- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) - Wessam Mohamed said that last June, he decided within a day to leave his life behind in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on the shores of the Red Sea, and move to America permanently.

“I decided to leave everything there in 24 hours,” Mohamed said last week. “My food is still in the refrigerator there.”

Mohamed, now co-owner of Wessam Variety Store on Acushnet Avenue in the North End, said at the time, he was a financial manager for an international electronics corporation. His boss offered to leave Mohamed’s position open for several weeks, in case he changed his mind and wanted to return.

But Mohamed, standing behind his convenience store’s counter with his wife, Safaa Mahmoud, and recalling that time just seven months ago, said his mind was made up immediately, and his decision was firm.

“No,” Mohamed told his boss. “I will not come back again.”

That statement is proving true, at least so far. Wessam, 40, and Safaa, 39- opened their variety store in late November, on Acushnet Avenue near Shaw Street. Although Wessam’s former job took him across the Middle East, he and Safaa are natives of Cairo, Egypt.

Safaa was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer last June, sparking Wessam’s sudden, permanent move to the U.S. She has family in New Bedford and has lived here for seven or eight years, raising their four children: three boys, 13, 10 and 5, and one girl, 7.

Wessam said when he was working in the Middle East, he would visit Safaa and the children every three or four months, for about 10 days each time.

Safaa’s diagnosis changed that pattern.

“I came here to be with her,” Wessam said.

Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC), said Wessam and Safaa are part of a growing, diverse community of immigrant business owners along Acushnet Avenue, which is home to a commercial corridor known as the “international marketplace.”

Driving up The Avenue last week, Williams and CEDC small business specialist Ken Rapoza pointed out numerous new or expanding businesses: a sneaker store opened by Dominican men; a Guatemalan bakery that makes bread for Market Basket; a Puerto Rican bakery, “Lorenzo’s,” slated to open in a long-vacant spot; and more.

Williams said the city’s infrastructure improvements and beautification projects, progressing north up Acushnet, are helping spur the growth.

“I don’t know if it’s quantifiable- it’s more about quality of life,” Williams said. “I think it’s really making a difference. People are finding that the mood is changing. There’s more pride in the neighborhood.”

Rapoza said navigating city permitting processes and opening a new business can be daunting for anyone, and especially for immigrants.

“It’s overwhelming for them,” Rapoza said. “So I just walk them through the whole thing.”

Wessam and Safaa said the CEDC’s help has been invaluable.

“He knows everyone in this city,” Wessam said, of Rapoza. “And he can solve any problem.

“He is like part of our family,” Wessam added.

Through late summer and fall last year, Wessam often would meet with Rapoza and city officials in the afternoon, after spending the morning driving with Safaa to radiation treatments at Dana-Farber facilities in the Boston area.

Those trips were twice a week from June into August, Wessam said, and then every day from August into November. Every day, leaving at 4:30 a.m. for Boston, then coming back to New Bedford to try and open a business.

Now, they go only once every 10 days, he said.

Wessam said one of the most difficult things was that doctors would consistently tell Safaa that she had to “fight” the cancer- but doctors never said exactly what that meant.

The store became their answer.

“She didn’t want to fight cancer in bed, she didn’t want to fight it at home- she wanted to fight cancer with work,” Wessam said.

The store has a broad array of goods and groceries- “a little bit of everything,” Safaa said -and does steady traffic in the mornings, when people stop in for coffee and muffins.

Wessam Variety Store is on the west side of Acushnet, near Shaw Street. They began accepting EBT cards, for state food assistance, about two weeks ago. Wessam said he hopes business will pick up a bit in the spring, as they get more known in the neighborhood. Safaa mentioned plans to eventually offer Middle Eastern food.

For now, Safaa said, the store is providing a needed outlet for personal interaction.

“I’m so social, I like to talk with people,” Safaa said. “I feel like I’m in a big theater. Every day, I’m hearing the stories.”

Elaine Cordeiro, owner of Chocolate Works- which will celebrate 35 years in business in June -stopped by the store Tuesday morning and chatted briefly.

“I’m here every day- I’m very happy to have a store next door,” Cordeiro said. “(Wessam and Safaa are) very nice people. They did such a nice job in here.”

Wessam said running their own business gives him and Safaa the flexibility and independence needed to maintain her health and raise their children. Doing so in America, he said, has provided a welcome sense of security and hope for the future, amid recent years of tumult and uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“More important than food or drink, or anything, is safety,” Wessam said.

And, to paraphrase an old saying, health.

“The store is our way to fight the cancer,” Wessam said.

___

Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, https://www.southcoasttoday.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide