By Andrea Lawful Sanders
There seems to be assumptions made by many Americans that immigrants land in this country to “take” their jobs, are lazy, and are criminals who are just here to cause trouble.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Many want to believe this message because they would watch immigrants show up to these shores, sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a brain filled with unspeakable trauma from worn-torn countries where they saw death daily.
Some immigrants come here for better schools, for example; some come because people that they love are already settled here, and others arrive for jobs.
You may hardly see or notice them for years, because they will take any type of job to survive, and that often means being housekeepers, nannies, and jobs where one is skilled with using their hands.
Many times they will have two or three jobs at a time without complaining, and will save their money until they can go to school or find different employment. Many take their saved pennies to buy small homes while sending their children to school for a better way of life.
All of this happens while they work to adapt to the language, food, and cultures found here.
In some places, they form clusters within their own cultures and live near each other, so that they have some semblance of their homeland to hold on to.
Let us not forget the immigrants who enter these shores, fully degreed only to be told that their accreditation does not work in America, and who have to start all over again. I met someone who came here as a medical doctor, started over as a shampoo girl in salons, saved her money, partnered with some other people, and opened a popular restaurant that is thriving some two decades later.
The resilience is real — failure is not an option for most who would not dare squander this golden opportunity, no matter how hard it may seem.
While attending the annual film festival in Martha’s Vineyard, I met people from all walks of life and will chronicle my adventures with them. But on this particular day, I met a fellow Jamaican sitting in a backyard, his face lined with worry.
I knew the look all too well, but decided not to assume anything as I struck up a conversation with him in his native tongue of patios.
As he became familiar with me and realized that I was indeed a “yardie,” he opened up to say that he felt a little lost living in America.
The food is different, the customs, too, on some levels. He was homesick and wondered why he left his good business as a welder to live here.
He explained after I queried that he has been in love with the same woman for 40 years, and she had been elusive because she moved to America almost 15 years ago.
Once he thought he had her within his grasp, he decided to marry her, and move to this country. She was very happy.
He was not. Reestablishing himself in a new place has been difficult, to say the least.
He does not fully grasp the customs and laws of this land, and he worries so much that his black beard turned completely white in a few months at the age of 53.
“People often mistake me for ignorant, because I don’t sound like them, but little do they know, I am a businessman who just needed opportunities to stand up and be able to contribute to my house and this country,” he explained. “I am not here to take, but to add to the life I am trying to build here.”
And that is what he did. He is a skilled welder and a great cook, so he built a barbecue smoker with several long drawers he could open in different compartments and made jerk chicken, jerk fish and jerk pork on the weekends to supplant his welding jobs during the week.
I looked at him in awe, and told him that if he lived in Philadelphia with those kind of welding skills, he would be able to make and sell those smokers everywhere.
His eyes lit up and I could see his brain turning at the prospect of another way to make money.
We laughed as we discussed the life he left behind, and that small conversation made him feel so much better.
All people require is a modicum of kindness. If you see someone looking lost or confused on public transportation, offer to help them. It takes a while to understand the accents here, even when one speaks fluent English. Help in the markets, help to give directions, and most importantly, never mock what may seem different to you.
The lost immigrant you may spit on and mock today, may one day be the doctor you need to save your life, the financial analyst who manages your money, the teacher who teaches your children, or the systems analyst that stops your computer servers from crashing.
My point is this; we all need each other to help keep this beautiful country — a place where the freedoms we sometimes take for granted are often a matter of life or death in other parts of the world — a place that offers life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to those who are willing to work for it.