“When we heard that news, we didn’t know how they would get out,” Mr. Wali, 55, said in an interview. “How is it possible to get out?”

Your mother, who was a math professor back in China, is now employed by a sushi processing plant near the Holland Tunnel.

What’s the difference between the Centro Vasco in Havana and the one in Miami? Thirty-three years of dreaming.

After graduating from UC Riverside, Edwin Kim drifted in his career, quickly burning out on the e-commerce industry.

Growing up undocumented, she felt like she had to keep it a secret.

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Originally published by Salon

In February 2001 Vivian Alvarez Solon, an Australian citizen previously diagnosed with mental health issues, left her son at a daycare center in Brisbane but never returned to retrieve him. She was discovered more than a month later in another town’s park after having fallen down a drain. Solon suffered head injuries and was taken to a hospital, where staff could not verify her identity and notified immigration.
Although Solon stated her citizenship many times – she has been a naturalized Australian citizen since 1986 – officials did not bother to verify her story, assuming instead that she was a sex worker and an undocumented immigrant. Following a brief detainment by Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Solon was deported to the Philippines in July 2001 and remained there until 2005.

“Stateless,” an Australian drama acquired by Netflix, is not about Solon . . . although the epilogue’s opening sentences easily could have referred to her.

The discovery of an Australian woman wrongfully held in detention led to a public inquiry, which found systemic failings in the Australian Immigration Department requiring ‘urgent reform’.

The Inquiry recommended an independent review, to ensure that detention policy is fairly and equitably achieved, with demonstrated respect for human dignity.

But this statement refers to Cornelia Rau, a German-Australian also living with mental illness who was unlawfully held in an immigration detention center known as Baxter between 2004 and 2005. The two cases’ timelines overlap, although key contrasts exist between Rau’s story and Solon’s ordeal. For example, Solon was mistakenly deported soon after Australia’s immigration department became aware of her, whereas Rau was held in detention for 10 months.

There’s that, and the fact that Rau is a white woman, and that combination of details likely made her a more enticing subject for the six-episode production from co-creators Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres, and Elise McCredie.


Rau’s story provides the inspiration for Yvonne Strahovski’s psychologically unstable flight attendant Sofie Werner, a woman who distances herself from her family and grows more deeply involved with a program called GOPA that lures in members with the promise of performance lessons. In reality GOPA is something of a cult headed by the husband and wife team of Gordon (Dominic West) and Pat (a particularly menacing Blanchett).

GOPA wins over Sofie’s trust almost entirely until one fateful turn sends her spiraling in to a breakdown. Weeks later she shows up at Barton detention center’s check-in speaking in a German accent and claiming to be someone else.

This is the crux of what occurs in the first episode of “Stateless,” and it’s also the carrot meant to lure people who wouldn’t otherwise sit through a six-hour drama about the plight of refugees hailing from countries across the Middle East and Africa, now stuck in some Australian version of limbo.

Those who may settle in to see how things turn out for the flaxen-haired actress from “The Handmaid’s Tale” will also take in and perhaps connect to the sorrowful story Afghan refugee Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi). That’s the hope, anyway. Ameer is a father who endures grinding starvation, alarming indignity and wrenching tragedy to get his family to Australia and eventually gain a protection visa for his daughter Mina (Soraya Heidari). Eventually he ends up in the camp alongside other asylum seekers he meets along the way such as the charismatic Farid (Claude Jabbour), a grimly determined Kurdish woman named Rosna (Helana Sawires) and Javad (Phoenix Raei), who sees a different sort of potential in the attention Sofie’s arrival instigates.

Essentially “Stateless” attempts to employ the same tactic that Jenji Kohan did in “Orange Is the New Black” by dangling the story of a white, well-to-do blonde woman who ends up in prison as a lure into a story that is actually about the plight of the Black and brown people locked up with her.

Considering “Stateless” has been in the works for many years, and Blanchett and her fellow creators reportedly contended with extensive pushback before the project received the official go-ahead, one may well absolve the producers for taking this approach.

This also explains why “Stateless” devotes far more time and effort in developing and humanizing its white characters as opposed to bringing much (if any) depth to the refugee characters aside from the stories of Ameer and Mina. Blanchett’s Pat is not onscreen for very much time, although she too serves as a A-lister carrot.

Instead the story dives deeply into the lives of Jai Courtney’s Cam Samford, who becomes a new guard at Barton so he can make enough money to move his growing family into a better home. He joins the team around the same time as the detention center’s new supervisor Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie), tasked with navigating DIMIA’s strained politics while enduring a power struggle with the site’s general manager Brian (Darren Gilshenan), who handles the guards.

Evaluating “Stateless” purely on the basis on its performances, the production is consistently engaging and enlivened by excellent performances across the board, Bazzi’s in particular. This is not to cast shade upon Strahovski’s work given the gamut of emotions and psychological states she encompasses from beginning to end. She is indeed excellent, even as Sofie’s storyline evolves into a distraction from the other urgent, life or death stories swirling around her in the facility.

And this nagging detraction never quite goes away, making the creators’ intention to fully sketch its white characters at the expense of the non-white ones harder to ignore as “Stateless” progresses. Ergo, provided the goal in bringing “Stateless” to audiences is to humanize displaced peoples by fleshing out their stories, enabling audiences to better empathize with the dire nature of their life and death situations, the writers don’t quite succeed.

What little we learn about Rosna and Javad, for example, is mentioned in passing. Instead it’s left up to Bazzi and Heidari to symbolize the plights of everyone fleeing persecution and death in homelands where they are no longer welcome. Both deliver thoughtful, painfully realistic performances, to be sure. But the reasons why an Afghan father uproots his family to take his chances with unscrupulous human smugglers, unforgiving seas and less-than-welcoming foreign land are different than those that made women like Rosna and other immigrants leave behind the lives they knew for a gargantuan question mark of a future.

All of that takes a backseat to depicting internal conflicts faced by Cam and Claire as they agonize over a dehumanizing system where they have all the power and so few resources to work with. As much of “Stateless” is devoted to showing how this corrupt immigration system corrodes the innate goodness of those holding it up as is given to placing the difficult choices Ameer makes in context. But since there are more fully developed white characters than brown ones, this verges on asking us to empathize with their moments of malfeasance instead directing those feelings toward the unfortunates being detained.

Indeed, it’s unclear as to whether any of this would have been different had “Stateless” chosen to somehow include Solon’s story in its mix or chosen to focus on her plight instead of drawing upon Rau’s experience. History itself tells why the writers made its choices, given that although the two real-life stories overlapped, Rau’s gained far more attention in the press.

“Stateless” stands as a reminder that whether in Australia or in the United States, popular outrage can only truly be ignited if the majority realizes that a system’s corruption can ensnare anybody, that even a white person can be dismissively branded with the label of “unlawful non-citizen.” There no doubt that it is a gripping watch and a worthwhile effort, regardless of reasons that may draw in viewers. Whether audiences will effectively process the messages imparted behind the dual serving of celebrity tease and well-meaning white people angst is frustratingly unclear.

All six episodes of “Stateless” are currently streaming on Netflix.

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Originally published by LA Times

On Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s plan to repeal the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, as arbitrary and not justified. The program has protected more than 700,000 undocumented people, who were brought into the country as children, from deportation. It also allows these individuals to get work permits if they follow the program’s rules and maintain a clean criminal record.

We asked several DACA recipients to tell us how DACA changed their lives and what it’s meant for their families and their communities. Here’s what they had to say.

I’m a history teacher, advocating for my students

I’m an undocumented educator and activist who arrived in the United States from Mexico at 9 months old and have since resided in Los Angeles. In third grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and to go to UCLA because that’s where my best teachers went. Those teachers allowed me to believe that anything was possible through education, and DACA made my aspirations legally attainable.

Before DACA, there was an unsettling feeling of darkness and fear of being taken away from the only country and community I knew. Qualifying for DACA in 2013 offered me a pathway to use the knowledge and skills gained at UCLA to serve my community as an educator and role model.

In my Los Angeles public school, I have been able to create a classroom where my students and their families feel seen, safe and loved. My classroom is a resource center for learning, social services and a space where students can have their needs met. We are a community that cares for and supports each other, something many of my students hadn’t experienced before my class.

DACA gave me the opportunity to work in a community filled with dreams of a better life. It has allowed me to help the next generation to pursue their passions, to seek truth in the past, and to be the critical thinkers needed for a better and equitable society.

I have held leadership roles and sat on committees at my school to advocate for my students and community so that they have the resources they need to thrive. DACA gave me the ability to obtain a driver’s license so that I could deliver food weekly to students most in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

DACA transformed my life as an advocate and made it possible to provide for my son and my family. Though my son and many of my students are U.S. citizens, my DACA status has given them a sense of safety. Because of DACA, I’ve been able to build a more stable future, without fear of being separated from my loved ones. – Angelica Reyes, Los Angeles public high school teacher

DACA helped me, but it was never meant to be a full solution

My journey began nearly 20 years ago in 2001 when my family and I immigrated from Guatemala. I was 8 years old. In many ways, the factors that pushed my family to immigrate here are still the same for many recently arrived Central American immigrants – seeking safety and a better life.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my goal was to attend college. Since becoming a DACA recipient in 2013, I’ve had a chance to work and pay for my studies at community college and UC Berkeley. After graduating, I’ve been able to help others navigate the legal system as an immigration paralegal and now as an administrator of pro bono programs at UC Berkeley School of Law. DACA allowed me to achieve some financial stability for my family and not worry about basic necessities like rent.

The Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s plan to repeal DACA, which is victory for us. But I urge my fellow DACA recipients to remember that this decision should not define us or our goals. It is our duty to advocate for everyone in the undocumented community – in particular for those who were never eligible for DACA or don’t fit the good immigrant narrative. Humane immigration policies should not be solely based on a group’s monetary contribution to the economy or what their academic achievements have been.

DACA was achieved by undocumented youth who protested and pushed the Obama administration to implement it. DACA was never meant to be the solution; comprehensive immigration reform and the abolition of ICE and detention centers should be our goals.

Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to create long-term solutions for the broken immigration system. Now under the Trump administration we have immigrants trapped in detention centers, threatened by a deadly pandemic. We see children separated from their parents and people fleeing for their lives being denied asylum.

If one cares for the Black community, indigenous peoples, the LGBTQ community, Asians, or any other oppressed group, you will find undocumented immigrants in those communities. If DACA recipients are the only thing in people’s minds when they think of undocumented immigrants, that’s where the problem begins. – Mario Alvarado Cifuentes, pro bono administrator at UC Berkeley School of Law

I’m building a career in environmental engineering

Since 2012, DACA has given hope and a future to thousands of young undocumented students like me. My family immigrated to California from a rural town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato when I was 12 years old.

Many undocumented students never get the opportunity to complete a college degree. I obtained DACA status in 2015, and I was fortunate enough to obtain my bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2017 from UC Riverside.

DACA has provided me the opportunity to work, although I am still limited to areas of employment in engineering that do not require U.S citizenship or resident status. Thankfully, I have mentors who opened the door for me to my current position with the city of Santa Barbara.

I am an engineering technician with the Department of Public Works’ water resources division, where I assist in project planning and development in the civil and environmental engineering fields. Because of DACA, I am able to gain engineering experience that will prepare me for my future profession. I am currently applying to graduate schools to obtain a PhD in environmental/chemical engineering. Obtaining a PhD in engineering would provide security for myself and my family.

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to conduct research on DACA’s impact for the sociology department at UC Riverside. That research sought to understand how DACA changed the lives of people who wanted to attend college but could not afford to.

The research results told a story that was familiar to so many undocumented students. DACA, by allowing them to work, made it possible for them to pay for school. As part of my research, I spoke with dozens of undocumented people eligible for DACA, and I found one thing to be true: DACA offered a promise for a better future, where we can contribute to a country that has raised us. – Reyna Sanchez, engineering technician, Department of Public Works, Santa Barbara

DACA made it possible for me to enter public service

My parents and I immigrated from Lima, Peru, when I was 10 years old. We moved to Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, and that became my new home. I received my DACA status as a sophomore attending Cal State Northridge, a couple of months after its implementation in 2012.

I remember starting college before DACA or the California Dream Act and living with a lot of uncertainty, especially when thinking about a career and possible deportation. Since the creation of DACA in 2012, I completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to represent students on the California State University Board of Trustees.

My DACA work permit allowed me to begin a career in public service, first working as a field representative for state Sen. Bob Hertzberg. In that job, I engaged with many small businesses and community groups in the San Fernando Valley, and assisted constituents with questions or issues they had with state departments or agencies. I loved working for the people of the San Fernando Valley, a community that welcomed me as I grew up.

In 2018, I moved to Sacramento to work as an Assembly fellow for Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Kevin Mullin and now as communications director for Assemblymember Monique Limn. At the state Capitol, I have a role to play in the creation of legislation that helps all Californians.

DACA did not hand me any achievements, money or education. But it gave me the chance to work hard and build the future my parents have always dreamt of and sacrificed so much for.

DACA gave me a sense of belonging and safety. These are things I did not have before. – Jorge Reyes Salinas, communications director for Assemblymember Monique Limn

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Originally published by The New York Times

Fartun Abdi last saw her father face-to-face when she was about 1 year old living in Somalia, just before her family separated to flee fighting in the country.

For most of her life, she wasn’t sure her father was alive.

Now a mother of five, Abdi lives in Nashville and works with the Catholic Charities of Tennessee, helping refugees like herself make new homes in America. The future of those efforts was uncertain until Wednesday, when Republican Gov. Bill Lee pointed to his own faith when he rejected an offer by President Donald Trump’s administration to let states halt resettlement.

Abdi found out her father was alive five years ago, and he and several of her siblings remain in Africa amid Trump’s tightened immigration restrictions. Those include substantially lower caps on refugees and a travel ban that blocks citizens of five Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, and their immediate families from traveling or immigrating to the United States.

Lee’s decision doesn’t dissolve those hurdles to make it to the U.S. as refugees. But Abdi, who said she prayed over Lee’s refugee decision, said she now knows he was listening to her community.

I’m speechless and very happy with the outcome,” said Abdi, who said she voted for Lee in 2018. “We are happy that Gov. Lee listened and heard the concerns and wishes of refugees. We are glad to have Lee as our governor.

Lee’s decision put him at odds with top Republicans in the Legislature, who had sued the federal government over its refugee resettlement program and hoped Lee would accept Trump’s offer. Acknowledging pressure from fellow Republicans, Lee put a time limit on his initial approval, saying it was only valid for a year. He even said he supports the lawsuit effort.

I certainly know there’s disagreement on this subject, but there’s disagreement around most subjects, Lee told reporters Wednesday. You agree to disagree and move forward. But I think it’s the right decision and we’re moving forward on it.

So far, no states have said they plan to reject refugees. About half the states have given written consent to continue resettling refugees.

In September, Trump slashed the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. and authorized state and local governments to refuse to accept them. An executive order says that if a state or a locality has not consented to receive refugees under the State Department’s Reception and Placement Program, then refugees should not be resettled within the state or locality unless the secretary of state decides otherwise.

Some resettlement groups have sued to block Trump’s order.

If a state opts out under Trump’s order, refugees could still move there, but they’d miss out on key aid. For example, they wouldn’t get funding for medical assistance and screenings, employment, social adjustment services and English language training.

More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Tennessee during the 2016 budget year. That number dropped to 478 in 2018 under Trump and and has hit 692 in 2019.

In the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, lawmakers forged ahead with their lawsuit over the refugee program with the help of a third-party legal outfit, since Attorney General Herbert Slatery declined to take the case. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected the lawsuit, which claims the program improperly forces the state to spend money on additional services for refugees, including health care and education. Lawmakers haven’t said whether they’ll ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally said Wednesday they would’ve preferred to hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state.

Lee took office in January after a rough GOP primary in which he and his opponents echoed Trump’s tough talk on immigration.

He also went to great lengths to bring up his Christian faith while campaigning. He invoked his beliefs again in his refugee decision.

“The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, and particularly those suffering religious persecution,” Lee wrote to the legislative leaders. My commitment to these ideals is based on my faith, personally visiting refugee camps on multiple continents, and my years of experience ministering to refugees here in Tennessee.

Advocates have said the program includes rigorous vetting and introduces refugees as reliable members of the workforce.

Abdi spent three years in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child, then came to the U.S. with her mother and two step-siblings. She had been living here for years when she found out that her father was alive in 2014. She said she made the discovery when she saw a man who resembled her in a video, then made calls until she confirmed it. She’s since talked with him on video chats.

Abdi said she might be a stronger person for making her own way in the United States. But at some point, everyone needs family, she said.

There are certain times when my father would say, ‘I wish I could just hold one of my grand-kids,’ Abdi said. “Certain things like that get to me.”

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Originally published by The Huff Post

I grew up the eldest of four to immigrant parents who owned a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall in suburban Long Island, New York. My siblings and I were what we call take out kids. We were the kids who were raised behind a Formica counter that hid boxes of fortune cookies and duck sauce. The ones doing homework in heavy winter coats at the rickety tables you could barely see through the fogged-over glass. The children playing in shopping center parking lots when the dinner rush died down and everyone else was home. Our futures were a symbol of hope to parents who came to this country for more ― something beyond the hard labor of high-volume, low-cost restaurant life.

This was a life that put them out on the streets delivering in blizzards and floods for $2 tips, flipping food over open flames in the dead heat of summer and conducting business as usual every day of the year in a monotonous, dark comedy kind of hopeless struggle. Holidays meant nothing to us ― Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, let alone the Fourth of July or Memorial Day ― because we didn’t exactly have them.

Except for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was sacred to us. It was the only day of the year the exhaust fans were silenced and the lights turned off. The only day of the year all six of us spent in leisure as a family, present for one another and having conversations instead of just barking orders while trying to feed a faceless stream of hangry strangers. And it became the only day of the year my father was able to share his dreams for us, a real American dream: a better life for his kids than what he was resigned to.

My siblings and I were what we call ‘take out kids.’ We were the kids who were raised behind a Formica counter that hid boxes of fortune cookies and duck sauce.

So nearly every Thanksgiving, from the time we were old enough to understand what the promise the stereotypical emphasis on education meant, we were bundled up and herded into our beat-up minivan as our father took to the road, like the more than 50 million Americans who do so annually. But our destination wasn’t a dinner table creaking from the bounty of this land of plenty. For about a decade, my family spent almost every Thanksgiving Day visiting different universities in driving distance of our home base in Suffolk County, and we’d wander aimlessly around the deserted campus of a college our dad wanted on our radars in the hopes that we could see ourselves there.

My father never had a map or any particular direction. My parents weren’t planners ― they simply didn’t have the time when opening hours were roughly 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. My dad would pick a school, or as we got older, we would suggest one, and he’d drive in that general direction, park somewhere close by, and we’d see where the frigid November winds would take us. We’d read signs to see if what we were looking at was, in fact, part of the school, and then afterward, drive in no particular route around the perimeter of the established campus to check out the college town.

Before all that, for the bulk of my childhood, we used to go to Chinatown in Manhattan for Thanksgiving, or Flushing in Queens. Instead of eating dim sum in the morning ― our cultural equivalent to Sunday brunch, the only type of family meal our budget and working hours would allow during the year ― we did something different. Instead, we would sleep through the morning, then head out to drive around New York City pointing at landmarks we never had time to actually visit. Then my dad would treat the family to a dinner of Peking duck ― not turkey ― at a formal Chinese restaurant. His one-day respite from cooking as we enjoyed the only evening meal a year we truly ate together. And that was all that was on the agenda.

That is, until I reached high school age and, because I was the firstborn, college years were finally visible on the horizon. We started with NYU. It was close enough to the restaurants we’d go to for dinner ― and therefore close enough to make going away to school a bit more palatable for my mother.

We parked for free and without struggle (for a change) a few blocks from Washington Square in Greenwich Village and made our way, a motley crew, to the spread-out campus. We’d roll out of our dented Ford Windstar, tired from the hourlong ride out from the middle of Long Island, drowsy from napping in the General Tso’s- and cooking oil-scented upholstery, and shuffle aimlessly in the chill air as my dad would herd us from one building to another as he spotted them, reading off the placards.

Stern School of Business, he would announce proudly, as if he didn’t just stumble upon it. One of the best business schools in America, he’d nod approvingly. Like a herd of sheep, we’d nod in unison, humoring him.

Thanksgiving was sacred to us. It was the only day of the year the exhaust fans were silenced and the lights turned off. The only day of the year all six of us spent in leisure as a family.

Columbia University, he proclaimed another year, pronouncing it coh-LAHM-bia in his faintly accented English. Ivy League! he kept saying as we walked across the quads. After a respectful moment of silence at the base of Columbia’s library, he told us, You can go inside when you get accepted.

He said it with certainty, and it was that optimism that defined what the possibilities were. That steadfast belief that made us feel that college was a matter of course, that the question wasn’t if, but rather when we did. After all, although he wasn’t a die-hard, zealous patriot, this was America ― the land of hopes and dreams.

Another year: Barnard. You can apply here and take classes at Columbia, still have a Columbia degree, he told us. Better chance, try for both.

We began to venture farther as the youngest, my brother nine years my junior, got old enough to withstand longer car trips. We traveled to Philadelphia, not to see the Rocky statue or the Liberty Bell, or to have a cheesesteak, but to visit UPenn. During the drive, we listened to the stats he’d rattle off excitedly as he tried to hype us up for another solemn walk through empty quads.

Benjamin Franklin’s school, he told us authoritatively. Top 10 in the United States, and Ivy, he’d say, pronouncing it I.V. Less than 10% acceptance, and even harder to get into Whar-tuhn Business School.

But you can do it, chimed in my mother, encouragingly, warmly and without any hint of stereotypical tiger mom ferocity. While my father’s support was more of an obviously, duh approach toward our future success, hers was always soft, her hopes for us simply health and enough financial security not to have to worry about being able to afford oil drops for heat in the winter, as they had to now.

Of course they can do it, my dad agreed. After all, he wouldn’t have taken the drive if he didn’t see it in the realm of possibility. Here, you work hard, you can do anything.

Unlike the majority of college-aged kids in America, our grand academic tour took a decade rather than several straight days of immersion or a few weekends here and there.

These Thanksgiving drives shaped us.

Unlike the majority of college-age kids in America, our grand academic tour took a decade rather than several straight days of immersion or a few weekends here and there. We applied blindly to schools based on recited rankings, then made requests to visit when certain ones caught our eyes.

But the caliber of schools chosen, the unwavering confidence my parents had that we would go top tier by visiting only top-tier universities, that provided us with the confidence to set them as attainable goals. The hopeful ― not stressful ― expectation of college as a natural next step gave us that Suessian, Oh, the places you’ll go! thrill. And this rich menu of higher learning gave us a sense of belonging that superseded the privilege, the financials and the other concerns that many other blue-collar kids had. Those limitations meant nothing to us, as indoctrinated as we became in my parents’ unshakable belief that in the U.S., you can do anything if you put in the effort and try hard enough.

Our growing radius of college travel gave us a sense of adventure too. A fearlessness toward starting a new life in a new place, that it was exciting and not scary to be away from home. The whole ride back, my father would excitedly speculate what life would be like as the student he never got to be. It’s because of these trips, these out-loud imaginings, that we were unafraid to branch out on our own with the confidence that we could shape our lives as we liked. Because again, this was America, the beautiful country, where we could move freely in pursuit of a better life at any given time.

On these trips, my father would excitedly speculate what life would be like as the student he never got to be.

This was how they loved us. This was how they showed us what being born American was, and how to give thanks for that. After all, they didn’t know anything else it could mean.

They weren’t grandfathered into roasted turkey and cranberry sauce traditions, didn’t know much about how Americans lived on a day-to-day basis or what they did on holidays beyond a limited range of movies they rarely watched. Isolated from the predominantly Irish and Italian blue-collar community we lived in by barriers of language, time and just straight-up prejudice, they had no access to learn about the cultures of the families around us. Symbols of the holiday were all they were exposed to, through store merchandise displays and assignments we brought home as children.

My mom came when she was 12 with her three siblings and parents in a bid to escape poverty, leaving Fuzhou by way of Hong Kong. When they immigrated, her family lived in a bedroom of a house they shared with several other families, all of whom dreamed no bigger than to be a line cook at their own Chinese restaurant instead of somebody else’s, and maybe have a home of their own. She went to community college, but her education ended there as she focused her attention on helping her younger siblings do better.

My father came to the States at the age of 18 from a small agricultural village to study physics at Hunter College in New York City. He was unable to finish his education, and his dreams of leaving farm life for learning were dashed as funding ran out and he was forced to work as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant. It was an upgrade when word of mouth got him into a Chinese restaurant in suburban Long Island, where his co-workers at least spoke one of his several languages and he could earn their respect for his intelligence.

This was how my parents showed us what being born American was, and how to give thanks for that. After all, they didn’t know anything else it could mean.

By the time we were born, like so many other first-wave immigrants, they had long given up on themselves. The sky was not the limit anymore; it was too late for them. But if their kids could have a better life, one with paid time off, medical benefits, one where we could make a living with our brains and not brawn alone … well, it would all be worth it as they lived their expired wishes vicariously through us.

School was important ― it was a way out. We studied hard because we were told, as we grew up scooping rice and wrapping wontons, that this would be our life if we didn’t. They put a fire in our bellies, a fear and desperation to do more with our lives or live this way forever. Just one day off a year.

But if we went to a good university, made the right connections and studied hard, we’d become part of the mental labor force instead of the manual one. It would be an easier, safer life. Working in a white collar profession would mean that my parents’ sacrifices were worth it, that their dreams would still be fulfilled, in a way. It would mean we would become more than second-class citizens by becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants and even writers, and perhaps one day be able to assimilate and even be invited into Americana like the Thanksgiving turkey dinners we never had.

My little brother, the baby of the family, finished college five years ago. I graduated from Tulane University in January 2007, a full dozen years now past. Since then, my sisters have achieved bachelor’s and master’s degrees at prestigious schools ― Brown University, Williams College, the University of Chicago, UMass Amherst ― even more afield than where these annual drives could take us. And as our travels take us farther, we all still find ourselves drawn to institutions of higher learning and think of our Thanksgiving outings when we see them, from Trinity College in Dublin to the Sorbonne in Paris.

So it’s been a long time since we went college shopping for Thanksgiving. But even though my parents are now retired, staying home for the holiday still feels foreign. I find myself itching to hit the road as dry brown leaves begin to drift down to frost-kissed grass, drive at an academic landmark, and spend a day walking through meandering pathways that connect hallowed halls. To stay put on Thanksgiving feels less than instinctual; to have dinner as the headline event, as discombobulating as not having gravy with your turkey or pie as dessert.

To me, Thanksgiving is not so much a holiday for feasting, but a time to reach for the stars with the faith and support of your family.

Regardless, every fall imbues me with a sense of hope and anticipation. We may not spend it together anymore, cramped and elbowing each other in the back seats of a janky van with the heat blasting. My siblings and I have scattered, and we don’t see each other that often. Now that my parents have retired, it’s not so uncommon to go out for Peking duck on a night they feel up to the drive to Queens.

But around this time of year, my thoughts turn optimistically to the future. It’s not spring that calls to me as the season for renewal. It’s fall still that drives me to ponder possibility.

To me, Thanksgiving is not so much a holiday for feasting, but a time to reach for the stars with the faith and support of your family, no matter where they might be.

So despite this entirely untraditional way of spending this holiday, I can’t think of a more American way to do so. A hope, a dream ― a land of opportunities to be thankful for.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

A no-name entrant at this month’s New York City Marathon – literally, he didn’t even qualify to have his name printed on his bib – Girma Bekele Gebre crashed the elite field and finished third in the largest 26.2-mile race in the world.

A week later, the Ethiopian runner sat in Bill Staab’s Upper West Side apartment, smiling and nodding while Staab recounted details from his stunning podium finish.

It’s a life-changer, Staab said.

Staab, the 80-year-old president of the West Side Runners’ Club, has helped numerous careers during his 42-year term, making the American dream possible for immigrants from all over. A longtime running enthusiast who is retired from his career in steel sales and administration, Staab has become an indispensable organizer for runners from South America and Africa. He’s written hundreds of letters to support visa-seeking athletes, and he says he’s spent nearly $1 million of his own money on entry fees and memberships for West Side runners like Girma.

He doesn’t pocket the winnings – like the $61,000 earned by Girma, or the $10,000 that countryman Diriba Degefa Yigezu got for winning last weekend’s Philadelphia Marathon. Staab helps the athletes cash those checks and use the money to fund their travels or support others back home.

When I came here, I didn’t have any family, Diriba said. This person helped me. That’s why I run for him.

Girma’s success is a new level for West Side Runners. Prior to his breakthrough, he was just another one of our runners, Staab said – one of his basically minor league racers. Girma came to the U.S for three to four months at a time, and Staab would arrange near-weekly races for him across the country. He’d make $500 here, $1,000 there – his biggest payday was $8,000 – and he would send some of that back to his family, which is helping raise his 4-year-old daughter on their farm.

The routine was interrupted this year when one of Girma’s six brothers died. He cut short his spring U.S. trip and returned to Ethiopia. Instead of grinding through half-marathons and 10Ks, he trained at altitude in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

New York was Girma’s first race back in the U.S., and he posted a stunning time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 38 seconds – more than five minutes faster than his previous personal best.

If he had said, ‘I’m going to run 2:08,’ I would have said, ‘That’s crazy,’ Staab said.

Girma is thinking about putting the prize money into a house in Ethiopia. He’s been contacted by agents and sponsors about potential deals, and Staab is hopeful Girma will be approved for a green card – an important step up from his P1 athlete visa that will make living and competing in the U.S. easier. He’s eyeing the Boston Marathon for his next race, although it’s uncertain if he’ll crack the smaller field there. For now, he plans to spend time back home weighing his options. Among his goals: he wants to shave another few minutes off his personal best marathon time.

Maybe 2:03, he said.

Staab hardly envisioned a success story like that when he took over West Side Runners. Originally a small club of local athletes from the West Side YMCA, the team first went international in 1980 when Staab helped three Colombian runners enter the NYC Marathon. Word spread that Staab could connect international runners to U.S. races, and athletes from Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American countries followed. West Side Runners became a powerhouse at local competitions – and a strikingly diverse one racing against mostly white teams stocked with post-collegiate runners.

The other teams laughed at us, Staab said. And then we began to beat them. Then they didn’t laugh quite so much.

Staab, a former Peace Corps volunteer, turned managing West Side Runners into a full-time endeavor after retiring a decade ago. His commitment and capability struck some Ethiopian runners seeking a new team around that time, and now Ethiopians make up roughly a third of the club’s roughly 350 members. Some come to the U.S. for a few months at a time, and some longer. Staab used to let runners stay in his apartment, but his co-op board recently outlawed that. Many runners have friends to stay with elsewhere in the city, and some share small apartments in the Bronx.

They’re almost all full-time runners, with athlete visas that preclude them from taking on other jobs. Although they aren’t world-renowned, they can earn enough to cover expenses and send money home, mostly because Staab can get them into nearly any mid-tier race in the country.

It’s not a luxurious lifestyle. Diriba will end up running about 20 races this season – he might have completed more if not for an injury over the summer – and estimates he’ll make about $26,000. Barely enough to make rent in his shared Bronx apartment, but in Ethiopia, he says, it’s a lot of money.

Staab also uses the club to help runners get visas, estimating he writes about 100 letters per year to immigration vouching for potential racers.

One of those runners is Nuhamin Bogale Ashame. Formerly a junior world champion at 1,500 meters, Nuhamin fell off the international competitive scene due to injury but is trying to make her way back at longer distances. With Staab’s help, she’s raced everything from one mile to half-marathons in her first year in the U.S. The 26-year-old heard good things from other athletes about West Side Runners while she was in Ethiopia, and she hasn’t been disappointed by Staab.

For Ethiopian runners, he’s like a father, she said. We love him.

That much became clear to Staab last year, when 15 Ethiopian runners accompanied him to the hospital when he had to have a tumor removed from his bladder. Staab doesn’t have any family in New York, so his runners remained with him overnight.

When I went back for another operation, the nurses didn’t remember me, but they remembered the Ethiopians, he said.

Staab bemoans that the immigration process has become more difficult since Donald Trump’s election. He’s stopped trying to get visas for Mexican runners because you’re not going to get them. Even for the Ethiopians, Staab has had a harder time since Girma got his P1 visa in 2013.

They’re from a shithole country, you know? he said, wryly referencing Trump’s reported comments from last year about some African nations.

Still, most of Staab’s team members are immigrants. Their success is on display at his apartment, where dozens of trophies sit on a table in the entry. Runners often leave those prizes for him – they’d rather save room in their luggage for clothes, shoes and souvenirs, anyway.

We’ve done well, but it’s a lot of work, Staab said. I’m kind of obsessed with it.


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