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. We will also be publishing the essays written by our Finalists later this summer– please check back soon!
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.