Do you remember being 8 years old? I do. 8 for me was a tale of two lives. I was born into a life of privilege in an affluent upper middle class family in Bangladesh where there was never an ounce of worry about the stability of our livelihood. All we had to do was open our eyes and look out the window to see that we had much more than the average person making their way through our neighborhood streets in Dhaka. Life was also full of love. Living in a family home with my parents, my brothers, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, we lived a life of laughter, stimulating dialogue, and endless adoration from an endless stream of friends and family members who would visit us almost daily. Oh, and from the shoes of my 8 year old self, I could get any toy I wanted. Life was good.
A year earlier, we found ourselves with the opportunity to emigrate to the United States through the Diversity Visa program. It was an exciting prospect, but whether we would go through with it or not was another question given that there was nothing we were running from and the fruits of our family’s hard work then and over centuries had given us a lot of comfort.
All of that changed when our brother became ill with a kidney disorder. That was a turning point in all of our lives at a magnitude which we had no way of knowing. The opportunity to emigrate all of a sudden felt like a winning lottery ticket to help give our brother access to world-class medical treatment in order to give him the best shot at living. So we did it.
On April 30th, 1996, with suitcases in hand, we left behind everything and everyone we had ever known to board a plane to the United States of America. There was a feeling in the air of traveling nose first into the wind towards the greatest adventure we had ever embarked upon. As a kid in that moment, it was hard to understand the ramifications of rushing towards the great unknown. It’s hard for me to imagine even today what that feeling must have been like for our parents, knowing that their savings were ill prepared to start life anew in another country, but also knowing that nothing mattered other than quickly making sure that your child was given the best chance to survive an otherwise fatal disease if left untreated. Look in your soul. What would you do?
On May 1st 1996, we arrived in the US and settled into a small two bedroom apartment with our uncle in New Britain, Conntecticut. With six people sharing a small space, my parents and brothers slept together on a bed made from stacking comforters in one room, and I slept on a twin bed in the living room. It was a far cry from what we were used to in Bangladesh, but that did not matter to any of us. To cure a sick child is worth the sacrifice of comfort. We also knew in our heart of hearts that living in the land of opportunity, that living in the land built on the backs of immigrant and slave families meant that with hard work, there would be doors that would open for us one day too.
It was never easy. It still isn’t. Our dad, who in Bangladesh used to jet-set around the world for a living, spending his nights in 5 star hotels, all of a sudden found himself over a fryer at Burger King and delivering pizzas at night out of an old (but amazing) 1984 Honda Accord we found for cheap on the side of the street. Initially mom stayed home to take care of us. One day, when she heard about a possible opening for an assistant manager at a gas station almost an hour away, my mom ran home to tell my dad about it. He took the job, working the graveyard shift because it paid $7.50 per hour instead of $7.25. It was better work and pay than what he was doing, so he took it. My mom on the other hand, when all three of us could be in school, started working, first as a lunch lady, then as a paraprofessional, working in classrooms with autistic children, as she has done for the past 16 years.
It became apparent to me really quickly that things were no longer how they used to be in Bangladesh. That money was tight. That times were hard. That our brother was really really sick, and needed to regularly visit Children’s Hospital in Hartford. I often found myself alone, clutching onto my infant brother in the home of strangers, sitting quietly with only the thoughts in my head, waiting for our parents to return from the hospital with our sick brother. There were many nights when I would cry alone in bed out of the loneliness of missing all the people we had left behind but never showing my parents, because I could tell that they were also sad. Often times, my brothers were both the joy in my life, but also the two people I took out my frustrations on.
In many ways, my childhood ended when I was 8 because in the midst of transitioning into an American life, as the eldest child in our family I had to assume the role of being my parents’ right hand for both parenting as well as being a cultural translator.
One of the tougher nights was on May 3rd, 1999 when we lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the middle of the night, when my dad was at work, we got a phone call. Knowing it was unusual, I walked over to my mom’s room, and heard the words come over the line that my maternal grandmother was no longer with us. The two of us immediately fell crying into each others’ arms with the pain of never getting to say goodbye, knowing we could never afford to go to Bangladesh to attend her funeral. Truth is, we never got to say farewell to any four of our grandparents despite being as close as any grandchild can be, growing up in the same household as our paternal grandparents.
Still what mattered most to all of us was that the five of us were together. There was peace in that. There was comfort in that. There was love in that. Whenever things would get really hard, our grandfather would remind us over short, expensive phone calls that we had to power through, because there was nothing more important than our healthcare and education. So, with his courage and ours, we powered through as a family. Always knowing that families belong together.
Despite what political rhetoric might have people believe, immigration is not easy. Putting aside the difficult mechanics behind it for a moment, immigration is not fun. No one wants to emigrate because it’s just a thing to do. People do it because often, the sacrifice of leaving everything you have ever known, saying goodbye to the people you love most while knowing you might never see them again, and putting yourself in a place where you will never know the comforts of home is the only real option you have. For us, it was healthcare for an overwhelmingly sick brother that backed us into that corner. For many others, the impetus is political and financial hardship caused by modern western powers meddling in the economies of developing countries, often robbing their homelands and destroying their homelands such that any opportunity they had vanished over time.
Feeling compelled to migrate is a commonality we share with almost every working class immigrant family in America today as well as the immigrant ancestors of every racist anti-immigrant white supremacist as they desecrate the history of the hard work their ancestors committed to as a part of the foundational contract we all have with this land.
In the 23 years of living in the United States, two of us have put ourselves through college while our youngest brother is in the Army Reserves. The three of us in our own way work with the drive to make the world around us a better place for all. We do it as an extension of our parents who sacrificed all the comforts of our previous life to give us an opportunity to do something no one else in our family has ever done before. To me, it feels like a duty I take on with pride, for both our family as well as for the country that has given us so much. While we may not have material wealth, we are not short on wealth in our spirit.
By all measures, we are building the American Dream together. It is a dream and duty that every immigrant I know takes on with pride. It is a dream and duty that makes this country what it has been, what it is, and what it will be. It is a dream we have to keep alive because it adds to our country the kind of depth which other parts of the world can themselves only dream of. And for the people who measure everything by money, it is a dream that gives our country economic strength where, by investing in our poor (immigrants and non-immigrants alike) we realize a return that is unmatched through the business creation and labor force participation that is subsequently facilitated.
That dream is an inner peace my 8 year old self had through everything I was learning about our new home. That dream is what started our engines and gave us light when it felt like everything was falling apart. It is the hope I carry in my heart to this day.
Today however, my heart is in pain. An 8 year old child, migrating with his father on foot, running from violence, searching for the same opportunity I am getting to live out, died cold and alone, two thousand miles from his family, along our border, in the custody of the United States of America, on Christmas Eve, 2018. His name is Felipe Alonzo-Gomez. His dream is dead.
Two weeks ago, a seven year old child, migrating with her father on foot, running from violence, searching for the same opportunity I am getting to live out, died cold and alone, two thousand miles from her family, along our border, in the custody of the United States of America. Her name is Jakelin Caal Maquin. Her dream is dead.