Against all odds: An Airman’s journey from Egypt to the U.S. Air Force

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong
  • 354th Fighter Wing / Public Affairs

Never in a million years did Airman 1st Class Helbees Tawadrous think she would ever leave Egypt and end up thousands of miles away from home serving in the U.S. Air Force.

A Coptic Christian originally from Qena, a city located on the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt, Tawadrous’ options in life were determined by a series of societal norms and sometimes even laws that stifled opportunities and rewarded only those who are wealthy or well-connected. 

Tawadrous’ family was neither.

“So much of Egyptian society was closed to me because of my faith, because I’m a woman or because I come from a poor family,” said Tawadrous, a 354th Contracting Squadron contracting specialist. “But living that way teaches you to work hard, be grateful for what you have and seize everything in life as an opportunity to better yourself or look out for others.”

Unhindered by these social barriers, Tawadrous moved to Cairo to learn English in August of 2007. A brave gesture in a society where a woman pursuing education continues to face heavy scrutiny.

Along with being a native Egyptian Arabic speaker, Tawadrous is fluent in Modern Standard Arabic and the Levantine dialect used in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. She used her gift of languages to work as an English-Arabic translator for an international news wire and for human rights groups that study freedom of religion in the Middle East and advocate for victims of human rights abuses. Eventually she opened her own Arabic-English translation business.

“I monitored the Arabic-language media, translated government documents into English, and even translated a theology book from English to Modern Standard Arabic,” she said. “I also found and translated anti-Christian propaganda and threats that ISIS released on the internet.”

In 2016, Tawadrous was living in Turkey with her husband who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. A coup attempt made the country unsafe for those who didn’t actively support the Turkish government, especially those with American ties.

“Around the same time I gave birth to our son, one of our neighbors disappeared,” she said. “It was obvious we needed to leave. My husband was hired by Stars and Stripes and we moved near Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.”

During this time, Tawadrous was introduced to the U.S. Air Force. She was amazed women, unlike in Egypt, are allowed to join the service and are afforded the same respect as the men. 

“What really encouraged me to join was seeing the leaflets they had all around base advertising that the Air Force was in great need of native speakers in essential languages like Arabic,” said Tawadrous. “That made me think more seriously about joining. People kept telling me I really had something to offer the Air Force that would make me valuable to them.”

In 2019, Tawadrous moved to the U.S. to help take care of her ailing in-laws. With a long history of service across all four branches going back to the Army Air Corps in World War II, Tawadrous spoke with her husband and father-in-law about the good, the bad and the ugly of serving to make sure she really wanted to pursue enlisting. And she did.

Although Tawadrous’ intentions were to work as an Arabic Cryptologic Language Analyst, she was unfortunately reassigned to a different career at Basic Military Training. 

As devastated as she was, Tawadrous secured a job as a contracting specialist, which aligned with her Bachelor’s degree in Arabic Accounting from South Valley University back in Qena. 

With her background in accounting, Tawadrous feels like she’s a great fit within contracting. 

“I truly see every job, every task put in front of me as an opportunity to learn, improve myself, expand my skill set, become a better person, or just help others,” she said. “Maybe it is my faith in God, but things will always turn in the favor of people who work hard and make an active decision to be positive and goal-oriented.”

One year and three months later, Tawadrous’ Air Force journey is still going strong and she’s even aiming to become an officer one day. 

During the recently concluded 2021 Arctic Lightning Airshow here at Eielson, Chief Master Sgt. John Lokken, the 354th Fighter Wing command chief, had a chance to meet and share a meaningful conversation with Tawadrous, who volunteered to be an entry controller for the event.

“What intrigued me was her patriotism. She’s an immigrant and is deeply rooted in her culture, but her love of country and pride in being an American Airman amazed me,” said Lokken. “Tawadrous’s diversity, maturity, and life experiences are such an asset to our force. Sharing her story and motivations with her peers will breed further pride in our country and strengthen our team.”

Tawadrous can still vividly recall the moment she first felt a strong sense of patriotism back in BMT.

“On the day we were issued our uniforms, when I put them on, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of belonging,” she said. “ The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made me a U.S. citizen, but the Air Force made me an American.”

Through all of her hardships in life, Tawadrous believes they only made her wiser, more resilient and more equipped in handling obstacles that might come her way.

“Coming from a [developing nation] and having traveled and lived in other countries, I’ve learned to value all opportunities, even when things don’t work in the way I want,” she said. “Making the best of any task is beneficial to me and the mission. Every task, even an unpleasant one, is an opportunity.”