Immigration is a topic of the times, often in the news and being discussed by Congress and by the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle. President Obama announced amnesty for parents of children who are citizens or legal permanent residents and is helping many young immigrants or Dreamers who came to the US as children, stay in this country with his Dream Act legislation. What we don’t often hear about are the personal experiences of immigrants, how they learn to fit in to a new culture and the losses they suffer by leaving their native land, family and friends.
ACAP is doing something about it. On Friday, October 30, ACAP hosted Our Immigrant Experiences, a panel and open group discussion about the issues immigrants face – the first of a series. Over thirty people attended, representing five of the 7 continents and 18 different countries, including: Russia, Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador, Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Israel, Taiwan, Syria, Armenia, Brazil, South Africa, Macedonia, and 7 states in the US.
The evening began with a warm welcome from Eva Silver who invited brief introductions from around the room. Next, each of the four panelists told their personal immigration history: Branislav Mancevski from Macedonia, Lisa Thomas from South Africa, Huda Shanawani from Syria, and Fr. Arakel from Armenia. Their stories resonated with the group and people started identifying with what was said and sharing their own experiences. Common themes included: loneliness and loss, cultural differences, American born children feeling embarrassed by their parent’s accents and parents being embarrassed to speak English poorly. People expressed the desire to become an American yet the pull to retain the culture and rituals of one’s homeland and how the ambivalence made them feel like they didn’t belong anywhere. It was said that “assimilation is accepting your new environment but not forgetting who you are,” which includes teaching your children their native language.
Some stories were full of humor such as the woman, whose father traveled a lot so she had lived in many places, who said, “I eat Lebanese food so I must be Lebanese,” and Ms. Thomas, having lived in a number of places in South Africa and in Zimbabwe, then coming to the US as a child said, “I didn’t even realize I was an immigrant!” Both of them got a laugh from everyone.
Other stories were heartfelt invoking empathy around the room, such as Monica from Ecuador caring for her ailing mother at home without enough help because that is what their culture demands; or Mrs. Shanawani’s elderly mother returning home to Syria leaving her family in the US because her longing was too intense. Fr. Arakel described how his wife came to America having been a physician in her home country and lost the right to practice medicine. Giving up traditions, food and music and longing for friends and family back home were expressed again and again. Carmen from Cuba thought she could never go home to Cuba not even for a visit, but now she is hopeful it may one day become a reality.
The session ended at 8:30 pm but the conversations continued for another half hour. The next Immigrant Experiences discussion in this series will be held Sunday, December 6th from 2-3:30. These gatherings are free and everyone is welcome, since in America, we or our parents or grandparents are all immigrants from somewhere.