My grandfather – my Opa, as we call him, came to this country so that I could become a runner. He came here so that my mother could become an Army officer and my sister a successful technology consultant. He came here so that my cousins could become architects, veterinarians, and dancers. Opa was an angel- the kind of man who would do anything for you, whether you were family or not. He gave of himself every day, never too busy or too tired to lend a hand or an ear and never asking for anything in return.
A true visionary, Opa embodied the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream. He began his career in his native Egypt as a police officer. He studied law and eventually was promoted to a position with the underground police intelligence unit following a bloodless coup that led to the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, second President of Egypt. When politics took a turn for the worse and threatened the safety of my grandfather and his young family, Opa packed up his home and relocated his wife and four children to Saudi Arabia. The year was 1957. My mother was six years old. She would never again return to Egypt.
At that time, Saudi Arabian law allowed girls to attend school only through third grade. Opa, liberal in his beliefs and wanting the best for his only daughter, once again packed up his family in search of a promising future and an education for my mother. This time my grandparents’ journey brought them much further away, to a land they had only read about; a place where they knew neither the language nor the culture; a place where they knew not a single person.
My grandparents and their children arrived in Harlem, New York on July 4, 1960. It was Independence Day, both for them and for their new American neighbors. My mother and her brothers saw fireworks for the first time that night and thought how wonderfully welcoming the Americans were… to light fireworks in celebration of their family’s arrival!
Opa’s hard work, perseverance, and spirit of true independence led to the creation of a successful life in the United States. He came here with nothing and gave everything. He learned English and sometimes worked three jobs for the sole purpose of providing for his family, yet he still found time to further his studies, eventually earning a Ph.D. in educational psychology. Life here was anything but easy for my grandfather and his family, but he grew to love this country. When he and my grandmother and their children became U.S. citizens in 1965, Opa even changed the family name to Johnson.
Two summers ago, my family came together on the Fourth of July at my parents’ home to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of our family’s arrival in the United States. It was a grand event, attended by nearly everyone in our family, as well as many friends who had helped us throughout the years. Our celebration made the front page of the local newspaper (above the fold!). Even our beloved Opa, who passed away in 1988, was present in spirit.
As Egypt celebrates the first birthday of its infant democracy this week, I remember the courage and selflessness of my Opa. I dedicate my miles to him, because I know that I would not have the freedom to run them had he not been so brave.
I miss you, Opa. I wish you could see us now. I think you would be proud of us.
Thank you for reading!