Pikesville man, once a refugee from Egypt, pays it forward in Israel

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Mara Fahl | Special to JT

Joseph Marzouk arrived in Baltimore with his parents and baby sister at the age of 6 following the expulsion of Jews from Egypt as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. They spoke no English, carried no possessions and had no idea what would come next. For Marzouk, now a successful business owner living in Pikesville, paying it forward has become a way of healing. Now on the board of Jewish National Fund-USA, he works to make sure that no olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel) feels as alone as he and his family once did.

Joseph Marzouk and Nanci Seff in Israel (Courtesy)

“The Egyptian government packed us up, and you couldn’t leave with any money or jewelry or anything of value. Our family of four got two suitcases, and they sent us on our way,” recounted Marzouk.

As far as resettling in the United States, the transition was deeply challenging. “There’s a lot of gratitude,” said Marzouk, “but also anger.”

The services and support available to immigrants like him and his family in the late 1960s were essentially non-existent. The family escaped from Egypt to Rome, where they waited months for their papers to be sorted out. That’s when his father and six uncles found out that they would be separated—a decision made from the top down without any communication or involvement of the family.

As Marzouk explained: “They shipped us to Baltimore, another uncle was sent to Chicago, others to Rochester, N.Y. There was no regard for our family ties; we had no say, no voice. We were grateful, but we were also scared because you never knew what the next day would bring.”

Without any concern for the family’s needs, no support to learn English and the total disruption of his family’s social safety net, life after being settled in Baltimore was difficult. Recently, after becoming involved with Jewish National Fund-USA, Marzouk decided to donate to the affiliate program Nefesh B’Nefesh, which assists North American olim with jobs, housing, language learning, social services and more.

Diane Scar, national campaign director, major gifts, for Jewish National Fund-USA, who is based in Baltimore, said “for Joe, Nefesh B’Nefesh is a natural fit for his philanthropic values. It’s their goal to make sure that every family making aliyah is treated with dignity and respect, and that the process is as seamless as possible.”

“It’s something I never even dreamed I could do,” he said, beaming. “I’m just a high school graduate who barely made it through because I was working 40 hours a week. But it’s so important to pay it forward because otherwise, it becomes a black hole. If you don’t pay it forward, what’s going to happen to the person behind you?”

On a recent Culinary, Wine and Arts Mission to Israel with Jewish National Fund-USA, which Marzouk co-chaired with his longtime partner Nanci Seff, he finally had the opportunity to see his support in action at the new Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus in Jerusalem, inaugurated last November. For Marzouk, it was a full-circle moment, where the pain of being uprooted was salved by the pride of seeing a better life for those on their own journey home.

“It’s very emotional to see what they’re doing,” he said. “The facility is state-of-the-art, but it’s not about the building. It’s about the services they provide. To think that I was sent to Baltimore as a refugee child and now I’m able to ensure that new immigrants to Israel have an organization looking out for them, to hold their hand and to help ease the process. It means a whole lot.”

To learn more about Jewish National Fund-USA or Nefesh B’Nefesh, call Diane Scar at 410-486-3317, Ext. 840, or email: DScar@jnf.org.

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