For the Fourth of July, we asked a number of people who came to the United States from countries as far flung as Vietnam, Haiti, Somalia and the Soviet Union to write about their experiences. What was it like leaving their home countries and traveling so far to a strange land? And how do they feel about America today? Here’s what they wrote:
Garry Pierre-Pierre / Haiti: From a soccer game to an airplane ride to a new home in one day
I will never forget the day I left my sun-drenched Caribbean homeland for the bright lights of New York. I was playing an intense pickup match of soccer, as we did most afternoons in soccer-crazed Haiti. My cousin crashed our game when he came for me. I was told to go home to shower because I was going to the United States. Game over.
What would have been a dream for most Haitian boys my age left me stunned. I walked home dejectedly and was whisked to the airport. It was June 24, 1975. By the evening I found myself in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where I settled quite well in that hardscrabble city of immigrants 20 miles south of New York.
In high school I listened to funk music, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and hung out at the Jersey Shore like any normal teenager. My first experience with racism was on the soccer field. As a fierce left-back, I made a hard tackle on an opposing player from Westfield, our rich and snobbish rival. “Get off me you f—–g n—-r,” he yelled at me as we rolled on the pitch. I followed him across the field and manhandled him so much that he was substituted.
Unfortunately, that was the first of many instances when racism would rear its ugly head. One night, while I was walking home from the Florida A&M University campus, a Tallahassee police officer stopped me and asked me to sit in the car awaiting the description of a suspect. They were looking for a 6-foot-2-inch black man. I’m 5 feet, 6 inches.
But despite its flaws, I truly believe America is the greatest nation on Earth, something I impart to my children. The Trump administration has done its best to test Americans like me, those who’ve chosen to be Americans. The President’s unrelenting assaults on immigrants are disturbing.
But, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “This land is your land, this land is my land. … This land was made for you and me.”
Garry Pierre-Pierre is a multimedia journalist and the publisher and founder of The Haitian Times. He is a former reporter for The New York Times.
Ana Rodriguez / Mexico: My dad used to cry with frustration living in America. But we made it
My parents and I swam across the Rio Grande into the United States in 1995 when I was 4 years old. My family, farmers from Zacatecas, Mexico, just couldn’t make a living anymore selling their crops because cheaper American beans and corn flooded the Mexican market under NAFTA, so my parents and I went north to the land of opportunity. Once we were on US soil, we flew to Houston and moved in with my mom’s brother, my American aunt and my favorite cousin.
At the time, we were among the few Mexican immigrants in the neighborhood and no one spoke Spanish anywhere we went. Once, my dad walked a mile to the grocery store with me on his shoulders and cried the whole way. He was frustrated about not being able to speak English, not knowing how to drive, and wanted desperately to go back home where everything made sense. He told me not to worry, that he was just sweating, but I knew what he and Mom talked about when they thought I was sleeping.
I am one of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States facing anti-immigrant policies that threaten to tear me from my family and the country I call home. Despite a lifetime of hearing “go back to Mexico you f—–g wetback,” which made me feel like I would never be wanted in the place I now call home, and policies that have stripped my parents and me of our humanity and made it harder to survive, my family has thrived nonetheless.
I’ve earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, my education funded by my mom’s housekeeping and my dad’s carpet-layer salaries. My parents have purchased their home, the same one we first moved into when we moved to the States, and raised two ambitious kids. But, especially under this administration, our lives could be shattered through deportation at any moment.
My Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections are hanging by a thread since the Trump administration eliminated the DACA program with an executive order. By January 2 of next year I will lose my work permit, which has granted me protection from deportation and has allowed me to put my degrees to work.
Now that every undocumented person is a priority for removal, my family is in danger of deportation, despite being regular Americans who have contributed to the United States for a quarter of a century. Instead of being deported, families like mine need a pathway to citizenship. I will keep fighting for immigrant justice until we win.
Ana Rodriguez is an immigrant, social worker and the immigrant justice organizer with Colorado People’s Alliance. She is featured in Pabst Blue Ribbon’s America Dreaming documentary series, which highlights some of the unique voices of today’s ever-evolving America Dream.
Diep Tran / Vietnam: My parents had a choice – flee Vietnam or die. Now we’re all on a family vacation in Hawaii together
I’m writing this while sitting in a hotel in Maui, looking over the Pacific Ocean. My parents are upstairs, taking a post-lunch nap. On the other side of the ocean is where I was born: Vietnam. Sitting here, with a piña colada next to me, my sisters at the pool, I’m not sure my parents could have imagined this kind of life for us when we immigrated to California from Vietnam in 1985 and 1990. My sisters came in 1985, my parents and I came in 1990. It’s a complicated story, so I’m only focusing on part of it here.
They knew whatever awaited them across the Pacific was better than Saigon. My dad had fought in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War, the side the Americans fought with. After the war, he was punished for it by the communists. He was imprisoned for six years. That punishment extended to my father’s daughters, who were not allowed to go to college. They were under constant surveillance.
In 1985 my parents placed my sisters, age 11 and 13, on a boat to America by themselves. They could only afford those two spots. My sisters risked disease, rape and death. Their reward was freedom. “We gambled,” he told me. “It was better to risk death for the chance at life.”
My parents’ gamble paid off. My sisters survived, and in 1990 my parents and I followed them. And now we’re all in Hawaii together. We immigrated to America and went to college, bought houses, had babies and became the middle class. We are a symbol of how America’s generosity can pay itself back tenfold.
That doesn’t mean those early years in California were easy. My father graduated from university in Vietnam and he spoke fluent English. But in California, he became another nameless Asian man with an accent, working a minimum-wage job. No one chooses to work 12 hours a day until their back and feet ache. No one chooses to leave their homeland to become the “other.” No one places their child on a boat – unless they have no choice.
I read about families seeking asylum on our borders and being separated by the American government. There is a toxic assumption behind those actions: that immigrating is like taking an extended vacation, and “those people,” all they do is take and they don’t give back.
In Vietnam, my parents had no choice except one: “Leave or die.”
They chose the unknown, so my sisters and I could have better choices, like what to do tomorrow on vacation: snorkel or hike.
Diep Tran is the senior editor of American Theatre magazine and a freelance journalist.
Lev Golinkin / Soviet Union: The one thing America can do for immigrants that no other country can
I came to America when I was 10 years old, after my family fled anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and spent six months living as refugees in Austria. To this day, I’m amazed at how much we believed in the United States, even though we belonged to the USSR, America’s archenemy.
Soviet propaganda churned out lurid images of Americans as greed-consumed imperialists unable to view other people as anything other than subjects. But Soviet Jews whispered to each other different stories – stories of a place where we could live without fear. We knew no one in America, yet we believed the whispers.
And the United States believed in us as well. Even though we were citizens of a land that had nuclear missiles aimed at American cities, Ronald Reagan raised refugee quotas and let us in.
The hardest thing about being an immigrant in the United States is that, unlike people in other countries, most Americans have never dealt with a language barrier or culture shock. This lack of experience makes it all too easy for native-born Americans to conclude that just because you’re helplessly trying to navigate a supermarket, you’ve been helpless your entire life, or because you don’t have the language skills to express your opinion, you don’t have any opinions to begin with.
Yet despite that lack of experience, Americans are capable of extraordinary empathy toward strangers. Immigrants – true immigrants, not exchange students – seek new lives because their old ones have been destroyed. In most cases, the best you can hope for is a half-life: Your family can live in Sweden for generations, pay taxes, speak Swedish, but you’ll never be Swedes. But come to the United States, accent and all, and you can become an American. There’s no other place I know of that grants new life like that.
Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”
Rafia Zakaria / Pakistan: America gave me the confidence to speak out against injustice
I first came to the United States in the 1990s. I was only 18 years old, newly married to a man I barely knew, in a wedding others had arranged. The journey from Karachi, Pakistan, to the United States was the first time I’d been on an airplane.
Lost and bewildered, I did all the things that lost new immigrants do, walking along suburban roads with no sidewalks to get to stores with endless aisles. I befriended the elderly, often the only ones who had time to chat with someone like me – someone from a faraway place, like so many of their own fathers or mothers or grandmothers.
But America really became my own after I left my marriage. America became my refuge. It is where I hid from family disapproval in Pakistan. It is where I signed my first lease, bought my first car and passed the bar exam.
When I returned to Pakistan for extended visits in subsequent years, now an activist, an attorney and a writer, I said all the things that other women were afraid to say, demanding changes in laws that many believed to be Islamic but that I and other feminists knew to be simply misogynistic.
I said them on the record, in national and international newspapers, my courage whetted by the knowledge that I had a refuge in America. In America, I worked at a domestic violence shelter. I told woman after woman after woman that America would protect them, be there for them, that they need not be afraid.
Today, I am afraid, terrified by two orders. The first is the ban on travelers from five Muslim-majority countries (and two other countries) penned by President Donald Trump (affirmed in Trump v. Hawaii). The second is Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ order denying asylum to victims of domestic violence. This Fourth of July, I cannot reassure others because I cannot reassure myself.
I am a US citizen, but is that enough? I love America, but does America love me back?
Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler in New York City.
Abdikadir Negeye / Somalia: I spent 14 years in refugee camps. I am very lucky to be in America
Like so many immigrants, I came to the United States to escape violence, to live freely, to practice my religion, to become educated, and to make a better life for my family and myself.
I arrived in the United States in 2006 as a Somali refugee. I was young when my family, two parents and four siblings (two boys and two girls) fled Somalia’s civil war. We were lucky, at first, to make it to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where I lived for 10 years, followed by four years in another camp. Many were not as lucky, killed by wild animals during their migration or dying from hunger, thirst or disease.
Coming to the United States was not an easy process, with intensive interviews in a second Kenyan camp, Kakuma, and lots of waiting. At the last interview, officers from the Department of Homeland Security approved my family for resettlement. Getting that news was the happiest moment in my life. I was 18.
I’m so thankful to the US government for the opportunity to live safely, have access to a good education, and to become a US citizen, in February 2011. But there have been dark moments.
As a Muslim American, I have seen hatred, discrimination and harassment – several times I have been targeted. This is especially pronounced when dealing with US Customs and the Transportation Security Administration at airports, as it is for so many other minority groups.
As we prepare for July Fourth, a holiday celebrating the freedoms that the Founders fought for, the US Supreme Court has upheld the President’s controversial travel ban. It is a devastating moment for the Muslim community, creating fear and destroying the hopes of many refugees who still wait to follow a path like mine to a new life.
Many of us are afraid to travel. We cannot make our Hajj – pilgrimage – to Mecca, a pillar of Islam, without fear of what might happen when we reach the US border on the way back.
Muslim immigrants are not the only target. Two weeks ago, we watched as immigrant children were separated from their families. This is shameful and inhumane. The United States is no longer the home of the free and the brave. I’m a proud Somali-Muslim American, but I’m concerned about where our country is heading.
In order to thrive and succeed our nation needs to reach out to immigrants with tolerance and acceptance. Only then will America be great again.
Abdikadir Negeye lives in Lewiston, Maine. He is the co-founder and assistant director of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, an organization that educates and assists immigrant and refugee youth and their families and promotes a pathway toward citizenship and community engagement.
Juana B. Matias / Dominican Republic: My family came here for a better life. We found it
I came to this country with my parents from the Dominican Republic in search of a better life. The memory of boarding a plane from Santo Domingo to Boston when I was 5 years old feels like it was just yesterday. Although I had my family at my side, it was pretty scary at first. Leaving behind friends, family and a familiar home for a sea of unfamiliar faces speaking a language I couldn’t understand was daunting. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without my parents.
We came here in search of better opportunities – and used those opportunities to give back. My parents worked blue-collar factory jobs, often at minimum wage, and saved enough to open their own business and buy a home. I attended good public schools, graduated college and received a law degree by working my way through school.
America gave us those opportunities in the same manner she has given tens of millions of immigrants a chance to achieve the American dream, dating back to our founding. As we celebrate Independence Day, I’m thinking about all the strivers past and present – those people who came to these shores and achieved their American dream, and all those around the world with dreams of doing the same.
Hard work, perseverance, a good education and newfound opportunities gave me a chance to succeed and fueled my determination to help ordinary Americans. It inspired me to run for public office.
Despite the odds, I became just the second Latina to get elected as a state representative in Massachusetts’ history. Now, I’m running for Congress because as a woman, an immigrant and successful lawyer and state representative, I believe our diversity is what truly makes America great.
Juana B. Matias is a lawyer and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and a candidate for Congress for the 3rd Congressional District of that state. She lives in Lawrence, Mass.
Joel Martinez / Mexico: America is a precarious place to be an undocumented immigrant
I arrived in Texas from Mexico as a tourist when I was 4; we sought the kind of distance from domestic abuse only a border could provide. Since then, I have experienced a lot of what America has to offer. I’ve gone from living in poverty with no running water or electricity to graduate school at an Ivy League institution. The catch is, I’m undocumented.
My current DACA status places me in a precarious position in the public’s mind. I embody both the image of the deserving immigrant who won the American dream through merit – and of the irredeemable lawbreaker who must be sanctioned for failing to win the coveted birthright lottery.
I find both images inaccurate. American institutions throw up obstacles – inhumane immigration enforcement, crushing education costs, an anemic and racially exclusionary social safety net – that makes social mobility highly improbable, especially for an undocumented immigrant. The truth is, I was lucky.
At key moments in life when these obstacles limited my ability to live stably or move up despite hard work, altruistic strangers helped push me through. An incredible person took me under his wing and advocated for me when I was applying to college and securing financial grants. He was the reason I was able to go to college at a time when I was anxious about finding a job without documentation. I’m not evidence of the American dream. I’m an exception to a system that only recognizes certain people as legitimate humans.
I dream of an America that lives right there in those moments of altruism, when people don’t hesitate to lift others up knowing that we will all be better off for it. I hope that righteous spirit comes soon. We need it.
Joel Martinez is a psychology and social policy Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University where he focuses on discrimination and shared beliefs in social interactions.
Ilhan Omar / Somalia: My grandfather taught me about the promise of America
Fleeing one’s homeland is stressful and traumatic; no one should have to experience it. As an 8-year-old girl, I remember feeling lost; Somalia wasn’t home anymore, and we didn’t have a new one.
Living in a refugee camp in Kenya, basic needs like food, water and education were scarce. But we had hope and we had community, which helped fuel all of us in the camp, and gave us the courage to believe the future would be better.
My grandfather instilled in my siblings and me a sense of hope for what was to come. He presented us with the promise of America, a land of opportunity for all and a country governed by the people, which greatly excited him.
Upon arriving here in America, we quickly realized that the opportunity of which we dreamed was not readily available to many people already living here, let alone us as new Americans. Even though I was only 12 or 13, I remember confronting my family about the tangible disconnect between our dreams and reality. My grandfather and father encouraged me not to complain, but to do something about it. I learned then that if we want a certain world, we must work for it. Later, I learned that this is called organizing.
And so that is what I did. I became a coalition builder. In high school, when I saw racial and cultural divides, I helped form a unity and diversity group — a United Nations of students. I’ve been organizing ever since.
And two years ago, I became the first Somali-American legislator in the United States. This is something I could never have imagined as an 8-year-old living in a refugee camp. But now my reality could give hope to another young girl who is out there in the world looking for the promise of America.
Ilhan Omar is the assistant minority leader in the Minnesota Legislature and is a candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. She lives in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis with her husband and their three children.
This commentary is updated from an earlier version to clarify a passage in Diep Tran’s account. Both of her sisters arrived in the US in 1985.