I moved to Cairo in 2012 with a toddler and a baby.
We stayed for 11 years, had two more kids, and moved back to Texas in 2023.
I'm thankful for the experience my family and children had living in Egypt.
The Arab Spring was still fresh and Egypt did not have a president when my husband took a job at a small international design firm in Cairo in 2012.
Life with little children had to change
We couldn't do many of the things I was used to doing with little children. There were no public parks with playgrounds or open streets to learn to ride a bike. We put up a swing in our living room and the kids used riding toys inside. About two blocks from our apartment, we found a mostly well-kept area with green grass, large trees, and wide sidewalks to play on. It was near a mosque, so we named it the "mosque park." I would lug riding toys through the crowded streets to the safe sidewalks to let the kids enjoy outdoor play.
I learned that Egyptian families enroll their toddlers — and sometimes babies — in "hadana," a cross between nursery school and day care. Over the years, three of my children would attend hadana a couple of days a week, where they learned Arabic and were the only non-Egyptian kids in their classes. It became a natural road into the local culture as we attended events with other proud parents. It was through hadana that I made one of my closest friends in Egypt.
We never felt unsafe despite standing out
Living fully in the culture meant getting to know people. We regularly hosted friends for meals. During Ramadan, we hosted our fasting friends for iftar, the meal at which they break their fast. Over the years we hosted friends for Christmas dinner — Egyptians, Christians, Muslims, expatriates, and anyone who was dear to our family.
My kids enjoyed welcoming people into our home and into our life, sharing meals and stories. We shared book recommendations, played games, took group selfies, and made puppet shows.
There was never a time I felt unsafe living in Egypt with my children. Egyptian culture is community-centered, which means that once we'd established ourselves in a particular block of town, we became part of their community.
Our lighter hair color and fairer skin made us easily recognizable in the neighborhood. While this felt awkward at times, knowing that everyone watched us, there was also a sense of protection for myself and my kids. We belonged there, and when we needed help — which happened a few times — the neighborhood was there for us.
There were cultural differences
As Americans in Cairo, we were a cultural minority. My kids grew up learning to navigate these differences. As a culture, Egypt is not as time-conscious as America, which meant when we invited our Egyptian friends over, they might arrive at 5:30 p.m. — as invited — or at 6:30 p.m. My kids learned to be flexible, and we didn't criticize the culture as being "wrong" about time, just different.
We learned to always take a gift with us when we went to someone else's home. Sometimes this was as simple as a bottle of juice or could be as elaborate as a cake, depending on the occasion. Sometimes we had to stop at the fruit stand on the way to a friend's house to pick up fresh fruit when I had not prepared beforehand. My kids loved to see what people brought to our house, their eyes growing big when it was a dessert.
The Egyptian people we encountered love babies and young children. They delighted in making my kids smile. It was a regular occurrence for the bakery to give my kids fresh cookies. The Egyptians we befriended hate to see babies cry and hate to say "no" to little children, and while I don't have a similar parenting philosophy, I could appreciate the sweet aspects of living in a culture where the people encourage children to be children — loud, messy, and adorable. If a child is tired, let them sleep anywhere; if they're hungry, feed them anywhere. The emphasis is always on keeping the children happy.
I'm thankful for the childhood my children had in Cairo
I hope that my kids remember our daily life in Egypt. We shopped locally as much as possible, trying to find household items or birthday gifts in the stores nearby before going to the huge mall. We bought our produce from the dependable produce seller on the corner, who would call to tell me when broccoli had come back in season or to remind me if a holiday was coming soon.
I hope they remember the walks home from school when we stopped at the bakery for a treat or at the kiosk for chips. Sometimes they would buy a roasted sweet potato from the man with the big black smoker grill on wheels. They learned to communicate in Egyptian Arabic and to buy their snacks in Egyptian pounds.
Now that we are back in the US, I am thankful for the amenities, freedom, and opportunities we have here. A part of me still misses Cairo and the way my children experienced life there. I am forever thankful to Egypt for helping us become who we are.
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