I am not an immigrant, but the story that means the most to me is an immigration story. It is the story of my three best friends, the neighborhood we grew up in, and our childhood together.
I will never understand what the United States looks like from the outside looking in, but I caught glimpses of it through them. Their families were a window through which I could see outside of our own small town. One friend came from Venezuela in elementary school, the other from Kenya at about the same time, and the third is the son of two immigrants, a father from Jordan and a mother from Kuwait.
But the more people I talk to, the more I’ve realized that everyone has an immigration story.
In Philadelphia, more than a quarter of residents are either immigrants or U.S. natives with immigrant parents. Those 390,000 Philadelphians are a part of the city’s diverse immigrant communities, but they also are coworkers, relatives, friends, or spouses of Philadelphians who were not born in a different country.
So whether they were the child or the coworker of an immigrant, or an immigrant themselves, I went out to find these stories.
I spent two days riding the Broad Street Line and the Market-Frankford Line end to end. I got on buses and got off again. I walked around transit stations and waited at bus stops. Talking to as many people as I could so that the answers were vast and varied, I repeated the same question over and over again: What is your immigration story? Here are six of the answers.
Answers have been edited lightly for style and clarity.
“My grandma was smuggled out of Cuba as part of a CIA operation when she was a kid.“
Micheal Ibar’s immigration story does not begin with him or his parents, but with his grandparents. His grandfather was an immigrant and his grandmother was smuggled out of Cuba in a CIA operation that brought Cuban children to the U.S. during the early years of Fidel Castro’s Communist government.
“[My grandmother] was from a pretty affluent family and within a couple years they were deep in poverty because the regime had taken everything. She was split up from her family too because they were doing that with the richer families — kind of demonizing them. Her family was prominent in a certain part of Cuba because they owned a movie-theater chain. That was their thing. They took all that, and they got put into camps, almost like internment camps. After that, she got smuggled out and eventually their whole family made it to the United States, but it took a long time.”
“She asked me, ‘Why do you people hate us?’ “
Arianna Collins was working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in 2016 when some of her coworkers came in the day after the election so upset that they had to step out during their shift. Many of them were Albanian immigrants. Collins said she couldn’t understand it, that they were good people, came to work like everybody else, and were just trying to provide for their families. Later that same day, a customer pulled her aside to ask her a question.
“There was this older woman with an Eastern European accent who I used to serve just a small hot coffee every day. And she came up to me the day after the election and said, ‘Excuse me miss, I can talk to you for a second?’ I thought it was going to be related to her coffee or something, but she looked me in the eyes and she asked me, ‘Why do you people hate us?’ And it was just a very sad moment. This woman had got the impression that everyone must hate her because she is an immigrant. I couldn’t believe that. I was ashamed to come from a country that was making people feel that way.”
“When you get an opportunity, you just have to kind of jump on it.”
Mohamad Birr immigrated to the United States last year from the West African country of Guinea-Bissau. He said that besides missing his family and the food from home, he has been adjusting well.
“The way I came here, I received my green card and Social Security. That’s the way I came here, legally. I haven’t had any problems. … I think it’s good that there are a lot of West Africans here [in West Philadelphia]. The diversity of the people in the United States [is a good thing]. I’ve met a lot of people from everywhere. Right now I am studying at the Community Learning Center and just trying to get my GED. It’s kind of hard, but sometimes when you get an opportunity, you just have to kind of jump on it. It’s like that. That’s life.”
“I was born in Mongolia and spent the first three years of my life in an orphanage.”
When Melissa Malcom was 3 years old, she left an orphanage in Mongolia to come to the United States. She was adopted by an American family and went to a small grade school in South Jersey where everyone knew about her background because she was never shy to talk about it. In that sense, she says, she doesn’t feel as if she had the same struggles that other immigrants might have.
“It’s just a different experience because I was adopted. We didn’t come over as a family. Both my parents are American citizens. … I did have to learn English, and that was a little difficult at first. It’s really funny, though. My name’s Melissa, but my nickname is Mo because when I came to the U.S. I couldn’t say Melissa. I would always say Mo-lissa. … My parents did [take the time to remind me of my Mongolian heritage], but they never forced it on me, it was my decision. I know other adoptees and got to really connect with them, and I was raised in a very Italian Catholic family, so I’m a good mixture.”
“Growing up around people from all over, you understand that this is not it.“
Max Rosencrans grew up next to an international school in New York and some of his closest childhood friends are immigrants. As a child, he and his friends didn’t think a lot about their differences in nationality. “It wasn’t a thing,” he said, because everyone was from all over anyway.
“My closest friends: One of them is Indian — his parents both grew up India and then moved here; one of them is Israeli — his parents both grew up there and then moved here. I have another friend from Madagascar — his parents are both from there. … Growing up around people from all over, you understand that this is not it. What you’re experiencing in your neighborhood, or community, or even in the country, is not necessarily the norm all over. Growing up with those kids I knew that there was a whole different world. If you never knew anybody that wasn’t from your area or your neighborhood, or there was a divide between the people from your area and people from somewhere else, then I could see how you could demonize people and separate them. But when you’re together it’s a lot easier to have a more sensible approach when it comes to politics and immigration.”
“I should be content with what I have.”
Nzinga Lloyd is a North Philadelphian and student at the University of Delaware. She said that through friends like one from Sierra Leone, the immigrant perspective has given her perspective on her own life.
“The role that immigrants play to me personally is making me understand that I should be content with what I have. I have a friend who came from Sierra Leone. At the time her family was escaping terror. She even did some presentations in front of the class about what she experienced in Sierra Leone and it was tragic, it was traumatic. So when I think about that, I think about what problems I have today or disadvantages I think I may have, things could definitely be worse and I should be grateful for what I have right now.”
What’s your immigration story?
Reporting this piece, I learned that everyone has an immigration story to tell. Share your story with me at email@example.com. 150 words is a good length. Feel free to include a photo and please include your contact info.