In their own words | May 15, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Community - May 15, 2019

In their own words

The people featured in Mark Tuschman's photography exhibit, Immigrants are US, offered glimpses of their lives in essays, which are included on the website, along with more photos.

They are the stories of immigrants who have become medical and legal professionals, as well as those who harvest our food in the fields of California's farmland, and those who have fled horrendous violence in their native land.

They are stories of people who are in this country legally, and some who live in constant fear of being deported and never seeing their families again. All are contributing to our society in fundamental ways.

Here are a few of their stories.

Odette Harris. Neurosurgeon at Stanford University Medical Center. Born in Jamaica.

"I did experience discrimination growing up. ... And I still experience discrimination. ... there are endless stories of racism that I have as a clinician, like being asked to clean the bathroom when wearing a white jacket and a nice dress underneath. None of the external indicators apply when the dominant perception is race. Because for any other person wearing a white coat, the assumption is that they're a doctor, but that doesn't apply to me. ...

Also, if you are a person of color in Silicon Valley, it's incredibly complicated. Sometimes we joke back and forth like, "How many black people have you seen this week?" And the answer is, "You."

We live in communities where we don't make up a whole percent, sometimes. That can be eroding to us, as well as to our children and their experiences in the world. They have very few role models. They can go their entire academic career never having had a teacher of color. Those kinds of influences sociologically have an impact on our kids, and yet that's where we live and that's the culture."

Theresa. Born in Mexico. Farm worker.

I am from Vera Cruz, Mexico. I have been here for 15 years mostly doing farmwork.

I was a victim of domestic violence in Mexico. I had to leave my children with my mother and I have not seen them for fifteen years. ... I was five months pregnant with my last child and my husband bit off part of my nose. ... I left as soon as I could.

It was a difficult journey. I remember I was with a group of all men crossing a river. The nighttime patrol came by and I ran into a ditch and fell and broke my foot. The men helped me go back to Mexico to Cuidad Juarez. I had an operation there and was there for 3 months recovering. I had to pay back my expenses so they sent me as a runner to go and collect the money from the immigrants crossing for the coyotes. I was on crutches and had to carry a lot of money. I felt pretty vulnerable. It took 3 months of working to pay off my debt before I could come across.

I have a new husband and two young girls. I do not depend on any public assistance. I pay for my own way and my kids as well. I like the work that I do growing food.

Our life here is very tentative. I live with fear. I have young girls and if I get deported what will happen to them? I would like to be here legally and have some paperwork so we can work here but we can also go to Mexico and come back. We are not criminals. We are not here to hurt anyone.

Iliana Perez. Research analyst at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and doctoral candidate. Born in Mexico. "My family came here in 1995 from Mexico, from near Mexico City. The reason we made the difficult choice to come is because there was an economic recession in Mexico at the time. My parents were facing extreme economic hardships so they made the decision, like millions of other individuals, to come to this country so my younger brother and I could have a better life. ...

I have known I was undocumented since I was very young. My parents stressed the importance of education very early on, since we were in Mexico. So, I did excel in school from the moment I got here ... .

Anybody can come to this country, invest, and start a business. We all get either a Social Security Number or an ITIN Number, and everybody can pursue entrepreneurship as long as we pay our taxes. I began working as an independent contractor with my degree in math and started to think about how all this tied in with immigration. I am currently a DACA recipient so I do have relief from deportation. But it is estimated that about 900,000 undocumented individuals across the country are entrepreneurs. They may not be able to get work authorization, but they can hire US citizens.

So, in contrast to the idea undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs, many individuals are actually creating jobs for other folks.

Umair Khan. Entrepreneur, mentor and co-founder of Zareen's restaurant. Born in Pakistan.

I was lucky enough to be accepted at MIT. I and Zareen (his wife) met when we were in high school. So we had a very expensive AT&T-enabled relationship for four years, at $3.50 per minute per call. Then... we got married and I came back for graduate school at MIT. I was on F1 student visa, but she was on F4 which is "spouse of student" visa — the lowest rung in the visa totem pole. She wasn't allowed to work. She was an MBA, had worked at big companies in Pakistan and suddenly, she was homebound. But then luckily, she applied to Northeastern and became a graduate student. ...

There are a lot of great things about this country, but for me, as a former school teacher and current college lecturer, the greatest thing about America is the college educational system. That's what attracted me to America. Growing up in Pakistan, we all dreamed of the big name colleges. That is America's great magnet for the best minds in the world. Sadly, this is the first time last year that applications of international students are down compared to the year before. That's never happened. And that is a very worrying statistic.

Zareen Khan. Restaurateur and chef. Born in Pakistan.

For me, even more than the creative part of cooking, what I love most is that my restaurant lets people see who we are as immigrants, introduce our culture and our hospitality to them.

Folks come here and are on tables nearby because we're kind of cramped for space. So people on adjacent tables — strangers who have never met — will start to bond over our food. You'll see Indians and Pakistanis explaining the cuisine to Americans and getting to know one another through a shared love of food. ...

The restaurant is a joyous symbol of the best of the immigrant experience. This is a restaurant that ultimately, at the end of the day, gives a lot of happiness to a lot of people. When you see the crowds and the bustle and lines out at the door, everybody is happy. And every skin color, every religion comes through our doors. You have people who've never had spicy food in their life, they've never had curry, they barely know Pakistani food and they taste the fruits of an immigrant's experience and the good fortune that this immigrant was welcomed here 30 years ago. ...

I think immigrants add a lot of color to our culture. You experience different cuisine, different ways of living, different mindsets, different ideas from a different parts of the world. It all adds to the fabric of America.

Nahal Iravani-Sani. California Superior Court judge. Born in Iran.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran is what prompted our immigration here. My parents uprooted from their life back in Iran for the promise of freedom, education, and opportunities for my sister and me.

It was a challenging time being an immigrant from Iran, in the midst of the 1979 hostage crisis. ....I was the new kid, with the funky accent, from Iran. ...But despite the challenges, we loved being here. We did our best to assimilate wholeheartedly. Fast forward to 1995. I was the first Iranian-American to be sworn in as a Deputy District Attorney in Santa Clara County. ...

I remember being in court one day and a defense attorney coming up to me saying, "Excuse me, are you the Spanish interpreter? Do you know when the DA is going to get here?" I was sitting at counsel table — where the DA always sits. But even despite my location and the files in front of me, it was difficult for people to recognize I'm actually the deputy district attorney prosecuting the cases. I said "No I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish — and I AM the D.A." I wasn't offended. I don't think he meant any disrespect. It occurred to me that he just didn't know better. ...

If we have a diverse bench that is reflective of the community it serves — everyone from different ethnicities, races, socio-economic classes — the larger community will see that the presider of justice, the one making rulings and making decisions, is somebody that looks like them. It promotes public confidence in the judiciary and in our legal system."


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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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