By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
Dr. Nash Naam is a renowned hand surgeon.
He has written many articles, been published in medical journals and delivered keynote speeches all over the world.
But when growing up in Cairo, Egypt, young Nash wanted to be an engineer.
“At that time, an engineer was considered more prestigious than being a doctor,” he explained. “But my scores in high school were not high enough to get into engineering. So I went into medicine, but I wasn’t very happy about it.”
Once in medical school, however, Nash “fell in love with medicine.”
That’s also where he met Elene Awad, the love of his life.
That is where they began their life journey together – a journey that has included marriage and two children, an opportunity to come to the United States, eventually gain their citizenship and, ultimately, move to the Effingham community.
It’s a journey that has allowed Dr. Naam to become involved in this community and provide direction and a helping hand in seeing numerous projects completed.
And it’s a journey that saw him receive special recognition on January 20 when he was named the 2018 Citizen of the Year. That award is sponsored by the Effingham Daily News and presented annually at the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce Gala.
There were actually two surprises for Dr. Naam that night. One, of course, was when he realized he was the winner. The other was when he realized who wasn’t.
“I was told Bob Schultz was going to win that award,” Dr. Naam recalled. “Bob has been such a good friend and a great asset for this community. We were there to support him and his family.”
But when he heard “this year’s recipient is a man from a foreign land,” he knew something was up.
“Bob is from Teutopolis,” Nash noted.
And then when he heard excerpts from a specific nomination letter, written by a “proud son,” he knew what was about to happen.
“It took me awhile to realize they were talking about me,” Nash admitted. “But when I realized that letter was from my son, Ramez, I knew.
“It was a major surprise and very humbling,” he added. “I honestly believe there are so many people in this community that are more deserving of this award. But receiving this means a great deal to me. We love this community.”
Nash was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. His mother was a homemaker. His father was a land and building surveyor.
As a child, Nash remembers playing soccer in the streets.
“We couldn’t afford to buy our own ball, so we made one,” he recalled. “We’d take old socks and put them together. Then we used rope and glue. It was a very poor country. We had to improvise.”
He later attended Al Hussieniah High School, which had an enrollment of about 2,000 students. He loved reading and music – and still does.
“We couldn’t afford books either, but we had a public library nearby and I could get books to read there,” Nash said. “Even back then, I remember dreaming of someday having my own book library and music library and being able to buy my own camera.”
He graduated from high school in 1962 at the age of 15, which he said was not uncommon. He began grade school when he was 4.
He then went directly to Ain Shams Medical School in Cairo and graduated there in 1968. He plans to fly back for his 50th class reunion in April.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long. I’m really looking forward to it,” Nash said. “I haven’t seen many of my classmates. I’m sure we all look totally different now.”
It was in his third year at medical school he met Elene.
“I always looked older than my age at that time,” Nash explained. “When we first met, she thought I was three to four years ahead of her. But, actually, we were in the same class.”
Nash said they started as friends “and gradually the love started to develop.” They were married Nov. 1, 1970, in Cairo.
“We were both physicians, but very poor,” he noted. “For our wedding, we just had the ceremony and then went home. We couldn’t afford a reception.”
It was six years before the opportunity to come to the U.S. came along.
“We didn’t even think about that at the time,” Nash said.
Elene was a professor of physiology at Cairo University. At that time, the Egyptian government offered scholarships to study abroad. But those selected had no choice as to where they would be sent. They were assigned countries at random.
“Elene was lucky enough to get America,” Nash noted.
She went to St. Louis in May 1976. Nash and Ramez, who was three at the time, joined her in October.
“Our plan was to stay here five or six years until she got her PhD and then we would go back to Egypt,” he added.
But two things happened – Nash and Elene fell in love with this country and, as Nash describes, “Ramez became totally ‘Americanized.’”
“I quickly started to see what democracy was,” he said. “One month before the election, I watched the last debate between President Ford and Jimmy Carter. I could not believe how Carter was addressing the president with such disrespect. In Egypt, that is not allowed.
“You cannot challenge authority there unless you are very rich or connected in some way,” Nash added. “It’s not a democracy there at all. Corruption is rampant at every level. Plus, we were Christians, so we lived as second class citizens in Egypt. We were of no value at all. But in this country, we were valued as human beings.
”The sense of wanting to stay in America began to grow. We did not want to leave this country. We did not want to go back to Egypt, where things had only gotten worse.”
Nash and Elene first came to the United States on a J-Visa. But it was valid only until 1984.
They then looked into changing to an Immigration Visa. They were told if they went to a small town that had a shortage of physicians, they might be able to make that change. So they moved to Flora.
“With the J-Visa, you are not allowed to apply for immigration status until you leave the U.S. and go back to your country for two years,” Nash explained. “But there was no guarantee of being approved again. We decided we didn’t want to do that. It was too risky.”
Nash and Elene then looked into a U.S. government waiver program for physicians. But only a few, select physicians were chosen and their first application was rejected.
But the next application three years later produced a different outcome. By that time, Dr. Naam had written books on hand surgery, had articles published in several medical journals, had been involved in research and had been invited to give speeches multiple times.
He remembers the application being about four inches thick and the assistance he received from Congressman Terry Bruce, from Olney.
“He contacted me and offered to help,” Nash recalled. “A few weeks later, Terry called to let us know we had been accepted. It was a great feeling.”
The next step was obtaining a Green Card. In order to accomplish that, they had to leave the country for an interview and a series of medical tests. The Naams chose to go to the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“The interview took 27 seconds,” Nash noted. “We were approved and flew to Chicago.”
They arrived at 6 in the morning and were taken to a small immigration room.
“There were three immigration officers,” Nash recalled. “It was the end of their shift, they were sleepy and just wanted to go home. We were fingerprinted, signed some papers and told ‘that’s it. You will get your Green Card.’”
Nash and Elene were thrilled. The process that had taken from 1976 to 1989 was finally over. But Nash needed to do one more thing.
“I went back to that room,” he said. “The three officers were still there and still half asleep. I stood in the middle of that room and said ‘For you, this is all in a day’s work. For us, this is a dream come true.’ The officers then hugged us and said ‘Welcome to America.’”
Six years later, at 10 a.m. on May 12, 1995, in Collinsville, the Naam family officially became citizens of the United States.
“It was one of those days I will never forget,” Nash admitted. “It was a rebirth.”
Dr. Naam and the family moved to Effingham in August 1990.
“We had choices to go anywhere in the country,” he said. “But we all thought Effingham was the right choice. And we’ve never regretted that decision.”
Dr. Naam had actually started providing medical services in Effingham in 1987. Dr. Behrooz Heshmatpour provided space free of charge for him.
Elene joined Marshall Clinic (that is now Springfield Clinic).
Then in 1995, he built and opened Southern Illinois Hand Center at 901 Medical Park Drive. He is partners with Dr. Patrick Stewart and Dr. Lisa Sasso.
Nash and Elene have been part of the Effingham community ever since. Their son, Ramez, now 42, is in Seattle, Washington; their daughter, Mary, 32, is in Australia with her husband. Nash and Elene are excited, because they are expecting their first grandchild the end of May and will be flying to Australia to celebrate that event.
Nash and Elene attend New Hope Church. Nash has been involved with several projects at Lake Sara, plus helped with the Kluthe swimming pool and the Workman Sports Complex. He was also instrumental in developing the Sculpture on the Avenues program and played a key role in getting the Flame of Hope sculpture that sits in front of City Hall.
“We love Effingham with all the energy of our hearts,” Nash said. “Effingham is special because of the people. They are absolutely wonderful, generous and kind. People here have allowed us to feel like first class citizens.
“Egypt is where I was born. Effingham is my home,” he quickly added. “This is where I live and where I will die.”
Nash is still an avid reader and a founding member of the Effingham Book Club. He also loves music and has a grand piano – that he can play – sitting in his living room. And, yes, he now owns his own camera and photography is a passion.
But for this well-known, proud and kind 71-year-old man, receiving the Citizen of the Year Award was not the culmination of things.
“It’s just the beginning,” he said. “It has encouraged me to be even more involved, to be a better person and someone worthy of this award.”