Let me tell you—Jamaica wasn’t an easy place to live. I hated everything around me: the broken-down cars in people’s front yards, the cracked sidewalks, garbage everywhere. Worst of all, I never felt safe. The house I lived in, which belonged to my stepfather, wasn’t in a good neighborhood, and a group of unemployed men would hang out every day right in front of it, smoking marijuana. I tried to ignore them, even when they hollered at me. Still, I hated going to bed knowing that these men could easily break in and steal what little I had. I had three locks on my bedroom door and slept with the lights on. That constant sense of being in danger wore me down.
As a teacher, however, I wasn’t able to move to a nicer place. In Jamaica, all public employees, teachers included, are grossly underpaid. I couldn’t afford a car or even new shoes, much less a place of my own. I was frustrated all the time. I knew things weren’t like this everywhere. I had visited the United States several times: once on a class excursion to Disney World, when I was 9, and again at age 10, for my uncle’s wedding in the Bronx. It was winter. The snow looked like granulated sugar! The rush of being in some place so surreal kept me from feeling the cold.
As I got older, I thought back on that chilly trip often. Then, when I was 25, I again visited my uncle’s family in New York and met a wonderful American man, Damian. After I returned to Jamaica, we carried on a long-distance relationship for about nine months, then got married in July 2005. I moved to New York City to be with him.
Coming here was a bit frightening. I wasn’t automatically eligible for jobs (I didn’t have a work visa), and I knew I would be somewhat dependent on Damian. Fortunately, my aunt and uncle and cousins helped me feel welcome, and I was so happy to be with my new husband. I finally felt safe. Although Damian was my immigration sponsor, it took a long time to become a citizen: one year to get my green card, then another three before I could apply for naturalization. The government doesn’t make the process easy, but it has been worth the wait. Life in the United States has been good.
In Jamaica there’s a feeling that you shouldn’t have certain ambitions or dreams, because you don’t have money or you’re not from the right family. Here, I’m pursuing a nursing position, and my children—Damian, 4, and Neela, 2—can do anything they want in the future. We live in a little square box apartment, but they’ll grow up knowing that every door is open to them.
2 of 5Dan Winters
“To Be in a Place Where Greatness Is Encouraged”
Name: Monika Kochhar, 28 From: Lucknow, India
Everything in America is larger than life. Just look at the houses, the cars—even Dolly Parton! That’s what I recall thinking when I first came here at the age of eight. My parents, who are scientists, were studying biochemistry at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. They brought me and my 13-year-old brother, Nitin, with them. I was in awe of the city’s long stretches of highways, the super-clean roads, the well-stocked grocery stores. Lucknow, where I was born, is so different: It’s elegant and antiquated, lined with buildings dating to the 16th century. Lucknow is the poetic soul of India, while Nashville is the country-music heart of America.
When I was 10, we returned to India. I adjusted quickly and didn’t think much about America again until my brother got accepted to a college in Connecticut. He got a full scholarship, except for a $5,000 contribution that my parents had to pay. Scientists make very little in India, so this amount was daunting—equivalent to nearly half a year’s income. To help my brother, my mother took an assignment at Harvard University, and I moved to Boston with her for three years, leaving my dad behind.
It was a difficult time. We were so poor, we couldn’t afford a ticket to visit home. And since no one ever saw my father, they assumed my parents were divorced. I was 14 when we moved back to India once again. This time I was devastated. One day I was a regular Boston teenager, wearing baggy jeans and stealing glances at a guy I liked—the next I was in Lucknow, enrolled in an all-girls Catholic school.
When I was ready to graduate, my parents insisted I apply only to American women’s colleges. They had worked at American coed universities, and they said, “We know what kids do there.” I attended Mount Holyoke, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and afterward I moved to Manhattan to become an economist. Now my husband, Bernd, and I live just minutes away from Nitin, who is a hedge-fund manager. I still love India: It thrives on chaos and confusion and lots of color. But America is a better place for me to be. I like the candidness of the culture. I love being around people who are so ambitious and innovative—where the individual is celebrated. I like the positivity here, too. Sometimes I think Americans must have invented the exclamation mark—it’s their state of mind.
The day I became a citizen felt bittersweet. I had walked this long road to become naturalized—such an honor—and suddenly all these memories of India came flooding back: climbing mango trees, flying kites in the evening, watching those beautiful Indian sunsets. I realized, ultimately, that America and India are both my beloved homes.
3 of 5Dan Winters
“To Escape Oppression”
Name: Than Than Aye, 51 From: Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma)
If you know what my home country is like, you’ll understand why I started trying to come to the United States back when I was a little girl. Burma has been a military dictatorship since 1962, and the people there live under horrible repression. There are no protections for freedom of speech or assembly. People are arrested without cause. Human-rights abuses, like trafficking and the systematic rape of women by the military, are common. Prior to his death from a heart attack in 1996, my father was jailed many times for speaking out against the government. My sister had all her money taken by the regime for no reason and went into a deep depression as a result. I worked as a store clerk and a medical technician yet barely earned enough to eat.
The odds of winning the U.S. visa lottery are like those of winning the real lottery—it allows just a small number of applicants from Burma to emigrate in any given year. In 1997, though, it happened. My number came up, and I was able to move to New York City. But to do so I had to leave behind my three adopted children—they are now 19, 14, and 13. When I’m alone, I often think about them back in Burma being cared for by my sister and my heart breaks. So I work a lot (as a postal clerk and a secretary) and keep busy.
In Yangon I lived in a house with my mother, my children, and my sister and her husband. Where I come from, most family members stay together no matter what. When I began living in this country, it was strange for me to see how quickly young people moved away from their parents’ homes.
Despite the sadness that I knew I would endure when I left my loved ones, I wanted the freedom that America offered—for me and for my kids, whom I am trying to bring here. About a year after I got here, my mother died. I wasn’t able to see her or even attend her funeral. It was a very difficult time. I have a shrine to my parents, and I pray to them every day. I tell them about America; I wish that they could have seen it with me. I call my sister and children once a week. But sometimes the government listens in on conversations, so my sister will tell me that it isn’t a good time to talk. It’s the same with the mail, too. The regime reads it, so you have to be cautious.
Because my children are adopted, it’s more difficult to bring them to the United States. But recently I succeeded in entering my eldest son in the visa lottery. Giving him the opportunities that exist here is worth any sacrifice.
4 of 5Dan Winters
“To Be With My Soul Mate”
Name: Avishag Mofaz, 44 From: Tel Aviv, Israel
When I met Gabriel, I knew that it was b’shert: “meant to be.” This was inconvenient. Though he was a native of Israel, he lived in America, where he ran a software firm in New York City. I lived in Tel Aviv, where I worked as a kindergarten teacher. I was very close to my family—my father, who is a rabbi, my mother, and my two brothers and five sisters—and I didn’t want to leave them.
But I couldn’t imagine letting Gabriel go, either. We were a good match. I am very energetic and hyper. He is completely the opposite, and with him I felt relaxed—unusual for me. For a few months, he would fly over to see me every two weeks, and then we both figured that it would be much cheaper to get married. So we did, on November 11, 1997, and soon after I came to America. I was sad to say good-bye to my family, but being with Gabriel felt right.
We got into the city from John F. Kennedy International Airport at about 5 a.m. I remember looking up and seeing the Chrysler Building bathed in the pink light of the sunrise. This, for me, said, “Welcome to America.” I barely had time to miss my life in Israel: One month later, I was pregnant with our first daughter, and shortly after that I got a job at a preschool.
Not too many things about my new life surprised me. I’m a city girl—I thrive on noise, traffic, and people—but what did shock me was the cultural difference in teaching styles. Israeli teachers hug and hold the children and give them something close to a mother. I didn’t understand the concept of time-outs for bad behavior. That’s why, in 2004, I opened Gan Eden, an Israeli-style preschool. I had seen what my husband had done here with his own two hands, and I said, “It’s my turn now.” Opening that school was the culmination of my American dream.
The day I took the oath, November 20, 2009, I was so excited. It had taken me many years to get to this point—mostly because I was too busy raising a family to bother with all the paperwork. It felt like a circle had closed: Now my husband, my two kids—Tair, 12, and Nerya, 8—and I would all be citizens. Looking around the room that day, with so many nationalities represented, I realized each of us was closing his or her own circle. I hope all come to the same conclusion that Gabriel and I did: that if you work hard in America, you will have a wonderful life.
5 of 5Dan Winters
“To Give My Parents, and Myself, a Better Life”
Name: Maria Yoplac, 35 From: Lima, Peru
As elementary-school teachers in Lima, my mother and father struggled to raise me and my four younger siblings on just $300 a month. We were given only one new pair of shoes a year and were warned to take care of our clothes, since they would need to last even longer. On very special occasions, my parents saved up so we could eat at a fast-food restaurant.
My mother and father taught me that education was everything. In 1995, at age 20, I graduated from a university with a bachelor’s in Spanish and literature. I found a job in a bank, but the salary wasn’t enough for me to afford graduate school. I wanted to become a professor, a well-paying position that could help me support my parents.
When I was 22, an uncle living in Paterson, New Jersey, offered to buy me a plane ticket to come stay in the United States for a while. Going to America had been in the back of my mind for some time. I had always wanted to learn English, and higher education seemed more accessible in the United States. When I arrived in New York in May 1997, I tried to appear confident. But inside I was frightened. I knew no English besides simple words like table and chair. I had never met my uncle or his family. I just kept remembering what my mother had told me before I left: “You’re strong, Maria. You can do this.”
My first few weeks in America were difficult. My uncle expected me to be a full-time nanny for his children and didn’t approve when I left the house. Luckily, my aunt, who lived nearby, came over one afternoon, packed my suitcase, and took me to live at her house instead. With her help, I was soon working at a restaurant every day from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. I sat in on free English classes offered at local high schools each afternoon, then took ESL (English as a second language) night classes at a community college. I tried not to dwell on how much I missed my family.
Every month, I sent my parents $400—over half my paycheck. That money allowed them to buy land and build a new house, travel, and eat out at nice restaurants. My mother said she didn’t want to spend my hard-earned cash that way, but I told her it was what I wanted. (I still make her send me pictures from the cafés they visit so I know that they really went.)
Many people like me come to America to help their families, but you have to help yourself, too. Now fluent in English, I teach ESL at a Paterson high school, not far from where I live, and am close to earning my master’s degree in administrative science. My husband, José, a painter originally from Costa Rica, whom I married in 2007, cried along with me when I became a U.S. citizen last November. This step was crucial for my future: José and I want to adopt a baby. And becoming a college instructor is now a real possibility.
I admit, being a Latina immigrant can be difficult—especially these days, when immigration is such a controversial issue. There are some people who treat me poorly once they hear my accent; they are angry at Hispanics, thinking we have taken away their job opportunities. But they are the exception, and overall I love being an American. I love the fast pace of this culture, the ability to do a million things at once, and, most of all, the sense that there are infinite possibilities out there—all you have to do is grab hold of the one you want.