Professor had to take on menial tasks
Glenwood Springs, CO ColoradoMajid Kahhak
Majid Kahhak was born in Fez, Morocco, to Moroccan parents. As a young man he took a job as a French literature professor in Brussels, Belgium, where he met his American-born girlfriend. Majid eventually gave up his professorship and they came to Denver. Here he reflects on starting over in a new country.
Kahhak: Colleges and universities would not hire me because my degrees were foreign. They told me I needed certification, and I refused to go for it. It would have cost me $9,000. They wouldn’t hire me because of the legalities, so I was literally busing tables and mopping floors for a year. My girlfriend, then, was finishing college, and she had no income. So there I was. I knew no one other than my girlfriend. I understood just a few words of English, and I was trying to make a living for both of us.
I started by looking for work at a job placement center. I had to be there between four and five in the morning. There was a lot of waiting. Sometimes they called my name and sometimes not. When they did call my name they would give me a map with directions to the job. That was always a challenge for me because I could barely speak English. The jobs were all minimum wage. I was making $3.25 an hour.
I always had to carry my lunch because the days were long and I never knew where I was going for the day. I often ended up working in warehouses on the edge of the city.
When I look back on it now, I should have tried to get a job as a cook in a restaurant because I knew a lot about cuisine. But at the time I thought the only thing a person in my position could do was go to those job placement centers and take the job they gave you.
Gallacher: You came as a professor and ended up having to do what many immigrants have to do.
Kahhak: Yes, menial tasks. I saw a lot of wealth and opportunities but I couldn’t have it. It wasn’t all bad but I was younger and I could take it then. I was determined, but it was a set back.
Gallacher: What kept you going?
Kahhak: I don’t know but once I took the plunge that was it. Even leaving Morocco and settling in Europe was not a conventional way. So America was just another chapter in my attempt to be a self-made man. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time. I was just a man trying to make a living and build a life.
In retrospect, years later I realized I was one of those people who just take off not knowing and they plunge here and they plunge there and things work out or they don’t.
Gallacher: It takes hope and a whole lot of faith doesn’t it? I have talked to a lot immigrants who leave for their new life trusting that things will work out.
Kahhak: Yes, with my degrees, in Morocco I would, at best, have had a simple teaching job in some secondary school. That would have been it for me for the rest of my career until retirement. I have cousins and friends with PhDs who can’t get a job.
But here is the thing. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me professionally and internally because I became an artist, by default. I had some experience drawing and sketching and I discovered cafes and coffeehouses where I started doing people sketches. I learned quickly that I would rather be in the coffeehouse than mopping floors somewhere.
I wasn’t sketching anything very complicated, and there were other people who were much better than I was. I didn’t really see myself as a visual artist. I had always considered myself more of a wordsmith. But I changed my mind when people started giving me $5, $10, $15, $20.
(Note: Majid owns and operates the Kahhak Art School and Studio in Carbondale.)
Immigrant Stories appears every Monday in the Post Independent.
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