When asked what growing up in Egypt was like, Albert Algazi chuckled.
“Oh my gosh,” he said, “do you have six hours?”
He remembers summers at the beach and playing soccer with his friends. He remembers his Jesuit school, his synagogue and his father’s clothing shop. He remembers the view he had from his family’s apartment, from which he could see Tahrir Square in Cairo, the very place the Egyptian revolution broke out in 2011, nearly half a century after he fled the country of his birth.
He remembers the bad times, too — the Muslim Brotherhood going door-to-door, pulling Jewish people out of their homes and beating them; Egyptian soldiers ransacking his family’s apartment and dragging his father to jail; and, perhaps worst of all, his Arabic teacher, who told students they would go to heaven if they killed infidels, especially Jews.
Algazi, along with five other Egyptian Jews, will share his stories at an Israel Forum event on Oct. 7 at Congregation Beth El in Yardley. Beforehand, the synagogue will screen The Forgotten Refugees, a 2005 documentary about the history and loss of Middle Eastern Jewish communities. The documentary includes testimonials from Jews who were forced from Iran, Iraq, Morocco and other Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Algazi, the former Israel Forum co-chair who organized the event, has screened The Forgotten Refugees at other synagogues and organizations before, but this is the first time that Jewish people who went through the historical events explored in the film will be there to speak to the audience.
“It’s always good to hear directly from people who had the experience, who lived it through,” Algazi said. “The nice thing about it is that people can ask all kinds of questions of six different people.”
The history of the Jewish people in the Middle East stretches back thousands of years. In the 20th century, increasing Arab nationalism and anti-Israel sentiment led to the persecution of these Jewish communities, from the confiscation of their property to violent pogroms. Eventually, an estimated 850,000 Jews were forced from their homes or fled. Many of these Jews settled and made new lives for themselves in Israel, the United States and other countries.
“These Jewish refugees are the forgotten ones,” said Congregation Mikveh Israel Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai, another event speaker. “The reason why they are forgotten is because the Jews refused to continue to be refugees. That does not diminish their claims for compensation.”
Gabbai grew up in Egypt and, when he was a teenager, Egyptian soldiers imprisoned him because he was Jewish. There was no due process, no charges, no trial, no right to an attorney. They picked him up and threw him in a hole, he said, like Nazis. The conditions in the prison camp were simply “inhumane.”
“The sky was blue and marvelous,” Gabbai said. “Otherwise, nothing nice.”
He was in prison for three years when, one day, the Egyptian soldiers forced him and other Jewish prisoners onto a plane out of the country. There was no time to stop at home to collect their possessions.
He went to France, met his family and applied for refugee status to come to the United States, which he and his family did about a year later. They moved to New York City, where Gabbai went to college. An opening at Mikveh Israel later brought him to Philadelphia, “to start a new life.”
In 1966, when Algazi was 17 years old, his family woke up in the middle of the night to get their bags. They were leaving Egypt.
They were stateless people. Despite Algazi and his parents having been born in Egypt, they were not considered citizens and had no passports. With the help of HIAS, they went to France by boat and then, about six months later, to Trenton, N.J. Most Egyptian Jewish refugees in the United States were relocated to New York City like Gabbai’s family, but the Algazis already had some family in Trenton.
During this process, thoughts and worries swirled through Algazi’s mind. His entire world was flipping upside down. Where would he go to school? How would he do with hardly knowing any English? What would the customs be like? Was he going to make it?
Now, more than 50 years later and living in Bucks County, Algazi has built a life for himself.
“It’s very important that, as Jews in general, we should know each other,” he said. “Whether you come from Egypt or Morocco, or you come from Europe of Los Angeles or New York, there is some kind of understanding that Jewish values … are the same, whether you’re in China or Egypt, Morocco, France or England or New Jersey. The values themselves, I do not see a difference.” l
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