Ben’s Immigration Story – Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Corvallis, Oregon

Childhood

Ben and his six siblings grew up in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His mother stayed home, and his father had a high-profile job, working as the financial advisor to the President of the Senate. Ben witnessed how hard his father worked so his children could have the best of everything from an early age.

Above: A photo of Ben’s father on his phone

“We were going to an expensive school when he could have put us in another school to save money. He did his best for my brother and me to come to the US and have the best opportunity.”  

Ben could see how fortunate his family was compared to many other families. Kinshasa is a busy city with many people out in the street finding ways to make some money – cutting hair, carrying things, holding open doors, selling candy. 

“There is a lot of joy in my country. Even if the country is in a very bad situation, they try to have fun and enjoy life.” 

Ben does not miss Kinshasa’s inefficient public transportation. He explains how it is common to have to fight to get on the bus at rush hour. Ben does miss how social riding the bus can be.

“You would be inside the bus, and then someone would comment on politics, or soccer or music. Everyone on the bus would start talking about that specific topic, and you would all be talking with random people.” (audio below)

United States

Ben didn’t grow up planning to study outside of the DRC, and he definitely didn’t want to go to the US. He had heard too many stories of racism there. 

Ben, who grew up speaking French, was attending a private American school in the Congo to learn English, and the school had a presentation about studying in the US that intrigued Ben. His brother already went to Portland Community College in Oregon, and Ben’s dad thought Ben should go to the US too. These events catalyzed Ben’s decision to journey to America. 

Ben flew into Portland, Oregon, in 2014 to join his brother and start classes at Portland Community College. He had to make a few adjustments: despite knowing some English from school in the DRC he found it hard to understand Americans, and the food in the US didn’t taste right. He felt like he was only eating it because he was starving. Ben missed dishes like fufu and pondu, which are popular in the DRC.  

Ben’s reaction when he couldn’t understand what someone was was to smile back, and assume they were saying something kind. Ben knew racism is a problem in the US, but he wasn’t expecting to encounter it within a week of arriving in the US.

“We were walking to the bus station, and there were two guys, one of them said something to me, so I smiled and walked by. My brother told me he was making a racist comment.” (audio below)

United States

Ben found it stressful being in a new place without family, compounded by the fact that he had no money. Ben’s dad lost his job right after Ben arrived in the US, so he didn’t know how he was going to pay rent, let alone stay in the United States. Luckily friends helped him with rent, and one friend from the student government at PCC helped with tuition. Ben went on to graduate with his associate degree and transferred to Oregon State.

Geology

Ben grew up on a continent with a long history of European resource exploitation, as well as human rights abuses of miners, who often are children. Learning about this led Ben to choose geology as his field of study. 

I wanted to study geology so I could eventually go back home and start a mineral company, hire the local population, and give them a good salary.

Above: A friend gave Ben this necklace so he never forgets where he is from

Africa

On-campus at Oregon State, Ben tries his best to be a cultural ambassador. He tries to be an advocate for “everything that is African culture.” 

The problem with a lot of immigrants is that we want to be part of this community so badly, and we think that by rejecting our origins or who we are, it will help us be accepted. I don’t think this is the case. Once you reject your origin or your culture so that you don’t have a unique identity, it is harder for people to accept you.” (audio below)

Most people Ben encounters on campus know nothing about the Congo, and very little about Africa. 

They assume it is in Africa because I’m black and my necklace. A lot of the time, people talk about Africa as though it was a country, not a continent. People will ask, ‘what is it like to live in Africa?’ I don’t know because I’ve only lived in my country!” (audio below)

Black On Campus

It isn’t always comfortable being black on Oregon State’s campus. Ben’s community in Corvallis comes mostly from the Black Student Union (BSU) – a place for connecting with others who are going through similar experiences. The BSU is a space where a lot of students can make connections and build community. There is a lot of conversation, listening to music and laughter. 

“You have something happen to you, and you think you are the only one. Then you get there, and you see it has happened to other people too.”

They have had hate crimes on campus, and in his time at Oregon State, Ben has heard a lot of racist jokes. 

“Oregon State is very white. You could find yourself in a room of 200 people and only two black people in the room. If a teacher starts a conversation about slavery or black people, you will have everyone look at you like you are an expert.” (audio below)

Above: The flyer from when Ben ran for student president and was the runner-up

Involved

Aside from the BSU, Ben is also a member of the African Student Association and the “Here to Stay Club” at OSU. He made several friends who are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients since coming to the US. Ben could feel his friends’ fear after the 2016 election and decided to be a more vocal ally. 

The “Here to Stay Club” at Oregon State is working to create a Dreamers Center on campus, something Ben advocated for when he ran for student body president and finished runner-up.

Home

Despite some of the challenges Ben has faced, he considers Corvallis a beautiful place to study. It’s quiet, so he feels like it’s easier to focus on studying.

On his first day at OSU, he met his roommate Sierra from New Jersey [see the top right photo]. When Ben had to have surgery on his knee, she was the one who drove him to the hospital and cared for him afterward. She has also helped him when he hasn’t been able to pay the rent. Ben’s life in the US wouldn’t be the same without friends like Sierra.

The Election

The night of the 2016 presidential election, Ben was at a PCC viewing party with the rest of the student council. He was the last student to leave campus that day, and he called a taxi to go home. It was the first time Ben had felt unsafe in an Uber or Lyft. The driver asked Ben, 

“Did you watch the results?’ What are you going to do about it? Trump is President now. Are you going to leave or stay?’” (audio below)

Ben thinks America needed the 2016 election to mobilize people into helping marginalized communities. 

“If it weren’t for that election, some people would still be at home not doing anything. It brought people together.”

 Above: Ben loves listening to music to relax

International Student

Ben’s adjustment to being in the US has taken its toll on his mental health. He guesses that many international students share in this experience – especially those who come from countries where mental health is considered taboo. What Ben expected and what the reality was when he arrived in the US was completely different. For instance, the cost of living and the level of pressure at school both surprised him. All of this, plus the challenges he knew his parents were facing back home – like his Dad losing his job – made it much worse.

Since he arrived at OSU, Ben has been trying to talk to a counselor, but there is always a long waiting list.  

“When you are mentally not in the right place, how can they expect you to do well in your classes?” (audio below)

Future

Ben’s plan is to finish his bachelor’s degree, get a master’s degree, and then work in the US for a while. After that, he would like to return to the DRC. Ben had two dreams growing up. His first was becoming a soccer star, and that ended with a knee injury. His second dream was to one day become president. He still holds on to that second dream. 

As they say in the DRC,

“If you go first, it doesn’t mean you will arrive first.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Joanne’s Immigration Story – Petaling Jaya, Malaysia to Columbus, Ohio

Family History

Joanne’s maternal grandfather came from a family of farmers in Kerala, India. The family poured what little money they had into Joanne’s grandfather’s future, so he could go to Malaya (now called Malaysia), get an education, and find a job. As he got older, pressure mounted for him to find a wife, so he returned to India for an arranged marriage. After the wedding, he went back to Malaysia with his new wife to start their lives together.

Above: Joanne’s mother’s cousin drew this family tree of how everybody is related when Joanne visited India in 2010.

Childhood

Joanne was born in Petaling Jaya, a small suburb of Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur. It was a quiet place back then but is now a lively place, congested with traffic and people. Joanne’s mother worked as a software programmer, and her dad worked in human resources for a Japanese company. Her grandparents lived ten minutes away, so she saw them often. Joanne and her two siblings would often play in the evenings in the park by her home. 

Joanne’s father’s family is Christian, and her mother’s family is Hindu, but she was brought up Christian.

“Identity was tough because when you are Indian and Hindu, it is easy to define. Being a Christian Indian, I identified more with Western culture than Indian culture, but at the same time, I am Indian. People would say things like “go back to your own country”. I don’t think I could survive in India! [laughing]” (audio below)

Dreams

Joanne’s childhood dream was to become a pediatrician and work for the United Nations, but she quickly realized just how difficult that would be. She felt “stifled and stuck” in Malaysia. In this country, minority ethnic groups, like Indians, are at a disadvantage economically and socially.

“No matter how good I am, I can only get as far as my skin color would let me.” (audio below)

One of Joanne’s friends in high school had top marks but couldn’t get a scholarship to study medicine because she was Indian. Her classmates, who were Malay (the ethnic majority) and had subpar grades, were getting scholarships.

“I was so mad for her and for the students out there in the villages who would never get a chance no matter how well they performed!”

Joanne knew she needed to leave Malaysia someday. 

United States

In 2002, Joanne’s mother got a job as a software programmer in Denver, Colorado. Joanne arrived in Denver at age 15, but within two years, her mother’s company had downsized, and the family had no choice but to move back to Malaysia in 2004. In 2008 Joanne returned to the US to study actuarial science at the University of Illinois. After graduation, she returned to Malaysia, looking for a job. Joanne saw that The Edge Malaysia (a financial newspaper) was looking for a writer. She knew she could write, so she applied, got the job, and ended up working as a financial journalist for a few years.

“Writing has been something that I’ve always done since I was young. I’d get tons of books for Christmas and birthdays. I remember having a journal when I was eight or nine – just observing people and writing about it.”

Winners

In 2011, Joanne met Bryan, the man who would later become her husband. She had just returned to Malaysia from Illinois, and he had returned from Florida. After their marriage, she and her husband also entered the US green card lottery system – even though Joanne feels like she “never wins anything.” She couldn’t believe it when they both won! 

The weekend before they left Malaysia for the US, their friends threw them a barbeque party. Everyone had written them a letter, and Joanne’s siblings gave them to her at the airport. It was emotional, waiting for the plane, reading these letters.

“There were rough times in the first few months after getting to Ohio, so those letters were a big help.” (audio below)

Ohio

Joanne and her husband moved to the US in 2014, first to Virginia, then to Columbus, Ohio.

“Columbus still is not a big city. I miss that a lot. I miss taking the train somewhere. It’s been an adjustment, having a more quiet life.” 

The Hoover Dam, near her home, is a place where Joanne loves to go to reflect. 

“It gives me the perspective that there is a road ahead, and to never stop exploring because there is so much out there. I am afraid of falling into a rut. I don’t know if I will stay in Ohio for that long, because there is so much of the world to see.” 

Grandmother

Joanne often thinks about her maternal grandmother migrating from India to Malaysia. She was 16 when her family arranged her marriage to Joanne’s grandfather, who was 32. India’s caste system had a significant impact on their lives – her grandfather was from a higher caste. He was actually supposed to marry Joanne’s grandmother’s older sister, but when he saw her grandmother, he chose her. After the wedding, she boarded a ship for a country unknown to her.

“My grandmother left her entire family to go to Malaya with my grandfather – a man she barely knew. She then had five kids, and her whole life was devoted to her family. That’s all she knew. I connect with her story now, as an immigrant myself, and try to live my life to the fullest, realizing that she never had the same opportunity.”

Joanne has always been incredibly close to her grandmother, and her aunts often joke that Joanne’s her grandmother’s favorite.

Joanne asked her grandmother how she felt about getting on that ship to an unknown country. She told her she was scared but also excited. Joanne felt the same way coming to the US but knows that she had the advantages of knowing the language and a husband she knew. (audio below)

In 2012, her grandmother started giving her jewelry away to her grandchildren. She gave Joanne some gold bangles [see the photo above].

“These bangles are a nice reminder of her, and gold is so important to our culture. I hold on to them and hope that one day I can pass them on to my grandkids. My grandmother is one of the few people I miss a lot.”

Batik

Joanne has always loved batik, the fabric artform of SouthEast Asia. She came up with the idea for her own company and launched Kain & Co (Kain means cloth in Malay) on Etsy in 2017. She hopes that the company can help the women who make the items, as a portion of the sales goes to an education trust and to help the women develop their skills.

Above: A pillow with a Sarawakian design from Kain & Co

Differences

Joanne feels like she can truly be herself in America, whereas in Malaysia, that was never the case. She hopes Malaysia will become a place where all people can have opportunities regardless of their ethnic background.

“I hope younger people across the races will see the importance of being united and look past the old way things were done.”

Still, Joanne misses her family in Malaysia and how easy it was to make friends there. 

In Malaysia, anybody was willing to help you with anything. Here you are more alone. I remember the day my grandfather passed away. He passed away in the morning, and by 10 o’clock the house was bustling with family friends who brought food over. I don’t see that as much here. I miss that dependence on the people around you. (audio below)

Recently Joanne’s husband decided to fill their wall with iconic pictures from Malaysia’s famous tourist sites like the Cameron Highlands and Malacca as a reminder of home [see the above photo]. (audio below)

Future

Today Joanne works as a User Experience Content Strategist at an Insurance and Financial Services Company. Her husband is Head of Department at an international energy company.

Joanne and her husband initially connected over their shared interest in adventure and exploration. A big part of why they moved to the US was to try something different. Joanne isn’t sure where they will live in the future, but she has always dreamed of moving to Europe. 

In 2015 Joanne visited Ellis Island for her first time.

“I remember standing where immigrants used to come in. I was thinking about how it is in human nature to want more for yourself and your family no matter what time in history or what place you are from.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Carlos’s Immigration Story – Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic to Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Faded Memories

When Carlos thinks of the Dominican Republic, memories of “hectic traffic” and “warmth with a cool breeze” come to mind. It’s been almost two decades since he was last there, so his memories have faded. Carlos, the middle child of three, had a comfortable life in Santo Domingo, the capital. His father worked as a civil engineer for a successful company, allowing his mother to stay home to care for the family.

Above: In DR it is common for people to wear a ring from the college they graduated from, as a sort of status symbol.

“I don’t have many things left that belonged to my dad, which is largely why I value his graduation ring so much. The ring is symbolic of the type of man that he was. He was kind, hardworking, and responsible. Those are ideals I try to live by.” 

Tragedy

Carlos’s life changed drastically at eight years old when his father suddenly passed away from cancer. Carlos doesn’t have many photos of his time in the Dominican Republic. Most were left behind and then destroyed by bad weather. “I cherish the few photos that I have left.”

“This was taken at my first birthday party [see the above photo]. Obviously, I don’t remember that day, but I love the photo because of my father’s expression. I feel how proud he was of me just for being his son. It means a lot.” (audio below)

Up until age eight, Carlos was never an earnest student, mainly because of the family’s “comfortable lifestyle”. After his father passed away, he saw how his mother – who didn’t have a college-level education – struggled to pay their bills.

“Education felt like the only way I could regain that sense of security, so I began to take my studies very seriously.”

Thanks to a great third-grade teacher who helped and guided him, Carlos earned a medal for academic excellence.

“That year was the first time I was recognized as a good student. Winning that medal showed me that I was capable of doing well in school, which gave me a lot of confidence.” (audio below)

United States

Little by little, Carlos’s mom sold everything they owned, trying to gather enough money to pay for plane tickets for her, Carlos, and his two sisters, to immigrate to the US. Carlos remembers seeing their house empty. The day before leaving the Dominican, there was a power outage, and it was boiling hot. Carlos remembers how his mom spent the entire night, fanning him and his sister with a piece of paper. Carlos’s godparents dropped them off at the airport – Carlos, age 11, his mom and older and younger sisters.

It was the summertime in Pennsylvania when they landed in 2002, but to Carlos, it felt “super cold.” He was shocked to see his uncle, who picked them up at the airport, wearing a tank top. Carlos started school that fall in the sixth grade in Reading, Pennsylvania, where they would live for two years before moving to Lancaster.

First Day of School

“I remember walking into my classroom on the first day of school and feeling tremendous pressure to do well academically. I was aware of the sacrifices my mom had made to move to the US, all so that my sisters and I could have access to a better education and lifestyle.”

The other ESL (English as a Second Language) students in his class seemed to know some English already. Voices surrounded him, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.

“It really hit me at that moment how far behind I was from my peers. The hurdles I would have to go through to learn felt overwhelming, and I just broke down and cried. The teachers had to kick me out of the classroom because I was so loud.” (audio below)

Carlos spent the rest of his first day at school in the main office. Over time, however, he began to adapt. Carlos knew learning English was the key to getting into college. By eighth grade, Carlos had not only learned the English language but was thriving. Within three years of arriving, this school in America named him their “Student of the Year.”

“This plaque [see the above photo] means so much to me because I know how hard I had to work to get it. I was focused on school and improving myself because I knew that was the only way I was going to get an opportunity to go to college. It felt like a culmination of one arduous journey and the beginning of another one.” (audio below)

Undocumented

Carlos knew that his mother never planned on them returning to the Dominican Republic. He also knew their visas were going to expire, leaving them undocumented.

“Growing up undocumented was a difficult and traumatic experience. I felt like I needed to shelter who I was from the world so that I didn’t reveal too much and put my family in jeopardy of deportation. It only takes one call to immigration or for the wrong person to know about our status, for all of our sacrifices to have been in vain.” (audio below)

Carlos deliberately avoided making many friends – he didn’t want to get too close to anyone because of his undocumented status. His life revolved around school and studying. He never let his status get in the way of his studies. However, when Carlos started applying to colleges, the box where they ask for your social security number became an insurmountable problem. He decided to tell a high school teacher he trusted about his status.

“I was terrified to tell him. I feared his reaction because of the negative connotations attached to being undocumented. Some label you ‘illegal’ and dehumanize you when they find out that part of who you are. To my surprise, he was very supportive, and we are still close friends.”

Rejection

Carlos’s goal was always to go to college. He didn’t care where he went; he just wanted to continue his education.

“Receiving a pile of rejection letters was very hard because I had done everything I thought I could do in high school. I believed in the idea that if you work hard, you can get somewhere. At that point in my life, it wasn’t that way. I had worked as hard as I could, but society was still telling me I had reached the end of the line.”

Although Carlos felt disappointed, he didn’t stop looking for options. Eventually, he found a local community college where he started studying social sciences in 2009. Carlos excelled academically and became a student leader – hoping that an opportunity would turn up. Because he was undocumented, he was paying the international student rate, so he had to work and study simultaneously.

The Quintessential Campus

In 2011 Carlos came across an opportunity to transfer to Amherst College in Massachusetts. He took the bus to visit the campus as he was too afraid to fly. Carlos fell in love with its “quintessential campus,” seeing it as the perfect learning environment. He majored in political science and interdisciplinary studies.

“After I got into college and learned about social justice and different issues, I realized it was important to tell my story and put a face to the undocumented community.” (audio below)

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced in 2012 while Carlos was at Amherst. He applied, and in many ways, DACA changed his life.

Home

Carlos has always had an interest in politics – seeing it as a way to improve people’s lives. His college counselor at Amherst got Carlos interested in the idea of community organizing. He ended up moving to Chicago for a summer on an internship, where he learned firsthand how to mobilize communities. After graduating in 2014, Carlos returned to Chicago. He did more organizing work around raising the minimum wage for a project called “Raise the Wage.” He then headed to Washington DC to work as a congressional fellow for then-Congressman Mike Honda of California.

As an undocumented American, the last thing Carlos ever thought possible was spending an academic year in the United Kingdom, followed by a year in China. In 2015, Carlos earned a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to study for a master’s in Philosophy in Latin American studies in the United Kingdom. The following year he won a Schwarzman Scholarship to do a master’s in Global Affairs in China.

“I was humbled and empowered by my experiences abroad.”

Lancaster

In 2017, Carlos started working as the Statewide Capacity Building Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, which brings together immigrant and refugee rights organizations. Carlos works with partners in the community and helps them build their capacity to be better advocates.

Carlos describes this former US capital, Lancaster, as an increasingly Latino but traditionally Amish town. The Amish started the city’s “strong immigrant roots.” They came to Lancaster because of the religious freedom Quaker William Penn, founder of the English North American colony the Province of Pennsylvania, offered settlers. Carlos sees the city’s high per capita population of resettled refugees as being in line with Lancaster’s history of being welcoming to newcomers.

Solidarity

Carlos thinks it’s essential for more people who are undocumented to share their stories. He believes most Americans who haven’t met an undocumented person (or at least aren’t aware of meeting one), regard them in a negative light – as if they are faceless and nameless.

“We can be your neighbors or go to school with you or be your colleagues. Hearing our stories puts a human touch to the experience and builds solidarity. People who might be opposed or hostile to the undocumented community, change once they realize they know one of us. It’s important, especially in this political climate, that we tell our stories.” (audio below)

Above: Carlos’s mom cooking Dominican food at home

Identity

Regarding his place in the United States, Carlos does feel “in limbo.” His main document is his Dominican Passport, but he has spent most of his life in America.

“I stay connected to my Dominican roots through food, language, and dancing.” 

Carlos thinks it’s funny when people ask him for recommendations when they travel to the Dominican Republic. “Don’t you realize I’ve been in the US for the last 15 years!” (audio below)

Above: Carlos’s mom’s hand on his

A Mother’s Love

Carlos will never forget that his mom sacrificed her own dreams and health so he could grow up in the United States and have better opportunities. Since coming to the US, she has done so many different jobs, from working at the trash processing plant to labor-intensive factory jobs. Today his mom has arthritis directly related to her work, but he has never heard her complain. Carlos knows he couldn’t do the work she does. His mom, and people like her, are his motivation. She came here with nothing, risked it all, knowing that her future wouldn’t be comfortable.

My mom knew she was going to be undocumented and what that meant, but that didn’t stop her. She was chasing the possibility that things could be better for her children. I think that her sacrifices are inherently American. The immigrants who came to America took the chance to come across the ocean and didn’t know that things would be the best. I hope she has the opportunity to stay in the country legally, get out of the shadows, and pursue her passions.” (audio below)

Dreams

Carlos’s dream is to have the ability to plan his future freely. He doesn’t want his immigration status to be hanging over his head for life. He wants to be able to pursue his passions – public service and seeing the world. Carlos’s options are limited, but that’s something he has grown used to – finding a path despite limited opportunities. He knows many in his community are much worse off than he is.

“I’ve been fortunate that so far, my status hasn’t held me back that much – but it has for many people, and that’s what motivates me to continue to do the work I do.”

American Values

Carlos is hurt by people who advocate for an immigration system that would only allow people with extraordinary qualifications to immigrate to the US. He wishes the immigration system was more reflective of American values and traditions since the current system would exclude the ancestors of most Americans from coming here today.

“I want them to think about their own ancestors and the fact that most of their ancestors would not be able to come here if those were the standards. When they are advocating for that, they are slapping their ancestors in the face. I wish there was a system of legal immigration where there are different ways that people can come here and contribute, which is not what we have now.” (audio below)

*Update: Carlos is currently pursuing a joint degree in law and public policy at Harvard University with support from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Ivy’s Immigration Story – Nairobi, Kenya to Dallas, Texas

Childhood

Ivy grew up surrounded by her extended family, in Kenya’s “very collectivist culture”. She remembers playing outside with the other kids, going around and knocking on everyone’s doors. She remembers Nairobi as “one of the most perfect places on earth”.

Her mother, like her grandmother, worked in a bank, but in 1995, when Ivy was five, her mother left to join some of Ivy’s uncles who were already in the United States.

From an early age, Ivy loved to sing and perform in front of a crowd. She dreamt of one day being a pop star.

“I could have sworn I was going to be the next Britney Spears!” (audio below)

Her grandmother bought Ivy a baby grand piano after her mother left, and as Ivy learned to play it, her dreams only grew bigger.

After leaving Africa, Ivy’s mom worked long hours in the US as a CNA (certified nurse assistant), trying to save up enough money to bring Ivy to Dallas. Ivy remembers going around, telling everyone that she was going to America to be with her mom. Still, the first time she went to the US embassy to get a visa, it was denied. 

“I had to go back to school, and my friends were like, ‘I thought you were going to America!?’

United States

On the second try, Ivy got the visa. On December 31st, 1999 – just hours before Y2K – Ivy arrived in the US. She remembers thinking, “If the world ends, at least I’m in America.” Ivy was nine years old and especially excited about McDonald’s.

At her new elementary school in North Dallas, the administration assumed that as an African, Ivy wouldn’t speak English. From that moment on, Ivy felt like she had to always prove herself, and dispel all of the negative assumptions and stereotypes. The other kids in her class had so many questions for her – questions she thinks came from “genuine honesty.” 

‘In Africa did you have a house? Did you live in a grass hut?’”(audio below)

Ivy remembers standing in front of the mirror, trying to lose her accent. She also remembers making her first ‘American’ friend Allison, someone she is still friends with today.

Mavs’ Ballkid

Three years after arriving, Ivy, age 12, saw a commercial on TV for “hoop camp.” This would be an opportunity to play the sport she had always watched in Kenya. After enjoying the basketball camp, Ivy applied to become a Dallas Mavericks’ Ballkid (the kid who rebounds for the players and wipes the floor if a player falls). From the age of 12 until she was 18, she worked passionately as a Mavs’ Ballkid.

It wasn’t easy for Ivy’s mom to support the family. Rent was high in their neighborhood, but she wanted to live there because it had better school districts. While working as a CNA Ivy’s mom had cared for some alumni from a prestigious local private school called The Hockaday School. They told Ivy’s mom that she should apply for her daughter to go there, and one day Ivy came home to a Hockaday School uniform on her bed.

After attending The Hockaday School on financial aid, Ivy got a scholarship to study corporate communication at Marquette University in Wisconsin. She is extremely social, and her dorm room quickly became the “meeting spot.” Ivy says she’s always been “the person around whom people gather.” Marquette is where she met the father of her daughter, Kyani.

Poizon Ivy the DJ

While at Marquette, Ivy became the director of promotions at the college radio station. Part of the job was to host a radio show, but Ivy wanted to DJ instead of MC. She mentioned this to her friend Josh and the very next day, he showed up with two turntables, a mixer, a speaker, and introduced her to DJing. Ivy only planned on DJing for her radio show, but three months later, she was doing a show in front of 25,000 people and truly morphing into Poizon Ivy the DJ.

“It’s almost like DJing chose me. I didn’t choose it. That’s why to this day; I believe experience is the best teacher.”

Kyani Rose

Ivy’s daughter, Kyani Rose, is named after Ivy’s grandmother. Ivy says it’s hard to remember life before having Kyani in 2012. 

Above: Kyani wanting to put on her princess dress before going to the basketball game

“It’s like God allows you to erase everything you knew before. It’s like she is my little best friend. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Home

Ivy always figured that she would move back to Dallas eventually. When she and Kyani’s father split up in 2015, Ivy and Kyani moved back to Texas to live with her mom.

“Dallas is Southern hospitality at its finest. I’ve seen more diverse cities, but you can find your place here.” 

Before moving back to Dallas, Ivy had had the opportunity to tour as the DJ for WNBA player Skylar Diggins‘s basketball camp. This experience got her thinking about DJing in bigger sports venues. In 2016, Ivy decided to cold call the WNBA’s Dallas Wings’ office, and it worked. She was hired on as their DJ. With confidence high, Ivy decided to email the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and see if she could DJ for them as well. She knew it was a longshot, as the NBA had only ever had one female DJ, but the Mavs’ CMO remembered her from her years as a Mavs’ Ballkid, and the team happened to be looking for a DJ.

“In the interview, I told them I grew up in this building, and I know what it is supposed to sound like.” (audio below)

Ivy became the second-ever female DJ in the NBA. It was her goal from the start to ascend through the ranks from basketball camps to DJing the NBA All-Star Weekend, and in 2018 she was, in fact, the DJ on All-Star Sunday.

 “I was the first woman ever to do that. Another check off the list. Next: Team USA, Olympics, and then I’ll be done!”

Love

Since Kyani was born, every decision Ivy makes includes the question, “How will this affect my daughter?” DJing consumes Ivy “emotionally, physically and spiritually”. She often brings Kyani with her to work because some weeks, that is the only time she can see her. 

“I feel like if she’s around me, I’m able to influence her. I look at her and I know I only have one chance to get this right. It’s the most beautiful thing ever.” (audio below)

Ivy tries her best to hide her life’s stresses from Kyani.

“I’m so stressed out, and she’s the one I’m around the most. I don’t want her to be a punching bag of sorts. At the end of everything is Kyani, and at the beginning of everything is Kyani.”

Ivy thinks more people should talk openly about the challenges of motherhood. She knows firsthand how lonely and challenging life can be as a single mother.

People ask Ivy all the time if DJing is her “full-time job”. Since she was 21, DJing is the only job Ivy has ever had.

“It’s how I have to provide for Kyani and myself for the rest of our lives. I don’t know where I would be without it.”

Game Time

When Ivy is DJing a Mavs game, the first thing she does is look over the game script and prepare the music. The “hotkeys” need to be programmed for things like the kiss cam, marriage proposals, and any other moments requiring a sound effect.

“I have to watch more basketball than I care to. I literally control the pace of this game. The energy derives from the sound.”

Audio: Announcing birthdays at the game

Ivy jokes about what it would be like if she didn’t show up to work one day, and everyone had a silent basketball game!

Friends

When Ivy was a Ballkid, she got to know the Mavs ManiAACs, a group of large men who dance and entertain the crowd during the games. “Big Rob” from Louisiana, has been a ManiAAC for almost two decades and has known Ivy since childhood.

“I’m so proud of her on so many levels. Coming up as a Ballkid, to being the only African American female DJ in the whole NBA – that’s a huge accomplishment, and she’s just starting!” (audio below)

Erin [the above photo top right], the Mavs Vice President, Corporate Communications and Events, comments on how, many people, come to the games to see Ivy. It’s normal to see fans coming up to Ivy for a big hug.  

“She has her own fandom and a huge social media following. Where music and sports meet is where she sits, and it is awesome!”

Above: Ivy saying hi to friends at the game

One fan named Gary [see the photo above left] from Indianapolis has been a season ticket holder since 1985 and is a big DJ Poizon Ivy fan.

“I can tell you that Poizon puts a really nice vibe in the arena. She’s putting her own stamp on it, and it’s great to have her here.” (audio below)

Above: Ivy posing for a selfie with a fan from the opposing team

Africa

Ivy knows her influence goes farther than the United States. She wants to have an impact on Africa and tries to return to her home continent as often as possible. 

“I get so many messages that say: ‘girls in Kenya need to know about you! You were born here just like them – they can relate. You come from where they come from – walked the same streets.’ You have to push stuff out there to be that hope or beam of light for someone.”

Ivy recently got a message from her former kindergarten teacher saying that she had named her child Ivy after her.

“I’m being very intentional in connecting everything I do now to Kenya. My life can be most meaningful if I find a way to impact Kenya too.”

It is very important to Ivy that Kyani experiences and understands Kenya and is exposed to other ways of life, which is why she has already brought her to Africa twice.

“It is important for her to go there and see that we are very fortunate to have this life, but at the same time, things are happening over there that we don’t have here. Very often, the light isn’t shed both ways.”

Above: DJ Poizon Ivy being introduced at the American Airlines Center

Music

Ivy can’t imagine a world without sound. It is the sense she cherishes most. 

“It’s the one thing in my life that I don’t think I’d be able to conquer. There is so much music in the world. It is a universal language, a unifier – it heals and soothes.” (audio below)

Ivy currently DJs at a local Dallas radio station K104 as well as at the Mavs & Wings games. Ivy loves her job. Sometimes she does wish though that people focused more on her as a DJ as opposed to a female DJ. (audio below)

Future

Every day, as she drives to and from work, Ivy sees people in Dallas who are struggling socio-economically. She’s trying to figure out how best to use her platform to benefit those who are less fortunate, in the US and in Africa.

“The world is at a weird dark place right now. I hope we will see a world where people are truly equal.”

Ivy’s grandpa, who she was only able to meet once before he died, was a politician. Ivy hasn’t ruled out the possibility of getting into politics or becoming the first female commissioner of the NBA.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Miriam’s Immigration Story – Mexico City, Mexico to Tiffin, Iowa

Tragic Beginning

Miriam’s father, an actor, died of colon cancer when she was six. It was a struggle for him to come to terms with his life ending, and his way of dealing with the pain was with violence.

“A lot of memories I have with my dad are really sad memories.” (audio below)

Above: Miriam has a few positive memories of her father. She can remember him dressing up for them in his costumes and making them laugh.

Miriam went with her aunt to get a black ribbon to tie on the store’s door – still not understanding that her dad was dead. When her older sister told her, Miriam didn’t cry; she felt free from the violence and relieved he was no longer in pain.

Miriam remembers seeing a document after his death that said she was an orphan.

“How could I be an orphan if I have a mom? Mexico’s culture is centered on the father figure – the male in the house – so it was very hard for my mom to be a widow and raise three girls.”

After her father’s death, if Miriam and her two sisters weren’t at school, they needed to work in the family store selling material for arts and crafts to support the family. Their only day off was Sunday.

Above: Miriam’s mother, with kittens, at the family’s arts and crafts store.

Art as an Escape

The one blessing of working in the store was that Miriam had constant access to all the art materials she could dream of – art was her escape. Miriam is the middle child of the three sisters – her older sister was rebellious and her younger sister was “the sweet girl”. Miriam had to be the responsible one. 

“I had to be strong and help my mom. At some point, I said, ‘okay, I’m going to be the man of the house.’”

If something broke Miriam would help fix it, or if someone was bullying her sisters, she would defend them. (audio below)

Her life growing up was not easy, and she remembers feeling like it would never improve. In 1985, when she was 15, she decided she was going to run away. Miriam had her things packed and was ready to run away. The day she was ready to leave, her older sister was gone – she had beat Miriam to it. Miriam’s mother was crying, and Miriam realized then, that she couldn’t leave too. (audio below)

Artist

Miriam always wanted to be an artist, but this was not something she felt her family or Mexican society in general supported. She remembers hearing how “artists are losers”. This didn’t make sense to Miriam though. The work of artists like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros is so important to her culture. She saw how artists were the people everyone remembers, even after they are gone. 

Above: Collapsed building from the 1985 earthquake | United States Geological Survey

In 1985, Mexico City suffered a massive earthquake – a significant moment in her teenage life. She recalls it being like a warzone with the entire downtown completely devastated. Miriam’s family had to move from their apartment to her aunt’s house. She felt compelled to document the scenes of devastation, but she didn’t have a camera. After that, Miriam decided she needed to get a camera. (audio below)

Miriam told her mom she was leaving to become an artist. She had a boyfriend, a journalist, who helped her get her first good camera. Miriam was gone for three years, but her life wasn’t heading in the right direction. She was getting into drugs and alcohol and had low self-esteem.

“I was letting myself follow a dream, swimming in a storm in the ocean, floating in the open sea.”

Spirituality

Miriam would describe her mom as a “seeker”, someone who is always looking for something. She has tried various different religions. When Miriam was 18, her mom called to say she had met her Guru in a dream. A woman dressed in red came, took her by the hand, and led Miriam’s mother to her spiritual teacher, a woman in India. Miriam’s mom felt that this dream really meant something and ended up going to an Ashram. When she saw Gurumayi, she recognized her as the Guru from that dream. 

 “Meeting Gurumayi was a 360-degree change for all of us”. 

The whole family ended up connecting with Gurumayi, and after Miriam did, she started to meditate. She found this had a positive effect on her outlook and happiness. Miriam moved back in with her mom, kept studying, and managed to put the pain and sadness from the past behind her. Although this felt like a positive change in their lives, not everybody in conservative Mexican society viewed it that way. 

 “Meditating was like the devil. It’s not Catholic, so we became ‘the witches’. I didn’t care. Now I see schools teaching kids to meditate, but not back then. It’s very hard to follow a path that people don’t understand.”

University

When Miriam chose her major for university, biology, she felt like she was betraying her inner-artist. She tried to justify it by convincing herself that one day she would become a science photographer. By the time she was finishing her degree, she was already working as a scientist in Ensenada, Baja California in collaboration with NASA 1997 to 1998. She studied the productivity of micro-organisms in the Pacific Ocean through satellite imagery, but she didn’t like it, sitting there looking at a lot of numbers all day. She was doing the research in English, so everything took her extra long. 

Above: Eight months pregnant in Ensenada, Baja California.

Miriam met the man who would become her husband when she was in high school, and he too was a scientist. Miriam’s daughter was born before the research in Baja California was finished, and then they all moved to Huatulco, a coastal tourist town in Oaxaca, where Miriam worked as an art teacher.

Above: In 2001, a Mexican diaper company had a contest asking people to dress their children up in a costume that includes their diapers, send in a photo, and possibly win money. Miriam dressed her son as actor Pedro Infante and her daughter as the Statue of Liberty.

Iowa

Miriam’s goal was to attend grad school in either Australia or the USA. Her husband (now ex-husband) is a marine biologist whose main focus is on coral evolution. Iowa happens to be full of fossil corals. The next town over from Tiffin, where Miriam lives now, is actually called Coralville because thousands of years ago it was a sea and full of corals. Miriam knew nothing about Iowa before moving there.

“In my brain, it was like coming to Alaska. Everything is just white and ice and cold. In Mexico, we were living on the beach and it was beautiful. I love hot weather.”

Miriam and her two children, ages one and three, moved to Iowa City in 2002 to join her husband who had come the year before to start his Ph.D. They couldn’t afford to bring many suitcases – they left most of their things behind. Miriam was surprised that her husband didn’t have a place for them to stay. They arrived at one in the morning, and her husband was living in a shared house with other students. That first night they slept in the living room.

Luckily the university has a program for international families, and they eventually managed to get a place. Still, it was just an empty apartment with no furniture. Their kind Argentinian neighbor was excited Miriam could speak Spanish and showed her how to look for things in dumpsters that Americans threw away. Miriam found lots of stuff like a bed for her kids, a chair, and pots to cook. The neighbor also brought Miriam to the International Women’s Group – a meeting with other women who were in similar situations. These women showed Miriam kindness and even gave her a bunch of toys and warm winter jackets for her kids. 

Above: Miriam’s children, one and three, were fascinated by the snow in their first week in Iowa. Miriam got the broom out, having no idea that people used shovels to clear snow (audio below).

Struggling

For those first four years in Iowa, Miriam was just trying to make sure her family survived. Her husband was always working, so she needed to take care of everything at home. She also needed to work. She was not only trying to support her family in Iowa financially, but she was also trying to send money back to her mother in Mexico. Miriam remembers going for her first job interview, and her little son climbing all over the interviewer. Her first job was as a baker making muffins and scones from 3:30 until 8 am. 

She heard about a scholarship that was available to the family of students already enrolled at the university, so she applied and got it. She was able to start studying at university pursuing a degree in photography and multimedia. 

By the time her husband had almost finished his Ph.D. the kids were just starting elementary school. It seemed like he was concentrating so much at school, that he forgot about the family. When the kids wanted to spend time with him, he was always too busy. She will never forget the day she asked him for a hug, and he said “no”. She decided then and there that she would never beg for a hug again. (audio below)

Divorce

Miriam knew that she needed to think more about herself and her kids. She wanted to stay and finish her university degree, but her husband wanted to return to Mexico. She told him to go back without her and the kids. He left in 2005 and Miriam’s mom came from Mexico to help her. In 2006 her mom started getting sick. Miriam didn’t have insurance for her so she went back to Mexico and brought the children so they could visit their father. Miriam stayed in the US to finish her courses.  

She thought her husband would get the children visas so they could travel back to the US to see her after three months, but he took his time. She had to wait seven months before she was able to see her children again. 

“It was the most horrible time in my entire life. I cried every single day. I could not handle being without my kids.”

Finally, her children came back to Iowa, and Miriam’s daughter said she wanted to stay in the US and go to school. She wasn’t going to deny her seven-year-old daughter a better education. Miriam took on two jobs, looked after her children, and tried to study. Eventually, Miriam had to drop out of university and she was never able to finish her degree. Miriam found out about a school district with “before and after school”, so her kids could go to school when she was working. These sacrifices paid off. Both of her children did very well in school – her daughter was even the valedictorian.

“We came for school, stayed for school, and we are still here for school”.

Butterflies

Miriam has an art studio inside her house. Much of her work has an underlying message. Miriam’s current piece is of a butterfly and is dedicated to the Dreamers” (those with DACA). 

“For the butterfly, borders don’t matter. Butterflies belong to all of America from Mexico to Canada. I really hope people understand that, like the butterflies, it doesn’t really matter where you have to move – home is inside you, you know. It doesn’t matter where you are.”

She can’t understand why these young people, who have been in the US for most of their lives, have to struggle because of a piece of paper. She thinks it’s beautiful, like the butterfly, how so many of them overcome obstacles and are able to become successful professionals.

Lucha Libre

Miriam believes her late father always wanted a son. He loved watching sports like Lucha Libre, football, and boxing. He often treated Miriam like a boy, cutting her hair short, and reflecting on this now, she sees he was looking for a bond with a son. She really didn’t like Lucha Libre at first, but she would watch it with him, and he would tell her all the rules.

“I love Lucha Libre because it combines a lot of things. It’s like a circus. They have to be great athletes but also it’s theater and the spectators are part of the show. The luchadores feed on the energy from the spectators.”

The wrestling mask, known as the mascara, is an essential part of Lucha Libre. For many luchadores,  their careers end when their mask comes off. 

“The mascara is a symbol of the entire culture. It includes everyone. There are women luchadores, little people, people who are gay, people of all different ages, and the spectators are from the lower-income to the very rich, all in the same space screaming for their favorite luchador.” (audio below)

No Longer Invisible

Miriam noticed the Latino community in Iowa is “completely invisible”. A lot of cultural events, specifically within the arts, are too expensive for many Latino families in the area. She wanted to elevate their voices. Since 2017 Miriam has been trying to document Latinos in Iowa for her project Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa. She began doing interviews and photographs, but everyone told her they didn’t want to show their face. Miriam came up with the idea of a project where the participants can hide their true identities by wearing a custom-designed mascara, and still share their migration story.

Miriam didn’t realize how emotional and personal doing this project would become. She tries to balance connecting with the participants’ stories, while not letting them get to her so personally that they crush her heart. She has witnessed the diversity of immigration stories within Iowa’s Latino community – and many stories that make her feel privileged.

Creativity

Miriam’s son has always appreciated and benefited from, his mom’s creativity. He would always ask his mom to make outlandish Halloween costumes, and no matter what it was Miriam would make it. In tenth grade, he requested the Radish Spirit from Haya Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and within one day Miriam delivered [see the above photo]. (audio below)

Tragedy

One of the toughest moments in Miriam’s life was when her little sister, the “sweet one” [see the photo above], died in October 2018 at age 47. She died from the same thing that killed their father – colon cancer. Miriam has found it incredibly painful being separated from family during times like this but feels fortunate to have been able to video chat with her sister before she passed away. 

“Life comes with death. You can’t have one without the other one and you never know when it is going to be your turn.”

Future

Miriam works on her art when she is not at her day job at the local grocery co-op. She would love to one day be a full-time artist. She would also love to return to Mexico, and one day create a non-profit in Oaxaca that helps women and children, but she loves Iowa.

“I’ve found so many beautiful people in Iowa who have helped me in so many ways.”

Miriam stayed in America for her children. Their needs have always come first. Her daughter is at university and planning on going to grad school and her son is finishing high school and planning on going to university. Miriam couldn’t be prouder.

Hope

Seeing people reject immigrants breaks Miriam’s heart. She has heard their stories and wants others to see the humanity in them. Miriam emphasizes that with climate change, this movement of people in search of safety isn’t going to stop. 

“I really hope all countries realize that we are one, independent of what country we are born in. Borders don’t really exist – they are there to organize. When you have to leave everything behind to have a better chance, you are going to take the chance despite all the odds. You find people in your path who will make that path easier, and more welcoming. We need to realize that all we have is this planet and we have to share it. It’s not for one person, it is for everyone.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Dhamarys’s Immigration Story – Luperon, the Dominican Republic to Providence, Rhode Island

Dhamarys’s father came to the United States in 1981. He had been married before, and his daughter from his previous marriage helped him get a green card. He didn’t like the United States and ended up returning to the Dominican Republic in 1983. Dhamarys’s father has a total of 11 children, and four of them were with his second wife, Dhamarys’s mother.

Childhood

Dhamarys was born in Luperon, and when she was three months old, they moved to the capital, Santo Domingo. She had a happy childhood – one where “everybody in the neighborhood was like family.” She remembers how at Christmas time, they would cut the leaves off palm trees to make walls and close the street down to have a giant dance party. 

Above: Dhamarys [on the left] in the DR with her mother, three siblings and three cousins

United States

Dhamarys grew up dreaming of going to the United States, specifically New York. 

“Everybody wanted to go to New York. It was called New York, not the United States!” 

Dhamarys’s father always said he would never return to the US, but eventually, her mom convinced him otherwise and he left for New York City in 1984. He worked nonstop and it took three years before he completed the immigration process for Dhamarys’s mother and their four children. In 1987, when she was 19, Dhamarys, her mother, and her three younger siblings, all moved to the US. It wasn’t an ideal time. She was leaving her dog and a fiancé behind in the Dominican Republic. She was supposed to return for her marriage after three months, but that never happened. (audio below)

Above: Dhamarys’s Dominican voter ID photo, age 18

When her father was in the US without the rest of the family, he was working at New York City’s Four Seasons Hotel, working as a dishwasher. Before they joined him in the US, he decided that he didn’t want his children to grow up in NYC. Another dishwasher told Dhamarys’s father of a cousin in Rhode Island who could help the family get set up there. Her father trusted this man, so he rented a U-haul, bought a map, and the family headed for Providence, Rhode Island. The dishwasher’s connection had left keys in the apartment mailbox. They arrived and unpacked everything into the one-bedroom apartment. Dhamarys remembers it being so cold. 

“We knew we had to stick together to survive.”

Survival

The next day at eight in the morning, someone knocked on their door. It was a tall man who was speaking English rapidly, and the family couldn’t understand what he was saying. He left and came back two hours later with a police officer who spoke Spanish. 

“You have 24 hours to leave this apartment.” 

Their connection, who said they could stay there, was himself a renter, and the lease was only for a single occupant. The tall man at the door who spoke English was the actual owner. Desperate, they found another apartment in “the worst part of Providence.” The tenants in the first-floor apartments were drug dealers, and their third-floor apartment was undergoing renovations. There was no furniture, no kitchen, and no heat – they had a mattress on the floor, and they managed to get a little space heater. After a few weeks, the renovations finished, and they started getting settled.

Within two weeks of arriving in Rhode Island, Dhamarys, her parents, and 14-year-old brother Raul started working. They would walk three miles every day to work in the same electronics factory assembling computer parts. Dhamarys’s younger siblings: Luisa, ten, and Nathalie, eight, started school. She was amazed at how quickly they picked up English. 

“I was jealous as I couldn’t go to school. I just had to work to help my family.”

She will never forget the day her mother asked her to leave the factory at lunch to buy eggs. She tried to ask the man at the supermarket for “huevos”, but he didn’t understand her. Next, she tried making chicken sounds, but he thought she wanted to buy a whole chicken! One of her coworkers happened to have been at the supermarket and overheard everything. Dhamarys finally got the eggs, and by the time she got back, her coworkers at the factory were all laughing and clucking like chickens. (audio below)

Nursing

Her father never stopped reminding Dhamarys that she needed to go back to school. Eventually, she left the factory, started working at a gas station, and enrolled in classes to become a nursing assistant.

There was one woman who always came to the gas station to buy cigarettes. Dhamarys kept noticing her badge and eventually found out she worked at the Women & Infants Hospital. She told the woman that one day she is going to be a nurse there too. Dhamarys signed up for CNA (certified nurses assistant) classes, passed, and got her license in 1992. She worked first at a nursing home, then applied, and just like she told that woman in the gas station, Dhamarys started working at the hospital in 1994. She felt so proud walking into that same gas station wearing her badge. (audio below)

In 2008 Dhmarys graduated from nursing school with an associate’s degree, and in 2014 she went back to get her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Rhode Island. Dhamarys couldn’t have done it without the Women & Infants Hospital financially supporting her degree. Dhamarys only took one class at a time because she was working forty-hour weeks, but in 2017 she graduated as a Registered Nurse.

While earning her nursing degree, Dhamarys had the opportunity to substitute a class for a trip to help people in Haiti [see the photo above]. As a nursing student in 2015, she went to remote places to provide free healthcare to communities in need. Dhamarys has continued going to volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Even though now it costs her money to volunteer, she thinks it’s worth it. 

“They take you to the poor, poor places, and it is so rewarding. They appreciate it so much. Every year I put signs in the Women & Infants Hospital and collect stuff like medicine. I love to go. It’s very rewarding to give back to your country.”

Not only is Dhamarys working as a nurse at the hospital, but in 2017 she picked up a part-time job at the airport. She has always loved to travel, but could never afford it. Now she can fly for free. When she went for the interview, they asked her why she would want a job inspecting food carts, when she is already working as a nurse. Her response was, “Because I want to fly. I’m not gonna lie to you!”

Above: Dhamarys standing on Broad Street with the street lines painted like the flag of the Dominican Republic

Rhode Island

Dhamarys loves Rhode Island. She loves the people, the beautiful Atlantic Ocean, and the superb seafood. 

“It may be the smallest state, but there is a lot to do here. Any culture you can think of, we have it here. I don’t think I will ever move out of Rhode Island.” (audio below)

Most of Dhamarys’s friends in the US are Dominicans. There is a street in Providence called Broad Street that is like a “little Dominican Republic”. According to Dhamarys, it’s where you can find some of the best Dominican food in the United States. She doesn’t follow politics in the DR, but says, “culture-wise I follow the Dominicans.”

Above: Dhamarys at the Juan Pablo Duarte (Founding Father of the Dominican Republic) memorial in Roger Williams Park, Providence

Language

Dhamarys’s language ability and her accent is something she is very conscious of all the time. Studying in English has always been extremely hard for her. 

“Something that you can read one time and understand, I have to read five times.”

Dhamarys finds it hard to pronounce many English words and says she appreciates it when people correct her pronunciation. She has never experienced discrimination because of her accent, but it still makes her self-conscious. 

“I have a very strong accent. I worry about it all the time. That’s why I don’t like to speak. I always feel very uncomfortable.”

In order to complete her Nursing degree, Dhamarys had to take a communication class and give a presentation. Nothing makes her more nervous than public speaking. 

“One of the girls in class says, ‘take an Ativan.’ I said, ‘oh, would that make me calm down?’, and she said ‘yes’ and gave it to me. Let me tell you; my accent wasn’t the problem; the problem was I couldn’t speak!” (audio below)

Parenting

Dhamarys’s entire family lives in the United States now. She has two children. Her son is a sheriff patrol officer in Florida and her daughter just started high school in Rhode Island and hopes to be a nurse anesthesiologist.

When Dhamarys’s son comes home to visit, they go out to the club together with all of his friends.

“My son always says, ‘my friends are asking for you,’ and I say, ‘That’s because I’m young, baby!’” (audio below)

Dhamarys has her daughter every other week. When she does, her parents pick her up from school each day, then Dhamarys joins them after work for dinner. Dhamarys jokes that the kitchen in her house “is just for decoration.” Dhamarys tries to include her parents in everything she does. She recently took them on a surprise cruise and they all had a blast. 

“My parents are so good to me. I am the oldest, and I feel like I am the favorite.”

When she has free time on the weekends, Dhamarys loves to dance the Bachata. (audio below)

Future

Dhamarys’ dream is to retire at 59 and travel. The only problem with this plan is that she loves her job at the hospital, so she’s not sure how she could give it up. No matter what happens in the future, Dhamarys continues to have a joy for life that is infectious. 

“I try to be positive. Everything is difficult in life, but if you have a negative mind, it is more difficult. I feel that people are more willing to help you if you don’t complain about things. It has worked for me.” (audio below)

*Update: Since the interview, Dhamarys started selling real estate, and in 2019 she was awarded the “Hospital Hero” at Women and Infants Hospital.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joel’s Immigration Story – Nuku’alofa, Tonga to Salt Lake City, Utah

Village Life

Joel grew up in a family of 12 children in a small village in Tonga – one of the smallest island countries in the world, with a population of a little over 100,000 people. In the entire village, there wasn’t a single car, so everyone got around by walking or horse and buggy. Joel would often fetch water from the village’s only well; there was usually a long line. He showered at the beach and washed off the salt using rainwater collected from the roof. Joel doesn’t remember wearing shoes until he left the island at age 15. 

“I only had one pair of shorts, and we had to wash them every few days. We didn’t have a washing machine. I was the washing machine!”

Above: Lorraine Morton Ashton, an American missionary of the Mormon Church, compiled thousands of photographs for her book “Pictures of Tonga, 1936-1958.” She took the only picture Joel has of himself as a child. Joel’s grandson is holding the book.

Responsibility

Joel’s mom stayed at home to care for her 12 children. It wasn’t easy to make sure everyone had something to eat. Despite his family’s lack of money, Joel had a lot of fun as a child and doesn’t remember having many worries. He had never been anywhere else, so he didn’t know that he had less materially than many other children outside of Tonga. In their home, Joel’s seven sisters got the beds, and the five boys all slept on the floor. The children had a lot of responsibility from a young age, which included farming and many chores. (audio below)

Faith

Joel and his siblings had a religious upbringing.

“The people on the island are very religious. Sunday is the day of rest. It’s the law of the land. In Tonga, religion was so important.”

Audio: The corn shell [see the photo above] is an ancient way of communicating in Tonga, from calling children in for dinner to a call for war.

Joel’s father taught band and choir at an American school connected to the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He made sure all 13 of his children could play an instrument. Joel learned the trumpet and has fond memories of the whole family caroling around the community at Christmas. Even though Joel’s father was a leader in the Mormon Church, he was often invited by the other denominations to come and compose music for their services. Joel has fond memories of riding on the back of his father’s horse to visit the other churches. 

“My dad was serving other churches but never getting paid with money, just by food. I always liked to go with him because they would feed us well.” (audio below)

Outside of the Island

Joel grew up hearing regularly of Tongans leaving for America. His father originally came to the United States because of a calling in the Mormon Church. 

“When he came back home, he was telling us about the freeways, lanes, and cars everywhere. He brought home all these second-hand jackets, and even though it is so hot, we were wearing them around and perspiring just because they came from America.” (audio below)

In Tonga at the time, high school was the highest level available, and Joel wanted a post-secondary education. He had a brother and sister already studying at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Hawaii, so he decided to join them there in 1970 to finish high school. Before arriving, Joel stopped in American Samoa to visit a sister. That was the first time in his life that he watched television.

“I was sitting right in front of that thing because I was amazed. All we had growing up was the radio, and most people didn’t even have a radio. Then when I went to Hawaii, I got to use a toilet and didn’t need to walk to an outhouse anymore. The luxury of life was nice.” (audio below)

United States

Joel used to play rugby while growing up in Tonga, so in Hawaii, he decided to give American football a try. It took him two years of playing on special teams to learn the game, but once he did, he was really talented. Joel became a respected outside linebacker and defensive end. After Joel finished high school in Hawaii, he moved to California to attend Santa Monica College and then Cal State on football scholarships. Football became an essential part of his life, but now he lives with regrets and pain.

“I just liked the physicality of football. It is the Polynesian mentality to like physical sports. Now looking back, if I could do it again, I would probably play golf. I had a knee replacement, and I have been having surgery on it. My shoulders, my ankles, I am always hurting, and it’s all from football and rugby. I just kind of live with it.” (audio below)

Joel attended college for five years, but he never graduated with a degree. His parents moved to California to join him, but when they couldn’t find work, Joel dropped out to help them care for his five youngest siblings. He and his father worked as landscapers, so his siblings could attend school.  

Meeting Cindy

Joel thinks it was around this time in his life that he started making some wrong choices and grew disconnected from the church he had grown up attending. Then he met Cindy.

Cindy was born in Utah and living in California when she met Joel. Her father was teaching at a local College’s institute of religion, and Cindy was very religious. She regularly attended her father’s institute, where they had events for young single adults to learn more about the gospel. Joel’s sister also went there.

“I used to go pick up my sister, then I saw Cindy, and I thought ‘she is so beautiful.’”

Cindy went to a friend’s wedding, and Joel happened to be there, but as the entertainment. When Joel wasn’t playing football, he fire-danced and walked on fire with a Polynesian performance group. They were properly introduced at the wedding, and Joel made sure to get her number before it was over.

“Cindy was something special because she got me to go back to the church. I got away from the teachings of the church, and then I met her.” (audio below)

Moving to Utah

By this time, his siblings were older and were able to help his parents. Joel moved to Utah to be with Cindy.

Joel didn’t have a college degree, so he tried to find any work he could get. He had experience working with cement in Hawaii and California, so he did that, and at nights, he cleaned carpets and toilets. 

“Coming from an island and a big family, everyone worked hard; I always knew how to work. Even though I had to work two or three jobs, I was able to handle it. My family just kept growing, and the more it grew, the more I had to work. We ended up having eight children. I had to work all the time.”

American Dream

Joel got his general contractor’s license and started his own business almost three decades ago. Joel likes working for himself because he gets to decide how much he works. It’s a small family business now, with most of his eight children working for him. 

“It is the ‘American dream.’ We struggled along the way, but now I have time for anything I want to do. I don’t have to answer to anybody. Life is good. We aren’t rich or anything, but we are doing fine.”

Tongans in Utah

Joel thinks Utah is a great place to live and considers it home. All of Joel and Cindy’s children, except their eldest daughter, were born in Utah.

Today, more Tongans are living outside of the island of Tonga than in the country. In the 1950s and 60s, a lot of Tongans moved to Utah because of the Mormon Church. He likes how the church is service-oriented.

“It brings back the island mentality of everyone taking care of each other. The church expects you to be like that if you want to claim yourself as a good member of the church.”

The Tongan community in Salt Lake City gets together regularly for church services, funerals, and weddings. There are enough Tongans that they have their own wards within the Mormon Church. Despite this, Joel and his wife attend a predominantly white ward. Still, Joel tries to go to the Tongan meetings sometimes where they sing Tongan hymns, which he loves.

“It takes me home to listen to singing in our language.” (audio below)

“When I count in my heart, I count in Tongan. My wife said that when I talk in my sleep, I talk in Tongan. She doesn’t understand Tongan and always says, ‘Dang, I wish I knew what you were saying!’” (audio below)

Future

Cindy hopes she and Joel can retire and live the rest of their lives in good health, and able to enjoy time with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Cindy jokes how they have eight children, and she knows at least three of them will take care of them when they are older. (audio below)

Joel hopes his eight children and 23 grandchildren continue to not have to struggle the way he did. He also hopes they can all be strong in the LDS Church so it can bless their lives. 

“I want to see all my children sealed in the temple of the church for this life and the next life. If we can all be sealed, we can all be together in the next life.”

Joel has never served a full-time mission with the LDS Church and dreams of doing one someday with Cindy. 

Above: This is the Temple in Provo, Utah where Joel and Cindy were “sealed for time and all eternity”.

Respect

Joel likes the respect that Tongans have for one another. Whenever you see a Tongan, whether you know them or not, you greet them. The typical expression of greeting is Mālō e lelei! (Thank you for being good). Joel continues to try to be a good person for his family and community in Utah.

“Your attitude about things will take you where you want to be. I’ve always been positive and don’t like to be around people who are negative.” 

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Thierry’s Immigration Story – Le Mans, France to Pasadena, California

Le Mans

Thierry was born ten weeks early in Le Mans, while his parents were visiting his grandparents, but raised in a suburb outside Paris. To keep it simple, when people ask where he is from, Thierry tells them Paris. 

Once a year, Thierry and his three siblings would visit one set of grandparents in Le Mans and the others in Les Vosges. The maternal grandparents in Les Vosges had a farm, and he loved picking blueberries there. It was the same farm his mom and her eleven siblings grew up on and were fed by. He considers himself lucky to have had a “boring happy childhood”. He started going to sleepaway “holiday camps” in the summer at age five and bicycling to school alone when he was only six. His parents encouraged his independence. 

Thierry’s mom worked in management for French telecommunications, and his dad worked for Air France. He actually started with the company as a carpenter, at a time when planes contained wood! The perk of his job was that the family could travel a lot. They weren’t wealthy but were never in need of anything. 

“I guess because I was flying all the time, I didn’t feel like borders were a thing. I always felt like I could take a plane and be somewhere else.”

Canada

At 18 Thierry moved to Quebec to go to university and be with his first girlfriend, a Canadian. Despite how Canada is commonly perceived, Thierry didn’t find Canada to be as welcoming a place. He also found it unusual that he had to do a French test – and barely passed with a 60% – even though he is from France!

It was in Canada while studying that he started developing an interest in photography.  Thierry’s first photographs were landscapes inspired by Canada’s natural beauty. Thierry got a “real camera” and attempted some portraits. The first portrait he felt looked professional was of a little child he spotted looking out the window when he was at his brother’s wedding in the South of France [see the photo below].

When he was 20, Thierry and his Canadian girlfriend broke up. All of his friends in Canada were connected to his ex-girlfriend, so he decided it was best to move back to France. For the next five years, he lived in Paris, researching in a lab, pursuing a Ph.D. in cancer research. The fact that his father was battling cancer heightened his passion for the field. Sadly, all of this time in a lab meant less time with his father who was dying. He found it hard to stand the 60 hours a week inside in a lab environment and was happy when it was over. At age 25, with a Ph.D. in cancer research, Thierry decided to switch careers and become a photographer.

Photography

Thierry already spent so much of his free time on photography and wanted to see if he could make a career of it. After his father passed away Thierry left France and traveled with his camera to Brazil, Thailand, Morocco, Japan, China, and even spent a few months traveling in the US. The first time he went to Los Angeles, he fell in love with the weather and the people. He also thought it was the perfect place for him to work as a photographer.

“I knew there was something different for me in this city. It was the place to be for me. I felt very stuck in France. I knew it would be a challenge because everyone is a photographer or model here.”

Above: Thierry’s father was particularly fond of Russian cameras. Thierry found this one in Thailand, as it felt like something his father would have used had he been a photographer. 

Thierry can’t see himself in any other career – photography is his way of expressing himself. Thierry’s late father always loved photography. Thierry knows that his father would have loved to be a professional photographer. For someone who started working as a carpenter at 14, it simply wasn’t a realistic career option.

“I feel like photography is a mission, not only for me but for my father, to do what he would have loved to do. I hope he is proud of what I am doing.” (audio below)

Scientific Approach

Thierry feels like, in a roundabout way, his studies in the sciences are useful for his work as a photographer.  

“I still have the scientific approach – trial and error, and statistics. The way I photograph, I think about the physics of it. A lot of people take photos in a very experimental way. I think in many ways, my knowledge of physics allows me to do a little less trial and error.” (audio below)

All those years studying and researching for his Ph.D. taught Thierry discipline, a quality he believes he needs as an artist trying to live from his craft.

Above: Young Thierry dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle

Misconceptions

Thierry has found that Americans often think the French hate them, and if you go to France, you shouldn’t mention you are American. He thinks this is wrong.

“We fantasize about the US, like how the Americans fantasize about France.”  

A lot of the French TV shows he watched during his childhood were just reproductions of American shows. The French government had to create laws making it mandatory that radio stations play a certain quota of French music or else it would be all American. Thierry believes that if a company is “American,” it will succeed in France. 

“Even though Starbucks is the worst coffee, it’s American, so people in France go there. We have much better coffee in Europe than that, but it works. There is a fascination about America, and I think it comes from after WWII they were seen as our savior.” (audio below)

Despite this fascination, Thierry never imagined himself living in the US.

California

When Thierry first moved to the US in 2014, he moved to Orange County, California. In 2017 he moved to Pasadena, a city northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Thierry thinks LA is a city you either love or you hate, and having a normal job is anything but a nine to five. He also thinks it is a place where if you are good at what you do, you can succeed. 

“What I like here compared to France is that if you are good, people will give you a chance. In France, they like what you are doing but they already have a photographer. People aren’t willing to change unless there is a major problem like the photographer died or he’s blind. People here are more open to change and to try and experiment. It is more performance-based. If you bring them more money, everything is good.”

Most people Thierry encounters in LA work in the entertainment industry, but most of them also need to supplement their artistic endeavors with another job like bartending.

“It’s very easy to get lost because a lot of people are doing five or six different things. There are so many distractions and events going on. It’s easy to be at events every day.”

Los Angeles is a city where people from outside the US, and people from inside the US, migrate. Thierry knows it is more diverse and open-minded than most places in America.

“In Temecula Valley, two hours from LA, I was doing a photoshoot and I made a wrong turn. I stopped to make a call on my cell phone and someone came out of their house with a shotgun. ‘Get off my property, or I’ll shoot!’” (audio below)

Relationships

Thierry and his ex-wife [see the photo above] didn’t meet on a set, even though she is a makeup artist, and he’s a photographer. A friend of a friend introduced them, thinking they would get along. Thierry knows that his career can be a challenge in any relationship. 

“It’s very hard to be a photographer and be in a relationship, no matter if your partner understands or not. Last year I did ten publications in Playboy [see the photo below]. It’s not necessarily easy being in a relationship when you do that.”

Daughter

In 2017 Thierry became a father. 

“I discovered what unconditional love is. With my daughter, I can’t even imagine, no matter what she does that I will not love her. There is this deep connection, and it changed my life.” (audio below)

Thierry reflected on his finances after having a daughter.

“I changed from whatever comes is good; to now, I need to make money and feed my kid. Before having my daughter, I would accept a lot of unpaid jobs. Since then, I have focused on my need to make an income.”

Photography an industry where people are always trying to push to pay you less. Thierry is invited regularly to events, where people think he will take photos and share them for free. Now he is straightforward about it; for his daughter’s sake – he needs to be paid.

“You don’t invite your dentist to your house and expect them to fix your teeth!” (audio below)

Green Card

Thierry’s green card came through marriage. He can’t believe the complexity of the process.

“There is no one that wants to move out of their country unless they have a very good reason for it. Either they are fleeing something, or they are aiming at something specific like me. It’s much more comfortable for someone to stay where they are. I don’t think that crazy strict regulations on immigration are a good thing. One of my hopes for the future is that emigrating will be easier, and ideally, borders would be a thing of the past.” (audio below)

Nutrition

Thierry loves cooking healthy natural foods. 

“After my dad passed, I started being very health conscious because I didn’t want to be on the same path. His cancer was very related to food. I think, for the most part, most cancers are related to lifestyle. Even things like smoking are not even close to being as bad as having bad eating habits.” (audio below)

Thierry wants his daughter to know where her food comes from. When he was young, he did. His grandparents were raising about 30 rabbits at any time, and that was the main meat they ate.

“I remember seeing the rabbit, playing with the rabbit, then you take a rabbit, you skin it and you eat it. To most people, it seems really rough, but to me, it made me appreciate it. I would never waste any meat because this was something that was living.” (audio below)

Future

Thierry is busy doing commercial photography, weddings, running a studio, working as a director of photography for TV shows, and he has even acted in a few. Despite all of this work, his number one priority is his daughter. 

Thierry feels a sense of duty to expose his daughter to as much of the world as possible. He believes a lot of the world’s problems stem from peoples’ lack of exposure and knowledge. Traveling and experiencing different cultures and ways of life was one way that Thierry thinks he became more empathetic to others. The more you travel, the more you realize that people have the same basic needs. 

“When you meet a family from a country you had a misconception about, you see that no matter what, they love their kids and would do anything for their kids. Anywhere you go, you will see that people love their kids and would do anything for them. My hope for the future is that we raise children that travel more and understand other cultures and are empathetic to others. I think that the new generation is more open. I’m hopeful for that.” 

Borderless World

Thierry likes to believe that we are moving towards a better world – that people are starting to see how “hard borders” are creating more problems than they are solving. It makes sense to Thierry that if it is incredibly hard to get from Mexico to the US, once someone does, they are going to stay because they paid so much money and went through so much trouble to migrate in the first place. If it were easier, like it was in the past, people would come and go, back and forth. (audio below)

Thierry believes that just because someone is born in a certain country, it shouldn’t give them any more right to be in that place. He dreams of a borderless world for his daughter’s future.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Mariya’s Immigration Story – Yaroslavl, Russia to Walnut Creek, California

Childhood

Mariya was born in 1990 in Yaroslavl, Russia – a large industrial city four hours from Moscow, famous for making rubber tires. Her father was finishing his Ph.D. and her mother was completing medical school, so it was her babushka (grandmother) who looked after Mariya.

It wasn’t easy for her parents to find jobs in Russia that fit their qualifications. Mariya’s mother was a doctor, but she ended up accepting a job at a blood bank. Her father was a software engineer but had to work two jobs plus teach at a university to make ends meet. Like many others, the post-Soviet era was a difficult economic time for her family. She remembers the uncertainty as to whether or not there would be bread available to buy. 

“The milk truck would come once a week, and my grandma would wait in a line at nine at night to get milk for the next morning. It was bad. It’s hard to relay the bare bones of life in Russia.” (audio below)

Once a year at Mariya’s preschool, they would do school pictures with a stuffed animal, and the girls had to wear a bow in their hair. Mariya didn’t have a bow because her parents couldn’t afford it, so she had to borrow one. (audio below)

In school, Mariya always tried to be the best – she knew education was important to her parents. She didn’t have any other dreams or ambitions, though. The mentality was, “just do what you have to do.” This thinking changed at nine years of age when Mariya and her baby brother moved to the US with their parents.

“When we got to America, that’s when my parents told me to have big dreams. I feel like that was the American way of thinking about the future.” (audio below)

United States

All of her ideas about America came from the TV. They had three channels, and only one American show called Charles in Charge

“There was a big house with a pool; everything was just so big and so beautiful. That was the only visual I had. I was going to move to the U.S. and have a big beautiful house and a big pool. Life was going to be great.”

In the late 1990s, many other families were leaving Russia for California and Silicon Valley’s technology boom. People in software engineering, like her father, were leaving Russia because of the lack of available jobs. She remembers being excited about her first plane ride.

When you’re young, you don’t understand the gravity of what you are about to do – literally, leave everything you know behind.  

In hindsight, she realizes how little her family knew about where they were going. 

We didn’t know the geography of where we were going. My dad used to say, ‘We are going to live in San Francisco, but I’m going to work in L.A.’ We thought the cities were right next to each other!” (audio below)

Mariya’s family left Russia with giant bags because they couldn’t afford suitcases and $100 cash from Mariya’s uncle. When they got to California in 1999, they borrowed money and moved into a Walnut Creek apartment. Walnut Creek, was an area where many other Russians immigrated to. It wasn’t the affluent place it is today. Their new apartment was on the second floor, and from the balcony, Mariya could see the complex’s pool and fountains.

 To me, it was like we were living in a resort; I had never seen anything like this in my life. 

Soon the novelty faded away, and Mariya, age nine, realized that life wasn’t going to be easy in the US. She was confused by how empty the streets were – “where are all the people?” In Russia, she walked or took public transportation. In America, she realized that everyone drives, and if you are going to walk somewhere, it will take you a long time.

Above: Mariya’s family’s first Christmas in California

Within a couple of days of arriving, Mariya started school. It was the spring, almost the end of the school year, but her parents still made her go. She had studied English in Russia a little, but it was British English. Instead of saying “mom” or “dad, Mariya said, “mother” and “father” (in a British accent). Mariya realized that the English she knew wasn’t going to help much. Mariya was lost.

“I was sitting there in class, not understanding anything that was happening. And then I would go home at night with homework that I was responsible for completing. At home, my mother and I would translate every single word with a dictionary.”

Mariya went from being a top student in Russia, to barely scraping by. She remembers crying to her mom, telling her that she wants to give up. Luckily, things got better over time. Looking back, she knows it was much easier for her than for her parents to transition to life in America since they knew no English at all.

Synchronized Swimming

In that first year of being in the US, Mariya brought home a flyer advertising a two-week crash course in synchronized swimming. Back in Russia, she had done swimming and gymnastics but had never tried “synchro.” Her mom thought it would be an excellent way for her to do something other than schoolwork, make friends, and practice her English. Mariya took the crash course, and when they asked her if she would like to do this year-round, she said “yes”!

“When you’re young, synchro is appealing because you’re swimming, but you are also dancing in sparkly suits and makeup. It combines a lot of aspects into one sport. You do gymnastics and acrobatics, you go upside down, and a lot is going on. I loved being in the water and doing something artistic.”

She was with the Walnut Creek Aquanuts from the end of elementary school to high school. With each passing year, she got better and more competitive. It was a financial strain on her parents, but they always supported her.

In her junior year of high school, Mariya became a US citizen, so she tried out for and made the US Junior National Team. As she neared the end of high school, Stanford University was her number one choice. Still, Mariya doubted that she would be accepted there. Luckily, being recruited as an athlete improved her chances, and she got in. While at university, Mariya started her career with the US National Team, and in 2012 she went to the Olympics in London.

Olympics

Above: The tattoo Mariya got after the 2012 Olympics

Mariya finds it hard to put into words the pride she felt representing the US. 

“In the Olympics, you feel like you are a part of something bigger. I’m not just in my little sport. The US Olympic & Paralympic Committee does an excellent job of creating camaraderie. I remember getting my first USA jacket and feeling so proud.” (audio below)

“The Olympics is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before as an athleteIt’s a crazy experience, but the most amazing experience I probably will ever have in my life. It’s the entire pinnacle of the work you’ve done your whole life. The pressure you feel is immense, even if you go into the Olympics knowing that you’re not going to get a medal. 

Mariya explains how in synchro, it’s like you are training your entire life, for only nine minutes of actually competing. The pressure of having the whole world watching is like nothing else. It is a struggle for many Olympic alumni because they will never be able to replicate that exhilaration and adrenaline ever again.

Above: Mariya’s license plate “PCHELKA” meaning “busy bee”

Russia has been the best in synchronized swimming for decades. When Mariya started synchro, she told her American coach that she wanted to swim for Russia someday. Legally, as a dual citizen, she could represent Russia, but deep down, she knew they were “light years” ahead of her. The training in the US isn’t what it is in Russia. She has never felt like it was a competition; instead, she is proud of Russia.

“I always felt pride listening to the Russian national anthem and watching the flag go up, but I also feel proud listening to the US national anthem. I was always even in my pride and allegiance, and it was hard for people to understand that. Their impressions seemed to sound like, ‘Well, you live here – you’re an American. How can you have allegiance to your old country?’” (audio below)

Mariya knows some immigrants abandon their culture when they come to the US and try to be as American as possible, but her family was never like that. They ate Russian food, spoke the Russian language, and she continued to be proud of her country of birth while representing the US. (audio below)

Returning to Russia to compete for Team USA was a special experience for Mariya.

“It was like coming home. When you walk out on deck they show your name and who you are competing for. When the Russian audience saw my name, which is clearly Russian, they all started cheering.” (audio below)

After her first Olympics in 2012, Mariya had one more year at Stanford and didn’t plan on returning to the Olympics again. After graduating, however, she started training and decided to try out for the National Team again. She was told she was too old to improve and needed to lose some weight – they would rather focus on younger teenage athletes. She felt insulted.

“Synchro being an aesthetic sport means that you’re always criticized. The pressure that comes with ballet, swimming, and gymnastics was strong. I am constantly criticized all day: ‘You’re doing this wrong – you’re doing that wrong. You also have to lose five pounds.  Are you sure you want to eat that?’” 

Her parents were okay with her retirement and figured it was a good time for her to get a real job and have an everyday life. Mariya, on the other hand, yearned for a second Olympic experience and would not give up. She returned to her home club in Walnut Creek to prepare for tryouts one last time. That next year at the national team trials, Mariya was the best swimmer there.

“You can’t keep someone off the team when they are number one!”  

A year later Mariya was going to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“That was my redemption story. You told me you didn’t want me and I came back, made all the improvements, and proved you wrong.” (audio below)

After Synchro

The 2016 Olympics was a great way for Mariya to finish her career in synchro. In 2012, she finished 11th, and in 2016, they finished 9th. She was happy with the improvement and felt like she ended on a high. Throughout her synchro career, Mariya was always doing something outside of the pool. Towards the end, she was working part-time and finishing her Master’s of Sport Management at the University of San Francisco.

“My parents emphasized that I always had to have something to fall back on. There are tons of athletes that finish their athletic careers and have no education or work experience to fall back on.

Her family has now been in the US for more than two decades. Mariya is confident that it hasn’t been what her parents expected, but she knows they don’t regret coming. She also knows her parents had no idea their daughter would become a US Olympic athlete.

“Some parents push their kids towards the Olympian path, but my parents just wanted a better life for themselves and their kids.”

Many people are surprised to find out Mariya wasn’t born in the US. With all of the political issues in the news regarding the United States and Russia she overhears a lot of discussions, and finds it hard to keep quiet.

“It is interesting to hear people speak their true feelings about Russia when they don’t know I’m from there.” 

Audio: Mariya discussing the stereotypes Americans have about Russians
Above: Mariya, age six, and her parents, after going kayaking

Mariya appreciates that she lived in another country, and she wishes more Americans would have this experience. From the moment she arrived in the US, it bothered her how little Americans seemed to know about other countries, like Russia.

“Once you travel and meet different people you start to understand that the way things are here is not the way they are other places in the world” (audio below)

Future

Mariya is nervous about the relationship between the US and Russia. She knows the US media shows things one way, and the Russian media shows them another way. All Mariya wants to see is peace. She is a dual citizen, and she can remain one unless the two countries are at war. If they did ever go to war, she would need to choose.

Currently, Mariya works for Visa and coaches synchro. Mariya hopes that eventually, she can put her Master’s in Sports Management to use and work more closely with athletics – specifically the Olympics. In the not too distant future, she would like to get married and start a family.

“I feel like I got started later than everyone because of synchro.”

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Jazmin’s Immigration Story – Paracho de Verduzco, Mexico to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Childhood

Jazmin was born in Paracho de Verduzco, a small city in Michoacán, the same place her father was born. When she was only a few months old, they moved to Tijuana, and at a year old, her parents separated. Jazmin went to Cherán, her mother’s hometown.

Above: Jazmin’s doll representing Cheran’s Danza de los Viejitos. The dance is performed at festivals by young men who dress up like old men.

When Jazmin was four, her father, who was living in the US, asked her mom if she would bring Jazmin and join him there.

United States

Jazmin’s memory of going to the US in 1996 as a four-year-old, is vague. She was in the car with her mother, her aunt, and her five-year-old cousin. She remembers commenting to her cousin on the lights as they drove north – it was the first time she had seen city lights like that.

“I thought the lights were all candles. My cousin said, ‘no dummy those aren’t candles, those are matches!’” (audio below)

They didn’t make it to the US on the first try. Their car was stopped at the Texas border and they were put in a detention center. After being returned to Mexico and released, they tried to cross the border again, and this time they made it.

Their first stop was Henderson, North Carolina, where Jazmin’s father, uncle, and grandfather were working in the tobacco fields [see the photo below]. After a week, the family moved on to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Jazmin felt incredibly discouraged as a teenager in Philadelphia. She ended up dropping out of high school at the end of freshman year. 

“I dropped out because I felt like I didn’t belong here. All my friends were getting their driver’s licenses and hoping to go to college. When I started the process, they asked for a social security number, which I thought I had, but I didn’t. I didn’t understand the meaning of being undocumented until I was in high school and needed that SSN.” 

Return to Mexico

Jazmin didn’t want to be in school if she couldn’t go to college. After dropping out at 15, she started working full time as a server in a Vietnamese restaurant. Jazmin heard that her uncle was leaving for Mexico, and she told her mom that she was going to go with him – Jazmin thought she could start going to school again in Mexico. Her mom broke down in tears as she didn’t want Jazmin to leave her. In the end, she decided to go with Jazmin, and they moved back to Mexico together in 2008.

Jazmin started high school in Mexico, but she was finding it hard to pay for everything: uniform, textbooks, rent, food, etc. At first, Jazmin’s mom tried to help with the bills by selling tacos but after a few months, she returned to the US. After her mom left, Jazmin ended up dropping out of school again. She couldn’t see a future for herself in Mexico.

Immigrating… Again

Jazmin decided to try and return to the US in 2011 at 18 years of age and eight months pregnant. The only person who knew she was pregnant at the time was her father. 

Even though it was a risk to her and her baby’s life, Jazmin thought it was worth it for her daughter’s future. 

“I didn’t want my daughter going through what I went through and I would have risked everything to get her to be a US citizen and not have to jump borders like I was. I want her to have the opportunities that I didn’t.” (audio below)

Jazmin took the bus to the border and called her dad. She hadn’t told him her plan ahead of time, and he was surprised to hear that she was going to cross. The next time she called him, Jazmin was being held hostage.   

Hostage

While waiting at the bus station with her “coyote” (the person she hired to help her cross the border) two trucks suddenly pulled up and told them to get in. The men were part of an armed cartel – Jazmin could see weapons and blood in the truck. They took her coyote’s phone, but Jazmin hid hers and managed to text her dad. They brought her to a payphone and made her call her dad. The cartel told him they wanted five thousand dollars each for her and her coyote, or else they would kill them. Her father told the cartel he didn’t have much money, and eventually, they said they would take $1500 and would help Jazmin cross to the US. Her dad deposited the money. (audio below)

For two weeks, Jazmin waited in a small one-room wooden house packed with other people waiting to cross. They tried twice to take Jazmin to the river to cross, but each time there were flashing lights on the other side. On the third attempt, they put Jazmin and another pregnant woman in inflatable donuts and pulled them across. She thought she was going to drown. On the other side, they walked for three hours, then they were told to run to a car that was supposed to be waiting for them once they reached the road; instead, the immigration authorities were there. 

Kindness

Jazmin remembers the immigration officer asking for her name. He could see she was pregnant. She told him everything: how she had lived most of her life in the US, then left for Mexico, and was now trying to return for her daughter’s future. Jazmin knows he could have deported her right away, but he didn’t. He asked her if she wanted to see a judge, and she said, “no.” Now that Jazmin understands more about immigration law, she knows that if she had seen a judge, she could have asked for asylum based on all that has happened to her.

“Instead of deporting me, the officer gave me an ‘involuntary departure.’ He took me back to Mexico and dropped me off at a bus station. Instead of just telling me to go by myself, he crossed with me to make sure I was going to be okay.” (audio below)

The Boat

She called her dad from the bus station in Tamaulipas – worried, he asked her what she wanted to do next. She told him she would stay in Mexico. After the conversation, while at the bus station, she met a guy who seemed trustworthy, explained her situation, and he said he could help her cross to the US with his boat. 

The next morning Jazmin told this stranger that she wanted his help. Within 15 minutes, she was in Texas. She got off the boat and ran to the nearest house. The person in the house brought her to a gas station and told her, “good luck.” She called her dad from the payphone, and he had her aunt, who lives in Texas, go pick her up. (audio below)

Jazmin stayed in Texas for two weeks with her aunt – eight months pregnant, and exhausted. She could either stay and have the baby in Texas or go with her father by car to Philadelphia. Jazmin decided to go. 

She remembers the checkpoint on their way north, and the officer commenting on her being pregnant. Jazmin thought they were going to ask her for an ID or papers, but they didn’t. Her pregnancy was enough of a distraction. Three days after getting to Philadelphia, Jazmin gave birth.

Education

Jazmin told her mom that she wanted to find a job and try going back to school. That year she attended three different high schools. The last school had an accelerated program, and Jazmin was able to finish all of her four years of high school in only two. After applying and receiving DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2013, Jazmin started attending Esperanza College for a degree in criminal justice. She managed to afford college by getting an international scholarship, working a part-time job, as well as living with her mother rent-free.

On top of the financial challenges, her father, who is an alcoholic, started drinking a lot. This forced Jazmin and her daughter to move in with an aunt who was kind enough to let her stay and eat rent-free. She knows she couldn’t have graduated without her family’s support. 

Jazmin went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and graduated in 2016.

This is my college graduation hat [see the photo below], dedicated to our traditional dance, ‘Danza de los Viejitos’. On it, I wrote: ‘Fly as high as you can without forgetting where you come from’. It’s something we all should keep in mind. We can’t forget our roots because that’s what led us to be who we are now.” (audio below)

Inspiration

Jazmin was 18 when she had her daughter. Jazmin’s mom, who didn’t know about her daughter’s pregnancy, was pregnant at the same time that she was. Jazmin’s mother gave birth three months before she did, so Jazmin’s sister and her daughter have grown up like twins. 

“I always dressed them alike, treated them alike, and they grew up like sisters even though one is an aunt, and one is a niece.” (audio below)

Everything that Jazmin does is with her daughter and sister in mind. She wants them to see a positive example of what they should and can do. Jazmin didn’t grow up with a role model who went to college, let alone finish high school, and she loves that her daughter, siblings, and cousins can look up to her and see that going to college is an option. 

In many ways, Jazmin thinks having a daughter as a teenager, gave her the motivation to keep going and be the best possible version of herself. If she hadn’t had that responsibility early on in her life, she thinks she may be working at a factory or even an alcoholic like her father. (audio below)

Jazmin remembers when she felt out of place in school because the other kids’ parents were professionals. She was the only one who didn’t want to say where her mom worked because she was a cleaner. She thought the other kids would look down on her family. Now that she is an adult, she recognizes how hard her mother was working to provide for her. (audio below)

La Muerte

Jazmin says that trying to cross the border is like playing with “la muerte”.

“The border is something indescribable. It’s a place that’s not for humans. It’s like a game – I usually compare it to playing cat and mouse. The immigrants are the mice. The cats are playing to trap the mouse.”  

She wants people to know that immigrants aren’t coming to the US to take anything from Americans. She also wishes most Americans would reflect on the fact that their ancestors came from somewhere else at some point. 

“The US is where everybody seeks their dreams – “American dreams” – so why aren’t immigrants accepted? You never know what they’ve gone through. At the end of the day, everybody is working. I’ve been reporting taxes, so I’m not stealing from anyone – I’m actually giving back. We would just like to be accepted.”  (audio below)

Philly

Jazmin likes living in Philadelphia now, and truly believes it is the “city of brotherly love.” She feels like it’s a friendly place where other cultures are appreciated. As an example, on October 4th she was outside her home, dressed in traditional clothing and cooking for the Patron Feast. The neighbors came over because they were curious and wanted to know more about what she was celebrating. Jazmin appreciated that they took an interest, and feels like this kindness is symbolic of the city. 

Above; Jazmin’s “Golden Door Award” from HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees.

Pride

Jazmin works at a law office as a senior paralegal. In 2017, she was the first Latino and first DACA recipient to receive the HIAS “Golden Door Award” for the legal services she has provided to Philadelphia’s immigrant community. Jazmin is determined to go to law school and get her Juris Doctor degree.

“Law is my passion and I’m not going to give up my passion just because I don’t have papers. That’s not a good reason to stop. If we are already here, we might as well prove to the US that we are here and contributing and can help.”

Jazmin hopes her daughter tell her friends at school proudly, “my mom works at an attorney’s office.”

*Update: Since the interview, Jazmin was able to obtain a T visa (a visa for certain victims of human trafficking and immediate family members to remain and work temporarily in the United States). She also gave birth to her second daughter and is waiting on the birth of her first son.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.