Ted’s #LetterToAnImmigrantChild

A friend named Jenna who teaches ESL classes in Ohio emailed friends around the country asking for letters about how immigration has shaped our identities. Her students are rattled by recent news, and she wanted them to have access to stories of how “real America” views immigration — ordinary folks around the country, not shouting heads on TV. Anything goes, she said, just tell your own story and don’t be political.

I thought I’d post my letter publicly in case it could encourage someone else to write too. It’s a great idea. Please consider the impact this public fight is having on kids, and please write your own letter.

You can email Jenna directly, or you can deliver it to any school in the country and they’ll know what to do. Or post it online with the hashtag #LetterToAnImmigrantChild

Hi there.

We haven’t met, but consider me family.

I grew up in the countryside of Virginia. The fields were filled with tobacco and corn, soy and cows. Virginians are particularly proud of their peanuts and ham. Brunswick stew was a popular food — it’s a soup you’re supposed to make with squirrel, but everyone uses chicken. In the houses scattered across the fields, everyone looked and spoke just like me.

My whole life has been a series of moves to increasingly urban places, mostly by happenstance. Countryside to suburbs. Suburbs to small city. Small city to medium city. Medium city to big city. With each move, my neighbors looked less like me. New music, food, perspectives, jokes, fashion, sports.

And now as an adult, when I’m asked “who am I, as an American?” I realize it’s impossible to separate my identity from these neighbors who a little white boy from the countryside would have guessed were nothing like him. These neighbors who speak differently, think differently, eat differently, and worship differently.

I know how to trash talk about cricket thanks to a Sri Lankan. How to make laser cutting art thanks to an Iraqi. What it means to be an entrepreneur thanks to an Indian. And there could be nothing more comic book American than a trash-talking entrepreneur cutting things with lasers, no matter what accent rolls off your tongue.

My wife is Taiwanese, and now I have two countrysides. One in the Appalachian mountains in America. One in the Yilan mountains in Taiwan.

In Yilan, the fields are filled with kumquats and bitter melon, rice and ducks. Yilaners are particularly proud of their clean water and green scallions. Niuroumian is a popular food — it’s a soup you’re supposed to make with tendon-filled beef, but I ask for pork instead. In the houses that scatter the fields and rice patties, nobody looks like me. And nobody cares.

Only three things actually matter when describing a person. Are they kind? Are they empathetic? Do their actions match their words? Everything else is just a decoration on top of that common humanity.

So we haven’t met, but consider me family.

I know that you eat some kind of soup. That it has its own funny ingredient. That you come from a place that’s proud and a people that call themselves “we”. But what I really care about is that I suspect you’re a good person, and that you expect the same of me.

As you age, you’ll see a lot of people in power ranting and shouting about one group or another. It never stops being terrifying. But the people who represent just a slice will never be as powerful as people who embrace the whole, so long as the whole stands together. That’s the great neutralizing math of society.

So know that during the best times, the rest of us will call you family. And during the worst times, we will fight to defend and protect you. Undocumented, visa, green card, naturalized, first generation — you are my America, and we share this home together.

Ted Benson
San Francisco, California

Sheima’s Story – Afghanistan to Iran to US

My grandfather Agha immigrated to America in 1979.  My Grandfather was an Afghani diplomat who had to flee Iran. He was an Afghan diplomat living in Iran when the Iranian Revolution occurred. All diplomats under Iran’s previous regime had to return to their countries. The problem for my grandfather was that his country was currently at war with Russia. Russian communists were trying to take over Afghanistan. America kindly offered asylum to my grandfather and his family. They had to leave all of their belongings behind and arrived in America with nothing. He and my grandmother found jobs and built a new life in a new culture.

I was born in America and I remember my family always being thankful to America for protecting them. My grandfather, who as a diplomat visited at least 40 different countries, would tell me that of all the people he has met, the American people are the best in terms of their character and goodness. I remember my mother crying when she became an American citizen at the age of 40. She would often say “God bless America.”

Perhaps ironically, my grandfather was an active Republican and donated generously to the Republican party. Afghans love President Reagan, who aided them in defeating the Russians.

A surprising thing that I personally appreciate about being an American is that I am more educated about my religion, Islam, than many Muslims who grow up in Muslim countries! Because America promotes critical thinking and freedom of thought, I was able to understand my religion with my heart and mind rather than from cultural practices of people. Many Muslims from so-called Muslim countries have never learned about their religion with understanding. They are taught to just memorize sayings.   Because of the open minded American education system, I am writing Islamic books and articles that open the minds of thousands of Muslims from all over the world. Many Muslims have been surprised that I read the Holy Quran in English, because they never were taught to read the Quran in their own languages to understand it.

Of course I am deeply saddened by terrorists who murder in the name of my faith. The Quran teaches that killing a civilian is like killing all of mankind. One innocent life is so precious.

Many Muslims view the American Muslim community as a beacon of hope for the Muslim world. American Muslims are not as constrained by the tyrannical, oppressive cultures that Muslims of other nationalities have grown up in. Surprisingly, many “Muslim” countries suppress the right of Muslims to actually practice Islam! I will always love America for giving me the freedom to learn and practice my beliefs. I believe that America’s success comes from the goodness it has shown to people all over the world.


Sheima’s grandfather Agha is on the far left

Sheima Sumer is an online counselor and writer. Her website is howtobeahappymuslim.com


Quan’s Story – Vietnam to Virginia

In 1985 my family started our journey to the US from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  We left because my family feared repression under the communist regime. We were capitalist and as Chinese, an ethnic minority that the government was purging from the country.  Those like us had businesses confiscated and were sent as agricultural workers in the New Economic Zones (state farms) set up by the Government.

My parents wanted me to grow up in a country where I would have equal access to opportunities and would not be thought of as less because of our ethnic background. My parents had tried to leave by boat several years earlier, but were unsuccessful having their hard earned money taken by the boat handlers only to be handed over to the communist government. My dad spent several months in jail as a result of this attempt to flee. Other family members managed to reach Indonesia by boat and were placed in refugee camps for 18 months before getting granted asylum in the US. We were the lucky ones, we left by plane as family sponsored immigrants to the US, benefactors of the hard journey taken by other family members.

Even as one of the lucky ones who got to leave by plane, our journey was not easy. We first flew to a refugee camp in the  Philippines as part of the resettlement process. We were there almost a year to complete health screenings, await bureaucratic  processing, and to take Work, Cultural and Language orientation classes . My mother was five months pregnant when we arrived in the camp and nearly lost her life giving birth to my sister.  Health services are limited in the camps; my dad was responsible for cleaning up the room after my mom delivered my sister.  Again, we were the lucky ones- we gained refuge to the US, the whole family intact.

I have been in tears since I read the story of a Syrian family of two parents and four children who have been in a refugee camp since 2014 and were scheduled to fly to American today, but now no longer able to. I wept for the Iraqi family with three children who resigned from the work, sold their belongings, and took their children from school to resettle to the US only to get barred from boarding their connecting flight.

I spent some time in the airport welcome area reflecting on these families’ stories and weeping for them. I imagined their families awaiting in their respective airports to welcome them to American only to learn that they were not able to complete their journeys through no fault of their own. These families are no different than my own family, who had to make difficult choices and take on an arduous journey so that their children have a better future.

Even after arriving to the US, the road ahead is not easy. I took my own journey at the age of 4 when the innocence of childhood shielded me from the many struggles my parents had to overcome. When we first arrived our family of 4 shared a bedroom in my aunt’s house; by working two jobs my dad elevated us from there to a two bedroom apartment to the house we have today. Along the way both my parents continually emphasized to us the importance of education and the opportunity afforded to us because we now lived in America.

I recently mentored a refugee family of a mom and three daughters from Myanmar during their first six months acclimating to the US.  From them, I got a glimpse back into time.  It takes strength, humility, and perseverance to build a new life in a new country. There are the larger tasks of learning a new language, finding a job and learning the cultural norms of your new country.  There is also the smaller but no less important tasks like: How do I get around my new city? Where do I buy groceries?  How do I build a life here when I miss those who I left behind?

I reflect back on how my parents overcame each of these obstacles so that I have the life and opportunities that I have today. It is because of them that I believe anything is achievable, including our ability as a country to overcome the discriminatory and divisive legislation put forth by our current administration.   I still believe in the American Dream. It was this dream that allowed me to come here at the age of five and through the public education system, I reached and achieved and developed my deep patriotism for this country.  My heart weeps for the families whose American Dreams  have been delayed. My hope in sharing my story is help put a face to the myriad of American Immigrant Stories which make up the fabric of our country.

On the far left, Quan in red shorts with her dad, mom, and aunt at the  Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan
Quan holding her sister Phil shortly after her birth. The family of four shared a bed in the refugee camp.

Quan currently resides in Colorado and is an international marketer at an American medical device company.