Living the Immigrant Experience

Starting from Scratch

When my father was 16, he and his family were vacationing and visiting relatives in the Middle East. Even though he and his brother were born and affluently raised in Khartoum, Sudan, they grew up during intense political unrest and every so often, would take family holidays to alleviate the pressure from living under a collapsing governmental regime.

One or two years prior, my grandfather applied for Canadian immigration, so it was happenstance that just when a dangerous military coup hit Sudan, the Canadian embassy alerted my family that they were accepted as residents and could immediately move to Canada. My grandfather saw the perfect timing as the sign of a lifetime, packed up what little bags they had with them, and flew straight from their holiday to Vancouver, British Columbia. They started their new lives, and never went back.

Though the serendipitous invitation into the west was a godsend, acclimating into a new culture that was wary of newcomers proved to be a constant, uphill battle.

Though he was a successful businessman back in Sudan, my grandfather soon learned that his over 30 years of work experience amounted to essentially nothing in Canada. He was overqualified to be an assistant, but even after asking for minimum wage, he found that no one was willing to hire a man with a foreign last name. Faced with no other options, he chose to start his own business and managed to bountifully feed two generations off of his well-earned success. To put it simply, he accomplished the textbook (North) American dream that was possible back then.

Years after he settled into his new country and started his career, my father met my mother, and after bonding over their eerily similar immigration stories, they started a family.

Growing Up

I was the product of two first generation immigrants, and even though I was born in Canada, I didn’t speak English until I was about six years old, which led to numerous disconnected exchanges, including an incident where my daycare teacher pulled my mom aside and explained that I was clearly developmentally challenged and should be enrolled somewhere else, only for my mother to clarify that I simply didn’t speak the language. My teacher’s jaw dropped.

I wondered why it took so long for me to learn my country’s official language, so I asked my mother why my family didn’t feel the need to initially engage with me in English. She agreed that it may not have been the smartest tactic and shared a memory from when I was growing up:

As I was playing on the seesaw, my mother was sitting on a bench next to another parent who was also chaperoning his kid. After my mother yelled over to me in Armenian, the father next to her started to strike up a conversation. He was intrigued by our culture, mentioned that he was born of Danish immigrants and then proceeded to offer my mother a piece of unsolicited advice that truly spoke to the nuances of assimilation.

He explained that growing up, his parents refused to speak to their children in English and until they were in school, he and his siblings only knew Danish. After feeling disconnected and being rejected by the general population, the kids were completely turned off from speaking their native tongue, and in a desperate attempt to fit in, refused to utter a single word of Danish and ended up losing a piece of their heritage. He encouraged my mother to ease up on the ethnic talk, as he could see how I might find it isolating. “Food for thought,” he casually concluded.  

Years later, Mr. Food for Thought’s prediction came true. I forgot my first language in rebellion, and, as a white-washed English speaker, couldn’t manage to speak a sentence in Armenian even if I tried.

Moving Somewhere New

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with America. As I was huddled on my couch during those long Canadian winters, my only refuge was my television set and the hope that one day I could live amongst palm trees and wear tank tops in January. For five years, I waited until I was old enough to attend university, and after my acceptance into my dream school, I packed up my bags, played Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” on repeat, and excitedly arrived at LAX, ready to explore my new home.

I always joked that while my parents had to flee their respective countries and escape to Canada because of civil wars, I desperately flew to the US because Canada just wasn’t exciting enough for me.

But while their 7,000 mile journeys were met with immediate permanent residency, my experience living in the country next door proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.

With no green card and only a temporary visa status in the US, I’ve found it difficult to secure jobs and continually find myself banging my head against the wall, trying to make sense of an immigration system that no one prepared me for.

Wherever you were born, chances are you aren’t familiar with how difficult your own country’s immigration system is, because you’ve never dealt with it. When trying to explain my precarious status in this country to my American friends, I would usually get two types of responses: one, confidently assuring me that ‘It should be easy!’ because I’m Canadian (it’s not), and two, apathetically suggesting that it’s ‘No big deal,’ if I had to move back (it is).

Of course, I’m blessed to have grown up in Canada, but what the phrase ‘No big deal’ says to me is: I have no idea just how much effort, resources, blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into this project, only for you to have to pack up and leave as if you never came here in the first place.

I was faced with the ultimate catch-22. I couldn’t get work until my visa was approved, but I couldn’t get my visa approved until I had job offers waiting for me. I couldn’t participate in a paid internship unless I paid my university to enroll in a course that legally authorized me to work. This complicated process lead all my financial earnings to fall back into the school course that allowed my salary in the first place. My Canadian driver’s license was rejected from most restaurants and bars, forcing me to carry my passport and, to boot, I couldn’t even sign up for health care without undergoing extensive background checks.  

I thought it was unfair to let someone study somewhere for a considerable amount of time before telling them to immediately leave. I thought that surely it would benefit the country to allow people who have been educated in their system to stay and contribute, knowing with confidence that they’ve been educated to the standard expected in the US. I felt that all my training, my five years of labor, and my LA based contacts, would all vanish the second I had to leave. I would have to start from scratch. All because an immigration system did not understand the intricacies of my, and many others’ experiences?

Though I confidently say the tedious paperwork, travel restrictions, and strict employment regulations didn’t deter my love for this country, I wondered why these confusing policies were in place and how they could be more user-friendly.

I thought to myself, if graduates like me were facing hurdles to stay in a country we genuinely wanted to be a part of, where did that leave all the asylum seekers who literally would die if they weren’t allowed entrance?

Current Policies

Who should be let in? Surely the American government can’t open the flood gates, but why should we prioritize certain groups over others? What constitutes a valid reason to enter the US and how can our government maximize chances for hardworking migrants? Though most grand-scale questions of this sort are not easily answerable, they are worth the ask.

Ultimately, the question remains in what the US government can do to effectively improve the experience. Perhaps dutiful international students training in our country deserve grounds for a pathway to immigration, as do refugees fleeing a persecuted country and the proud Americans who have been living under DACA for decades.

Speaking for my family, friends, and myself, I believe that if you successfully moved to a country that wasn’t your own, you would indeed go the extra mile to make it yours. You would appreciate it every day and in my case, you would feel a small level of guilt that would propel you to try harder and take advantages of the opportunities you weren’t born with, but granted.

The Golden Ticket

When wrapping up my thoughts about the immigrant experience, I can’t help but recall what boarding that flight to Vancouver must’ve felt like for my father, his brother, my grandma, and especially my grandpa. At 48 years old, he believed in his sign, and he, at the time, would have no way of knowing that by saying goodbye to everything he knew, he was creating a prosperous life for people he was yet to meet (me, for instance). Their golden ticket, even with all the initial hurdles and tribulations, was an immeasurable gift.

I can only hope that the policymakers on the other side of the government’s walls are coming from a place of proactive understanding. Though they won’t come face to face with all the people trying to make a life in this country, my wish is that our leaders will grant the gift of a lifetime, to those who need it, want it, and show sacrifice for it. And even though my own journey isn’t complete, I know my invitation was worth the wait, and an even worthier cause to fight for.

Sonia Gumuchian is a writer based in Los Angeles. Originally from Vancouver, she received her film degree from USC School of Cinematic Arts and has been working in the TV industry for several years. Sonia recently worked at ABC Studios and HBO, where she learned the ropes of creative development. Additionally, her work has been showcased at film festivals in the UK, the US, and Canada. Her entertainment articles have also been featured in USC Annenberg Media and Neon Tommy.

Artwork by Leroy Miranda Jr.

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