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JCC cook fears for family caught in crisis in Egypt
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JCC cook fears for family caught in crisis in Egypt

Egyptian-born Nona Bernaba, the cook at the JCC, is worried about the fate of her Coptic Christian family members in Cairo.
Egyptian-born Nona Bernaba, the cook at the JCC, is worried about the fate of her Coptic Christian family members in Cairo.

Nona Bernaba, known to many at the JCC of Central New Jersey for her kosher cooking, has provided some local people with a glimpse into the fears facing Egyptians living here.

As the protests in Egypt mounted over the past week, Bernaba, a Coptic Christian who came to the United States 31 years ago, has been on the phone with family and friends, hearing horror stories about conditions in Cairo.

“People have gotten out of the jails, and my cousins are afraid to go out of the house,” she told NJ Jewish News Tuesday. “They say thieves are coming into the houses and stealing.”

Bernaba is a qualified nutritionist with an expertise in kosher cooking developed from working with private Jewish clients and then cooking meals for the Senior Adults Program at the JCC in Scotch Plains. She has also cooked for functions at area synagogues. She said she knows how Jews value the friendship shown to Israel by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and understands those who fear the changes that might come in the wake of the protests. She has fears, too.

In recent years, she watched with horror media reports of attacks on Christian Egyptians, most recently the bombing of a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. The security services have done little to counteract those attacks, she said. “When they kill Christians, there is no punishment.”

But she is afraid that if law and order break down further, or if extremist Islamists come to power, things may get far worse.

Bernaba came to the United States with her parents, to join her brother who had settled in Michigan. Though she grew up in a society where Christians were pressured to become Muslim, there was less religious oppression than in other Arab countries, and she wasn’t eager to leave. “I came because I wanted to be with my family,” she said. She lives now in Somerset, and has two grown sons who were born in this country.

She acknowledged that many people in Egypt live in terrible poverty. “Here, people don’t want to eat bread because it is fattening; there, they need bread to survive,” she said. She acknowledged too that there has been a lot of corruption in the government, but she said she hopes that change can be brought about in an orderly way. “At least Mubarak is better than some others,” she said. “They should let him stay until the country stabilizes, and then he can go.”

Meanwhile, the chaos scares her. “We have had three days of prayers to say, ‘Save our Christians,’” she said, referring to services at local Coptic Christian churches.

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