There are so many of us, foreign-born immigrants, gracing the streets of this idealistic land of the free. I never planned to be one of them. Somehow I ended up here, struggling to get ahead, to pave a better life for my family and for myself, all the while wondering if I should keep looking for the road back home. We came here for only a year, at first; to enrich both our lives and our resumes, before returning to our homeland to start the life we’d always dreamed of. Of course we were young and daft and giddy then, in those days before we realized plans almost never work out as expected.
“Dear Mum, It has been eleven years now since I left England to come to New York. You encouraged me to come here. You brought me up to chase my dreams, to live my passions and love my life. When he moved across the ocean, there was no question in your heart that I should follow. You helped me raise the money for my ticket and you helped me pack my bags. Many years later, you told me how you waited on the observation deck at the airport for one last chance to wave goodbye as my plane disappeared into cloud. You said you felt pulled as the plane made its ascent, as if the thread that bound us together as mother and daughter stretched across the Atlantic Ocean… ”
A greener pastureAs I flew over Long Island into New York, the clouds gave way to vast areas of land stretched out below me. I could see the sea. A road. Some train tracks and acres of open green land. This was nothing like I could ever have imagined. There was so much… space. The airplane took a gentle swerve to the right. My stomach churned. Then I saw a wall of buildings, their hundred and thousands of windows all tinted orange with a setting sun. I was circling over Manhattan. My veins pumped with the terror and excitement of being here. I thought of all the other’s who’d come here before me, all greeted by Lady Liberty as they huddled in lines at Ellis Island in the old harbor of New York. I saw her too, waving hello from her home in the sea as I braced myself to land.
It is amazing here in New York City, in the United States of America, whatever else you may have heard. I never realized how hungry I had always been until I moved here and began to eat to my fill. The dinners were huge, too huge for an appetite trained to be small from childhood. But food was never wasted. Everything I couldn’t eat in one sitting was saved for another meal later in the day. My skin lapped up the sunshine it had been craving for years and opportunities to get ahead greeted me at every turn.
New York City is unlike any other place in the world. There is nowhere filled with quite as many dreams, or as many nations. On my street there are people from Venezuela and Italy, Israel, Ireland, Germany, Russia and Yugoslavia, India, China and North Korea. I love being one tiny drop in an ocean of people from all over the world. The air is thick with all our dreams, in this new city of the world. With no glass ceiling preventing our rise to success, no ethnic majority dominating the streets, anyone can be anything here. At least that’s the way it seems.
“Dear Mummy and Papa, I want to start by saying that I love you immensely. It was a hard decision for everyone, 12 yrs ago, to send me to the US to pursue my MS. I cannot express what a great journey it has been since then. The experiences of living in a First World country have exposed me to possibilities and opportunities that might have not been achievable back home. 12 years later, armored with a MS from the States, a husband and 2 kids, I am in a place in my life, where I am contemplating returning back to my family and home country, India. As my kids are growing, I want them in close proximity with you and the rest of the family so that strong foundation and values are ingrained in them. They can choose to return to the States once they grow up. It is country that I have gotten to love... especially Manhattan, where I have spent the better half of my time here. Much love and thankful, Mamta, Queens, New York, and of Mumbai/Bombay, India”
Beginning a new lifeIt took time to begin a new life here, to get social security cards, bank accounts, to find housing. For two months, the paychecks piled up on a desk, while we waited for the paperwork we needed to open accounts. The temptation to work illegally, simply to pay cash for food and lodging began to present itself everywhere, at least in the beginning. Our landlords wanted cash to avoid paying taxes and some employers took advantage, with low wages and few benefits knowing that if we didn’t like it, they could easily find another desperate new immigrant to take their place. We didn't give in. Neighbors and colleagues gave us their old furniture, old clothes and old cooking utensils to help us get a step ahead, for they were new here one time too.
We weren’t the only ones to come to America bringing our skills with us looking for work. In 1890 it was farm laborers and miners from Europe who flocked to this country. Today, the global recession squeezes the best minds and talents out of the rest of the world to seek jobs in Research, Information Technology and other skilled professions. One in four immigrants come armed with higher degrees. But that doesn't make the transition to being here easy. Doctors and lawyers, without American licenses, may need to find new work as nurses and assistants instead. For spouses who come on dependent visas, the inability to work at all may cause feelings of isolation, heightened by the sheer distance of being far from all that we think of as home. Motherhood in this environment is a great challenge. Half of all the mothers giving birth in New York hospitals are foreign born. I was one of them. Away from the welcoming female lineage and support system most women take for granted on their journey into new motherhood, we each fight back the wish to share our joy with our own families by our side.
In New York City, there are nearly three million immigrants swallowing their pride and heartbreak as they brave a new life in this country called America. I’m not sure if I dare to consider myself one of them yet. To do so means making the commitment to stay.
“Dear Mama, As a result of the declining lack of infrastructure and means to practice our profession, we left home and came to America with the hope of taking our career to the next level. To some extent, we have been able to achieve this dream. However, it has been tougher than envisaged, as it can be lonely and we have to get used to new food and the cold weather. Certain people have negative preconceptions about immigrants and I worry about us facing discrimination and hope my children will develop to their full potential. It is nice here and with commitment and diligence everyone has a fair chance of succeeding. Eventually, I hope to come back home. I miss my family and friends and as the saying goes “Be it so humble, there is no place like home”. Love you loads. Your Daughter, Foluke, Bronx, New York and of Nigeria.”
To stay or to goThe glittering lights of life in America, as sold by Hollywood and TV, may have given me a skewed look at this country; though even when it took much longer than we had anticipated to better our standards of living, the lack or gain of a better life in America didn’t really matter in the end. It was the absence of family and the confused sense of belonging to one country, two countries or none at all that was more difficult to endure.
In the deep of the night, the ongoing confusion frequently rose up to greet me head on. I questioned our intentions, I wondered if we had done the right thing. Even if immigrants come to escape political persecution, genocide, war, poverty or disease, the guilt at leaving others behind never seems to fade. Family members may never understand why being in America, for work or freedom is better than being with them. We wonder if it is too. Though the truth is, that many do make the better life they came here for, sooner or later. With or without whatever they came for, some will still stay and some will return. The pull to be with those who know us best is ever strong.
It is no surprise to immigration officials and governmental bodies alike that the greatest reason for immigration is kin. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, even children migrate to this country to be with the family member who first came here. Some of them have taken months if not years to find their way, cutting through bureaucratic red tape in their home countries as well as in America. The story is little different in other corners of the world, as all governments struggle with border control and immigration policy. From one country to another, nations know they must allow family members to be together while limiting the total number of immigrants to a manageable statistic.
As population gaps are left in their wake, new migrants from other lands move in to take their place. The map of migration continually moves, as waves of ethnicity traverse continents in search of work, in search of new life, in search of belonging.
“…I have been here so long now living my life as if straddling the ocean, with one foot in America and one foot in my homeland.You know how much we’ve tried to come back, all the jobs we applied for and didn’t get, all the times we thought of returning without any job to go to at all. It turned out that life had other plans for us. I love New York. This is where I became myself, where I became a wife and a mother, where I made my family and where I discovered how very much you all mean to me. Strangely, it’s the distance in miles between us that brought us closer to each other than ever before. I am grateful for that and I am so very grateful to you for your unending support and understanding of my need to be here, at least for now. This is my home, because this is where I am. I love you Mum, so very much. I look forward to the day we can be nearer to each other again. Your daughter, Tina, Bronx, New York, and of Yorkshire, England.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.Voices of Our Future Assignment: Op-eds