Ismail Mohamed moved to America from Egypt 10 years ago, and he now works seven days a week selling cigarettes and snacks at his Dundalk store, the King Tut Market. A few miles away, Mohamed Hassan also puts in long hours, making pizzas from scratch at Safa Pizza in Essex.
They are among a small group of Egyptian immigrants in eastern Baltimore County, where two Egyptians on student visas were arrested Thursday after their failure to show up for a college program in Montana prompted a nationwide search. Federal authorities said they believe the young men came to the United States to look for work.
The merchants said that many in Egypt dream of coming to America to do just that.
"It's too tight" in Egypt, Mohamed said, manning the counter at his market. "Each one of us is just looking for a job to get some money."
Hassan agreed: "These people look for the chance to work here. In my country, we have little chance to make money."
The Egyptians arrested last week in Dundalk were helping out at a pizza shop in Glen Burnie, according to a woman who said her husband gave the men work there. Ten months earlier - after a tip, later discredited, that Egyptian immigrants in the area were planning to blow up a tunnel - authorities visited pizza shops in eastern Baltimore County, and four men were held on immigration charges.
Carol Barbour and her Egyptian-born husband, Ahmed Barbour, worked at a carryout in Dundalk that was searched by federal authorities in October. She said some Egyptians emigrate to New York, and then to Baltimore, where the cost of living is lower and there are more job opportunities.
'Like a big family'
"They come looking for work in restaurants," Barbour said.
She said Dundalk and communities in southeastern Baltimore City, such as Highlandtown, seem to be a "touchstone" for Egyptian immigrants.
"Somebody will be established here, and they'll invite or bring over four or five others," Barbour said. "They are in touch with one another, borrowing money, sometimes giving them jobs. It's like a big family."
The young Egyptians arrested last week were from the same area in Egypt as the owner of the Glen Burnie pizza shop, according to the shop owner's wife.
Attia Gouda, owner of the Safa Pizza shop in Glen Burnie, described the men as "good people" who had become overwhelmed in a foreign land. His restaurant is not affiliated with Safa Pizza in Essex.
The men, El Sayed Ahmed Elsayed Ibrahim and Alaa Abd El Fattah Ali El Bahnasawi, both 20, were arrested Thursday morning at the shop owner's apartment in a brick rowhouse on Holabird Avenue in Dundalk. Gouda's wife, Jennifer Evans, said the men had been staying with her husband and a friend of his in Reisterstown.
They were among 11 Egyptian students who failed to report July 31 for an academic exchange program at Montana State University. Federal authorities have stressed that they do not believe any members of the group are dangerous.
In October, authorities closed the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels in response to a tip, believed to have come from an Egyptian who had worked at a Dundalk pizzeria, that terrorists were planning to blow up one of them.
Police briefly detained the owner of the Koko Market in southeastern Baltimore, a U.S. citizen from Egypt, before clearing him of any wrongdoing. Agents searched that store and at least three pizza restaurants, and detained four Middle Eastern men on immigration violations.
Mohamed said he knows of several Egyptian businesses, including two carryout pizza restaurants near his market. He said he moved to New York 10 years ago, and after seven years there, moved to the Baltimore area, where he felt there were more opportunities to make money.
His store is in a small brick building on Holabird Avenue, an aging strip in Dundalk. The windows are completely covered by cigarette advertisements, and from behind the counter Friday, Mohamed watched a small television as the occasional customer walked in.
He said he has no employees, his only help being his wife.
On Eastern Boulevard in Essex, Hassan and his brother, Ali Hassan, stuffed pizzas into ovens.
Mohamed Hassan said he heard about the arrest of the students on the news the night before.
He said he knows of several Egyptians in the area, but that he has little time to socialize.
'Here for business'
"I work and I go home," he said.
"We are here for business," said his brother.
Carol Barbour, who lives with her husband in Highlandtown, echoed Mohamed and the Hassans, saying that the Egyptians often come from places "where it's very poor. They have nothing."
When they start working in the United States they sometimes seem almost overwhelmed by the money, she said.
But, she added, "They're very hard-working people."