Two days before Thanksgiving 1968, Fortunée Lichaa and 16 members of her family arrived in the U.S. at the end of a long journey from their native Egypt, a country that had turned lethally hostile to its Jewish citizens. Now 50 years later, the living members of that voyage, along with their children and grandchildren, got together in Daly City this Thanksgiving to celebrate their escape from Cairo.
“It was a big gathering!” said Habib Lichaa, Fortunée’s son. “It was a lot of fun. It was special.”
Fortunée was 23 and a young wife and mother when the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors began in June 1967. The men of Egypt’s Jewish community were immediately detained.
“That night, the Jewish males over 21 were rounded up and put into a prisoner-of-war camp,” Habib said. He was only 2 at the time, but he’s heard the story from his mother many times. There was a knock on the door, and Fortunée’s husband, math teacher Maurice Lichaa, was taken away by the police. So were her father, brothers, uncle and the other men of her family.
“Since we are Jewish, they took all the men,” Fortunée said.
Before that, life had been good, Fortunée said. Her father had been a prosperous businessman and she had enjoyed a privileged childhood in which the family lived like “kings and queens.” She attended a French school and studied Hebrew at the local Karaite synagogue, and in the summer the family went to their vacation home.
“It was a very nice life,” she said.
But with all the income-earners arrested and money running out, conditions quickly grew dire. So Fortunée decided to do something. With her husband still in a detention camp — he spent two years there — she applied for a passport. “I told my mom, I’m going to leave,” she recalled. “I’m taking my son and going to America.”
She said her mother was stunned and tried to convince her to stay. But in the end the family decided to go with her.
“She said, ‘We will not be separated,’” Fortunée remembered. “Enough is enough.”
Seventeen people, including Fortunée’s brothers, her mother, aunt and cousins, got on a boat together, sailing first to Italy and then to the United States. Together, with a relative already in the U.S., they celebrated that first Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t until a year later that Fortunée’s husband made it out.
The Lichaas settled down in the Bay Area. They had a second child, Denise, and Fortunée went back to school to get her GED and then take night classes at San Francisco State University to study accounting. She did have to convince Maurice, though.
“He said, ‘No honey, you sit home with the kids,’” she said, laughing.
Eventually, she worked at the Jewish Home of San Francisco as a bookkeeper. But life wasn’t all good times. Money was tight, and the family had to work hard. Maurice passed away in 1992 at only 59. “It was difficult,” Fortunée said of the family’s early years in the Bay Area. “It was not that easy, but you reach accomplishment after accomplishment.”
Fortunée has never been back to Cairo, although others in her family have, including her son, Habib, who traveled there in 1983. She said she “wouldn’t go back” because there was nothing there for her anymore, but she is proud of the fact that she has been to Israel.
Mostly, she has focused on her life in America, which she calls the “land of opportunity.” She credits organizations such as HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and S.F.-based Hebrew Free Loan for helping the new immigrants out. The Daly City Karaite Egyptian community was also an important part of their lives.
“It was a very close-knit family and a close-knit community,” Habib said.
And it still is. At Thanksgiving, more than 60 people — relatives, spouses and children — sat down together to talk about those early years and pass around photographs from the old days. And to toast the 50th anniversary of their arrival in the U.S., 11 of the still-living family members who took that first boat ride were there to celebrate with Fortunée, the instigator who brought them across the ocean in the first place.
“They came from everywhere so we can be together again,” she said.