We often rattle off what is perhaps the most cliché rapid fire without much thought: “What’s the one item you would take with you on a deserted island?” Though this hypothetical prompts some good laughs, the current conversation around immigration made me wonder whether a similar, more sincere question could elicit the underbelly of human experience and leave us not only amused, but more connected. So, I asked four women, who have migrated from their homelands to the United States: “What is the most meaningful item you brought with you?”
I initially thought the answers to that question would be a colorful backdrop to my own words. They would humanize my diatribe against the cruelty and coldness enveloping our conversations around migration today.
However, in soliciting these responses, my words have receded into the page. In fact, you likely will not remember this intro by the time you reach the final sentence of this piece. Rather, it is my hope that you remember the purple plastic suitcase with static wheels, the protective amulets, and the necklace that broke upon love’s embrace. I hope you remember that home is more than where any one of us happens to be born and that for too many movement is a privilege unto itself.
Below are the stories behind the women, their items, and their lives out loud…
Where are you from?
I’m from Soweto. Think Harlem old-school swag meets Brooklyn cool plus the wild rebel heart of London punk. That’s Soweto. A township—the South African equivalent of a Jewish ghetto or Brazilian favela or US segregated slum, ie. the hood.
When did you emigrate from South Africa?
Ha! Funny question that. Too long. 1999.
What prompted you to migrate?
Officially, Education. Looking back, A very hungry heart. A taste for wide adventure and making a life in the world.
What was the most sentimental item you brought with you when you migrated?
Honestly, I can’t recall what I packed in my bag. But I remember that bag. It was purple and plastic and had those static 90s wheels. Four small wheels. My uncle bought me that suitcase for boarding school. And it fit my whole little life, coming to America.
What feelings of nostalgia does IT bring up for you? Do you associate the suitcase with a particular memory?
I think nostalgia is very funny business. As are heirlooms. I came to America unwittingly—I came just for a few years, to attend college. And look at me now, a grown ass woman…still here. Of course, I chose to come. I applied for a visa. I got on a plane. I hustled to make that opportunity real.
But like a lot of immigrants I know, economic circumstances played a big role pushing me toward coming and then staying. So, the idea of bringing a piece of home with me did not look like the nostalgic magic heirlooms invoke. My homesickness was my heirloom. My longing to hear my language at the grocery store or taste our singular winter sun on my skin, that was the closest I got for many years to a family heirloom.
It’s provocative, I think, to consider the ways people bring an irrevocable part of themselves and their homelands wherever they go. I saw this a lot among African-Americans when I first arrived. Still do. A certain nose looked like a cousin’s back home. A piece of jarring syntax that sounded more like someone whose Tswana tongue was forced into translating a sentence into English. And greens! Just the smell of slow-simmering greens. All these things felt like invisible heirlooms.
Heirlooms can sound like museum pieces that belong to a certain class. But everyone came here shrouded in a story. That’s my most precious heirloom.
Your writing is very poetic. How has your background informed your writing style and the subjects upon which you focus?
I’d say my birthplace is my whole written world. Even when the characters seem far from Soweto, they are informed by all the stories I heard as a kid. My writing comes out of our oral tradition, from the African cosmos. That world of storytelling is so ancient and so poetic—it doesn’t really make false distinctions between prose and poetry. In that way, my black women, Tswana, Pedi, tough-gong Soweto street-smart self is very much in all the ink blotting my pages.
You were born in apartheid South Africa, in Soweto. Many outside of South Africa have their own ideas about what that means, but do you have an anecdote to share that most wouldn’t anticipate? A disruptor if you will?
Living outside South Africa has helped me understand how little people really know or appreciate about what apartheid was and how high its cost remains. Sure, geographic and temporal distance inform this ignorance. But to be honest, so does the very much alive white supremacy that caused apartheid in the first place. Our pain isn’t really real.
It’s rightfully vulgar to deny the Holocaust or the impact of hundreds of years of pogroms on Jewish psyche. It’s crazy to not get how the savagery at Charlie Hebdo was an attack on humanity itself. But when it comes to apartheid in South Africa or the Jim Crow South, I generally find an eagerness to look away from the live tentacles of state-sanctioned terrorism and crimes against humanity. That was then. Funny thing is, nothing could be more raw and real. And the best anecdote I can give you is already in front of you.
If you visit South Africa, especially Cape Town, it will smack you in the face. Why is everyone serving you black? If you visit the US, the anecdotes will shout for your attention in hairy places people like to pretend don’t exist: in NYC’s very segregated and unequal public schools (and take your pick, Boston, D.C., L.A., same problem), on elite college campuses that have more foreign-born black Africans and Asian minorities than indigenous students or African-Americans enrolled. I won’t even mention the EU migrant crisis or the U.S. prison industrial complex.
What is one thing you wish more people understood about the immigrant experience?
America is great. There’s a reason we’re here. But America is not the end all, be all. We came here from somewhere. From proud people. Some place with a rich history and culture and swagged out style. The funny sounding (to you) names we bear honor our grandmothers. Don’t mock them by asking for nicknames or shortcuts. The funny food we eat is what makes dining in Queens, N.Y. a foodie’s surreal-illest wet dream. Respect that. See us. Really see us for the same kind of human as you—ambitious, alive, hungry, proud, hardworking and trying to get by. Trying to make this moment into something good and grand and magical. And while we’re making wish lists, how dope would the U.S. be if we each fully appreciated and respected the truth, that we’re all Johnny-Come-Latelys? How much would this land heal and thrive if we listened with real Respek when its indigenous folk speak?
Pam Nasr | Film Director
Where are you from?
I’m Lebanese, born and raised in Dubai. My grandpa immigrated to the United Arab Emirates from Lebanon in the 60s. Dubai was still a dessert then; there was nothing there, and my family has been based there ever since. I never lived in Lebanon up until recently. At the age of 17, I went to college in the UK and I studied fashion styling and photography. After I finished college, I decided to move to Lebanon and live with my mom for the first time as my sister and I grew up with our dad after their divorce. Living in my country shaped who I am in ways that I never expected it to. And then I came to New York to go after my film career. So that’s been my journey. I’ve moved around a lot in my life.
What was that like? You know, coming home, but to a place that’s receiving you for the first time in a permanent sense?
I think it’s so layered because I’ve always had a tricky relationship with Lebanon since I could really feel the effects of the many years of war it endured. Growing up in a city like Dubai, where it’s extremely polished and new, my environment as a kid was very safe. Lebanon on the other hand is quite the opposite, it’s heavy in its history; scars fill the country’s buildings, streets, and its infrastructure. I’d visit Lebanon consistently throughout my childhood, two to three times a year—Christmas, Easter, the summer—and I always felt like I couldn’t relate to my country on a personal level. You know, as a kid I was like, “Everyone is just so angry!” and everybody is just yelling at one another in the streets, honking. You can definitely feel the people’s frustration, and I wasn’t used to it. Moving to Lebanon was a very instinctual thing. It’s not like I got a job there that made me stay there or somebody made me stay there. But once I got there, I knew that I was seeing Lebanon differently for the first time. I was in my early twenties and I was more aware about the world we live in, about the history of my country and the pain that my people went through, and I made it my job to dissect it in my own way and try to understand it as much as I could. I wanted to build a personal relationship with my country, for nobody but myself because I felt like I placed a lot of judgment on it. I quickly realized how strong, passionate and full of life my people are. A few months after being there, I noticed how much of me was my country. I felt like all of the things that I was complaining about, I had in me and I was running away from myself in a way. Once I decided to give my country the respect and benefit of doubt it deserves, I found a lot of comfort in who I am. It was the most beautiful shift that I have ever experienced. And it informed my creative path, it informed my personality, it informed my taste buds! I really found myself through my country.
Is there a specific item that you brought with you from home whenever you migrated?
Always. I always bring my mom’s stuff that I’ve taken from her. She had these beautiful white pointy leather boots with a tiny kitten heel. I don’t remeber how I discovered them at home, but I did, and she said they don’t really fit her, so I was like, “Cool, I’m taking them,” even though she has an obsession with shoes, she’s one big shoeaholic, she couldn’t really say anything about it because she knew she’d never wear them anyway. I think
I’ve had them for about five years now. I wear them all the time and always get compliments on them. They make me feel safe. They make me feel like [my mom’s] around. I think of her every single time I look at them. Every time I put them on, I feel like she’s close to me. I also always make sure to pack my favorite bread called Saj, or Markouk – it’s a super thin flatbread that I eat with pretty much every meal. Mom gets it fresh from our local bakery every Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s the best.
Did you struggle when you moved from Lebanon to New York?
No. I did not. I don’t know how, but I was so ready to be here. Everything was calling for me to be here, every part of my body and my mind wanted me to be here and I was ready. Before moving here though, I knew it was going to be a big change for me, another big change in my life, but I’m very familiar with the effects of constantly moving around. Ever since the age of nine, my sister and I would travel at least twice a year to see my mom, so I was always felt like I lived in between two cities. It shaped how I treat my life, how I treat myself. I’m very used to it. Before moving to New York, I knew that I wanted to be based here, but at the same time, I couldn’t fully guarantee it, because the powers of me being based here, for however many years, are beyond my control. It comes down to paperwork and visas, which I struggled with for months; I had to apply twice because the process is so nuanced. I also say struggled because it was super long and I couldn’t fly home to see my family for over a year – which I’m not used to, but I’m very proud to say that I just got my visa. They call it a non-immigrant visa because it’s a work visa, the O-1, artist visa.
Is there anything that you wish more people understood about the experience of migrating and, you know, of making a home in a foreign land?
Yes, it is something that I think about a lot, especially when I’m back home and surrounded by family that haven’t really left. They’re still based where they grew up, many of them never left and some of them don’t have the privileges that I was blessed with, to be able to fly across the world and get an education, gain experience. It’s a huge privilege that I am very grateful for. I just feel so lucky to be able to inhale and grasp the world physically. I’ve learned so much about myself through learning about other cultures. I feel this openness within me because I was exposed to it first-hand, but more importantly, I was curious about it and see it as my job to educate myself about other cultures. And that’s something that is priceless, but at the same time it costs a lot of fucking money. So, yeah, I believe knowing more about the world and its people makes you a better person. But then again, it hurts when I look at others that are able to travel all around the world and don’t have that mentality of truly learning about one another and still find it within themselves to mistreat people based on their race or their gender or their background. So, it’s a very conflicting theory that I have, but it’s one that I apply on myself and that I wish others would apply to themselves too.
Bogdana Ferguson | Photographer
Where are you from?
I’m from Lugansk region, Ukraine.
When did you immigrate from Ukraine?
I moved to the US in the summer of 2014.
What prompted you to migrate?
I did not plan on immigrating initially, but Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine which prompted the war in the region, made me reconsider how I saw my future.
Given that context, how easy/difficult was it for you to actually make the logistics of a move to the U.S. happen?
Lucky for me, I was already in the US at the time when the process of occupation started, although not meaning to stay here long term in the first place, it was easier once I was in the US. Trying to find a way to get a visa when you have your eyes set on immigration is awfully hard. Spoiler alert, US immigration officers don’t like to hear that.
What was the most difficult part about migrating?
The hardest thing for me was the ambiguity of the immigration process. I went through so many circles of bureaucratic hell, having spent years not knowing the status of my case: when will it be considered, when do I get my interview, when do I get my green card. Some people get their permanent resident status in a few months, some wait several years. It takes a toll on your psychic, because at one point you realize that you’re not really a person, or at least not of the equal kind, without a piece of paper. It’s really hard for me to marry the concept of being a human and having to prove it with a fancy ID card.
What was the most meaningful item you brought with you when you immigrated?
I brought a few pieces of jewelry with me that were given by my parents/aunt and uncle/grandparents at various points in time. I have one chain necklace with a sun charm, and a different necklace with a small and elegant cross. It’s funny, because I’m not a religious person, nor are my relatives, but they cherish these religious elements and symbols and see them as little lucky charms. I feel that same way about these pieces of jewelry because of how much they mean to my loved ones.
How does wearing the jewelry make you feel?
I wear my jewelry pieces fairly often, and every time I wear them, it feels like I’m putting on a protective shield.
You mentioned that people have prejudices and stereotypes about immigrants, presumably including stereotypes about people from the Ukraine. Do you have an anecdote (or a fact) that many people in the U.S. would not expect or anticipate from Ukraine?
Well, let’s just start by saying that most people don’t know that Ukraine has its own language. It’s entertaining but hey, how many facts can one learn about every single country in the world? I don’t blame them :) Also, my then boyfriend now husband was surprised when he saw one of my University pics from back home, where we looked like um… his words: « art students, cool style ». I suspect he imagined we only wear miniskirts and pseudo Louboutins there. Ha! Another thing people might not realize at first is that Ukrainians might appear quite reserved at first, but hey, get to know one and you’ll be fed with homemade foods, candy of all kind, birthday gifts and a lot of love for the rest of your life. We do love fun and people, we are just a bit rough around the edges to the outside world.
Cristina Martinez | Chef & Owner of South Philly Barbacoa
Where are you from?
When did you migrate from Mexico?
I came in 2006 and was here for 11 months, then I went back to Mexico. I returned to US in 2009 and have been here since then. When I first came, I was 36.
What was the most meaningful item—such as clothing or jewelry—you brought with you when you migrated from Mexico?
I brought very few items with me on the journey, a red and black necklace my sister gave me, some coins, and 6 buttons of peyote. They were gifts from my brothers and sisters, and the peyote is a natural plant, that comes from the earth. When my sister gave me the necklace, she told me that it would break when I met a husband, or that it may signify a tragedy. The necklace broke after I met my husband, just before we got married. Wearing it gave me a hope and sense of protection and abundance.
I was surprised by the unique obstacles placed in front of people who cross the southern border. For example, I read that you are ineligible for amnesty, despite the fact that your husband is a U.S. citizen. There are concentration camps on the southern border and the government is openly discussing taking DNA samples from those crossing there. Thus, U.S. law doesn’t even treat all undocumented immigrants equally. Does this inequity effect the way you organize?
The immigration system is a product of neoliberal capitalism, that is set up specifically with laws that maintain the exploitation of immigrants from the south, on which the U.S. economy does and has always depended. Things like the 3-year or 10-year hard bar are incentives for undocumented immigrants to stay rather than return home and wait in a long and non-existent line which does not favor poor people. Most people would rather work and accept poor conditions, exploitations and lack of rights, so they can advance their goals toward prosperity for their families. If we look to some of the causes of immigration we can begin to understand more the bigger picture, but in the end, I believe that humanity needs to come to a place of unity, without walls, acknowledging that we are all humans and we should all be free.
Since migrating, you have achieved much deserved success; your restaurant South Philly Barbacoa was featured on Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” you’ve been named Eater Philadelphia’s Chef of the Year, and a finalist for the James Beard Foundation award for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region. At the same time, you are an undocumented person. What inspired you to step into the light and share your story?
My husband and I were told by our lawyer that I was stuck with this 10-year bar, which means I would have to return to Mexico and live there for 10 years as a penalty, before being eligible to apply for my green card, even though I am legally married to a U.S. citizen. We asked this lawyer what we can do? He told us “You just have to wait for the laws to change.” At the time, we were a burgeoning food cart that was generating some press, so we collectively assessed the risks and decided to co-opt our own platform to speak about immigration and undocumented workers when we spoke to local media and food bloggers. Also, finding a loophole or a way to fix my case personally still leaves in place an archaic, discriminatory system, which affects many of our customers and people in our community. We decided it was worth the risk to use our platform to bring these issues to light and join the movement organized to achieve our ideals of equality and justice in our society.
What has been the most difficult aspect of your activism?
I have to take a lot of caution, because I am at risk for being targeted, risking my stability and my business for speaking out. Yet, I still need to come to work every day and do my best in competition with other restaurants that have none of the same obstacles. One always has to be careful criticizing government policies, even if we are being honest and fighting for what’s right. Many discriminatory and unfair policies have been at one time or another the law of the land in this country, including slavery of African people, genocide, and exclusion of immigrants from particular areas. It has been difficult to be ignored by many leaders in this industry who still refuse to acknowledge the workers that built their empires.
The U.S. restaurant industry, like the fashion and garment industry, depends on the labor of undocumented immigrants. Yet, many undocumented persons remain exploited in these industries. As the public advocates for more sustainability and ethical labor conditions, how do we ensure undocumented workers are not cut out of the conversation?
As business owners, we have a larger platform and more visibility than the workers, so what is needed is for owners and people with a platform to step up and speak the truth. We have to acknowledge the ones who are doing the work. We need to pay fair salaries, and work in collaboration with other businesses, factories, and corporations who are willing to take a stand in solidarity. Also, if we really want to not cut people out of the conversation, business owners should take the time to solicit the opinions and perspectives of their workers, and listen.
What is one thing you wish more people understood about the immigrant experience?
It is a great sacrifice, the pain from being far away from family that you cannot visit, crossing the desert is an arduous and intense experience, or the ocean, in the many ways that poor people risk their lives to migrate. And there is always a fear that after all the risk and hardship, we could arrive to uncertainty and without true job stability. We still have to find a way to keep focused and a good attitude and do our best.