Hyphenated America

Author: Hajer Naili, Editors: Olivia Headon & Itayi Viriri, Date: 12 June 2017

“My mother was her own Ellis Island,” Luis Torres says about his mother, a Salvadoran immigrant, who fled the civil war and found refuge in California in the 1980s.

“Everybody has come through her door, [staying at] her apartment while they established themselves in the U.S. and that would not have happened had she not come here,” Torres recalls. ‘Everybody’ included close family, such as uncles who rejoined his mother in the United States.

Torres, interviewed in New York as part of a video series for Immigrant Heritage Month, is one the 18 million children of immigrants born in the U.S., representing the diverse face of America.

Torres, who is in graduate school, currently works for an international public health organization in Manhattan.

The U.S. has more immigrants than any other country in the world with an estimated 46 million residents having been born outside the country.

Representing more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, the population of immigrants is also very diverse, with just about every country in the world represented, according to the Pew Research Center.

Contrary to prevailing mainstream narratives, immigrants, especially children and grandchildren of immigrants, have made important contributions across many realms: artistic, culinary, athletic, scientific and technological.

In 2011, an immigration reform group, the Partnership for a New American Economy found that more than 40 percent of companies in the Fortune 500 were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

As a result, the companies created by immigrants who came from all over the world — India, Britain, Canada, Israel, China and Russia among many other locations — have added several thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy.

Many of the companies created by immigrants have also transformed our lives forever like Google whose co-founder is an immigrant from Russia or Apple which was co-founded by Steve Jobs, the son of Syrian immigrants.

Immigrants and children of immigrants do well in turning ideas into successful ventures. In fact, an immigrant’s heritage may offer certain creative advantages like resilience and determination to succeed, a curiosity and openness to innovation and an attraction to high-risk pursuit.

Almost by definition, immigrants are risk-takers.

They give up the comfort of their home and familiarity to seek new opportunities. Many are aware of the challenges that lay ahead yet that leap into the unknown means that they will not be easily deterred from their goals.

When she was 17, Omolola left Nigeria with her mother seeking a more financially comfortable life and greater access to quality education. Having just graduated from secondary school, Omolola, had planned to go to college. However, the universities in Nigeria were closed due to a strike and there was a long wait before she could be accepted. Instead of wasting a year where she could be in school, Omolola and her mother moved to the U.S. They settled in Lansing, Michigan and Omolola was able to pursue her education. Her mother, who had been the director at a general hospital in Lagos, had to start from scratch.

“She had to go through this accreditation process and pass some exams. At this point, she is over 50,” recalls Omolola, unable to hold back her tears. “We slept on the floor when we first came to the United States, because we didn’t have anything. We left everything behind,” she says.

Omolola’s difficult journey has eventually led her to success. She is now an architect, motivational speaker , and community organizer who organized and led 300 protesters outside the Nigerian embassy in Washington, D.C., calling for the release of the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in May 2014.

The sacrifices made by immigrants leaving their homelands, voluntarily and involuntarily, are expected to be compensated by a better future. In many cases, the future is not solely measured by having a successful career, but also by the lives of their children.

“My primary responsibility from childhood has been to chase after success just as my parents were about sacrifice,” says Syed Farooq Ali, New York-born and son of Pakistani immigrants.

Farooq Ali, entrepreneur and writer, is well aware of the sacrifice made by his parents to guarantee him and his sister a future full of opportunities. Grateful for the sacrifices they made, Farooq Ali has dedicated his interview with the UN Migration Agency, IOM, to his parents. “This one is for you, Ami, Abu,” Farooq Ali wrote in a Facebook post. The words Ami and Abu mean mother and father in Urdu.

The lives of most immigrants — and children of immigrants — are an ongoing dialogue between inherited traditions and memories of the world left behind and the challenges faced in their new home and culture. Yet, most immigrants have a capacity to adapt and construct a hyphenated identity made up of bridges allowing them to claim the best of both worlds.