In response to current events, The Writers’ Room of Boston sponsored the “Immigrant Voices Essay Contest” during the first half of 2017. We were eager to hear stories from individuals who had recently immigrated to the greater Boston area. Refugees and immigrants were invited to submit a 500-word essay on “A Boston Journey– The Immigrant Experience,” describing the challenges they had faced, their successes and hopes for the future.
We received nearly 30 submissions from people who had arrived in this area from across the world– each with a unique and moving story to tell. The essays were read by a volunteer panel of our members, all of whom are also professional writers. After a careful review, we selected our winners and finalists. They are:
First Place Winner (awarded a new laptop):
Ziad Al Hennawi from Syria for his essay: “The Boston Journey of a Syrian Dentist.”
Second Place Winner (awarded a $100 gift certificate to Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA)
Ny Truong Ho from Vietnam for her essay: “A Dark Past but a Bright Future.”
And seven Finalists (listed in alphabetical order):
Sadia Abdi, from Somalia
Jehan Sayed Issa from Syria
Carolina Izquiel from Venezuela
Haley James from Haiti
Margaretha Nzekwue from Nigeria
Fengjiao Peng from China
Neena Wahi from India
Congratulations to all of our Winners and Finalists! We would also like to extend our sincere gratitude to all who submitted their work, we were honored to read your essays.
We are thrilled to publish the essays by our two winners below, followed by six of our finalists. We asked each winner and finalist for their permission to publish their essays online and heard back from everyone except Sadia Abdi from Somalia. We hope to be able to add her essay in the near future.
First Place Essay:
“The Boston Journey of a Syrian Dentist”
by Ziad Al Hennawi
“Syrian refugee”: that was my label, which recently changed to “Bostonian.” You can call me Z. I am a dentist from Syria, and I am going to tell you about my own Boston journey.
I was visiting my sister in California when I found out that due to my political activity in Syria, it’s not safe for me to go back. I got stuck. Ever since, I have been living in hell. I couldn’t see my wife, my twin brother, or my patients. I didn’t belong, and I didn’t want to belong. Still I applied for asylum, and pursued my dental license. Nothing worked. Two and a half years later, my asylum case was denied. I was placed in an intensive surveillance program and in deportation process. I still hadn’t seen my wife and I wasn’t getting anywhere regarding my license.
One day, I visited a friend in Boston. That one day was enough for me to go back to California, pack my stuff and drive all the way back here. Call it the spirit of Boston, call it the amazingly motivational atmosphere, or just mere luck, but ever since I moved to Boston, my life has made a 360-degree turnaround.
Why do I love Boston, you ask?
On my first day in Boston, I met the most influential person in my life, an inspiring 78- year-old public health dentist who offered me a position to work at his office. Two months later, I won my asylum case in court, and was finally able to submit an application for my wife to join me. Two weeks after that, I got accepted to a Master’s Degree program at Brandeis University.
Why do I love Boston, you ask?
My wife was waiting for her appointment at the U.S. embassy when Trump issued the “Muslim Ban” which permanently blocked the entry of Syrians. Two days later, protests broke out in Boston fighting for immigrants’ rights. The executive order got blocked by a federal judge. She made it to the appointment, and got the visa during these crazy times of people being detained at airports and others being sent back home. Impatiently, I waited at the international terminal at Logan. Suddenly, three and a half years later, the reason I kept fighting, the love of my life, walked out wearing her hijab, with an immigration officer pushing her luggage as if she were a VIP.
Why do I love Boston, you ask?
Recently, I received the email I’ve been waiting for ever since I arrived. I got accepted to a dental residency program in Boston that will entitle me to finally obtain my dental license.
Why do I love Boston?
The reason I am where I am, the reason I will be who I always aspired to be, is because of Boston and my fellow Bostonians. There you have it, my “Boston Journey. Hey Boston, from the bottom of an exhausted Syrian heart, thank you.
Second Place Essay:
“A Dark Past but a Bright Future”
by Ny Truong Ho
Most people live and converse with their parents from when they are a toddler. However, from my memories at least, I was adopted by my grandmother. As soon as I came out of my mother’s womb, my grandmother took me in and nourished me. My parents already had a child when I was born. Therefore, having me in their life would contribute to their financial crisis. Needless to say, there were limited resources in Vietnam from the effects of the Vietnam War. About 90% of the population experienced hardships. Additionally, it was known to be a third-world country, meaning there was a vast amount of poverty.
My life consisted of only me and my grandma until the age of 5, when there were opportunities to immigrate to a brand-new country. My parents thought that immigrating here would give us better options in terms of jobs and education, pursuing the ideology of the “American Dream.” The American Dream would mean having a big house, great education, and a high-paying job.
I remember the day when I had to say my last goodbyes to my extended family and even my sweet grandmother, whom I lived with for one-third of my life. It was an awful memory, because she was the most important person at that time. Additionally, I’d never met my parents before, so it was awkward. Truthfully, I didn’t see my parents as people who were important until then. The flight consisted of me and my sister’s tears of wanting to go back home. I can recall asking my mother if she could drive me back to Vietnam to see my grandmother the next day.
“Honey, don’t worry! You’ll see her tomorrow!” said my mother.
“Okay mom,” I said, terrified.
So far, there hasn’t been a chance for me to see my grandmother again. I’ve also never been back to Vietnam, where I really wish to go in the future. Currently, my family still is in debt to my uncle and many others because of the process of immigrating here. This is the reason why it’s difficult to go back to Vietnam.
People do take drastic measures to get here, such as risking their lives to get here via fishing boats. My uncle attempted to escape the Viet Cong’s grasp by illegally immigrating here. He faced brutal beatings every time he got deported back to Vietnam. He eventually made his way to the Philippines, where he finally gained an opportunity for freedom. I am grateful for his determination, because it was the foundation of our immigration process.
Although immigrating here did expand our opportunities, there were limited chances for us to spend time with one another. My parents work an entire week from daylight to midnight. Living in only a single room, my sister and I lived alone while our parents were working multiple jobs. We usually had to cook our own food and do everything by ourselves. I am grateful for my sister because she gave me some company from the detachment of my busy parents. Still, I regret not talking to my parents as much when I was younger because now I find it awkward to talk to them since we have a language barrier. I can’t talk to them about school, or ask for personal advice. Without Google Translate, life would be much harder. I wish I could maintain a normal relationship with my parents, but immutable factors have caused us to be this way. Sometimes I would look at other families and envy their happiness. Am I a mistake to my family?
I sometimes would be upset at my parents because they don’t understand me. The feeling is indescribable. They expect a lot from me, such as having all A-pluses even though I’ve earned all A’s. It’s also difficult because I want to follow my dreams, but my parents want me to get a job with a high salary. However, I don’t blame them, for the sole reason that they did risk their lives for the sake of my and my sister’s futures. In the future, I want to connect at a deeper level with my family. I hope to travel to Vietnam with my family, because we’ve never been back before. My past is dark, but my future is bright because I have faith in myself.
Finalist: Jehan Sayed Issa from Syria
My travel to the U.S. is different from other Syrians coming during war. My story is part of a long immigration journey starting four years ago when we, my children and I, fled from Syria to Turkey. We left my husband struggling as a doctor in one of the field hospitals. Life was extremely difficult and full of challenges, especially being afraid for my husband’s life as he was still under intensive and brutal bombardments by Assad’s regime and its allies.
In Turkey, I collected 3000 Arabic books from the Syrian diaspora, to establish a free public library to preserve Syrian literature and culture as much as possible.
Last year we found ourselves traveling again when my husband accepted a grant from Harvard University. The decision was difficult and unclear. We came with a commitment to return home after, to be dutiful in helping Syria. It was a chance for me to feel safe with my husband for a year.
The journey was long, and we soon found ourselves on the other side of the world. We chose Watertown, per our friend’s advice. The city shocked me with its diversity of faces, colors and languages. America is different from any other country in the world. Everyone is an immigrant or refugee from a different origin, unified in one identity: America, its doors always open. Oppression, the search for freedom, education and safety are the common causes for immigration. Before moving to the United States, my understanding of the culture came only from American movies, which show a society full of noise and crime. Once I arrived, the peace and quiet were very noticeable. I worked to improve my English through many available courses, one in particular at the mosque.
There are many public libraries, one of them near my house. It was like an extension of my house. The availability of Arabic books, mainly novels, was great. I read almost all of them. I have been shocked by how some writers incorrectly depict their countries’ revolutions to western readers, similar to how American movies do not fully depict American culture. I found most Americans do not have a perspective on the Syrian revolution other than what the media portrays. I find Americans to be peaceful people; many of them cried when I told them what is happening in Syria. I am working on filming one of my stories to highlight the Syrian suffering, where people wanted freedom yet found death. I am trying to bridge understanding by translating my stories into English.
The alienation I noticed in second-generation Syrians toward their homeland made me more determined to be back home. Syria needs its people at this period in history. The most challenging piece of living in the U.S. has been facing bursts of deadly news coming from my home country. At home I shed waves of tears, but in the street, I conceal them with a smile. I have lived two contradictory lives in one year, and sometimes I lose my balance. Boston took one year from my life, and in return I took a lot of memories and lessons learned. The most important lesson learned has been truth is what you see, not what you hear. I plead with Americans to take a closer look at our situation. We adore FREEDOM and sanctify LIFE.
Finalist: Carolina Izquiel from Venezuela
We arrived in Cambridge on July 27, 2015. Although my husband came to study, the truth is that we also came to get away from our beloved country, Venezuela, which lives under cruel dictatorship, with deep social and economic problems.
It is funny, the government of my country says that in the United States there is wild capitalism. I want to tell you what my reality has been. My children attend a bilingual, high- quality public school. They study with Asian, African-American, Latino, Hispanic, and American children. They have companions whose families have lots of money while others have great economic constraints. At school I have seen families formed by father, mother and children, but there are others with two mothers or with the mother and a grandmother.
In the afternoons, my daughter takes violin lessons and my son attends sports activities. From private and public initiatives, both receive scholarships to perform their favorite activities. We often go to the public library, where we have access to thousands of books, movies, and video games completely free. In fact, the city has many free activities for the whole family.
Additionally, the state has an extraordinary health care system that adapts to the economic circumstances of each person.
Some Saturdays we attend a church that has a food fair with super-accessible prices. There we meet other students who are looking to adjust their budget, housewives who want to economize, or homeless people looking for food; in general the fair is open for those who consider they need it. One of the volunteers in the church is a very friendly transsexual person who loves to listen to my Spanish.
I study English for free at a community learning center. The classes are wonderful, and we have many learning resources.
I have never lived in an environment of inclusion and diversity like this. I have never received so much support from a government or a community before. The only danger for me is to develop a great sense of gratitude and loyalty to a country that is not mine. I do not consider myself a naive person. I know this paradise is not the only side of the coin. It is only the side that I live in and that does not have much publicity outside the borders of the United States.
One day the parents of the school organized a picnic in the park. The children played and the parents talked. One of them took a guitar and we started to sing. It was a very exciting time for me. It seems so simple, right? Being in a park where everyone meets peacefully, sharing. I wondered if the other parents who have lived here for a long time realized the immense privilege of enjoying a quiet day in a public park. I wondered if they were aware that freedom, security and tolerance were immensely valuable and difficult to achieve; that only a small percentage of people in the world live in a truly free country. How lucky they are! I thought. However, then I thought that the lucky one was me, not just because I was there, but because my story allows me to know that I am enjoying treasures.
Finalist: Haley James (pseudonym) from Haiti
May 15, 2017
As I looked around all I could see was fear; all I could smell was the desperation of my mother to get me out of this place. The way that this country destroys people was enough for my mother to want to isolate her children from it. It seemed as if the earthquake took with it the sanity of many, and the happiness of others. Haiti was no longer a country. It became a graveyard, people hidden within the dirt. My mom’s best friend went to Port-Au-Prince for business, the country’s capital, where the earthquake hit the hardest. The news of her death devastated my mom. It was not until weeks later that the construction workers who were cleaning streets found her alive, mixed in with the dirt and the cement. She survived under all that rubble mounted on top of her, watching the people who surrounded her die one by one, wondering if she would be next, until one day finally someone saved her. The earthquake ruined a nation; the already poor country was now poorer. My parents did all they could to deliver their baby girl to a place where breathing wasn’t fatal, and playing in the grass was possible, a place where a great future is achievable.
President Obama felt sympathy in his heart for the people of Haiti and allowed them to enter the U.S. under the TPS program, which served as a temporary status. It gave my mom satisfaction to know that the U.S. government was on our side and supported the entrance of Haitians into their country. Oblivious to reality, my mother and I came to this strange, mysterious but majestic land. We dedicated ourselves to hard work, hoping that one day when we said we were happy we’d actually mean it. The United States represented another type of heaven to me: it was my way out of the poverty coming my way. At first it was everything I thought it would be and more. I learned the language, adapted myself to the culture, and built a future around it. Even as a child the conditions in which I grew up forced me to realize that I can affect my future, and in order to live a decent life I would need a college degree. Every day it dawned on me that I had the chance that millions wished for, and I needed to find a way to make sure that I was worthy of that chance. I want to succeed, I want to be great, and I want to change my country for the better. All my hopes and dreams relied on this place, this exact moment. As a seven-year-old I had to realize that every decision I made from then on would determine my future. I dream of being a surgeon one day, and each day it seemed to be getting closer and closer. My hope is that one day I will be able to help rebuild Haiti, and not just by donating a few thousand dollars. I want to invest my time and money in the country, because it was once great and I believe it can be great again. Aside from my dreams of being a surgeon, I also want to be the first female president of Haiti. I take all honors classes, and each and every month I am able to get on the High Honor Roll. I always believed that I had the key to my future, but as I grew older I realized it was naive to ever think so.
It was not until the recent election that I realized how divided this country is when it comes to immigrants. It was then I realized how much hatred certain people have against immigrants. The very stability of this country is in danger. The stilts that it relies on for stability are being destroyed by Donald Trump. The ability to see every person as an equal is a concept that if misunderstood can be incredibly dangerous. It was Thomas Jefferson who said that “all men are created equal,” and that they truly are entitled to “inalienable rights,” which include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Every living soul is guaranteed these rights, not just citizens of the U.S.
Donald Trump wants to deport up to 10,000 immigrants. In fact, he has already issued two executive orders allowing ICE to invade schools, hospitals, and churches to track down and forcibly remove immigrants from this country. Trump claimed to aim for immigrants who have committed a crime in the country or are harming the country in some way, but recently ICE has shown greater focus on deporting non-criminal immigrants. Just recently ICE rounded up 683 immigrants and deported them because they were undocumented. After that my life became very secluded, because I realized it was up to the president to decide whether or not to continue TPS, and it wasn’t exactly a shield against ICE. Trump’s reason for despising immigrants is that he believes they are dangerous and are stealing jobs from citizens. In his mind non-citizens don’t have any rights in this country, but immigrants are allowed access to natural-born rights and the respect that should be provided to the basic human. He is creating fear within the country and causing people to live uneasy lives.
Even worse, Mr. Trump wants to abolish TPS. Once those words were spoken I felt numb, unable to speak or move. I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I’ve never found myself to be claustrophobic, but yet still I find myself suffocating in large spaces. Donald Trump is discriminating against a whole group of people and scapegoating them to make them appear bad and undeserving. Some immigrants have lived in the U.S. for so long that they have no idea how to survive in their native land. Others are fleeing from danger in their home countries, while the majority have built a life in this country. Mr. Trump actually is directly hurting citizens when he deports immigrants, as many undocumented immigrants have kids, cousins, aunts, and uncles who are citizens. This act will leave some kids fatherless, motherless, or even both. Immigrants make up about half of the people who live in this country, and they all can’t just be thrown out and have their lives be destroyed. Immigrants are humans too, and Donald Trump needs to realize that their situation is difficult. Mr. Trump should give them a chance, a way for them to possibly become citizens, before taking extraordinary measures.
I have built a future in this country. Everything I have done was for the benefit of a better life than most Haitian children receive. It’s not fair that one bill written by a stranger who has already made up his/her mind about me, as I am defined by the single word immigrant, gets to decide my fate. People are brainwashed to see me as dangerous, selfish. Not only am I an immigrant: I am also black, so that qualifies me as the perfect victim for discrimination. My home has now turned into a potential target for ICE raids. It no longer can be called a home. I am afraid to leave, because I don’t know if I will find what I left. I don’t know if my mom and my brothers will be there. You’ll never truly understand what it feels like to be me. You can read stories, see images, and feel your heart ache, but you’ll never really know what if feels like to be an immigrant. The reality is that I am killing myself to be in a hazardous situation. It never ceases to amaze me how much hate a human can have against other humans. I am categorized into one word. Right then I am labeled, and like my gender it becomes a part of my identity. With that word I stop being human, my qualities don’t matter, my feelings become non-existent. Each word that comes out of my mouth seem to be a declaration that I actually do have a soul, and that I in fact am a 15-year-old girl. I have been striving to build a stable future, hoping that the future me can see what it feels like to be acknowledged as what I am.
Finalist: Margaretha Nzekwue from Nigeria
Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, once wrote: “She took a step and didn’t want to take any more but she did.” I am from Nigeria, and I lived in that beloved country all my life until I turned fifteen years old. At fifteen, I had already graduated from high school and was planning on going to college until my family and I decided to move to the United States, hoping for a better future which would include a safer environment, a more organized way of life, and better career opportunities. Our hope for a better future will not just benefit our generation alone, but the generations after us.
In the year 2014, my family moved to this country. It was a huge leap that affected my life forever. However, that huge leap did not start smoothly. A great team player is what I used to be in my country. I got along so well with people around me, even strangers. But moving to an entirely different country to start a new life with people I had never seen really changed my life. After I moved and started high school here, I became very introverted because I did not know anybody. All other kids from my school had their cliques from kindergarten/middle school and they would always hang out together, have classes together, and even eat lunch together. At lunch, they would have this look of “You can’t sit with us” on their faces, and sometimes I would get scared and not know what to do. There have also been times when a teacher would ask the class a question, and though I knew the answer, I preferred to be quiet.
I was tired of being quiet and I wanted to be heard, so I started trying new things. One step that I took was participating in track and basketball, even though I did not know how to sprint or successfully make a basket. I also started applying for jobs and was able to get a job with the City Hall in Lynn, Massachusetts, as a Youth Inspector to help enforce rules against selling tobacco to minors. This job is fun and exciting and is showing me an interesting side of public health, which relates to my career goals in health care.
I look back and I think of that introverted, new high school kid who did not want to take any more steps. I now notice that moving to this country has built me. I know for sure that if I was still in my country, I would already be in a university but I would not have been able to grow as much as I have or learn as much as I have. Moving to America taught me that in life, whether you decide to take one step or multiple steps that will eventually lead you to that better place in life where you aspire to be, it is never about how far you go but how well you do.
Finalist: Fengjiao Peng from China
“Drinking some Scotch?” A young white man in T-shirt and jeans walked up to me.
“I’m sorry?” I wasn’t sure what I heard.
“I mean your drink.”
I looked down at the brown liquid in my glass. I didn’t know what it was. At most parties, I simply held a drink and froze at a corner, watching the courage that I had built before the night slowly dissipate into the noise.
“How’s your semester?” the young man continued. Seeming relaxed, he leaned against the wall. I remembered his name was Jacob.
“It’s great. Thank you.”
“How long have you been here in America?”
“Nice. How do you like it so far?”
“I like it a lot.” I reminded myself to sound enthusiastic, “I like the parties, the football games, the atmosphere. It’s nothing like I’ve had in China.”
“Oh, cool.” He nodded. “Have you been to any Junior Dorm parties?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“They’re a lot of fun. They’re usually short on tickets, but you can ask your friends to take you.”
“Okay.” I sipped my drink, hoping that he wouldn’t find out I hadn’t made any friends yet.
We stood there for a moment in silence. I could smell a freshness on him, one that I had never smelt in China before, one that I’d later learn was a product called deodorant. The same strange, pleasant smell had thrilled me the moment I stepped into Logan Airport, with all its indications of a new country, new people, a new life. Now it simply reminded me my life hadn’t changed much since then: I was still dragging my baggage, walking alone.
“So, how do you usually spend your time here?” Jacob was still here and I wanted to cry.
“I usually work on research or homework.”
“Remind me what you study again?”
I hesitated. “Math.”
“Woah! You must be very smart then.”
“Thank you.” I murmured, my face and ears burning. When did a compliment I used to enjoy become a source of shame?
Growing up, I was very competitive. I wanted to be good at everything: school, track, badminton, debating, public speaking, public speaking in English. But out of all the things I prided myself in, math was the crown jewel. It was the hardest, required the most intelligence and diligence.
But I moved to America, and everything changed. One day I woke up only to realize that math had become the one thing I was good at, and it was because it’s easy. I could pick up postulates, create new theorems, read a paper and identify logical contradictions, but I couldn’t pick up pop culture, tell a joke, or identify my own accent. I tackled the unfathomable frameworks of differential geometry, but I couldn’t get over the obstacles, the invisible walls. Becoming American was a subject to which I was and would always remain foreign.
“Do you work on a lot of hard, unsolved problems?” I looked at Jacob, his T-shirt, blue jeans, his hands resting in his pockets, his ordinary but fluent manners. I looked at this white brunette boy who was everything I wanted to be.
“Yeah, but it’s because I can’t work on the harder problems in life.” I said. He shrugged.
Finalist: Neena Wahi from India
How Boston Gave Me Voice
My daughter and I came to Boston in the fall of 2008, not long after a tense time in North Carolina, where I had divorced my husband. The first thing I did after we moved into an attic apartment in Allston was to visit the nearby library. I did not have a job, and I needed some help on my resume. Mattie Deed, a counselor and one of the most wonderful human beings, volunteered to help me. While working on my resume, she discovered that I had printed several pages of a document in Hindi. I was not supposed to print any personal stuff on the library printer. I was scared that she might object, but to my surprise she asked a question: “Are you a poet?” Although she was not able to read my language, the format of the poem helped her realize that it might be a poem. I told her, “Yes, but I write in Hindi only.” She said that she herself was a writer, so she could recognize my talent. Mattie invited me to her writer’s group, “57 Writers.”
For my first meeting, I worried about what to write and in what language. Most of the people in the group spoke English, and even though some of them were from China, Iran, and Egypt, they would rely only on English to be able to understand me. Eventually, I prepared a short essay about a time in my childhood in India, when on the occasion of a family photo shoot, I was heartbroken to realize that my own parents and siblings had forgotten to wake me in all the hullabaloo (I was the youngest). One of my aunts performed an unusual act of kindness by taking me out of my crib, and giving me one of her necklaces to wear for the photo, while she herself went unadorned. The audience at the reading loved my work, and I, too, could not believe that I had written something in English. I credit Mattie for helping me to open a new door of creativity. She still is my first friend in Boston.
A few months later I happened to meet several writing groups and started taking part in poetry recitation programs. I also got a job working at a daycare center. A year later, I realized that many children in Boston grow up without sufficient resources, unlike children who are born into greater privilege. Like many children in India who cannot imagine wasting even a drop of milk, these inner-city children needed more than just a supply of books; they needed a different kind of teaching approach. I decided to return to college to get my teaching license. Fortunately I was admitted to Cambridge College to complete a Master’s of Education. The hardest part of this journey was scoring passing marks in the MTEL exams. I tried for many years, and every time I missed by two or three marks. Finally, I realized that my trouble wasn’t the questions, but the fact that the test was computer-based. It was difficult for me to use a computer because of my age (I was 60+). Luckily I found that I could request a paper-based test. I obtained a note from my doctor and was granted permission to take a paper-based test, in which I scored well enough to clear the MTEL test. Now I can proudly say that even though English is my second language, I am no less than people for whom English is the first language. I was glad to be relieved of the title of an ESL Learner.
In the end, I am very grateful for the people I have met in Boston, and for the opportunities the city has given me to teach and to write. The people of Boston are highly educated and full of talents. It may be hard to communicate with them at first, but once I pass their hard shell I can feel their warm hearts and helpful nature. I found a lot of groups who would take me in once they saw my talent. Boston helped me to discover and practice my creativity, which had been subdued for most of my life. I love Boston with its unpredictable weather, its snow and wind, and even though it makes me cry for two months of spring, when my eyes cannot stop from itching, I still cannot imagine a better place to live and to call home.