Finding The Humanity Of Immigrants and Americans
We are being told that immigrants and refugees come to the United States to bring crime and to take our jobs. Those of you who follow my work know that I have been challenging this false narrative by showing the humanity of immigrants and refugees- telling their human stories and showing that they come here for a better life and to contribute to this country. Initially I didn’t think about looking for the humanity of Americans who help immigrants and refugees- the evening news convinced me that there wasn’t much to find, but this too is a false narrative. Our political discourse has allowed these false narratives to take the spotlight: immigrants and refugees coming to do harm and Americans wanting to wall them out. As Congressman Elijah Cummings recently said: “We are better than this!”
The first story was about a family from Rwanda, in the U.S. for less than one year, and the second was about a family from Cambodia, in the U.S. for thirty years. In both cases these people suffered greatly in their home countries and came to the U.S. for safety and to create a better life. Both families are committed to adding value to the U.S.
The third story was about both humanity and inhumanity at the southern border- the beautiful humanity of asylum seekers and those who volunteer to give aid and comfort to these new arrivals, and the inhumanity of treatment given to asylum seekers by the United States.
This next story moves to Afghanistan. It’s about a couple who came to the U.S. because the husband had been targeted by the Taliban as a result of his work as a translator/interpreter in support of the U.S. Army. The United States offers Special Immigrant Visas for people in Afghanistan and Iraq who provide these services. Technically they are immigrants rather than refugees.
This story also continues what I saw at the southern border- the humanity of Americans who care for and support immigrants and refugees. In this case, it’s an American family that goes beyond offering aid and comfort- they have taken a family of immigrants into their life. It’s easy to miss that there is a lot of American humanity towards immigrants and refugees and this story makes it so clear- in fact, this humanity found me!!
I was introduced to a Philadelphia couple, Margaret Shapiro and Howard Bilofsky, because of their work with immigrants. In particular they were working with a family from Afghanistan. I spoke to Margaret about my photo essays and asked if she would arrange an interview. She graciously invited me and this family to lunch in their home and paved the way for the interview. She was also open to being interviewed as well about her and her husband’s work in support of immigrants.
I arrived at their beautiful home in late December 2018 to find that they were also hosting a college student from Rwanda during her winter vacation. There was no doubt that something very special was going on in this home.
Then the Hussaini family arrived: Ali (33), Nahid (29), and their children, Maria (2) and Aryan (1). While I might have expected something formal between clients and their supporters, this couldn’t be further from what I saw. The easiest way to describe the scene was grandchildren coming to their grandparent’s house for a celebration. There was hugging, laughter, and presents waiting for the children. These children did what young children do in a welcoming environment- they ran around, touched everything, and made lots of noise. They took over the house and Margaret and Howard seemed to love every minute. I was in awe of this welcoming environment that I didn’t expect. Walls and travel bans were a million miles away. We all sat down for a wonderful meal. Nahid brought some of her specialty dishes as well.
After lunch Ali and I did an interview. Nahid was not able to participate because she does not yet speak English. During the interview there was much noise from the children running around the house with Nahid, Margaret and Howard in hot pursuit. I’m not sure who had more fun, the children or Margaret and Howard.
Ali got comfortable for the interview by reading the first photo essay in this series that was published in “One Step Away,” the Philadelphia magazine that advocates for people experiencing homeless and joblessness.
As a child Ali lived in a constant state of war and in fear of the Taliban: “When I was 12 my family fled to Pakistan where I lived until we returned in 2010 when I was 24 years old; there were millions of people who moved to Pakistan, Iran, and other countries because people could not afford to go to European countries.”
Ali’s family was lucky that they had the money to buy their way into Pakistan- others were not so fortunate: “If you had money you could go easily but the people without money went to Iran where they were tortured, sold, or were held as hostages to work in the farms for their whole life, but luckily we were able to get to Pakistan.”
At this point Ali knew that he and his new wife had to leave Afghanistan. If there is one thing that the Taliban hates more than Americans, it’s Afghans who help Americans!
While in Pakistan Ali worked to help support his family. He couldn’t go to school, but he was able to learn English. When he returned to Afghanistan he was selected to work for a subcontractor to the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A): “NTM-A, which was led by the U.S. Army, needed linguists to provide cultural and interpretational services to military personnel in order to work with and supervise the Afghan National Police; my main responsibility was to do interpretation and translation between U.S. supervisors and Afghan commanders and others.” He worked with the Americans for fifteen months ending in December 2012.
At this point Ali knew that he and his new wife had to leave Afghanistan. If there is one thing that the Taliban hates more than Americans, it’s Afghans who help Americans: “It took more than a year and a half to apply because I had to submit a lot of documents- proof from the U.S. Embassy that I was in danger but it wasn’t easy; I had to get recommendation letters that I would not do anything wrong in the United States and the CIA checks you- our background check took another one and a half years.”… The United States offers Afghan and Iraqi interpreters a “Special Immigrant Visa” for those whose lives are in danger because of their service: “We left Afghanistan in November 4, 2015 and arrived in the U.S. the following day.”
“The first year it was really hard even for me who could already speak English; people need someone to help and guide them as Howard did for me.” (Ali)
How hard was it to leave your country?:
“It was really hard- everyone is a patriot- everyone loves their country; you live in a county and you know the people there and you know the customs, and you have joy together; once you leave, you leave behind your parents- you hope to see them again but after a few years some of them may die- my father died after I left; when we had the farewell in the airport, my father said that maybe we cannot see each other again.”
“In school I learned that three things are most important for a person: food, clothing, and housing; but my life in Afghanistan showed me that more than these three things is that security is the most important- if you have security you can work hard to get all those three things, but if you don’t have security you won’t get anything because you cannot work; the most important thing is to get security and we didn’t have that in Afghanistan.”
How have you been supported in the U.S.?:
“When we landed at Newark Airport, the International Organization for Migration provided a vehicle to bring us to Philadelphia; HIAS (an organization that provides services to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers) had a house for us- we stayed for a year but we had problems with the landlady.”
“I wanted to learn driving so a HIAS employee brought Howard to my house to teach me; Howard also got the deposit back from that landlady and he helped me get enrolled in community college… He did many things for me and I owe him- he was always there for me- he did things I can never forget; I feel like he was doing better for me than a family member!”
“Before I came here I read a book that was issued from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, it said: “Land of Opportunity,” but you have to work hard; and it’s not easy for immigrants who didn’t grow up here and don’t know the systems; when I got here I didn’t know how to write a check; most everything was completely different from what I knew… The first year it was really hard even for me who could already speak English; people need someone to help and guide them as Howard did for me- if he didn’t do this for me it would have been much harder and today I’m a student in college and within two years I will get my degree so I can get a good job maybe!”
“I was born in Afghanistan so I had to be Muslim, but for me my religion is humanity.” (Ali)
Howard and Margaret are helping and teaching you, but how does it make you feel- is it almost like they are your family?:
“Yes, it’s like the family member; they did the things that a family member can do for you, not what friends can do; they did the major things like driving so that I can get where I need to go; I’m in college and Howard enrolled me- I didn’t know the process or how to apply for financial aid, and I didn’t know how to prepare for tests; Howard showed me the library where I can get books; when I went to counselors he was there with me in the room, and he talked on my behalf; if I would have been on my own I could communicate but I would be stuck because I don’t know the system.”
Why do you think they are giving so much of themselves to a family from another country?:
“They are doing their human responsibility- they love human beings and that’s why they are doing it; they are not just doing it for me, they help with others; Howard told me there is a Syrian family that does not speak English and their children are sick and they cannot communicate so a lot of times they go there- I think it is their love for human beings.”
Do you have any problem practicing your religion in the U.S.?:
“I was born in Afghanistan so I had to be Muslim, but for me my religion is humanity; it is not only me, it’s a lot of people in Afghanistan and many other countries that have the same ideas- they want to live a quiet life, to get their education, to have a peaceful life; they are not extremists and the media only has to show the bad things; they don’t show things like college graduations, only the negative things; the media shows the fights and bomb blasts; 80% of the people want to live a peaceful life but they have to tolerate the negative media because of the other 20%… I see the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists- they are all the same, they all say to do the good things- none of them ask you to go kill a person… Actually we are all the same- no matter the religion we all came from Adam and Eve!”
“I want to work so that I can contribute to this country.” (Ali)
Are you surprised that some Americans don’t want immigrants?:
“That really surprised me that some people think they will take jobs, but I don’t think that immigrants take their jobs; USA is the land of opportunity and Americans get the good jobs; it’s not easy for immigrants to get those jobs- they do the things that Americans don’t do.”
What do you say to Americans who feel that way?:
“In terms of humanity we are all the same; we only come here to live a peaceful life… We escaped crimes and tortures- we do not come to do those things here; we just want to work for this country, to be loyal to this country; we just want to live a safe life… I want the world to be a peaceful and loving place to live!”
“Immigrants bring diversity; when people come from other countries they bring their skills, ideas, and innovation to America; they bring new food from different countries.”
What is your long term hope?:
“My hope is to be an American citizen, have my own house and car, and my kids get educated… I have love for Afghanistan but my kids will grow up loving America more than Afghanistan because America is their country; I want to work so that I can contribute to this country.”
Little Aryan made frequent appearances during the interview to emphasize key points that his father was making... Who was copying who?
It’s a duet!
Margaret Shapiro and Howard Bilofsky
“You can’t put all of your effort into everything- I choose this because of my experience living in Germany and feeling like an immigrant; I’m trained as a social worker and this is an issue that grabs my heart.” (Margaret)
Margaret and Howard have been helping immigrants for twenty five years:
“We worked with two sisters who escaped the Bosnian war- it was for five years while they were students; when they graduated we paid anonymously for their mother to come from Bosnia for their graduation… It’s not that we’re patting ourselves on the back- it enhances our life!” (Margaret)
“Everyone deserves some help and if we don’t do it, who is going to do it?… I had a very hard time in my life for a while and I really appreciated when others made an effort to help me.” (Margaret)
“Every day the world feels more unjust; we pick and choose opportunities as they present themselves- helping immigrants is something we can do.” (Howard)
“I think it was seeing how mature, thoughtful and motivated he was.” (Howard)
They met Ali through a clothing drive at their synagogue:
“For $20 you take what you want- it’s for people who really need it; a HIAS worker asked if I could pick Ali and Nahid up because they needed a ride to the clothing drive… Unlike most people who took so much, Ali and Nahid just took three little things so I asked: 'Is that all you want?' and Ali said: 'That’s all we need!'… On the way back I said: 'If you need anything we’re happy to help you,' and he said: 'No, the only thing I need is a driver’s license!'” (Margaret)… "I thought I could help him learn since I think I’m the world’s best driver; he drove my new car and never put a scratch on it.” (Howard)
Howard took a liking to Ali and worked with him to solve many challenges for someone new to the U.S.:
“I was becoming impressed with Ali and thinking that he deserves a better break- it felt like this person was worth investing in… Some of it may be his story, but I think it was seeing how mature, thoughtful and motivated he was.” (Howard)
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that people who help immigrants are somehow saintly- maybe they are just people who care enough to give a helping hand. Rather than being special, maybe this is what normal should and could look like.
Ali credits Howard with many achievements- getting a Green Card, learning to drive, getting into school, getting his security deposit from a difficult landlady:
“I sure hope that’s the case because we actually worked really hard on a number of things… As good as Ali’s English is, mine is better!” (Howard)
Margaret and Howard combine the spiritual and the practical in their support of immigrants:
“One goal is to show that Americans are good people and that they care; America is not giving that impression at all- it’s pretty terrible.” (Margaret)
“I don’t sit down and say what’s my goal for ‘justice work;’ what I’m thinking about is what can I do to help Ali get the education he’s dying to get so that he can earn a better living- it’s pragmatic, not like we’re trying to cure injustice in the world.” (Howard)
As hard as Howard has worked to help Ali, he made it clear: “I’m not his savior!”… I’ve come to realize that his message is important. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that people who help immigrants are somehow saintly- maybe they are just people who care enough to give a helping hand. Rather than being special, maybe this is what normal should and could look like.
But in reality there are a lot of people who are against immigration in spite of the fact that their ancestors were immigrants, unless they were Native Americans or enslaved Africans… If you were to look through the lens of someone who is against immigration, what would you see?:
“I would say they feel: ‘I have enough trouble taking care of myself and my kids, and I work really hard and it’s unfair, and I don’t get what I deserve or what I wish!’”
“I had a hard time as a single parent with two kids and I had no energy for anybody else and I think there are tons of people who are in that place… They are tired and stressed out but they aren’t bad people!” (Margaret)
There are many ways Americans can support immigrants. What Margaret and Howard are doing is providing something that Ali and Nahid have lost forever- family:
“I agree that family is what they, and many others, lose in coming to America- I actually think it does need to be emphasized… When I explain our relationship with Ali’s family to others, I always stress that we think of them as friends, but this conversation added a depth that I didn’t think of and which is crucial- you don’t bring the infant children of too many friends into your house and let them run around and rearrange all your doodads.” (Margaret)… This is what a family looks like.
To Americans who believe that immigration is negative to the United States: “What if immigrants and refugees disappeared?”
- Who would pick food from the fields?
- Who would wash dishes in restaurants?
- Who would work in chicken and meat factories?
- Who would….?
Who would do all the jobs that Americans want done, but don’t want to do themselves? Immigrants and refugees gladly take these difficult jobs to create opportunities for their futures. They work hard to educate themselves and their children so they can build better lives and contribute to the United States. Many will become leaders in all areas of society.
I’ve met three very motivated people from three very different parts of the world. Their suffering in their home countries has been redirected to productive lives in the United States: Jean-Bosco Ngarama (Rwanda), Sarorng Sorn (Cambodia), and Ali Hussaini (Afghanistan)… Their cultures are so different, their languages are so different, and yet they are so much the same- just listen to their words…
Jean-Bosco Ngarama: One year in the U.S… He was a teacher, lawyer, and human rights activist in his home country. Today he has a service job in Philadelphia: “I want to see my children finish school and working; I want to continue my work to help people- once I learn English well enough I want to go to school for healthcare… I’m not able to prove how I will be a good citizen, but I can tell you that my first goal is to work hard- when you work you give taxes to the government which means you are building the country with others; we came in February 2018 and three of us were employed within two months- it means that we contributed to the government as soon as we got here and that’s the proof I can give you.”
Sarorng Sorn: Thirty years in the U.S… She worked in a chicken factory while going to school on the way to a master’s degree. Today she is Director of Immigrant Affairs and Language Access Services at the Department of Behavioral Health & Intellectual disAbility Services for the City of Philadelphia: “I’m proud that we refugees were poor and uneducated, but now we are thriving and building our lives; many of us own homes- if you look at the number of refugees in Philadelphia that own homes it is 67%… We contribute in many ways like with taxes- we’re not taking, we’re contributing!”... In 2019 Sarorng was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Gwynedd Mercy University for her lifetime of service to immigrant and refugee communities.
Ali Hussaini: Three years in the U.S… “I work for eight hours at an automotive recycling company, a difficult job that only immigrants will do, and then go to college for four hours plus transportation… It’s hard but I endure all of these things so that I can build my future so I can be a good citizen and contribute to this country and make sure my kids will have a safe life- that’s why I endure this hard work.”
One More Thing
It was early 2017 that I set out to challenge the false narrative about immigrants and refugees by looking for their humanity. I hope this four part photo essay series has met the challenge and shed some light.
What I learned: The humanity of immigrants and refugees is so easy to find- they come here to bring good, not evil… The humanity of Americans who help immigrants and refugees is also easy to find even in today’s environment. Many Americans are helping people who must leave their home countries just to survive- anyone can step up to this humanistic role... In fact, as of mid-May 2019, Annunciation House (provides aid and comfort to asylum seekers in El Paso, TX- see the photo essay: "Finding Humanity At The Southern Border") has temporarily stopped accepting applications from volunteers due to overwhelming interest, or should I say- overwhelming humanity!!
What I didn’t look for, but what found me, is that we all need to look for our own humanity and to act on it- that would change the world… It’s easy to say but often difficult to do- I need to take it on!
Published June 2, 2019