I am a first-generation American. My father came to America in 1998. He arrived with a bag of clothes, one hundred dollars in his pocket, and one phone number in his hands. He came because he wanted a better future for his kids. He worked tirelessly and used all his savings to support our family here and in India. When my mom arrived, she got malaria and had to lie on the ground for days covered in blankets without any medicine because my father’s employer had tricked my parents and kept the money he was supposed to use for their insurance.
This is just one story, the story I am most familiar with, but I know many more exist. And, I know there are many more people who had it much better or much worse, a few of those are the stories of the families of some of the people in this room.
When I was born, an American citizen, I didn’t go through anything they did; I didn't even have one painful or traumatizing experience. My parents started from scratch, working endlessly to create a comfortable life for their children. They gave me the childhood they dreamed of, so I could have the education, community, and luxuries they couldn’t. I never shared a room with five people, started making dinner for my family before doing my homework, or lived with inconsistent electricity and water. Instead, I rode around my backyard in a pink Barbie jeep, swerving through the swings of my personal playground. As a kid, I never lacked anything; everything was given to me without any hesitation or expectation of anything in return.
When I ask my dad about his journey to America, he always makes his journey sound easy and effortless, but I know it wasn’t. He left the only world he knew, his home, and entered a world of unknowns. He left behind the banana trees from his backyard, the lush paddy fields, the open arms of close neighbors, and the comfort of the beige sky and soft, fragrant soil. My aunt, Pinkal came here in 2002. She waited fourteen years for a green card, a piece of paper that would allow her to go back to India without jeopardizing her residence here. She could only go back home to India for a few days, and only because her father died.
I am a product of immigrants. My background has given me the ability to empathize and to understand others. It has given me the ability to embrace difference and learn about new things. It has taught me to love and respect other people, regardless of how they look or where they came from.
Two years ago, my other aunt moved here with her husband and seven-year-old son, Rohan. That year, as I was struggling with Algebra 2, he was struggling to make friends. Whenever he spoke in English, he used this fake American accent because he didn’t think he would be accepted otherwise. He didn’t think he could make friends without it. It was unfair. He was one of the cutest, smartest, and sweetest kids I knew, but he felt like people would not want to get to know him and like him if he didn’t sound like an “American.”
Rohan's and my family's experience has taught me that being an immigrant is extremely hard. Uprooting yourself from the only place you know and moving to an unknown land is hard. Changing yourself to adapt to a new culture is hard. Not being accepted for how you talk or how you look is hard. It shouldn’t be hard, especially in a country that was founded by immigrants.
Being an immigrant is not easy. Being an immigrant takes courage and determination. Being an immigrant is leaving your world behind in hope for a new home with the opportunities, education, and liberties that you didn’t have. Being an immigrant is adding to the diversity of a country and strengthening an economy. I believe that all of us should understand what it means to be an immigrant and realize unity is not conformity; it is diversity, awareness, and understanding.
Immigrant is just a word. Behind that word are millions of different stories. I hope you will try to hear and understand a few of those stories. I hope you will take the time to listen, truly listen to someone who does not have the same beliefs as you without thinking about why they're wrong. We as a whole, as people need to learn how to respect one another, even if we disagree. We need to listen to people, understand what they’re going through without judgement. I hope you will take the time to listen, to understand, and hopefully you will be able to see the world through a new perspective. Thank you for listening! And thank you Mr. Nelson for giving me the opportunity to share my story.