Egyptian proprietor also serves up coffee, snacks, and free classes to help Arabic-speaking residents
By Miriam Raftery
January 17, 2011 (El Cajon) --
On Saturday, throngs of well-wishers stopped by on Saturday to bid welcome (ahlan wa sahaln, أهلا وسهلا) to Zohny Hanna at his new business, Serenity House in downtown El Cajon. The store/coffee shop offers Christian books, art, and music in Arabic. Located on Main Street just east of Magnolia, Serenity House also offers free classes in English and community orientations for East County’s growing population of Arabic-speaking immigrants, asylees, and refugees.
“This is my land now. America is my new home,” says Hanna, who came here on a tourist vista back in 1997 with his wife and children, then received asylum status due to persecution of Coptic Christians in his native Egypt.
He has encouraged other newcomers to learn American ways and adapt to a new life here. But he fervently hopes that someday, people of all religions will have the right to practice their beliefs freely in Egypt and elsewhere.
“My religion is between myself and God,” Hanna said, adding that he has also been active in the human rights movement. He recalls what it was like to fear for the safety of his family in his native land. “I was run out of my country. I came without any money, with my wife and daughters.”
His wife, Nermin, recalls the horror that led the family members to flee their homeland. “An incident happened with tourists. They kidnapped and killed them,” she said.
Attacks on Christians have escalated since then, including the massacre of Egyptian Christians by Islamic terrorists during a New Year’s Eve worship services. “We have friends who were there, but luckily they went out the back doors,” she said of the slaughter at the church.
There are signs of hope. On January 6th, the date tjat Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas, many Egyptian Muslims came forward to form a human shield around a Coptic church, protecting Christian worshippers from more attacks by extremists.
Nermin said she is heartened that “something good” came out of the tragedy and to see that there are good people in all faiths. “There will always be fanatics,” she observed, “But if they are educated people, then that’s a different story.” She believes education is the key to overcoming religious extremism and recalls her own childhood, living among people of different faiths.
“We were raised together and there was no problem,” she reminisced. But recently, Muslim extremists have sought to disrupt regions where Christians and Muslims have lived together in harmony in the past, she added. “Egypt is not like the rest of the Middle East, and they hate it."
Despite the challenges of adapting to a new culture, the family has achieved success in America. Nermin received her masters degree in human development and is working on a second masters in library science. Today, she is a librarian at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, commuting back and forth to San Diego’s East County. One of the couple’s daughters is in graduate school and wants to help others as a social worker, the other is working on a bachelor of arts degree in business and communications from Cal Poly, Pomona.
Zohny Hanna, an engineer, worked with a large company before starting his own business in 2005. Recognizing a need for Arab-language books on Christianity, he started a business selling such products wholesale and has now launched the retail business here on Main Street. Now he looks forward to doing his part to boost El Cajon's economy.
“My mission, I’m looking to fill this place with Arab people,” said Zohny, who has also produced documentary films in Arabic. He believes in giving back to the community that has helped him here. “I am not a taker. We have to be a giver—we give money, and we take money.” He said he has volunteered to translate flyers into Arabic for the City of El Cajon and is now offering classes in English and orientations--all free. “We have to do some things with the community,” he noted. “We have to help people.”
The multi-talented store owner has also produced documentary films in Arabic through his company, the Christian Broadcasting network, including a film on the oldest monastery in Egypt which was shown on Egyptian TV stations. He has also acted in films and produced musical performances for a Christmas holiday celebration in downtown El Cajon. “God gave me a gift,” he said. “I am good with communication; I can communicate with everyone.”
That was clearly the case at his store’s grand opening, where visitors were treated to baklava, cheeses, olives and stuffed grape leaves, chatting with the store owner and his wife,, and browsingthrough wares that started at $1 for books and $3 for music CDs. The store also carries Arabic computer keyboards, crucifixes, religious images, jewelry, and items from the Holy lands such as water from the Jordan River.
East County Community Development Corporation CEO Cindi Fargo stopped by the grand opening event. As a show of appreciation for help received from Fargo and the ECCCD, Zohny presented her with a keychain inscribed with her name in both English and Arabic. “America is built on business,” he said, “and Cindi has helped us with ours.”
Clearly moved by the thoughtful gift, she proudly clipped the keychain onto her necklace and thanked El Cajon’s newest merchant profusely. She has worked hard to help Zohny and Nermin find success in their new venture here—and shares an aspiration for their future.
“Zohny has the concept that Serenity House could be successful in many other communities,” the ECCCD CEO revealed. “This could be a model for a successful franchise.”