools in Newton and was always loved and respected by the teachers, parents and students.

Although not a tiger mother, my mother always instilled in me the importance of going to college and being independent and a professional and preferably a doctor. She took assertiveness training classes when I was a teenager.  I remember her lecturing me in the car one day that it was important to understand the difference between being aggressive and assertive and how important it was to be the latter. Her lecture may have led to unconscious stirrings of my pursuing a career as an attorney, the profession that most epitomizes “assertion.”

For the last few years my mother has been volunteering as a teacher of English to immigrants. She has befriended many of her students from all over the world and speaks affectionately of all of them.  My mother is truly color-nationality-ethnicity-religion blind, forging close relationships with her neighbors from Iran and her Palestinian general contractor.

My mother is a loving grandmother to my 16-year-old son and my twin seven-year-old nephews. She lives with her my sister and her twins and helps my busy working sister take care of them, which is no easy feat although she loves them dearly.   She even retired early so that she would be available if there were ever any emergencies regarding my nephews.

When my father’s dementia set in, my mother fought the idea of sending him to a nursing home. However, it became too difficult for her to single-handedly care for him and we placed my father in a nursing home close to my mother.  She would visit him almost every day at the beginning, and then during the last year she would visit him every day, providing him with the attention he needed and ensuring that the nurses fed, bathed and cared for him properly.  She learned about the nursing home industry and my father’s medical conditions and was always an unwavering advocate for the best care possible for him.  She was by my father’s side the last week of his life when he was only given morphine and had to watch her husband of over 45 years fade away.

My mother has a heart of gold and is infinitely generous. She is also remarkably non-judgmental.  She is always warm and kind to everyone.  Our country should be proud of having such a chain immigrant. I know I am.

I hope that my story inspires you to write an encomium of your favorite chain immigrant relative, friend or acquaintance.