Pundits and patriots continuously bemoan the loss of the best Egyptian minds. Doctors, scientists and engineers who sought their fortune in foreign countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. A study by Cairo’s Gulf Center for Strategic Studies reveals that Arab countries lose half of their newly-qualified doctors, 23 pe cent of engineers and 15 percent of scientists each year, with the emigration from the Arab world accounting for about one-third of the total brain drain from developing countries to the West.
Success stories of these professionals overseas are a dime a dozen, encouraging more to emigrate. But on the flipside, many Egyptian professionals abroad have yet to find a fulfilling career, as they get caught in a tight job market for aged professionals and a post 9/11 climate of increasing bias against Arabs.
Wageeh Kerolous, 58, was once the general manager of a copper works company in Alexandria. He left Egypt for the United States in 1995 after he and his family won the lottery for the U.S. green card, an opportunity that is only granted to 55,000 people each year. Back then in 1995, he had high hopes of continuing his engineering career in the United States, just like countless Egyptians who came before him.
“My relatives and my colleagues said, ‘How could you miss this chance to go to the U.S.?’ says Kerolous. But it was not an easy choice, for he had to leave an immensely rewarding job. As general manager, he was responsible for high skilled tasks like designing equipment that reduces energy consumption and developing specialized raw materials for industrial machinery. He traveled all over Europe to sign deals for his company. With a generous paycheck, he was able to buy property, open his own pharmacy and live a luxurious life.
Kerolous chose to give this up, thinking that his children would have better opportunities in the U.S.
“Here [in the U.S.], it’s open, it’s a free country, and they can get a job without any discrimination, he says.
Coming from a country which is 90 percent Muslim and only 10 percent Christian, it is not uncommon for Christian Egyptians or Copts to voice out this sentiment. Kerolous and his family migrated to Bayonne, New Jersey, close to New York City. Nearby Jersey City is home to the largest Coptic community in the U.S. At present, they number more than 50,000, and many of them believe that the rift between Copts and Muslims in their native Egypt is intensifying.
The rise of Islamic groups that answered social needs for the impoverished masses strengthened the Muslim identity of many Egyptians, causing some insecurity among Copts. The tensions reached extreme levels in the riots last October in Alexandria.
“Before, Christians and Muslims worked together, ate together, slept in the same house. Now, it’s impossible, says Kerolous. Believing that being Christian would get in the way of his children’s success, migrating became the best option and his family moved when his son and daughter were in their teens.
But while the future held promise for his children, the clock was ticking for Kerolous himself. A slump in hiring for engineering jobs lasted from 1995 until 1998, right when he arrived. While employment in the field started to pick up in the late 1990’s, Kerolous’ age seemed to work against him. There were 17,837 cases of age discrimination filed with the federal government in 2004, up from 14,141 in 1999, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If companies were firing employees in their late 40s, there was even less likelihood that they would hire applicants in this age bracket.
“I sent 400 applications for engineering jobs, he recalls. While waiting for his break, he worked as a pizza delivery man, as a toll collector in the New Jersey Turnpike, as a taxi driver, as a limo driver and, most recently, as a security guard for a telephone company.
“It’s very difficult. But I’m proud of that. It’s not convenient, but what could I do? he says. “I had to make money, I had to survive. I had to make connections.
In 1998, a friend referred Kerolous to a firm that manufactured materials for aerospace equipment. He was hired as a quality control officer, wherein he was in charge of developing high tech optical equipment like x-rays. He had finally found a job in his field, although he modestly claims that he was even more experienced and knowledgeable in the work compared to his superiors.
“I was satisfied with it. It’s not a very good position, but at least I was working in my field, he says. Unfortunately, he got laid off after four and a half years, as the company gradually went out of business. Kerolous has been on the job hunt again, sending out resumes everyday. Some companies don’t respond and others have told him he’s overqualified for entry level job openings.
Two years ago, he attained a second master’s degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which he hopes will broaden his employment options to include teaching. But so far, this has not served as leverage. Aside from the competition, Kerolous can’t help but think that he has a built-in disadvantage, coming from a predominantly Arab country. At the EEOC, about 980 charges alleging post-9/11 backlash discrimination have been filed from 2001 to 2005. Most involved firing and alleged harassment.
“When they hear my accent, maybe they think twice, Kerolous states. “But I want to stop thinking ‘Discrimination! Discrimination,’ otherwise I will just go crazy.
Now, Kerolous works as a security officer in a bank, where he is in charge of x-ray inspections. He feels this could just be a transition phase, a step backwards in order to move forward again and return to his field of expertise.
“I spent 30 years in this field. It’s not easy for me to change my career at this point, he explains. Asked if he felt any regrets for giving up his success in Egypt, he answered tersely, “I sacrificed, and that’s it. He hesitates to talk about his children, and whether growing up in the U.S. has given them the opportunities he had wished for. Though Egypt’s unemployment rate, now pegged at 10.5 percent (although many groups differ with official statistics, claiming a much higher number), is hardly encouraging for new graduates, going abroad is worth rethinking. It is not enough to have the college degree and the experience, as Kerolous did. Now more than ever, with a tight economy and competition among locals and fellow migrants, one needs the right connections, the right age, and sometimes, evidenced by the 980 charges alleging post-9/11 backlash discrimination, the right ethnicity.