Let Us Now Praise Immigrant People!

Immigration is again back on the front burner. The fate of the “Dreamers” is still uncertain as are a whole bunch of other issues like who gets into the U.S. and who gets locked up and/or thrown out.

Embry and I have close relationships with two immigrant families, each of whom lived for a time in the basement apartment of close friends of ours. The first family is the Dreamer family. The husband came here from Mexico when he was 15, spoke minimal English, and had only a third grade education. He managed to find a job in construction in Richmond, and moved to the Washington area to be with his now wife, who came to the U.S. about 15 years ago from Central America and is now one of Washington’s “super nannies.” By studying hard, he was able to get his GED, now speaks fluent English, and was awarded Dreamer status several years ago. Four years ago he started his own construction company, which rehabilitates and remodels old houses, and has done well enough to permit him to purchase and rennovate his new home, which now looks like something out of Architectural Digest. They have a six-year-old son. They are involved in their local community, love the United States, and remain very close friends with our friends and with us. They are like family.

And they are terrified that if their Dreamer status is removed they will be deported.

Think about what they have accomplished and how they have played the hand they were dealt. They are the quintessential American success story. Theirs is also the immigrant story. Of course, not all immigrant stories turn out like this one, but a lot do. Trump can say whatever he wants to about making America great again. Immigrants are what made America great in the first place and are still doing it.

The second family is the refugee family. They immigrated to the U.S. about a year ago as part of the U.N. refugee resettlement program. Their experience has given me a new understanding of what some people, especially refugees, go through to make it to the U.S. and what they do when they get here. The husband is from Afghanistan and fled the country when the Taliban was in charge. Because schools were closed, he never learned to read or write. He opposed the Taliban and to avoid being killed escaped to Iran where he met the woman whom he would later marry. His father-in-law did not approve of his daughter marrying an Afghan, and his constant threats resulted in husband and wife fleeing on foot with a toddler in tow across the mountains to Turkey. They struggled to survive in Turkey for five years where they became part of a large refugee population hoping to find permanent homes. They were finally granted U.N. refugee status and arrived in the U.S. with two daughters—a two-year-old and a six-year-old, no money, no possessions and no connections or friends in the U.S. When our friends offered their tiny basement apartment to be available for refugee resettlement, they moved in.

Embry and I each spend a day every week driving the mother to English classes and delivering the toddler to kindergarten along with numerous trips to the pharmacy, the social services office to try to straighten out problems associated with refugee support, and to take her and the children to various doctors. Despite some health issues, she is always cheerful, has a twinkle in her eye, and with her limited English lets us know how grateful she is.

When I think what it would have been like for Embry and me when we were young parents to flee to Afghanistan with no money, no job, no friends, and no ability to speak or write their language, I am in awe of this family.

What stands out most about the refugee family is their determination, energy, and grit. They will not take no for an answer. Within the first couple of months, the father managed to get a driver’s license, buy a cheap car from the imam at the local mosque where the father was a dishwasher, then land on his own a job as a welder paying $14 an hour. (He had been a welder in Afghanistan.)

I wondered how anyone who could not read in any language or speak English could possibly get a drivers license. I found out how this worked when last fall his wife directed me to take her to the Department of Motor Vehicles where she met for the first time a Farsi translator, whom she had paid $175 to assist her. The DMV test is oral, and the translator repeats in Farsi the questions asked by the public official and then translates in English the answers of the Farsi-speaking applicant. The translator had two other clients that day as well and was racing back and forth to do the translations. When the test was completed and I asked if the refugee had passed, the translator said, “ Of course she passed. All my clients do.” When I asked incredulously what the score was, she said she did not know because the results weren’t yet available. A few minutes later the results came in, and our refugee had a perfect score.

So in a few months this family was able to solve on their own the car challenge and the job challenge.

The next challenge was the housing situation. Their apartment was very small, only about 500 square feet, and cold in the winter. However, it was affordable at about $500/month  after taking into account in-kind housecleaning assistance. Despite their friendship with our friends’ family, they wanted something bigger and better. No way, I concluded. His income of $14/ hour ($28,000/year) would allow the family to afford a unit renting for $800-$850 a month. The cheapest two-bedroom in the working class neighborhood they lived in was about $1,500 a month. I had contacted many apartment complexes in the area months before for another refugee family, and the leasing agents all said the same thing: The applicant had to show proof of an income of $40,000 a year to qualify for a two-bedroom unit. No exceptions.

You can imagine my surprise last week when the wife directed me to the same apartment complex a few blocks from our friends’ house, the one I had visited before and where the other refugee family now lived—but in their case the family’s church sponsors were paying the rent. She said she was going to pick up the key. “What on earth could she be thinking?” I asked myself.

To my astonishment we were greeted by a smiling leasing agent, who (after I paid the deposit) produced a signed lease and a key to a unit renting for $1,300 (discounted from the original asking price of $1,500). I could not help asking the agent if they had qualified financially. He nodded and produced documents showing pay stubs averaging $800/ week ($41,600/year). He added, “Yeah, I know the guy makes only $14/hour, but, hey, he works 60 hours a week. “

Naturally I wanted to see the apartment. Before we could enter the vacant unit, the wife said I had to take her home first, which I did. She scampered down the stairs to her basement apartment and returned moments later smiling and carrying a beautiful, leather-bound book in her hands. It was the Koran.

When we got to the apartment, she slowly opened the door while I stood in the doorway. She looked carefully around the bare living room and then gently placed the Koran in the center of a windowsill facing east. She stood silently in front of it for a brief moment and then motioned for me to enter. They had now solved the housing challenge.

All these obstacles they overcame on their own through uncompromising determination.

This is not to suggest that they are home free or that the Dreamer family is home free. Lots more challenges remain. Life is hard. For some it is much harder than for others.

But can you imagine yourself playing the cards that these two families have been dealt? Their stories are the immigrant story. They are what make America great.


7 thoughts on “Let Us Now Praise Immigrant People!

  1. Joe– a stunning story, very well written. Trump of course should have this on his bedside table to read every night before going to sleep until he “Gets It’ about America. Members of the congress and senate too. Is there any way to make this blog go viral? Can I help? How do I send it out to all my friends? Just email it? Let me know, please.

    Good luck with your surgery. We will see you soon. Very best–Dickson

    1. Thanks, Dickson. All anyone needs to do is send an email to friends with the link to the blog— josephhowellphotography.com/blog/

  2. Laws that go unenforced on a chronic basis should be repealed. Yet no president or congress of either party has chosen to do so. Why?
    Trump may be forcing congress hand, though he may not realize it.

    Your usual well written blog, Cap’n. — Defacto

  3. Thanks for telling these stories, Joe. I went to sleep and woke up furious with Trump for his latest degradation of his office and the nation he ostensibly serves, which he is rapidly debasing to the status of one of the “shithole countries” of his senile fantasies. But then I thought of African American friends who tell me they’ve been through this before and will survive this racist as they have survived so many others. And I thought of both these families, how they seem to waste much less energy than I being infuriated by Trump and focus instead on improving the lives of their children and others around them. They will survive this, and when this man is dragged or skulks off the political stage we will all roll up our sleeves and get to work cleaning up the tremendous stinking mess.

  4. There’s no substitute for personal stories, especially if they read as well as yours, Joe. Thank you. There must be hundreds if not thousands of such stories in our town. It’s fantastic that you, our neighbors, our houses of worship and some political leaders are responding to the needs of today’s refugees in these critical situations. For a very well-written novel about the travails of a Cameroonian family in NYC, consider reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.

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