Feet in Two Worlds
Immigrants in the Global City
Monday, May 09, 2005
Feet In Two Worlds
MCCOURT: You arrive here as an immigrant and make a new life for yourself, but you never completely leave the country where you were born. It's hard to find a home away from home.
MAN: I miss some ideas about it that I had before I left for New York … but I'm surprised every time I go back how-, how foreign I feel.
MCCOURT: I'm Frank McCourt. This is “Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City ,” from WNYC, New York , part of “Think Global,” public radio's week of special coverage.
Join me along with journalists from the city's ethnic newspapers and WNYC reporters as we take you inside New York 's immigrant neighborhoods. Stories of the city's new immigrants coming up in the next hour.
(break for newscast)
MCCOURT: You are listening to “Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City ” from WNYC, New York Public Radio.
It must be comforting to be simply American, to have no hyphen in your consciousness, no memories of the Old Country, no other language and culture. Like everyone else, your ancestors came from somewhere, but it's all vague and you're not particularly interested. You're a quarter this, an eighth that, but…but… all American. That's all you can offer your children.
My name is Frank McCourt. I was born in New York and taken to Ireland when I was three. I returned to the U.S.A. when I was nineteen. Since then I've returned to Ireland frequently, even thought of going back and living there, but that's another story.
Yes, going back and forth can be confusing. You wonder who you are, where you belong. Sometimes people ask me, “Do you consider yourself Irish or American?'” For a long time I didn't know how to answer that question. I love both countries, but the people asking the questions were not satisfied, and I wasn't quite satisfied till, somehow, the answer came: I am a New Yorker. This is where I was born. This is where I came when I was nineteen, and this is where I've decided I'll live forever.
I am one of millions who have come from other places. I walk the streets of this city and I see the world. More than half of New York 's population is immigrants and their children. Making a home in a foreign place takes time. We new New Yorkers are haunted by the places we left. It turns out there are things we were not ready to give up. And sometimes the things we want to escape won't leave us alone. We go back and forth till memories fade, and finally, we choose a home.
The stories in this program come from journalists who work for New York 's ethnic newspapers, and WNYC reporters who cover immigrant communities. And now to New York City and stories of today's immigrants.
(music – Polish hip-hop)
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: My name is Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska. I'm a reporter for Nowy Dziennik , the Polish Daily News, and this is Greenpoint in Brooklyn . I wanted to show you this place because this is where most Poles come when they first arrive in the States.
It's a working class neighborhood, with row houses, music stores, churches, Polish butcher shops with kielbasa and delis that sell pierogies . Actually, it feels a lot like Poland .
The unemployment rate back in Poland is around twenty percent, so Polish people come to the States to earn money to support their families who they often have to leave behind. It can be lonely, so they move into neighborhoods like Greenpoint and surround themselves with other Poles, trying to recreate Poland here -- in the churches and restaurants and strangely enough, in the pharmacies. There's one on almost every corner.
I'm walking into one on Nassau Avenue .
Ms. Ewa Tunia, the pharmacist, got her degree back in Poland . She came to the United States sixteen years ago when she was in her twenties, and has been working here ever since. She doesn't really fit into my stereotype of a pharmacist. She's attractive and well–dressed. Her makeup looks good, and she's always tanned and smiling.
MS. EWA: (speaking Polish)
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: Since Ms. Ewa is busy on the phone right now, I'm gonna tell you a little bit about this place. You almost never hear English. Only Polish. It's kind of cozy- the lights are low, there's music playing, and there's always lots of people standing around talking, hanging out, transferring money, getting documents translated, sending letters to Poland , and even checking their blood pressure.
(sound of blood pressure machine)
PIOTR: It's a friendly place. People come to speak about their problems, their issues and sometimes it's more of a sort of a social speak-out circle than it-, it's a practical medical advice giving.
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: That's Piotr, he's a photographer who lives around here .
PIOTR: I pick up my batteries, I-, I get my shampoo and Tylenol and I chat with couple of friends that I've met there over time that work there, who can give me anywhere from fulfilling my prescription to an advice with what to do with my dry hair.
MS. EWA: (speaking Polish)
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: Ms Ewa says the most common problems she sees are what she calls the neurotic type. It's people who are far from their families who seem to come here the most.
MS. EWA: (speaking Polish)
She remembers one young guy who had a condition where he needed to have a bottle of water with him at all times otherwise he felt he would suffocate.
WOMAN: (speaking Polish)
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: A woman in her sixties just came up to the counter—she says that she's leaving for Poland tomorrow and is asking for pills she can take so she won't get sick on the plane. She's trying to decide whether to take Polish pills or American pills. She decides to go for the Polish ones.
PIOTR: Myself, I often ask for a Polish cough syrup because of a simple nostalgia of taste, which reminds me of something that I've used in my childhood.
WOMAN: (speaking Polish)
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: Now the customer is asking for advice for her daughter who is having trouble with her joints.
MS EWA: (speaking Polish)
Ms. Ewa is telling me that usually when Polish immigrants come to the States, they think that they are coming just for a short time—to get money to send back to their families. But the next thing you know, it's five years later.
That's what happened to Marcin Muchalski.
MARCIN MUCHALSKI: If I need something, I go basically to Polish pharmacy. This is only because of English, like, it would be hard for me to explain my problem.
KERN-JEDRYCHOWSKA: Marcin's English is better than many Polish immigrants. But he doesn't have health insurance. Ms. Eva says that's the case with sixty percent of her customers. Besides, most immigrants don't want to spend hundred-and-fifty dollars for a visit to the doctor. Why would they? That's enough money to help their family live for weeks in Poland .
But, is it safe to rely only on the pharmacy for all of their medical needs? People can have their blood pressure checked here. But what about other tests like mammograms, or cholesterol checks?
But isn't something better than nothing? I don't know.
And, there's another issue. There are Polish doctors working in some of the pharmacies. Many of them aren't licensed to be practicing medicine in the States, but when I tried to find out more about this, I couldn't find anyone who would talk. Everyone in Greenpoint seems to know each other, and no one wanted to get anyone into trouble.
Finally, I found Dr. Majchrzak, he runs a family practice in New Jersey . I guess Jersey City was far enough away from Greenpoint. He agreed to speak to m e.
Dr. Majchrzak : I know that there are Polish doctors who recently came from Poland to this country. These people were very often highly qualified specialists and physicians in Poland . Right now – unfortunately - they cannot practice medicine. They work in the pharmacies as the sales people, and very often they utilize their own experience to give some advices to their patients. And this is not completely legal.
KERN - JEDRYCHOWSKA : But immigrants in New York are just looking for care. They are not concerned if it's legal.
MS. EWA: (speaking Polish)
Ms. Ewa tells me a story about one of her customers who was diagnosed with a tumor.
She said that when this lady first found out, she wanted to go back to Poland , since all of her family was there. Ms Ewa convinced her to stay in New York so she could get better treatment. And she got very involved in the case. She even started visiting her at the hospital and then at home so that she wouldn't feel alone.
The thing is, when you find a person like Ms. Ewa Tunia who will take care of you, you feel like you've found a friend, someone who can, for a little while, take the place of your mother or your sister.
Polish immigrants come together in places like the pharmacy. But it's ironic because back in Poland people would never hang out in the pharmacy. There, the pharmacies are much more formal, the pharmacists wear a white uniform, they always stay behind the counter, and conversations are limited to medical issues. Here's it's more like a coffee shop.
I've been here for four years now, but I don't feel American yet. I read, I write, I think and I dream in Polish. And, like the people in this story, I like to use Polish medication that I took in childhood. But I don't feel a hundred-percent Polish anymore either.
Piotr has been here since high school. Do you miss Poland ?
PIOTR: I miss some ideas about it that I had before I left for New York… but I'm surprised that every time I go back how-, how foreign I feel, and how my own Polish sounds different to me, compared to everybody else's.
KERN - JEDRYCHOWSKA: T his is the paradox of being an immigrant in New York City … We are hanging in a space that is a mix of both home and here, being part of neither at the same time…
This is Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska.
Videoconferencing for Ecuadorian Immigrants
RODRIGUEZ: The longing for the comfort of home is typical among immigrants, but when what you desire is your family, the situation can be more difficult and complicated. I'm Cindy Rodriguez from WNYC Radio. In my reporting on immigrant communities, I often meet parents who wanted to give their children a better life, and to do that they left them behind.
I'm going to take you now a few miles east of the Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint to Jackson Heights , Queens , where Ecuadorians wait in line to try to recreate the feeling of being together as a family.
Roberto and Dolores and their two sons look like a wholesome and whole family. But they're not complete. The couple has two more children, twins being raised by Dolores' mother in Ecuador . The family has been separated for fourteen years.
In the basement of a money transfer office, Roberto and Dolores will spend an hour in a video conference, trying to erase the distance between the two parts of their family. The twins turn sixteen today, and for a dollar-fifty a minute, the couple and their two sons living with them in Queens will sit in a room with four black leather armchairs and one thirty-inch flat-screen TV monitor hanging from the wall.
MAN: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: When they enter the room, the image of their family in Ecuador is already on the television screen. Ten of them are seated in two neat rows in what looks like the waiting room of a bleak doctor's office.
MAN: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: The couple cries as they watch their children. Nieces, nephews, Dolores' sister, aunt and mother also weep thousands of miles away. It's as if the family is seeing each other for the first time.
DOLORES: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Acknowledging that another year has passed without her being by their side, Dolores wishes her twin son and daughter happy birthday and begs them to take care of themselves. The twins sit in the front row. Both are dressed in jeans. The boy wears a backpack. The girl has on platform shoes. Both cry and hide their face in their hands.
ROBERTO: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Roberto tells his daughter she's pretty, and adorable. Her grandmother cautions that she has many boyfriends following her around. Roberto laughs and says he's proud to have such beautiful children.
The mood swings back and forth between tears and laughter as the conversation turns from the mundane to the dramatic. Dolores' pregnant sister stands up to display her round belly, and Dolores tells her she looks beautiful.
DOLORES AND ROBERTO: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: But Roberto and Dolores are worried about their sixteen-year-old son. The clock is ticking on the hour-long teleconference, and he won't speak. Instead, he sits silent, slouched in his chair, looking uncomfortable.
DOLORES: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: His mother pleads with the boy to say something. His younger brother in Queens tells him to at least to say hello. The two have never met in person.
BOY: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: It's clear both parents feel tremendous guilt for leaving their twins to be raised in Ecuador . Roberto says he wishes things never had turned out this way; he takes a breath before finishing his thoughts. And apologizes for leaving them at such a young age.
ROBERTO: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: His daughter cries openly. Her brother continues his silence. As they speak to the screen, the parents wrap their arms around themselves.
Roberto promises one day he will deliver the hug in person.
MCCOURT. The history of immigration is the story of separated families. Some try to maintain relationships from afar, but others can't stand the distance. After a short break, Cindy Rodriguez continues her reporting. She tells the story of another family from Ecuador who paid smugglers to bring their children to New York .
For more about the reporters and stories in this program, visit our website at WNYC.ORG.
You're listening to “Feet in Two Worlds” from WNYC, New York , part of “Think Global” public radio's week of special coverage.
MCCOURT: This is Frank McCourt, and you are listening to “Feet in Two Worlds” from WNYC, New York Public Radio.
1950 was my first full year in New York . The largest immigrant groups in the city then were Italians , Russian Jews, Germans, Poles, Irish, and Austrians, in that order. Today, Dominicans are the largest group, followed by Chinese, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Mexicans, and Ecuadorians.
They may have cell phones and access to faxes and video conferences, but it doesn't change the fact: leaving your family is hard. Some people just can't tolerate it, so they take risks.
Listen to this story about another Ecuadorian family Cindy Rodriguez met.
RODRIGUEZ: When Esther and Jose finally managed to reunite with their seven-year-old son Felipe in New York , Esther says she kissed him five times, but her son remembers it differently.
FELIPE: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: He says his mother kissed him a hundred-thousand times.
That's the happy ending to a story filled with pain and guilt, danger, even horror.
Esther and Jose came to New York from Ecuador to get jobs to support their family back home. Jose, who like his wife asked that his real name not be used, was the first to arrive in 1995. He works construction. Esther followed six years later. She has a job in a sewing factory.
Jose says many Ecuadorians, “ tienen la idea de reunir ,” or, “have plans to reunite,” because to be far away from their families doesn't feel right.
JOSE: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: We met in a Manhattan office where Esther began telling their story.
ESTHER: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: In the Fall of 2003, Esther and her husband decided to pay a smuggler $25,000 to bring their children to New York . They borrowed most of the money. The couple understood the trip would be treacherous. Both of them came to the U.S. this way and spent several grueling days at sea. But a friend had recommended the smuggler. Jose says they had no choice if they wanted their kids to be with them.
JOSE: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth arrived in New York in May of last year but her younger brother wasn't with her. The smugglers were demanding $5,000 more for his release.
ESTHER: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Then things got worse. Esther says she learned her son had been turned over to a female smuggler. There were rumors from back home she was hitting him and not feeding him. She says the smuggler would call and promise the boy would soon be coming home. Then the contact stopped, and for three weeks, the couple heard nothing.
On top of that, Esther and Jose had run out of money.
In desperation, Esther finally decided to ask for help. She turned to an immigrant advocacy group that urged her to contact the authorities. The idea seemed incomprehensible.
ESTHER: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Esther is undocumented. She is in the U. S. illegally. To meet with federal authorities meant risking being deported. Not meeting with them meant her son would remain in danger. She said she suffered while trying to make an impossible choice. Eventually, Esther agreed to speak to federal authorities.
ESTHER: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Even though she feared being arrested, she says she decided to tell the truth, and asked for help.
It took several weeks for the smuggler to resurface. When she did, it was in Haiti . Hurricanes in the area were making communication difficult. The smuggler again demanded more money. Esther and Jose again agreed to pay, only this time, U.S. authorities would be waiting at the pickup spot. Two smugglers were arrested, and Felipe was put on a flight to New York . He arrived on October seventeenth – nearly a year from the day he left Ecuador with strangers.
FELIPE: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Felipe says he can't talk about what happened to him in front of people. He's told his parents he was sexually abused:
FELIPE: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: Now that the family is together – both parents say they feel proud. Jose says he especially enjoys seeing his family eat together. He thanks God for his kids and says now he and his wife will give them everything.
JOSE: (speaking Spanish)
RODRIGUEZ: The practice of smuggling children across borders is growing. At New York 's Kennedy Airport , immigration officials say they see two to three child smuggling cases every month.
Jose and Esther say they want the smugglers go to prison for harming their son. But their initial fear of being deported caused them to wait nearly a year before contacting the authorities.
The federal government has created incentives to encourage undocumented immigrants to provide evidence in these kinds of cases. Visas are available for victims of human trafficking and other violent crimes.
Esther, Jose and their two children have all applied for these special visas, and the family is waiting to hear whether the government will let them stay.
MCCOURT: Among the millions who enter the U. S. each year, there is a relatively small group who ask for asylum. People fleeing religious persecution or political repression are trying to start new lives, to leave their baggage behind. But the application process requires them to do exactly the opposite. It's a long, arduous process that forces everyone involved to straddle two worlds.
MCCUNE: I'm Marianne McCune, a reporter for WNYC Radio. Here in New York I meet people all the time who are waiting to find out whether the American government will allow them to stay here. The waiting can be agonizing, especially for those who fled their homes because something terrible happened to them. They can't stop looking back.
Take Bashir – he escaped from Sierra Leone . And sometimes he gets the most distant look in his eyes.
BASHIR: My head is gonna see you, mais my mind, it don't see you.
MCCUNE: Bashir's life in New York City is a kind of purgatory between the bloody civil war he escaped in Sierra Leone and the solace he hopes to find in the United States . He hasn't found that solace in the three years he's been here because he is still waiting to see if the U. S. will grant him asylum – and then maybe let him bring his wife and two children here.
SUBWAY CONDUCTOR: (announces stop)
So when he watches the city go by through the windows of an elevated subway train he's not all here.
BASHIR: My person is here, mais all my mind is still my family. My person, I'm here. On my mind, in the trouble over there.
MCCUNE: You might not notice it sitting next to him. Bashir wears a New York Yankees cap and a hooded sweatshirt like everyone else. And the fact that he speaks a jerky English and uses ‘gonna' for almost every tense -- is relatively normal in this city. But inside Bashir's head, there's a story that plays over and over. Six years ago in Sierra Leone , he says, he came home to find a group of rebels about to rape his sister. His father tried to stop them.
BASHIR: … my father is coming. He say, “No, no, no.”
MCCUNE: His father was a local imam .
BASHIR: One rebel is gonna shoot my father in the head. I see he's killed my father. Like that.
MCCUNE : They killed his father. And then Bashir says they knocked him to the ground.
BASHIR: I can't do nothing.
MCCUNE: Bashir's wife had already fled with their children. Now he escaped to the neighboring republic of Guinea . And when the war came to Guinea , he says, friends helped him come to the U. S. to apply for asylum. Pankaj Malik is his attorney.
MALIK: He would get very emotional and upset when we first met, and he was telling me about what he witnessed, and it was very devastating for him to even talk about it .
MCCUNE: But Malik had to push Bashir to tell his story with as much specific detail as possible – and she'll ask him to do it again and again with great consistency in order to convince an immigration judge to let him stay.
Unlike in criminal courts, where defendants are assumed innocent until proven guilty, in the immigration system, the applicants must prove they are telling the truth – that they have a credible fear of persecution. Asylum officers and government attorneys and judges scour each case for holes. They ask for the goriest details and seemingly meaningless details, and take notice if there's any variation in the account.
MALIK: They have to be that way because there are so many cases that unfold and they see that are not accurate and not true.
MCCUNE But for those who are telling the truth, the process can be wrenching. Anwen Hughes of Human Rights First has overseen hundreds of asylum cases.
HUGHES: You know, for some people it may be helpful to talk about those kinds of traumatic experiences as way of coping, but I think it's never helpful to people psychologically to be cross-examined on those types of experiences.
MCCUNE: Asylum applicants also have to gather evidence of their experiences. The judge needs to see documents that show who they are, where they came from, what they saw. But people who fled massacres, or civil wars or repressive governments often arrive with nothing. So once here, they and their attorneys spend hours calling and writing home for such-and-such piece of ID or eyewitness testimony. In countries where phones or postal service don't work, they get creative – ask a friend to visit an uncle who can get a hold of a cousin, and so on.
(BASHIR flipping through papers)
BASHIR: This is my passport, proof I'm de Sierra Leone .
MCCUNE: Bashir is lucky he has what he has.
BASHIR: My father is dead. The dead certificate is this one.
MCCUNE: But it took immigration officials more than a year just to verify Bashir's identity. Since then, his attorney has asked the judge for more time so he can collect written accounts of what's happened from his friends and family in Sierra Leone .
MALIK: When I first met him, he had no idea if any of his family had survived. And there was no communication for months and months and months.
MCCUNE: Last year, Bashir found out his wife and kids were alive in a refugee camp near the border. And since then, his wife has managed to travel to a phone a few times, so they've spoken. One afternoon in his attorney's office, Bashir tells Malik he's going to speak to his wife again.
BASHIR: Today I gonna try to call my father friend, since my wife gonna be over there.
MALIK: Your wife is in Guinea or Sierra Leone ?
BASHIR: No. Is at the border.
MALIK: She's at the border.
BASHIR: Yeah. It's not safe.
MALIK: That's what I need to see in letters: Why is it not safe?
MALIK: You understand?
BASHIR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MALIK: That's going to be your case.
MCCUNE: The letters are crucial to Bashir's case because since he came to the United States , Sierra Leone 's civil war has officially ended. He has to show proof of the atrocities he's already experienced, AND convince the judge he still has reason to fear.
MALIK: In the most recent State Department report, it was noted that all the towns along the border are still unstable.
BASHIR: I'm scared.
MCCUNE: Bashir heads direct from his attorney's office to a store where he can buy a phone card to call his wife.
STORE CLERK: What kind you lookin' for?
BASHIR: BOSS phone card.
CLERK: BOSS, how much?
BASHIR: I'm thinks is a five-dollar.
CLERK: Five-dollars' one?
MCCUNE: He scratches clear the calling card number and walks to a nearby pay phone.
BASHIR: 'Allo! 'Allo? (speaking Mandingo)
MCCUNE: When Bashir's wife finally comes on the phone he smiles so big you can see leftover flecks of blue chewing gum in the cracks between his teeth.
They speak for a few minutes and he tells her she needs to write him the letter, soon. She tells him their seven-year-old girl is sick after last night's long truck ride to the house she's visiting. The friends who live here have a baby that starts crying near the phone.
Eventually, there's just too much noise and commotion in the room, and his wife asks him to call back later.
BASHIR: Say I'm gonna call her tomorrow, because baby's gonna cry.
MCCUNE: He hangs up.
MCCUNE: The consternation returns to Bashir's face.
BASHIR: I'm not feel good, let's go.
MCCUNE: His wife told him she needs money for his daughter to get a shot, but Bashir doesn't have a permit to work or money to send. He doesn't know when, if ever, he'll get the asylum he's seeking. And he isn't confident his wife and children are safe.
BASHIR: Now I don't know what I'm going to do now. This moment I don't know what I'm going to do.
MCCUNE: Bashir says he sometimes takes three or four Nighttime Tylenols before he goes to bed, and he still can't get to sleep. But some of the 40,000 people who apply for asylum each year have it much worse. Those who arrive at U. S. borders with no travel documents at all are detained while their cases are decided, sometimes for months or years. Anwen Hughes says Human Rights First had one detained client who, after another postponement of his hearing, appeared suicidal.
HUGHES: And he was just saying to me, “I just-, I just can't-, don't care anymore.” You know, “ Let them send me back. I can't face this again. I can't talk about these things again.”
MCCUNE: Bashir hasn't reached that point. But, for him, every day of waiting means another day he's stuck … between the past and the present, between Sierra Leone and New York . Another day that, as he says, “draws his mind away from his person.”
I'm Marianne McCune.
MCCOURT: Some come here to escape political repression. Others see New York as a place to regroup so they can continue fighting political battles back home.
SAI AUNG: My name is Sai Aung. I am Sai Aung Teekham. I came here as refugee from Burma with my son, my daughter, and my wife.
MON NOM TEEKHAM: My name is Monomkom Teekham. I am the youngest.
SAI LAO TEEKHAM: My name is Sai Lao Teekham. Or, you can call me Jerry.
SAI AUNG: My son, singing.
MCCOURT: The Teekham family survives the first winter in New York . They carried a tape recorder through some of those long days.
SAI AUNG: Today is January 23rd, 2005 . I'm just coming out from my apartment. I try to open the door – owwwww! It's snow and windy and…
I am from a state called Shan, Shan State . It is our ancestral homeland, and there is no freedom
Ah, yah, yah. We don't have like this kind of snow in Shan state
We try to have a movement We call for freedom and equalities, and democracy, but unfortunately, we fail, so I have to leave.
Hello, good morning super.
Physically, and, yah, everything, I'm here, so I have to make myself strong, prepare. My first activity is, I try to organize National Day of Shan State here in the New York
We are going to have a meeting for Shan State people to celebrate our Shan national day .
The slogan for the celebration is “Freedom and peace for Shan State and Burma .”
I wanted to come to U. S. for my son and daughter education, and for my-, Shan State , for my Shan people.
(sound of TV)
Now 6:58. My daughter is just studying her lesson. What lesson are you studying?
MONNOM KOM: Economy.SAI AUNG: For what?
MONOM KOM: For economy.
SAI AUNG: One day, I-, I just told them I would try to get back Shan State , but you-, both of you, have to maintain and build up the nation. I will be the one who take, and you will be the one who build up the Shan State .
MONNOM KOM: Now I'm going to record my mom's cooking dinner. She's cooking some Shan food today, the name is topu-, tofu. School lunch is bad. School lunch is so bad - pasta, hamburger, sandwich, chicken fry, cheese, potato. I hate it. It's makes me fat I think, I feel like that. I miss rice, I miss my mom curry, smell of rice.
JERRY: It is now 12:25 . It's too quiet. (sound of turning pages) I start to write a diary when I was fourteen, I think. Is very fun to read what I wrote. I don't know who wrote this; I think it's my sister. In English. “Hello, my brother. I want to tell you some things. I want to be a teacher. Can I? And one day you would be a leader.”
SAI AUNG: When we fled out, I left my mother, my brother and sister over there, and my friends. They all are helpful to me, and I left them behind. Now, here, I'm safe. I have hope, and over there they don't have.
MCCOURT: When we return in a minute, we'll hear from Haitian immigrants who would like to go home, but they're stuck, working in New York so their friends and relatives in Haiti can survive.
You're listening to “Feet in Two Worlds” from WNYC, New York , part of “Think Global,” public radio's week of special coverage.
MCCOURT: This is Frank McCourt, and you're listening to “Feet in Two Worlds” from WNYC, New York Public Radio.
The ingredients of immigration don't change much. First, there's the dream of coming to America , “where the streets are paved with gold.” Then there's the work, often back-breaking but always necessary. Work leads to money, and that's what sustains the families back home.
Think of it. America is a land of quiet heroes from all around the world, but being a hero can become a chore.
Macollvie Jean-François reports for The Haitian Times , a weekly paper in Brooklyn . She says Haiti 's ongoing troubles keep Haitians in the U.S. chained to their homeland.
Jean-François : The flight from New York to Haiti is only three-and-a-half hours. Jovens Moncoeur is a twenty-seven-year-old Haitian-American. He hadn't been to Haiti since he was three years old, but four years ago, he decided to go for a visit, and the devastation he saw was overwhelming.
MONCOEUR: It was like a shellshock. I have cousins that can't pay for school. Some can't pay for a house. Some can't go to the hospitals. Some can't event eat. Just everyday life things that we take for granted here, they don't have the luxury of having - electricity, number one, proper sanitation
Jean-François : Since that first visit, Jovens became a regular customer at the local money transfer office in central Brooklyn , where he sends money to his extended family back in Haiti .
MONCOEUR : People can't understand how much a little help can do for somebody else, you know, to get over the next day. I have aunts that sell charcoal on the side of the road, little cousins that shines shoes, a family that-, that are painters, that I send them paint sets and stuff like that, paint brushes and paint. I just want to help.
Jean-François : The desire to help is typical among Haitians. The reason many of them came to the United States in the first place was to earn money to support those back home.
(sound of taxi in Port au Prince)
Jean-François : Haiti is a beautiful country, but jobs are scarce and corruption runs rampant. Eighty percent of its eight million citizens live in abject poverty.
(sound of beggars asking for “ dolla Americain”)
Jean-François : When you set foot outside the airport in Port-au-Prince , you see scores of people waiting outside the gates asking you for a “ dolla Americain .” Haitians in the U. S. are compelled to respond to that need, even as they, too, struggle to make ends meet.
Jean-François : Money transfer offices are the economic lifeline between the Haitian Diaspora and those that we've left back home. The most convenient place to go to make a money transfer is at the center of Haitian life in Brooklyn - Church Avenue .
WOMAN (IN BAKERY): …We have fried fish, we have boulé , we have white rice, we have something called legume , which is a Haitian delicacy …
Jean-François : Here on Church Avenue , you can find Haitian restaurants, hair salons, street vendors selling cooking herbs and spices, and of course, the money transfer agents.
The future of t hese store-front businesses is uncertain. Government efforts to crack down on the movement of funds to support terrorism and drug trafficking are making it harder for them to stay in business. Even so, there are three money transfer agents on this street alone.
After filling out a form and paying a small fee for the transfer, relatives back home can have the money in their hands in as little as two hours.
[*] Dumont is twenty-nine years old, but she's been sending money back to Haiti since she was a teenager. She is the only source of support for her two brothers in Haiti. [* This woman asked that her full name not be used in the transcript.]
DUMONT : On a monthly basis, I send four hundred dollars. That's just for-, for the food. Right now today I'm not sending as much. Today I'm just sending just a hundred dollars. Two weeks ago I sent two hundred, and now I'm sending a hundred.
Jean-François : On top of sending cash, Haitians send packages, big-ticket items like cars and refrigerators and barrels.
DUMONT : They just got two big barrels, where I spent like over a thousand dollars to buy things to send – Carnation milk, oil, juice, sugar, salt, spaghetti. Was pretty much everything.
Jean-François : Haiti ranks at the top of countries most dependent on remittances from overseas. The money Haitians send home from the U. S., $1.3-billion dollars in 2003 alone, is equal to a quarter of Haiti 's Gross Domestic Product. And that's not counting the cash that Haitians carry with them when they fly back home. Even so, life in Haiti keeps getting worse.
MACOLLVIE'S MOTHER: (speaking Creole)
Like many Haitians, my mom's attitude toward Haiti has changed a lot over the years. Ten years ago she swore she would return. She used to say in Creole, “ se la kod lonbrit mwen ye ,” which means, “that's where my umbilical cord is buried.”
I asked her what happened to her plans to go back.
MACOLLVIE'S MOTHER: (speaking Creole)
She told me, “I have the plans. It's the fear that I might get killed, come nighttime. If not for that, I would go. My house is there waiting for me, and with the winter cold, I get sick, but I'm scared. Most people here will go back, but they're afraid.”
Haiti does not move forward, and Haitians in the Diaspora do not, either, because they are constantly trying to meet the needs of those left behind. There's no question that the money we send in small amounts helps, but it's only temporary.
I know it pains Haitians to have to ask for help from those overseas. And while it's tempting to say, “Just let Haiti work out its problems,” what can you do when the phone rings and a relative says, "Things aren't going too well?" What can you do when they have nowhere else to turn?
This is Macollvie Jean-François, reporter for The Haitian Times .
MCCOURT: What do you gain by immigrating to the U.S. ? Sometimes, it's not just the money or the opportunity. It's the chance to redefine yourself, to pick and choose which parts of your culture you keep and which you toss out.
Arun Venugopal is a journalist with the newspaper India Abroad . He's found a group of New Yorkers who've escaped anti-gay prejudice in their homelands. Here, they've discovered the freedom to express their sexuality, but they refuse to let go of the things that make them South Asian.
VIDUR KAPUR: You know, there are a billion people in India , and if you believe the official statistics, four gays, which means I represent twenty-five percent of India 's gay population. And I live in Chelsea , in Manhattan .
VENUGOPAL: It's a Friday night in New York , and a funny thing is happening. Standup comedian Vidur Kapur is giving a crowd of South Asians – Indian and Pakistani 20 and 30-somethings – a tutorial on being Indian and gay .
They seem to get most of his jokes – this is the “ Queer Eye ” generation, after all – but some of his material just doesn't connect. Some audience members admit this is the first time they've actually encountered a Desi , or South Asian, who is openly gay.MAN: I guess it's not natural, normal for many Indian communities to have a gay comedian come up and-, and-, and do a standup.
VENUGOPAL: For many people with South Asian roots, gayness is a Western concept. Most gay and lesbian Desis are closeted to their family and community. This is especially true in India and Pakistan where homosexuality is illegal. But in New York , it's a different story. Here, activists, visual artists and performers like Vidur have begun challenging the stigma that comes with being South Asian and gay.
(music, party sounds)
VENUGOPAL: Each month, at a nightclub in lower Manhattan , a Desilicious party takes place. Images from Bollywood movies play on overhead TVs as Bollywood music throbs across the dance floor. Groups of lesbians dance and mingle in the corner of the room. Gay men, some with their shirts off, fill up the middle of the floor, occasionally climbing onto a stage to strut.
Desilicious is one way gay South Asians have managed to create something unique, and hard to ignore .
WOMAN: Well, think about the scene without it. I mean, it's kind of like you're just this lone brown person floating in the miasma of, like, New York .
VENUGOPAL: Parties like this represent a new mixture of American gay culture and South Asian pop culture, but here, people also share traditional South Asian values, like commitment to family and community.
WOMAN: Other people don't understand the kind of closeness we have to our families, where it's like, “Yeah, we're going to take care of you, Mom and Dad, when you're, like, 80 years old, and-,” you know, whatever. I think family is a big-, has a big part to play.
VENUGOPAL: It's about 1:30 in the morning, and the party hits what might be called a high note. A circle forms on the floor, and inside, a small group of drag queens gathers, dressed in an assortment of saris and Indian skirts and blouses. One by one, they dance, dramatically and wordlessly enacting scenes from their favorite Bollywood movies. The crowd loves it, and the men on the periphery run up to their favorite queens and hand them dollar bills or stuff them down their blouses.
(Sound of people clapping and hooting)
VENUGOPAL: So, tell me your name.
ZINA DIVANI: Everybody know me by Zina Divani.
VENUGOPAL : Ms. Zina Divani is one of the better known drag queens at the party. She's constantly changing her outfit. Right now she's in pink feathers. She came to America fifteen years ago to escape persecution in her native Pakistan .
ZINA DIVANI: When I was baby, when I used to dance, I used to get hit by my parents, my brother, my cousins. “Oh, no, you can't dance to that music, because it's very khusraaz ,” means it's very queer. I-, I don't know the difference. But when I moved to New York that I learned, and I danced, and I'm the most famous drag queen in New York .
DUTT: I think what's really exciting about the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Transsexual-Transvestite scene - it really represents people from all walks of life.
VENUGOPAL: Malika Dutt is the head of a human rights group called Breakthrough, which is co-hosting tonight's party.
DUTT: There's Muslims, there's Hindus, there's Christians, there's Pakistanis, there are Indians, there are Bangladeshis, there's Sri Lankans. If there's any part of South Asian community that's truly is South Asian, I think the LGBT community really encapsulates that.
VENUGOPAL: Many are also drawn to the scene, and to New York , because they're trying to escape family pressures, namely, the pressure to marry.
VIDUR KAPUR: …it really hit the fan when my mom told my grandmother.
VENUGOPAL: Vidur Kapur on coming out to his family, and the consequences.
VIDUR KAPUR: She was like, ‘Oh-ho! Horrible! Who's going to marry him ?'
AATIF: A lot of men in India and Pakistan get married and then lead a double life.
VENUGOPAL: Aatif is one of the founders of the Desilicious party scene.
AATIF: … have a wife, and then go out at night and have boyfriends, and I think that it's really not fair to their family. It's not really fair to themselves, either, because they're-, you know, not really living life honestly, but-, you know, it's very easy to say that here in New York where it's a lot easier to be out.
VENUGOPAL: But the stigma of homosexuality doesn't just affect gays and lesbians. In Indian and Pakistani culture where arranged marriages are the norm, women can pay a heavy price. Sometimes they're married off to men who turn out to be gay. The results can be disastrous.
WOMAN: Oh, he used to go into terrible rage, for nothing.
VENUGOPAL: This woman, who asked to remain anonymous, got married in India when she was in her early twenties. It was to a man she had met for only about five minutes. Within days of their wedding, he brought her to his home in the U.S. There, she discovered that her new husband was gay. She was in a new country with no one to turn to, and at the mercy of her closeted and furious husband.
WOMAN: He really started beating me, and I remember I had cracked ribs and I was bleeding at the mouth.
VENUGOPAL: After leaving her husband and going back to India , she and her family realized it would be impossible for her to lead a normal life there. The disgrace was too great, so she returned to America .
WOMAN: So, here I am, a happily-married woman with a little baby, and that's what I'm doing. (Little laugh)
VENUGOPAL: It's hard to say how common this woman's story is, because sexuality is not openly discussed in South Asian culture. But, according to domestic-violence counselors, more South Asians in the U.S. are coming forth with stories like this. Ironically, the issue of marriage, combined with the growth of gay Desi communities in New York and other cities, may force South Asians to change their attitudes, to recognize that being gay isn't a white thing or a Western thing, but universal, and normal.
This is Arun Venugopal, reporter for India Abroad .
MCCOURT: My youngest brother, Alphie, once owned a Mexican restaurant in New York . Why didn't he open an Irish bar like hundreds of Irishmen around the world? Because, he said, he didn't want to fall into the stereotype. At that time the Irish were identified with drinking, fighting, the gift of the gab, hatred of the English and, of course, fierce devotion to the Catholic Church. For other ethnic groups, you can supply your own stereotypes.
My mother's name is on the memorial wall of Ellis Island with thousands of others who came through. She often said she felt sorry for those poor people who landed here without a word of English or a penny to bless themselves with. How in God's name did they survive at all?
They did, Angela, and you should see the new millions with their music and their prayers, and the way they cherish the children. Out in the borough of Queens over a hundred languages are spoken on the streets.
This is ferment and tumult and richness. This is the Italians giving way to the Dominicans, the Irish stepping aside for the Mexicans. Imams are talking to priests who are talking to rabbis who are passing the word: The melting pot is bubbling.
ANNOUNCER: You've been listening to “Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City ,” hosted by Frank McCourt, part of Think Global, public radio's week of special coverage. This program was produced by John Rudolph and edited by Karen Frillmann. Technical director: Wayne Shulmister. Associate producers: Jocelyn Gonzales and DJ Rekha. Engineers: Rob Christiansen, Curtis Fox, Ed Haber, Jennifer Munson and Rob Weisberg. Editorial consultant: Andrew White. John Keefe is WNYC's News Director. Special thanks to Stacy Abramson.
The Center for New York City Affairs, Milano Graduate School at the New School University , is a partner in this project.
“Think Global” is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Surdna Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Additional funding for this program comes from the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation. This program is a production of WNYC, New York Public Radio. Visit our web site at WNYC.org.
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