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From Egypt with Love

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Jun 30th, 2021

Have you ever thought what it would be like to grow up surrounded by family and friends, immersed in your own country’s culture and traditions, and then to leave all of that to come to a new country to begin an entirely new life? Dr. Soheir “Sue” Nawas knows exactly what that is like. In 1975, she and her late husband, Dr. Rifat Nawas, applied for an immigration visa and soon after began their life in the United States. From Cairo, Egypt to Monroe, Louisiana represented much more than 6,700 miles to Sue. Leaving Egypt could not have been easy. Leaving one’s home never is. Still, Sue – today a naturalized U.S. citizen — says that all of the sacrifices have been worth it. 

article by Georgiann Potts \\ photography by Kelly Moore Clark

Sue believes that all members of her immediate family were born and reared in Cairo. Her father, Atef Morcey, was 26 when he married her mother, Heckmat Aley, who was 16 at the time. According to the culture, their marriage was an arranged one. They made a good marriage and were blessed with 6 children, 4 girls and 2 boys. Sue was the 5th child born to them. Her youngest sister is 10 years younger. Her oldest brother was a Colonel in the Armed Forces, her other brother was a physician (internist), one sister was a pediatrician, one was an accountant, and one was, like their mother, a stay-at-home mother and wife. Sue’s father and his older brother were orphaned when her dad was 8 and his brother was 10. An older ½ brother in Cairo reared her father and his brother. 

Both parents did their best to provide a good home and education for their children. The army had a small school for boys and their families that covered 1st through 11th grades. Her father earned a degree in Literature and Education in Cairo and taught Arabic and literature for a number of years. Later he opened Morcey Printing & Publishing, his own company where he printed and published books for the Ministry of Education and private books written by local authors. His hard work was an example to all of his children.

Ironically, Sue’s father always dreamed of becoming a physician. A favorite nephew was a physician, and Sue’s father was very proud of him and his education. Sue believes that is why their father encouraged his children to consider medicine as a career. Because of his encouragement, Sue grew up believing that one day she would be a doctor. That goal never changed. 

Growing up in Cairo

Sue grew up in one of the world’s most interesting cosmopolitan cities and cultures. She remembers moving twice during her childhood. “We had a great, fun childhood in Cairo,” Sue remembers. “We grew up listening to music, going to the movies, and just hanging out with cousins and neighborhood kids socializing with each other.”

Nearly every weekend, there would be family gatherings either at Sue’s home, or at the home of one of her aunts and uncles. There were no jobs as such in Egypt at that time for children, unless they were extremely poor. Most children did not work until they were around 17 years old. One of Sue’s favorite times were those spent at the beach in Alexandria with her parents and siblings. (Today, when given the opportunity, Sue can still be found seaside!)

Sue had two favorite holidays while growing up in Egypt. The first was EID, a three-day celebration marking the end of fasting. On the first holy day, the children were given new clothes, new shoes, got their hair done, and were given money from their parents and grandparents. During the celebrations, a special cake similar to a wedding cake was made and shared. The second was Sham El-Nessim, a celebration that traces back to 2700 BC (making it Egypt’s oldest celebration) which celebrated the beginning of spring. As with EID, there were special activities and trips then, too. “We would go to public bars and feast in restaurants,” Sue remembers. “During these days you could smell the sweet aroma of gardenia in the air, and street vendors would make necklaces and bracelets from aromatic flowers similar to sweet olive.”

Sue went to a private school for girls only until 6th grade. Although the U.S. has testing at different levels, the Egyptian method is different. There everyone is tested in the 3rd grade. If a student scores high enough, he may skip the 4th grade. Sue was able to skip and move immediately to the 5th grade.

After she finished her 6th year, Sue went to a public school where her father believed she would get the best college preparation. As part of the transition from private to public, Sue took another exam on which she scored high enough to skip to the 8th grade. “Courses in Egypt are a lot more rigorous than they are here in the U.S.,” Sue recalls. “Science and mathematics are more difficult there. Another area of difference is the language requirement. In Egypt a student must take 2 foreign languages. English is introduced in the 6th grade, and then later we could choose our second. Most chose French.” 

Sue sat for a college entrance examination (equivalent to the ACT) when she completed 12th grade. That score, plus successfully completing certain courses, determined which colleges she could attend. Sue was accepted into Cairo University Medical Center (the oldest and most prestigious medical school in Egypt) for a 6-year program.

A Medical Education and Love Intersect

Sue’s medical education included rotating in an internship in medicine and surgery at University Hospital in Cairo for a year. She did not like OBGYN or general surgery, so she selected pediatrics for her career. During her 4th year in medical school, Sue met Rifat in the pathology lab. They were in a group of 15. “He was a very handsome, polite, and funny guy to be around,” she remembers. “That is what attracted me to him.”

Women weren’t allowed a lot of freedom in Cairo compared to the freedoms that women in the U.S. enjoy. Sue explains, “In Egypt rules and laws are much stricter. Democracy is prevalent in the U.S., but Egypt is mostly a police state.” Because of the family and cultural traditions, when Rifat asked her out, Sue hesitated. To go out with him without a chaperone was a real departure from the norm. Still, she decided to go.

They dated for 2 ½ years, were engaged for 6 months, and then married in Cairo after finishing 6 years of medical school. The ceremony and reception were held on the 22nd floor of the Bourg Al-Gazerah Hotel overlooking the Nile River in Cairo. There were 125 people attending including both families and friends. 

After the wedding, the two went everywhere together completing their medical education. They were in Libya and England for a time and Sue worked in maternal and early childhood health and did a 2-year pediatric rotation. Both of her children were born in Libya. Their work also brought Sue into contact with American families working and living abroad with Aramco Oil Company. She worked with outpatients as a Maternal Child Health physician for Aramco for a year and a half. The director there was from Texas and encouraged Rifat and Sue to move to the U.S. for specialization. Later, while Rifat and Sue were attending a medical conference in Cheraz, Iran, Dr. Alton Oschner also encouraged them to come to the U.S. and complete their specializations. 

Both Rifat and Sue had always known (as is known throughout the world of medicine) that medicine in the U.S. was more advanced than in any other country. The hospital training, specialization, and overall medical training that they could get in the U.S. would be a major benefit to their medical careers. After securing their training positions at Oschner’s Foundation Hospital in New Orleans in 1975, they began taking the steps necessary to begin a new life in America.

After initially applying for a work visa, the two were advised to switch to an immigration visa. Although Sue was a little reluctant to make that kind of commitment, Rifat – the more adventurous of the two – convinced her to go for it.

With a green card in hand (and the responsibility of paying taxes though unable to vote), they began their residency programs – Rifat in orthopaedics and Sue in pathology. Three years later, they took the civics exam and sat for interviews with the immigration judge, accompanied by 4 staffers who served as character witnesses. Later they swore allegiance before the American flag, the flag of their new homeland. “We officially became Naturalized U.S. Citizens in 1982, and we believe that it was the best decision we ever made,” Sue says.

Life in America

Sue, as all working mothers, learned quickly how difficult it can be to juggle careers and children. Over the years as their family grew, Sue depended on two nannies who lived with them while they were in England and Saudi Arabia. Once she came to New Orleans, there was an older neighbor who helped take care of the children. After the family moved to Monroe, Minnie Goldsmith spent 34 years keeping the Nawas house in order while Sue worked 3 days a week. Initially, there were two children – Naz, an attorney in the Mandeville/NOLA area, and Wally, an ophthalmologist practicing in Bossier City. Today there are 6 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren to fill Sue’s life.

Throughout their 43-year marriage, Rifat and Sue were a team. He was her mentor, especially later on in her career. “The three biggest career challenges for me were being a female, being a foreigner, and having to work even harder than my husband to prove to myself, my colleagues, and my bosses that a foreign graduate female physician can be equally as smart or smarter,” Sue says. “He always encouraged me to do my best and let everything fall where it may.”

Sue’s career has been a distinguished one. She was the only Foreign Chief Resident in pathology appointed at Oschner NOLA, and then at LSU-Conway in Monroe she held positions including Chief of Staff and member of the executive committee, professor of Clinical Pathology, and director of Clinical and Anatomical Pathology.

Reflecting on Becoming a U.S. Citizen

To date, Sue has visited 36 states including both Alaska and Hawaii. She hopes to visit the outer banks of North Carolina one day. As for travel abroad, her favorites countries to visit are Italy and Spain, but Switzerland remains on her travel bucket list. Without a doubt, however, America is her home.

When asked recently to describe the differences between life here and life in Egypt, she was forthcoming in her appreciation for the freedoms enjoyed here. “People don’t realize the value of the freedoms that they have in the United States,” Sue explained. “The freedom to vote, to criticize your government and your elected state and national representatives, to worship or not, the freedom to carry a rifle – these are wonderful freedoms that we didn’t have in Egypt.” 

Sue is impressed with women’s freedoms here in particular. “Women have the freedom to decide their own destiny, to date, to choose her husband, and even to ask for divorce if the marriage fails,” Sue said. “Women can choose any profession they want, and are allowed to have control over themselves without a guardian!”

Although there are indications that democracy in Egypt is improving some, Sue says that progress is slow. She loves America, loves being a U.S. citizen, and loves that her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all have good lives here. 

What troubles Sue is the way native-born American citizens complain. “People complain about a lack of this or lack of that in commodities and food,” she says. “They need to go and live over there for a year and then they would realize what a heaven they have in the USA!”

Today Sue has only a few regrets. For one, she wishes that Rifat, her parents, and her siblings were still living and could enjoy the life she has now. She also regrets not getting to spend more time with her children and their families. “Life is short,” Sue says. “We should spend as much time as we can with family.”

But there is one thing that she will never regret — her decision to become an U.S. Citizen. America has been good to her, and she and her family have been good for America.