If you have ever lost your passport while traveling in a foreign country, you might have felt as if you had no real identity until it was restored to you. It would be a time that you were literally without a country.
Joseph, who asked that we not print his last name, is a man who grew up without citizenship in any country. He took a circuitous route to become a citizen of the United States. Here is his story:
Joseph was born in Cairo, Egypt to Jewish parents of Russian and Turkish descent. His immediate family were all born in Cairo. Joseph’s father spoke 6 languages and his mother and their four children spoke both Arabic and French.
At that time, Jewish people were not allowed to become citizens of Egypt so job opportunities were few. For that reason, Joseph did not attend university; His father suggested he attend a trade school and become an auto mechanic, because of job availability in that field. Joseph had already shown a proclivity for this type of work because, at age 8, he took a large, old-fashioned lock apart and taught himself to put it back together correctly. This would lead to many areas of Joseph’s life in which he was self-taught.
Joseph’s father was a wise man and a very strong influence in his life. One lesson 11-year-old Joseph learned from him was taught one day during a walk in a garden. His father asked him to pick up a bundle of six sticks. His father explained that one of those sticks could be broken but the six of them together could not be easily broken. It was an apt analogy for a strong family that would stay together and support each other … no jealousy among them. To this day, Joseph and his family remain close.
In 1965, Joseph and his family decided to leave Egypt and begin their journey to the United States. They traveled first to Greece and then to Paris, France where they would wait six or more months for the proper papers, allowing them to move to America. Finally arriving in New York City, the family made their way to Washington D.C. and then to Silver Spring, where they settled.
Right away, Joseph found work at an Esso gas station, pumping gas. His boss, coincidentally, was a Holocaust survivor. Joseph did not speak English at that time so this job was a perfect beginning for him in the workforce. His next job was as a mechanic at Ridgeway Motor Service and when that closed down, Joseph began working for Pohanka Automobile Service. There he taught himself how to repair Fiats and Oldsmobiles, by taking apart similar engines and recalling how each was put together, piece by piece. All was going well until 1967 when Joseph was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Vietnam. He served for two years and was discharged.
After Vietnam, Joseph found a job painting offices and other commercial buildings. He then decided to go on his own, opening a paint store. During this time, he also recalled his earlier life in Paris and watching a man in a storefront window using an interesting method of painting called faux finishing. The Frenchman had noted Joseph’s interest in this medium and invited him to work for him while he was in Paris. This was the beginning of Joseph’s interest in art and design.
Selling his paint store, Joseph began working as an independent contractor. He was hired by various well-known designers in Washington D.C. and Bethesda, Maryland and designed home interiors using the faux painting method. One of his rooms was featured in Architectural Digest. Joseph had developed a sterling reputation by this time.
However, Joseph’s creative nature brought him to another field, carpentry. Still an independent contractor, he began renovating homes … bathrooms, kitchens among others.
Backing up a bit, Joseph was a “man without a country” because he had not yet become an American citizen. If you recall, he was also not an Egyptian citizen! In 1971, Joseph applied for citizenship in the United States. During his first interview, it became known that he had served in the Army in Vietnam. The interviewer was so incensed that he was called to fight for a country without being a citizen, she stamped his papers and granted him citizenship then and there!
Along the way of his work in carpentry, Joseph met and married his wife. Together they began a series of remarkable renovations that he would work on, in every house they would own. With his wife’s help and an Architectural computer program, they planned other complete home renovations. Once again, Joseph was self-taught.
In 2012, Joseph inadvertently found some leftover plaster from a faux painting job. He then created his first painting, adding a variety of pigments to the plaster. His wife recognized his extraordinary talent in this media but Joseph resisted; He really did not want to paint! Purchasing an easel and arranging two weeks of painting lessons with a well-known, local painter, his wife then insisted that Joseph stop working and just paint. Since then, he has produced over 200 paintings, most of which are hung throughout their home. He also participates in local art shows where his paintings are greatly admired; some have been sold to interested parties.
Joseph’s amazing journey, from Cairo, Egypt to the United States has been momentous to be sure. For the first 20 years of his life, he was truly a “man without a country.”
With his own initiative, strength of character, and his family’s determination for a better life, Joseph was able to overcome certain obstacles and lead a very productive life. He is a brilliant and multitalented man who has used his skills to the fullest … and he is also a proud American citizen!
Kathryn Marchi is a retired teacher. She and her husband enjoy living on the Eastern Shore and traveling in their RV. Contact her at [email protected]
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