The earliest memory I have of being a young immigrant was at the playground of my brother’s elementary school. Picking him up with my mom was one of the nicest things to do on a sunny spring afternoon. Especially getting to play with the other kids at the park near the school. I didn’t have many friends at the time being that we were new from India and my mom couldn’t speak English, making it harder for her to communicate with other moms. At this point, I had already spent 2 and a half years in India and we hadn't become accustomed to the culture in America. To put into simpler term, clothes weren’t a big deal in India. My mom dressed me in hand me downs from my brother all the time. One afternoon a few kids on the playground thought that it would be alright to mention the fact that I was wearing boyish clothes and my short hair. At that moment, as a three-year-old child, I thought that I would never be the same as my peers. My mom told me after this I wouldn’t go with her to pick my brother up unless my hair was open and I had a dress or skirt on. This fear carried on with me up until middle school. I would lie about the fact that I was an immigrant and I would often pretend that I didn’t know how to speak my native language. I would’ve done anything that made me feel fit in. I’ve come to realize that being an immigrant is a part of my identity and it isn’t anything that I should be ashamed about. Being an immigrant, especially being someone who is offered education and has the ability to speak about the unjust things done to undocumented and even documented immigrants is important to me. I don’t think my story is special, I think it’s something all immigrants can relate to and I hope that anyone who reads this can feel less alone.
Anonymous '22 (BHSEC Queens)
i mamá dijo ayer, “Cuando me hablas inglés, siento que tu no eres mi hija. Debes hablar más en bengalí.” Cuando tenía cuatro años, hablaba bengalí todos los días, con fluidez, pero después de asistir a la escuela, hablaba más en inglés. Yo comencé a olvidar el idioma de mi gente, el idioma que mis parientes pelearon por tener. Es un poco triste que la única palabra que puedo escribir en mi propio idioma es mi nombre, pero puedo escribir un párrafo en una lengua que no es mía. Sí, yo estudio español en la escuela pero bengalí es donde mi corazón está. Mis padres inmigraron a EEUU por una buena vida para mi hermano y yo. Viví en Nueva York toda mi vida, pero no soy completamente americana. Mis padres son de Bangladés, pero no soy completamente bengalí. Estoy en el intermedio, y siempre voy a estar en el intermedio. No deseo borrar mi cultura.
Loose Translation: Yesterday, my mom told me, "When you talk to me in English, I feel like you aren’t my daughter. You should speak Bengali more often.” When I was 4 years old, I used to speak Bengali consistently and fluently, but after I started school I started to speak English more. I started to forget the language of my people, the language my relatives fought for. It's sad that the only word I can write in my own language is my name, but I can write paragraphs in a language that isn't mine. Yes, I study English for school, but Bengali is where my heart is. I've lived in NYC my whole life but I'm not completely American. My parents are from Bangladesh but I'm not completely bengali. I am in the middle and I will always be in the middle. I don’t want to erase my culture.
Anonymous '22 (BHSEC Queens)
Author's Note: I found people’s immigration stories and anonymously shared them if they were comfortable with me doing it. They answered questions like “why did you come? How did you come? What were some struggles you faced?”
Anonymous '21 (BHSEC Queens)
Like many first generation I have a part of me that I don't tend to show or say. Half of me is this American, born and raised in a huge city. But the other half, well it's a girl from Mexico. But not the nice sunny and beach part. No from a poor small puebla near two volcanoes. And although it isn't the city, it also from where I live as I am still half of my parents who would tell me the stories of their childhood there. The cara de nopal that has been bestowed upon me, allows me to share those stories so that others can understand and as well. So they can see life in someone else's eyes. A part of me holds the story of boy who, at a young age, was always looking for their older brothers who had gone to the military for money and work. Another is of a girl who wanted to help and save the lives of those who were ill, but was stuck between her dream and supporting her family. My parents would always tell me "para nosotros era el campo primero, y luego la tarea si podimos" which means "for us it was the fields first, then the homework if we could". They didn't make it that far, but that doesn't mean they didn't try. When fate united them, they came here so that their children can have a chance a dream that they couldn't, a chance to escape so that I didn't have to focus on labor. And the same thing can be said by many others who had come to this country. I may not be an immigrant myself, but doesn't mean I don't hold the story of one. Everything is done for a reason. I am saying this so that those whose names cannot be given, can have a voice that can never be taken down. I will use my rights as a citizen to protect those who keep silent in the dark with a story like no other.
Jessica '21 (BHSEC Queens)
“I’m home,” I announced as I opened the front door. I took off my shoes, put my bag down, and hung my jacket on the coat rack behind the door (it drives my mom crazy when we leave our jackets on the couch), and ran into my parents’ room like I do everyday when I come home. I gave my mom a big hug and flopped down on her bed.
“I decided that I’m gonna write a story about you for my final literature project! Aren’t you excited?” I ask her.
“What exactly are you writing about?” she replies, not so excitedly.
“Your immigrant experience and stuff. Like how you came over to America at such a young age, when things were less modern, and how Grandma and Grandpa came over too, and their story, you know? So I’m going to have interview you a lot, so prepare yourself.”
“Oh my god,” she exclaims. “So you’re going to bother me even more than usual now?” (She was joking - sort of.)
“Yup,” I reply. “Aren’t you excited?”
A couple days later…
It was already around 9:30 pm-ish, but I couldn’t sleep, and my mom was still awake, so I decided to go ask her a few questions, namely, when she had come over to America. I always know that my grandparents came over first, but I wasn’t sure when, or where they stayed. So I walked across the hallway and crawled into her bed. My older sister, who didn’t have school the next day, was already there.
“What are you doing? Don’t you have to go sleep now?” my mom asked me as she slathered moisturizer onto her face.
“Yeah,” I replied. “But I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I might as well ask you a few questions for my final.”
“Ok,” she said reluctantly. “Hurry up. Maybe you should get under the covers so that you’ll get tired quicker.”
“So when did you come to America?” I asked her.
“September 16, 1984. My twelfth birthday.” she said.
“And did you always know you were coming to America, or is it something your parents had to tell you?”
“No. It was always something we had talked about, it was just a matter of how long it would take for the paperwork to go through. Your grandpa’s brother, Chacha Kewal, sponsored us. He had gotten through on a student visa, but ended up in the Army for four years.” My mom’s Chacha Kewal died in March 2018, and I remember my grandfather telling that exact story, crediting his younger brother for his success in America. Chacha Kewal (Chacha means “uncle,” referring to the father’s brother) was the exact model of the American Dream. He came to America as a young man who had two dreams to fulfill: to open his own mechanic shop, and buy a Mustang. By the time he passed away, he was successful in both, and he worked hard all his life to maintain his success.
“So Grandma and Grandpa stayed with him when they came to America, then?” I asked. I knew that they had come over before my mom and her siblings, but I didn’t know exactly what they did during those three months.
“Yes,” my mom replied. “They came in June, and left us with your Grandma’s sister in Guyana. They went to Jersey City, where Chacha Kewal and his wife lived. The whole point of them coming here before us was to find a place to live and to get jobs.” My mom and her entire family lived in Jersey City when they came to America, and most of her family still lives there. Everyone lived blocks away from each other - my grandfather’s three sisters and his brother, and their families. In fact, my mother ended up going to the same high school as all of her cousins, even though they didn’t all attend at the same time.
“So what was it like when you first came to America?” I asked her.
“Well, I remember the first thing I told my dad when I saw him was ‘Daddy, e got grass ova heh too!’ For some reason, I thought that there wasn’t any grass in America. We came in at JFK airport with one of your grandparents’ friends. We went to Jersey City, and then, we had only been staying with Chacha Kewal for a couple days when his wife told him that she didn’t want us there, for no reason, and he had to kick us out.”
“Really?” I exclaimed. (I never knew this part of the story.) “I never liked that lady anyway. So where did you guys end up going?”
“We went to your grandfather’s cousin. We ended up staying there until we got a place in November,” my mom said.
“What about school?” I asked. “When did you start?”
“A fews day after we came,” she replied.
“Really?” I scoffed. “Are you kidding?” I, frankly, couldn’t believe that she came to America, and a few days later, was thrown into the public school system.
“You don’t believe me? We started a couple days after, because it was a Sunday when we came,” she said.
“What grade did you start in?” I asked.
“I was put in seventh grade, at first, but then I transferred to eighth grade because I already knew everything,” she said. I couldn’t help but smile, because of course she had transferred grades. My mom has always been the perfect child. When my grandparents were working two, three jobs at a time, my mom would come home from school, cook (which she had been doing since eight years old), clean, take care of her siblings, then do her homework, and by the time she was in high school, working at the local CTown. AND, she swears she never once got a bad grade. (I’ve always argued with her on that one, but I still haven’t gotten her to admit one failure.)
“What were the kids like? Did you go to school with a lot of white kids? DId anyone ever make racist remarks?” I asked.
“Kids used to insult us all the time, even in eighth grade. They would spit on us, tell us we smelled bad, and call us ‘Hindus.’” she said. “And yes, even though there were a lot of Indian kids, there were much more white kids.”
“What was high school like?” I asked my mom. She never really discussed the topic with us, besides her spotless record and good grades. Deep down, I always hoped that it was because she was some kind of low key rebel, but I knew that it wasn’t true.
“Nothing memorable,” she said. “I got good grades.”
“Did you have a lot of friends?” I asked. I knew for a fact that all of her siblings were popular, but I wasn’t sure about her. My mom’s always been really funny, and just generally a great person, but I think that being a little wild was a necessity to be popular in high school, and my mother never had that choice, because she had to take care of her other siblings.
“Well, I mainly hung out with my cousins, and your Aunty Rosh and Mamoo’s friends,” she said. (“Mamoo” is a word for uncle, referring to your mother’s brother.)
This next part is a little short, because my mom was being a little uncooperative. (She said that I was stressing her out with all my questions, but she still answered them.)
After my mom graduated high school, she went on to get a job as a secretary at a company called J. Gerber in Manhattan, and she worked there for two years. She left after finding a better offer at a company located in the World Trade Center, and she worked for three years. In December, 1998, when she was twenty-seven, she met my dad. She had went Guyana for a funeral, and he lived right across the street from where she was staying. If you’ll recall, she was staying at the exact same place before she came to America. He told her that he had gotten a Visa, and was planning to come to America. She gave him her number, and as she claims, it was not because she liked him, but because she “just wanted to.” He came in January 1999, and on May 31st, 1999, they got married.
Jatila Gayadin '22 (BHSEC Queens)
This is a fictional account told in the perspective of a Jewish forced migrant during World War II. Its inspiration is taken from “We Refugees” by Hannah Arendt and “We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter.
Home. Home is a universal term for safety and compassion and nourishment. For comfort and acceptance and freedom. Home is where you are confident and where others love and support you unconditionally. Home can be a place, person, thing, or feeling, but most importantly, we all have a home. Even in times of great despair, with no sense of belonging, home can be found within oneself, or in one’s dreams, or in a lonely landscape of nothingness. Feelings of home arise as we remember the faces and laughter and voices of those we love, of those who are our home. But as the relentless ticks of clocks pester us at all hours, as the impressions of those most dear to us fade, as the days and nights blur into one, we realize how little we are left with. The air strangles us, the sun blinds us, the moon fails in illuminating our blackened world, but the stars glisten. “We think the stars more reliable advisers than all our friends” (Arendt, 1994). They guide us. But can they guide us home? Are they our home? They hold their place above us and disappear only at day break. Their lustrous shine captivates us, yet they are untouchable, exploding balls of gas that burn millions of miles away. Yet somehow we can still see them, and somehow, everyone sees the same stars.
Our friends, who have left us, rendering us helpless, forcing us to surrender to the weight of the truth, see our stars. They have fled and been taken and confined in this brutal world as their lives tantalize them, as their memories fall just beyond their reach. They are blind to anything that stands in their way; blind to everything but the stars. Our families vanished, leaving no trace, no way to ever know if they have survived through this hellish reality, or if they have succumbed to the persistent beating heart of evil. Seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months, and years pass without a tinge of joy or sorrow or anger or fear. Life pases by, but the stars remain to count the days and nights of solitude. Alone, all sounds are the same deafening volume, tainted with equal amounts of terror and excitement. But the silence extinguishes the warmth within us before any noise penetrates our ears, before any feeling of hope can creep into our hearts. In these melancholic times, all we can wish for is that those we love can see our stars.
As we do the impossible, as we attempt to accept and forget, we must will ourselves to survive. We must conjure motivation out of grief and defeat. We must project our ideas because not only have we been abandoned by those who love us and those who hate us, but we have been stripped of our rights. Our freedom torn from our hands. Our voices dampened, ignored, and unheard. Our thoughts slashed from our minds because they were threatening. We are called “refugees” as if we are no longer humans, as if displacement and genocide revoke our dignity and our right to live alongside others. And while we have sought refuge, and we have suffered, and the course of our lives have changed dramatically, we are more than just a title. A degrading and dehumanizing title. A title of pity. Of disgust. We are told to remain in the shadows. They say we are lucky, that we have come to a better place. They say they will protect us from hatred and destruction, but in order to be safe, we must be invisible. How can we thrive if we are only allowed to survive in the dark? How can we feel welcome in the place supposed to be our new home as we continue to live under restraints? How can we be happy as we know our world shatters? “How?” we ask, “How is it possible?” We need explanations and consolations, yet we know they are unobtainable. We have been deprived of so much, but we still have the stars.
Inés Rossi '21 (BHSEC Queens)
When people ask me where I am from, I don’t think twice. I’ve grown up with so many Vietnamese traditions and values that I am not from New York, I answer them, “I’m from Vietnam”. Vietnamese culture is engraved in my mind like a scar that won’t go away; it is something I can never let go or be embarrassed by. Judith Ortiz Cofer, the author of El Olvido, brought forward a striking question: what is the importance of culture? Culture is a very prominent factor that shaped me to be who I am today. It taught me to be open minded to all kinds of food and to be respectful to not only my elders but to everyone around me. My culture taught me to be grateful of the roof over my head and a family that loves me no matter what. In the poem, Cofer stresses the dangers of forgetting one’s culture, more specifically, choking out “the voices of dead relatives / when in dreams they call you / by your secret name.” I asked myself, what did the author mean by ‘secret name’? I immediately thought, Thảo, my Vietnamese middle name. I couldn’t imagine a time where I would reject my “secret name”, my identity. Thảo isn’t just the Vietnamese name my parents gave me when I was born, it is the smell of phở when I come home from school, the lì xì I receive during New Years, or the red áo dài I still have in my closet when it was Cultural Day in elementary school. Lastly, it is a part of me I can never forget, but can this be said for all people? At what point is Cofer’s claim invalid? My parents, for instance, had to assimilate to American culture when they immigrated to New York. It wasn’t because they disliked Vietnamese culture, it was because, in order to succeed and fully reap the benefits of the American Dream, they needed to forget Vietnam and the war they escaped. Of course, not entirely, but enough to understand and focus on the new world they entered. My dad came to New York by himself, without his mom or dad and without his brother or sister. Vietnamese culture was definitely not something my dad mainly valued when he started his education in America. His heart may have belonged with his parents back in their small home in Nha Trang but his reality was right in front of him: learning English from scratch and the Statue of Liberty. My dad knew that his family sacrificed so much for him to come to America that just as my middle name is my identity, my dad’s identity was forcefully altered. The same can be said for my mom who had 20 dollars in her pocket when she arrived in America. At the time, in order for my mom to be respected by her co-workers and her boss, she had to partially forget her culture.
My name means “princess,” at least that’s what my dad always tells me. I never believed him, since Google, along with every word processor out there, thinks that my name is some misspelled version of another word. I always thought of a princess having everything that she could possibly want or having the means to get those things, something that I never thought of having myself. A girl of color who wears the hijab being privileged? It’s unheard of. I couldn’t be a princess when my ‘castle’ was a one bedroom apartment that was missing half my family. There was no princess with divorced parents or an estranged sister. I couldn’t be a princess when I was nothing like one.
I never knew what it was like to have anything handed to me, and neither did my immigrant parents. Growing up watching them get through everything, despite all the obstacles in their path, taught me that I could too. My mom had to switch between jobs constantly and paying for bills and housing was really difficult for us. I had to take on more responsibility at a younger age because of all that my parents did already. I was left to form my ambitions on my own because I had no one to help me through that. The closest thing I had were my older siblings, but my sister left when I was 10 and just starting to figure out my passions and my brother was more closed off. I was the one who had to stay home and deal with the ruins that were left behind by what used to be my family. Having to take on such a heavy load caused me to grow up and mature quicker than any child wants to.
I never knew what it was like to feel completely treated as an equal. It was hard not being taken as seriously by teachers just because I was a girl. I’ve had multiple incidents where male teachers would encourage male students to take a harder class or take advantage of a certain opportunity, wheres I didn’t have that same type of support even though my performance was as high, if not higher. Those incidents unfortunately hindered me from pushing myself to take harder classes in the past because I simply didn’t think I could. I let things like that hold me back because I didn’t have the confidence in my abilities that I have now. While I needed it before, now I don’t need the approval of someone else and I can push myself on my own.
I was also forced to grow accustomed to being treated as lesser than others. I learned to put up with the casual racism, bigotry, and Islamophobia that I encountered in everyday life. It wasn’t uncommon for me to face ridicule from strangers in the streets or to deal with criticism from my own friends. Even as a child, I just was never able to wrap my head around why I wasn’t treated like others. I could never understand why it should matter if my skin was darker than others or if I covered my hair. Those negative experiences shaped me into not only someone who is unapologetically herself, but also someone who knows to be tolerant and accepting of others.
In a way, the person who I am today, along with all that I hope to accomplish in the future, stemmed from what I didn’t have growing up and all the challenges that I faced along the way. I became mature because I had to take on more responsibility at a younger age. I became resilient because I had to do things by myself which took more effort than having things handed to you. I want to pursue a STEM-field career, not only because it interests me, but because I have yet to see someone like myself in that field. I want to be a catalyst for change because I grew up feeling so insignificant because I couldn’t do anything to help others. I want to fight for equality because as a female Muslim person of color, I have never experienced it and no one should have to be treated as anything less than human. While I may not have grown up like a princess, I’ve turned what has burdened me the most into my drive to do better.
By: Anonymous '18 (BHSEC Queens)
Dear Mom and Dad:
“School is good.” This was my response when met with grandma’s usual chain of questions one evening at her house. It was then followed by a head swung back in laughter following a comment about my growth in height, a few nods, and an invitation to eat the freshly made dishes on the table. My older cousins greeted me in the hall as they too, made their way to Grandma, and struck an immediate conversation like the rekindling of fire. From the side, I stared longingly, hoping to latch onto their playful banter. They seem immersed in their conversation, which was completely spoken in Chinese and too fast for me to follow with my beginner-level vocabulary. You both were mingling with Auntie and Uncle, while I was left alone, surrounded by the perpetual noise of loud dialogue in a dialect that was unfamiliar to me.
At the dinner table, Grandma made remarks about how I should have been picking up Mandarin quicker seeing as I was a young child, and then she began lecturing you both about how it was a shame that you didn’t formally teach me the language. Her voice, rising with emotion, crescendoed through her tiny apartment. I released the bursts of compressed air that collected in my lungs out of the frustration that suddenly struck me. I helplessly averted my gaze to contemplate the food getting cold on my plate, while both of you quietly submitted to the faults of your parenting by paying lip service to her rant. A look of defeat plastered your faces, almost as though all of the pride you had in raising me, was utterly shattered and torn apart. Despite Grandma’s dissatisfaction, I do not think that your failure to familiarize me with the mother tongue is a failure at all. Like an old, old record, you’ve consistently retold stories about how tremendous the task it was moving to the other side of the world, only to work 12 hours a day doing menial labor, and finally, making a stable living for your family. Working job after job exposed you to ridicule from those who opposed the “foreignness” of our food and particularly, our language.
When my brother and I were born, you were determined for us to become proficient in English out of the fear that if we weren’t, we would face the same battle of alienation you both had to fiercely fight through.
Growing up, I picked up a few phrases and words from your frequent late-night conversations, but even then, you spoke to me in a string of broken English peppered with words in Mandarin. When we attended family dinner parties, I had always felt like the black sheep, unable to utter a single coherent sentence in the mother tongue. I’d walk between relatives, hoping they wouldn’t decide to begin a conversation with me only to realize I couldn’t keep up with what they were saying. Am I authentic? Did they think I’m rejecting my heritage? These were thoughts I’d began to wonder. I’d felt entirely unbelonging to my heritage; an imposter who’s efforts to claim their ethnicity felt essentially futile.
Both of you, sensing this, bought flashcards with Chinese characters and beginner words on them in hopes that I could suddenly converse with my relatives and validate my position in my cultural background. This method, as you both knew extremely well, did not work. With the exception of a few words, the extent of my knowledge about Mandarin had not improved. But, by being surrounded by others who also come from immigrant families for most of my life, I’ve learned that others can also resonate. Despite what Grandma had said, it was simply the result of being in a primarily english-speaking country and not having the exposure necessary to be fluent in a second language.
It is the same fear of alienation that perpetuates the bias you have on the careers that are more traditionally lucrative. You like to assume that in college, I’ll be flocking to a pre-med program or enrolling in an engineering class when, in reality, I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. Your fears are translated into the desire for me to acknowledge the idea that the path to the American Dream is paved by one of the five career choices. You refuse to subject your children to a life of hardships, so you advocate these things because you know what’s “best for me”. While I appreciate your plan for me to blossom into a successful adult with a profitable future, I want you to be able to support me in whatever venture I pursue in the future.
I’m asking you to free your guilt and responsibility towards my inability to speak Chinese. I’m asking you to no longer be fearful of the mentality of this country, particularly that of those who dismiss our experience. I’m asking you to not buy into the notion that the only way to be happy and successful is by limiting yourself to a bubble of options. Most of all, I’m asking you to never let the hope you’ve always instilled in me disappear inside yourselves.
By: forrestsarecool '19 (BHSEC Queens)
A movie theater owner and a hotel worker with an 18 month-old son escape the insurgency that would’ve guaranteed the death of the theater owner. One KLM flight, a rat-infested apartment in Astoria, and another son later, the husband traded the film lining for a backpack of tools and the fame of New York City, and the wife traded her uniform for a life of helping people without judgement. The son is the reason first-graders can read books just from picking out of monthly online and paper catalogs.
As the immigrant is fractured by the persecution and indoctrination of their individual identity, they realize something much bigger as they step afoot in America; the fracture in their heart is now healing. As a matter of fact, the heart is becoming stronger; much stronger to the point that it expands and stretches to its surroundings to benefit it. The immigrant constructs buildings with the steel of chains it has unshackled.
It’s especially important to note that this same building holds a strong foundation in the integrity and admiration of their culture. The building scaled by the owner and the hotel worker was built upon the recognition of human rights, a love for soccer and raï, and speech with a rich variety of Arabic, French, English, and Tamazight. This is the ground that I stand upon.
I’m convinced that the American immigrant is not just a narrative of self-made success and tearing down barriers, but a microcosm for the rapid expansion of the universe. A small yet momentous decision that has led to a world that encapsulates many other stories; and this universe has a strong force that is adamant to give up its expansion.