Some 6,400 miles of land and sea separate DuPage County from Cairo, Egypt.
For some, the distance feels even greater.
Abdel Raouf Elganzouri grew up in a small village along the Nile River, just outside Cairo. He and his family were farmers (or “peasants,” as Abdel Raouf described them) making just enough money to scrape by. His siblings, parents, cousins and other relatives all lived together in a one-room house.
“My parents came from very, very humble beginnings,” said Ahmed Elganzouri, Abdel Raouf’s son. Today, Ahmed is the Deputy General Counsel at Edward-Elmhurst Hospital and a board member of Choose DuPage.
Ahmed’s mother, who lived in an old neighborhood at the heart of Cairo, grew up in similarly cramped conditions. She had 12 siblings, so space was scarce. If you came to visit, you were lucky to find an open spot on the floor.
As a kid in Cairo—especially in the 1940s and 1950s—opportunities were more limited than most of us can imagine. The only way to improve your economic circumstances, or to leave Egypt, was to be exceptional. Being an ‘A student’ wasn’t enough; if you wanted to be a doctor, you almost certainly had to be in the ninety-ninth percentile of your class. If you were born in poverty, the odds were that you would stay in poverty.
Abdel Raouf was determined to beat the odds. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a physician and leaving Egypt—a dream that, when you only have one pair of old shoes to your name, seems about as realistic as traveling to the moon.
But Abdel Raouf knew what he had to do. He understood that, as Ahmed puts it, “The only way out of Egypt was education.” For years, he focused relentlessly on his studies.
Fast forward, and Abdel Raouf graduated at the top of his class, scoring among the best on his exams.
He did so well, in fact, that he was accepted into Cairo University’s medical school.
New School, Old Shoes
Although he had made it into higher education, Abdel Raouf’s circumstances didn’t change overnight. The economic differences between him and his classmates—many of whom came from wealthier families—couldn’t have been more obvious.
“He would always tell us these stories, so we could appreciate what it was like for him growing up,” Ahmed said. One of those stories takes place on the day Abdel Raouf was interviewed at the medical school. He needed a suit for the interview, but he didn’t have one—no one in his family did. Nor did they have enough money to afford a suit, so Abdel Raouf and his father walked through their village asking for small loans and calling in favors. Eventually, they raised enough for a decent suit.
At the university, Abdel Raouf’s classmates noticed that he dressed differently. He didn’t have nice shoes; instead, he wore an old pair with a hole in them, and his socks would be soaked every time it rained. They liked to tease him about it.
Abdel Raouf, however, wasn’t worried about shoes—he had bigger things on his mind. He was still fighting the odds.
After graduating from medical school, Abdel Raouf worked in Egypt as an anesthesiologist. In those early years of his career, he met the woman who would be his wife and Ahmed’s mother. She had been a similarly ambitious Cairo kid.
Together, they moved out of Egypt, to countries where, they hoped, their future children would have better opportunities: first Kuwait, where they had their first daughter, and then onto the UK. (There are strong historic ties between Egypt and the UK, due to the colonization of the former by the latter. Travel and immigration between the two countries is common.)
The young couple moved to Liverpool, where they welcomed another daughter into the world. Meanwhile, Abdel Raouf passed all the exams necessary to practice as a physician in England, first in Liverpool and later in London. He had come a long way from his early days on the banks of the Nile.
Around this time, it just so happened that the United States was in desperate need of physicians. The country’s healthcare system and population had grown during the post-World War II boom years, but there weren’t nearly enough American doctors to meet the demand. (This continues to be a problem in parts of the nation today.)
“There was a huge demand for foreign physicians, especially those from the Middle East and Egypt,” Ahmed said. “Many of my friends here in Chicago’s Egyptian community are physicians who studied in Egypt and made their way to the United States to meet the demand. My father was part of that exodus, at the time.”
Abdel Raouf —who had long been interested in the United States but had never actually been there—applied to several American hospitals and was accepted. Now, it was time to decide where to live. For the Elganzouris, a young family, the location came down to the best place to raise their children. After plenty of research, they settled on Oak Brook, Illinois, for its excellent schools and nearby park districts, restaurants and businesses.
That year, Dr. Abdel Raouf Elganzouri, MD, joined Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where he practiced and taught for 30 years – impacting the lives of countless patients and students – until his passing in 2018.
A Quick History of Immigration in DuPage
The story of DuPage County—like the story of many, if not all, communities—has been shaped entirely by immigrants. The first such immigrants crossed the land bridge that once connected North America to Eurasia. As they traveled further south, through land that is now Canada, the United States and Mexico, and then on to Central and South America, these immigrants formed thousands of unique communities. Distinct cultures emerged, shaped by their environment and people, each one practicing its own mix of hunting, gathering and farming. These diverse communities would eventually be commonly classified as Indigenous, First Nations, or Native Americans.
After thousands of years of relative stability, a new wave of immigrants, western Europeans, would arrive in the Americas. With guns, horses and unfamiliar germs, they would displace or wipe out the vast majority of Indigenous tribes.
During and after the arrival of the western Europeans, what is now the Chicagoland area became a major trading site for the French, British and Indigenous Americans. (It continues to be one of the most important locations for trade in North America.)
Eventually, the region became part of the United States, and another wave of European immigrants moved into the area. One of the earliest and largest groups came from Germany. They built churches (initially Protestant and Lutheran, later Catholic), as well as homes, schools and grist mills—where wheat was ground into flour—including some that are still standing today. (The Graue Mill in Oak Brook, founded in 1852, is now owned by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. It’s been converted into a public museum, which will reopen for tours in late spring 2021.)
The German, British and French were later joined by Irish and Italian immigrants. Following the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, entire communities of Black Americans moved into the North—driven by promises of new opportunities, as well as the South’s new Jim Crow laws, which further institutionalized racism and stifled the freedom, voting rights and economic opportunity of Black people. While much of the farming in the South had once been done by Black Americans, those who moved north mostly gravitated toward urban areas (largely because agricultural land was tightly controlled by White landowners).
With Black Americans, Indigenous Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, Asian Americans and European Americans, the Chicagoland region became increasingly diverse.
Over the 182 years of DuPage County history, the region’s demographic makeup has been continuously reshaped, as groups of immigrants moved into the area. Often, this immigration was spurred by the emergence of a new industry: Businesses needed a new labor force—or a labor force with a distinct skillset—beyond what the local population could provide.
For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, many Irish workers moved to the DuPage region to help dig the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and helped establish the region as a national transportation hub (as it continues to be today). As Chicagoland became a major transporter and processor of wheat, meat and other goods, new factories, warehouses and logistics operations emerged—demanding new workforces and attracting new generations of immigrant labor.
In post-World War II America, two national laboratories opened in DuPage—Argonne in 1946; Fermilab in 1967—transforming the county into a national leader in science and technology. This also created demand for a new, highly educated workforce. As a result, scientists from many nations—many of them in Asia and the Middle East—immigrated to DuPage, filling jobs in the emerging sector.
(Ahmed’s father, as you read above, came to DuPage due to a similar phenomenon: a high demand for doctors, in that case.)
Diversity has shaped not only the rich culture of our region, but the fabric of our economy. The industries that form the economic foundation of DuPage in 2021 wouldn’t exist without the immigrant workers and their families who settled here. Our lives would look utterly different.
It’s also important to recognize the many foreign-owned businesses in DuPage County, which add jobs to our economy while investing in the region. Of the foreign-owned businesses in DuPage, the majority are owned by companies from Japan, the UK, Canada, Germany and France. One such business is Nippon Express in Wood Dale, a Japanese-owned logistics consulting business that employees hundreds of workers in DuPage.
You often hear that a strong economy is a diverse economy. That’s true. We saw this during the pandemic; while some industries were forced to temporarily close, others remained open, keeping the economy moving.
But it’s important to remember that a healthy, stable, sustainable and diverse economy is only possible with a diverse community.
Like Father, Like Son
Today, Ahmed lives in Naperville, a short drive from Oak Brook, where, years ago, his mother and father chose to raise their family. Like his father, Ahmed works for a hospital. And while he’s not a doctor—he’s an in-house attorney—he sees how his parents’ legacy has shaped much of his life: his home, his career and his children’s futures.
“I always wanted to help people,” he said. “I think there’s a similarity between that and being a physician. In both cases, you’re advising and advocating on behalf of clients. And it just so happens that I work in healthcare.
“My father’s hard work, perseverance and, quite frankly, traveling over oceans to get to America, has obviously had a big impact on myself and my siblings. That’s certainly translated into the career I pursued, and what I want to provide to my children.
“We live in DuPage because it has the things my parents wanted us to have: great schools, nature, park districts, businesses. All those things that made them move thousands of miles from Egypt have made us want to stay in this area and raise our own kids.”
Like his father, Ahmed is an excellent storyteller. He knows just about every detail of his parents’ journey from Egypt to the U.S., and he’s full of anecdotes about Abdel Raouf’s early years in Cairo and medical school.
And yet, as richly as he can recall these stories, there are times when Ahmed sees how easily things could have been different for him and his family.
He caught a glimpse of this in 2007, when he and his wife took a trip to Egypt. They were visiting an ancient site when they encountered a group of local school children. Standing beside one another, it was clear that Ahmed and these children lived vastly different lives.
“I could tell, based on the way they were dressed, that they were from humbler beginnings,” he said. Ahmed turned to one of the students and tried striking up a conversation in Arabic. The child looked at him like he had come from another planet.
“I just saw the look in his eyes. He didn’t understand how I could be dressed this way and speaking English—and then, all of a sudden, Arabic! He looked puzzled, like he didn’t understand how I fit into his world.
“And that stuck with me. Because I could have been one of those children. And I just feel blessed that my parents, against all odds—I don’t even know how they did it, frankly—gave us the life we have.
“I’m sorry… I’m getting emotional! It just hit me.”
Click here to watch a video interview of Ahmed sharing his family’s story.
Located just west of Chicago, DuPage County is a diverse community in many ways: culturally, economically and demographically. We are proud of the countless immigrants and the numerous cultures that wrote the history of DuPage, and we welcome all to join us as we make a better future.
To learn more about DuPage County, start here.