Laila is a kindhearted woman who has held eleven great-grandchildren. People often mistake her to be twenty years younger and assume that her great-grandchildren are actually her grandchildren. She graciously recounted some of the experiences of her life which helped her develop into a strong matriarch, loved by four generations.
“I am Laila. I was born and raised in Egypt. I was 17 when I got married, and I have two daughters and a son. In 1971 – I was about 40 – we moved to the USA. I was not happy to be moving, and I cried the whole way there.
When we arrived, it was hard. I looked for a job but no one would hire me because I didn’t have any American experience or an American accent. After about two months, I told the employment agency that I was willing to work in a factory. It was not what I wanted, but what could I do? We needed the money.
I was hired to work in a factory in New York. I told myself that I just had to endure one year then I would move back, and Mamdouh [Laila’s husband] could do what he wanted. I did not move to America to work in a factory! I came from a wealthy family – back in Egypt I had three housekeepers, and I had worked for six years as a secretary of finance in a prestigious private school. I had been used to living at a high standard.
On my fourth day at the factory, someone came and told me they wanted to see me in human resources. I couldn’t believe it; here I had lowered my standards and agreed to work in a factory, and they wanted to fire me! [she laughs] But when I got there, they told me that there was an opening in the payroll department if I was interested. They interviewed me, and I started the next day. And I worked there until I retired. I started out as a clerk, but by the time I left I was the manager. I was there for almost eighteen years.
After I started work, I began to get used to life there. We made friends and I visited my parents back in Egypt every summer. I was happy and stopped thinking of moving back.
In 1995, my youngest daughter moved back to Egypt because her husband’s business had gone bankrupt and they wanted a new start. We were very close to her and she had no one else in Egypt. This was one of the main reasons we moved back. But just like I hadn’t been happy to move to the US, I was not happy to be moving back to Egypt.
Between 1995 and 1998, my husband and I split our time between the US and Cairo. But between 1998 and 2005 I didn’t visit the US at all because my husband’s Parkinson’s had become too advanced for him to travel.”
[Hend] What experience affected your personality the most?
[Laila] I’ve experienced some difficult times in my life. Before we moved to the US, my husband, who had been an officer in the Royal Guard, went missing for several days. He went to work one morning and just didn’t come back. I received a letter from him saying that he was fine but was away for work. At the end of the letter he told me to send his regards to one of our relatives who had a high position in the army. When my brother read the letter, he understood that Mamdouh was in trouble and we should contact that officer. They kept him for a few days before letting him go. I think I was too young at the time to comprehend how serious the situation was. Looking back on it now, it must have been hard.
Another situation which affected me greatly was my daughter’s divorce at the age of 17. She had only been married for a few months. I felt very bad. I was sorry that we had let her marry so young. And it made we wary of any prospective suitors.
And I’ve lived through the deaths of two of my grandchildren. [Her eyes fill with tears.] All of these things made me sad and could have broken me. But I’m a mu’minah, so I have to accept them. And I thank God for everything. Alhamdulillah.
[Hend] How self-confident are you now compared to when you were younger?
[Laila] I’ve been confident all my life, but my personality became stronger with age. Now if someone, for example, bothers me while I’m walking in the street, I know how to respond. When I was younger I would get scared or even run away. Now, I’m not scared or embarrassed to stand up for myself.
[Hend] Do you believe your life has been a success?
[Laila] It was successful because I had a good husband who was a good father to our children. He liked to see us happy and felt bad if I was ever unhappy or angry. He would do whatever he needed to make me feel better. He cared greatly about his family. I’ve had everything I wanted. I’ve had a good life, Alhamdulillah.
[Hend] What advice would you offer to younger generations?
[Laila] Try not to force your opinions on others. It’s better to let things slide than to argue. Everyone has their own opinion and there is no reason to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong. This is especially true when dealing with husbands! Don’t argue because this will cause more problems. After he calms down you can approach the subject again in a different manner and still get your way.
[Hend] If someone asks you to define yourself – who is Laila – what would you say?
[Laila] I would tell him he has no right to ask me that! [we both laugh]
This last sentence represents Laila perfectly; she said it in jest, but it demonstrates the strength of her character. May Allah (SWT) bless us all with the ability to continue smiling even after we’ve faced the most trying hardships.
Hend Hegazi is an Egyptian American freelance writer and editor with a degree in biology from Smith College. Her first novel, Normal Calm, was published in January 2014 by FB Publishing. Her second novel, Behind Picket Fences, is due out in July 2016. Hend currently resides in Alexandria, Egypt with her husband and four children. To check out her books, keep updated with her writing, or contact her, please visit her website, www.hendhegazi.com.