Eleven American Immigration Stories Told by Students, Faculty
Since its inception, our nation has been continually strengthened by the energy of newcomers from countries around the globe. In celebration of our shared heritage as a nation of immigrants, we caught up with several students and faculty to learn about their family’s stories of sacrifice and hard work to achieve the American Dream. Though their stories are unique and varied, they all have common threads of hope, pride and perseverance.
When Irek Banaczyk was nine, he and his family emigrated from Poland to New York in pursuit of a better life. It was a time of excitement when he and his family members joined their mother in Manhattan, where she had been living for five years. Though his parents’ transition to American life wasn’t easy, they diligently worked toward their goal of providing a better life for their family. Now a recent graduate of UT Austin’s School of Social Work, Banaczyk is grateful for the sacrifices they made to help him get a quality education.
Time for a change…“My mother informed me that, ‘At times we had to wait in line for bread and milk for four hours, and sometimes the supplies would run out just as you got to the front of the line.’ Poverty and lack of social mobility were my mother’s primary reasons for leaving Poland. She wanted her children to have better opportunities than she did.”
Challenges of assimilation… “Initially my parents stuck close to their Polish expatriate friends, but over time as they worked excessive hours, they had less time to foster their social connections. The stress took a significant toll on my parents’ lives, manifesting frequent discord. They became isolated and overwhelmed and two years after living in New York, my father received treatment for ulcers.”
The land of opportunity… “My father is now deceased, but my mother admits that America is truly the ‘Land of Opportunity.’ Neither of my parents attended college, yet my mother, grounded in the Protestant work ethic, worked hard, owned two small businesses, and purchased two small properties outside of Austin. In America, one can truly become the person that one chooses—and my family never lost touch with that.”
Lessons of resilience… “I recently learned that while they lived in Poland, just after my mother became pregnant with me, she and my father were too poor to rent their own apartment, so they rented an attic from another family. They lived there for six months until my mother was too pregnant to climb the ladder that led up to the attic. They carried two buckets up and down the ladder each day: one for water and one for excrement. I think how my parents’ lives had changed over the years, and how much better my life was from theirs due to their sacrifices.”
Banaczyk’s activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Intern; Spring 2017 IE Kuhn Scholar; Student Assistant, UT Center for Students in Recovery; Research Associate (summer 2017), Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
Sharafi Bahareh is the daughter of two Iranian parents who left their home country to escape a life of oppression. Determined to provide a safe, comfortable home for his family, Bahareh’s father pursued a degree in business administration and studied up on American political culture.
Now a sophomore majoring in public health, Bahareh aims to make her parents proud by following the road to success while staying grounded in her cultural roots.
Honoring their cultural roots…”My parents wanted to raise two children in the United States but still maintain the rich Iranian culture that they were both raised with since childhood. My mom’s main priority was to invest her time in teaching my sister and I the importance of the Iranian culture, including teaching us how to speak, read and write Farsi.”
A tough transition…”Assimilating to the American culture was a significant challenge for my parents. When they came here, they faced a major obstacle, which was learning English. My father came to the states when he was a college student, so adjusting to the youthful, vibrant experience that America had to offer was relatively easy. However, there was a funny instance where my father got stopped by the police for speeding. The officer asked my father to get out of the car and as he was speaking to my dad, he took off running. The language barrier was the reason for the miscommunication that occurred. The only word that my father could understand when the officer was speaking to him was the word ‘go’ so he thought he was doing the right thing and just scurried along.”
Land of the free…“My family never takes for granted the freedom that is associated with this country. The intangible liberties, such as freedom of speech and religion, are the characteristics that make my parents fully content with residing in this country. Having the privilege to speak one’s mind and express one’s thoughts without the potential interrogation of a high power, is an aspect that they never take for granted. In addition, the law here is well-refined and grounded to a high extent, reducing the corruption that is inherent the legal-system in other countries.”
A source of pride… “I believe that being an immigrant is a highly respectable characteristic. It is extremely challenging to leave one’s home and travel to another environment without any notion of understanding what the future will hold. Immigrants are the components of a diverse and rich society. They are the megaphones that serve as the voice of people from all around the world. I am extremely proud of being the daughter of two dedicated and motivated immigrants that stop at no cost to reach their goals.”
Bahareh’s activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Intern; Alpha Kappa Psi Business Fraternity; Black Health Professions; Iranian Student Academic and Cultural Organization; Gateway Scholars, Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence; Presidential Scholars; Freshman Research Institute; LEAP Leadership; Student Leadership Institute
Belinda Busogi, a College of Natural Sciences junior, is the daughter of two survivors of the Rwandan genocide, in which about 800,000 lost their lives in a majority-Hutu-sponsored violence against Tutsis.
Upon arrival in their new home, her parents made it their mission to create a safe, nurturing environment for their family. We caught up with her to learn more about her East African heritage and the lessons she learned from her courageous family members.
Lost in translation… “My parents experienced a huge language barrier since English is hard to learn quickly. Back when I was a toddler, it was hard to communicate with my own parents for a while. Another challenge that they faced was adapting to the American school system because they grew up in a different schooling environment. Therefore, growing up, I was the guinea pig for attending school in the United States.”
Counting her blessings… “As pictures of refugees fleeing their country flash on television screens all over the world, it is sometimes hard to understand the absolute gravity of the tribulations and hardships these refugees are going through. Growing up, my parents always reminded me to value the freedom and safety we have here in the United States. Sometimes it easy to focus on what we lack in life, rather than appreciate what we are blessed with such as housing and food.”
Stories of survival and courage… “Both of my parents lived a life plagued with genocide where they endured and witnessed some of the most brutal acts known to man. During the genocide there were many life changing stories that occurred. From my dad escaping death, various times, to my grandfather being falsely imprisoned. However, now my father has been in Rwanda for the past year, in hopes of setting up a life for our family to possibly return some day.”
Words of wisdom… “Your challenges are only as a big as you make them!”
Busogi’s activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Intern; Spring 2017 IE Kuhn Scholar; Darlins, Delta Epsilon Mu; Orientation Advisor, African Student Organization; Fall 2016 Women Volleyball IM Champion Team; Officer for Black Health Professions; Texas Athletics Nutrition Intern.
Fifteen years ago, Samuel Cervantes and his family left their home in Monterrey, Mexico to pursue what his parents called “las oportunidades del otro lado” (translation: opportunities on the other side). To make ends meet, his dad worked long hours at a job far from home, yet his salary wasn’t enough to support an entire family. So Cervantes’ parents sold their belongings and moved to the states with a small stash of pocket money to build a better life. Now a junior majoring in government and communication studies, Cervantes is fulfilling his parents’ dreams, taking advantage of all the opportunities the “other side” has to offer.
A new identity… “When my family entered the United States, we became a new family. Our language was no longer the majority. Our culture was no longer the status quo. Our identity was no longer solely Mexican. I consider myself Mexican-American; the hyphenated part, now there’s the complexity. I was born in Mexico, which allows me to claim an attachment to Mexican heritage, but my culture became a synchronism of Mexican and American traditions, values, and beliefs. I can’t say that I am 100 percent Mexican or 100 percent American because my traditions, values and beliefs come from both cultures.”
Familial inspiration… “Courageous, resilient and humble are words that resonate when I think of my mother. She is the central, vital point of my life. Although my mother continues to be weary and scared of the political environment, she continues to remind me to be true to myself, to be attentive of my actions towards others and, most importantly—as she would always emphasize—to treat others with respect and dignity. She might not have been raised in an environment that allowed her to flourish, so she made sure that I was given all she could provide.”
A change in the narrative… “A division is created in the undocumented community when the Dreamers are extensively praised. A binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrant is counterproductive to the movement. I believe that all immigrants are Dreamers. My dreams are my parents’ dreams; my parents’ dreams are my dreams. Immigrant liberation is intertwined in the liberation of a migrant worker and of a college student.”
Cervantes’ activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Intern; Austin City Hall Fellow; Discover Law; University Leadership Initiative; Texas Blazers; Foundation Scholars Program, College of Liberal Arts; Office of Student Success and Recruitment; Intern, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Ana Cruz’s parents moved to the United States from Mexico before she was born so that her father could finish medical school. Initially her father planned to return to Mexico, but he was offered a job in the states and decided to stay and build a new life for his family.
Now an economics/accounting sophomore at UT Austin, Cruz draws inspiration from her parents’ impeccable work ethic and aims to make them proud by forging her own path to success.
Culture change… “The first and biggest challenge was the language barrier. Coming to the United States with very little English knowledge, my parents had to learn quickly in order to communicate at work, school and within the community. Another challenge was learning and understanding American holidays. My parents did not realize at first that certain days such as Easter and Thanksgiving were holidays until they went out to find everything closed!”
The payoffs of hard work… “My dad, as our single source of income, worked every day all day and never, ever missed a single day. As a doctor, this included many sleepless nights as well. When my dad was a first-year resident, $100 was given to doctors who, before the end of the month, completed discharge summaries for all of the patients they had seen. This required one to talk into a recording and state all of the patients’ information. For my dad, this was particularly difficult to do in English at the time. However, my family desperately needed the extra money. My dad would spend many nights writing out by hand and translating everything exactly as he was going to say it into the recording. Not a single month went by that he did not make sure to get our family that $100. My mom also worked to arrange our living arrangements, feed and raise her kids and newborn, keep track of money, and everything in between which was anything but easy in a foreign country. Buying a car and renting an apartment was particularly challenging.”
Commonalities of the immigrant story… “Typical, everyday tasks like buying a car, going to the DMV or renting an apartment can be difficult for anyone, but for immigrants they can be especially challenging due to language barriers and the fact that absolutely everything is new and foreign. They face them with little money and mouths to feed, but a determination to keep working to get to a better place in life. Overall, my parents, like many, left Mexico with nothing but ten suitcases filled with clothes to start a life completely from scratch but they worked hard and have now achieved all of their goals. That in and of itself is completely unimaginable and inspiring to me. It takes an incredible amount of work to build a new life but even more to build one that is successful.”
Cruz’s campus activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Grad Intern; Officer, Minority Women Pursuing Law; 2017-18 Vice President, Texas Economics Association
Antoinette Dao, a junior majoring in English, never takes the many benefits of American life for granted, particularly access to health care and education. In school she works hard, knowing that her Vietnamese father and her Mexican grandparents worked tirelessly to make a life for themselves in the United States.
Seeking a better life…“My father came to the U.S. because of the polio in his left leg and wanted to find a doctor in the U.S. that could cure him. My maternal grandparents came from Mexico to look for work. My grandmother crossed the Rio Grande River when she was pregnant.”
Back in business…My father wanted to learn English and become a chef. After working as a dishwasher at a restaurant, he eventually went to the Houston Culinary Arts School. My grandparents wanted to find stable work and start a business. He eventually owned his own store.
Family values… “My father wasn’t born with polio; he caught it at the age of four because the polio vaccine was unavailable in Vietnam. Even when we didn’t have money, he always made sure that my siblings and I had regular checkups and were always kept vaccinated. In addition to our health, my family always encouraged good grades and performance in school. For my family, education is one of the only ways to access a better life.
The workaholic mindset…“My father and grandparents frequently worked more than one job. They never clocked in at less than 40 hours a week, and they were usually getting paid less than their coworkers. These challenges aren’t unique to the immigrant experience, yet in this ‘workaholic’ mindset, they assimilated to the American ideal that everyone must work for what they want. In their case, they wanted a better life for their children.”
Not giving up without a fight...“My grandfather didn’t attend school beyond the third grade, as he had to work on a ranch as a child. After he met my grandmother and they decided to cross into the United States, they eventually moved to Houston, where my grandfather saved money by working as a cook. He eventually created Guajardo’s Drive-In in North Central, where my grandmother ran the store. One day, a man tried to rob the store, but my grandmother thought he was using a fake gun. She hit him repeatedly with a magazine until he fired a shot into the roof, after which she only barraged him with more magazine whippings until he fled the store. When my grandfather later scolded her for not handing over the money, she insisted that they both had worked too hard for someone to try and take it. Their hard work, I think, is what my grandparents are most proud of.
Dao’s activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Grad Intern; Texas MAES; Student Government, UTPD Oversight Committee; Minority Women Pursuing Law, Spoon University; Neighborhood Longhorns Program
A little over two decades have passed since Julio Diaz’s parents moved from El Salvador to the United States. Though they had little means to comfortably transition into a new home, they had no choice but to escape abusive family members and the violent aftermath of a civil war.
Hard working and resourceful, Diaz’s successfully made a home for themselves in the United States. Born in Texas and raised by a Honduran mother and El Salvadorian step-father, Diaz is proud of his cultural heritage and will always be thankful for the sacrifices they made to give him the resources they never had.
A partially achieved dream… “As soon as they crossed the border, one of their goals was to have a better life. They also wanted to someday be able to bring my siblings over here too so they can get a better education and improve their quality of life. Unfortunately they never got to achieve dream.”
Listening in…”One of the biggest aspects of American life that we never take for granted is education. My parents have always encouraged me to fight for my dreams and to be better than they could ever be. My mom’s education stopped at sixth grade and my step-dad didn’t get the chance to go to school. He would always tell me that he would stand next to the window of the school, listening in on classrooms to learn as much as he could. To date, he can’t read or write, but he’s great at math, whereas my mom can read and write but isn’t as good with numbers.”
Stories of survival…”My family doesn’t talk that much about their past in El Salvador because of all the pain they’ve gone through, but one thing that my mom always reminds my brothers and I about is how, in Honduras, she was forced to sell tortillas on the street at the age of four to earn money for food.”
Riding the beast…”Every once in a while she tells me the story of how she crossed the border by riding a train that runs through the border that kills hundreds of immigrants every year, known as ‘La Bestia’ (The Beast), with five other women in order to protect each other from men and attackers. She said she wore a white shirt and a pair of white jeans, and by the time they arrived in Houston, her clothes were completely brown from her travels. I don’t know the complete story of their travels and experiences before my birth, but I do know my mom is a strong woman. Even within our family she is feared and respected, much more than the other women, for surviving all that has happened to her.”
Diaz’s activities include: Student member, Gender and Sexuality Center; historian, Queer and Trans Student Alliance; UT Spitshine
There are many aspects of American life that Jochebed Fekadu never takes for granted. The daughter of immigrants from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she knows all too well that access to quality education is scarce in developing countries around the world. Now a junior majoring in public relations at a leading research institution, she plans to fulfill her parents’ dreams by taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way.
A tough transition...“The educational system variances are tremendous, and that was definitely a huge challenge for my family. Oftentimes, any education one may have received in their home country does not ‘transfer’ over to the United States. Having to maneuver around that obstacle and work jobs while attempting to reach a comfortable state of living for the family is something I will forever respect my parents for. Situations such as these is just another reason on the list of things that drive me internally.”
Opportunities ahead…“America opens the door for anybody to make their own life to become whatever they desire it to be, and that is not the case globally. My parents had the future of their children in mind when deciding to leave their country, to the point of sacrificing their own. This humbles me, but at the same time drives me to take full advantage of all the opportunities available.”
Keeping life in perspective…“I think its important to remember how blessed you are at times. Even as a child of immigrants, I find myself being so caught up in things that other people globally don’t even worry about. They pray to live a life half as good as the one I am living currently. My parents give me reality checks when necessary, reminding me how good our family has it and how there is always someone else wishing to live like me, or be as blessed as I have been. Just because an issue or conflict globally does not affect you on a personal level, does not mean it ceases to exist.”
Words of wisdom… “Spread love and go out of your way to talk to someone new today. Don’t let your differences with others build a wall between the two. Pun intended!”
Fekadu’s activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Intern; IE Kuhn Scholar; Mentor, Moody College of Communication; Student Ambassador, Moody Career Services, African American Representative, Stan Richards School of Advertising and Communications Diversity and Inclusion Council
No matter what obstacles come her way, Virginia Gonzales, a neuroscience senior, draws strength from her grandfather who stopped at nothing to provide a better life for his family. Determined to give them the resources he never had, he moved his children and grandchildren from Chihuahua, Mexico to Texas, where they faced a number of challenges in school, work and at home.
A difficult transition… “My grandparents and my aunts and uncles picked crops for the first several years they lived in Texas. They faced an enormous amount of abuse from their bosses due to systematic racism within the predominantly Hispanic community in El Paso. While my father was growing up in El Segundo Barrio, he and his classmates were often attacked by kids from other schools and deprived of educational resources from the school district. Unfortunately, that is still a problem in that neighborhood today.”
Valuing education… “Being able to enroll in public schools really helped my family thrive in the United States. While not every member of my family has been able to pursue higher education, my family has always prioritized and valued education. As a first-generation college student, I am very thankful for the sacrifices my grandparents and parents made. I know that they are all very excited to see me graduate in the upcoming year.”
Never giving up… “My grandfather endured so much throughout his life. Even though he was abandoned at a very young age by his mother, lacked financial and emotional security and never had the privilege of attending school, my grandfather raised 17 children and provided my cousins and I with the opportunity to attend college. He struggled greatly to find his place in the United States, but he never let that defeat him. I don’t know where any of my family members would be without his grit, and he inspires me every single day to never give up.”
Gonzales’ activities include: Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Grad Intern; Scholar and mentor, Texas Interdisciplinary Scholars Program; Presidential Achievement Scholar; University Leadership Network; Council for Diversity and Engagement, College of Natural Sciences; ProjectLEAD; Hispanic Health Professions Organization; research assistant, Children’s Research Center
Dr. Suchitra Gururaj’s parents are first-generation immigrants and she is a first-generation Indian-American. After completing medical school in India, Gururaj’s father took a post-graduate training opportunity in the U.S. in 1961, four years before the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. He completed his medical internship in Buffalo, New York and finished his fellowship in Brooklyn before moving back to India. Six years after first arriving in New York, he returned, this time with his wife with the goal of raising their family in the United States.
Balancing cultures… “They expected us to succeed in school and at work, but also uphold the values of our traditions, including respect for others, especially elders and others in positions of authority. We were to exhibit an interest and knowledge in our Indian heritage. They led by example, balancing cultures as they prospered at their work, with my father eventually earning the title of Professor Emeritus at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and my mother serving as an officer and active member of the Indian Association of West Texas. It’s said that the values of Hinduism—detachment, equanimity—and the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’ are often paradoxical; my parents expected us to negotiate that paradox with our values intact and to create our own hybrid identities and approaches.”
A cycle of generosity… “My parents took their role as mentors very seriously. My father, for instance, has trained hundreds of new physicians, whom he encourages to be teachers with integrity. When I was growing up, Lubbock didn’t have any national brands, let alone an Indian restaurant, so they hosted dinners at their home for other recently arrived Indian students. One of the students who attended a dinner at my childhood home later moved to Connecticut and had his own family; when I went to college, he and his wife invited me over to their home for home-cooked dinners and some time away from a cold campus to which I was not yet acclimated. Last year, I offered a meal and mentorship to their son, who just graduated from the College of Natural Sciences at UT. The stories of my parents’ kindnesses that resulted in a virtuous cycle of generosity are numerous and legendary and to me, represent the ways in which immigrants don’t succeed alone and always thrive together.”
Making the most of every opportunity… “Like many immigrants with our story, we do not take for granted the opportunities, both economic and social, of this country, even as we’re aware of inequities as they exist in society. As a woman, I’m also acutely aware of all the freedoms I’ve enjoyed as an American.”
Forty years ago, Shadhi Mansoori’s father moved from Tehran, Iran to Houston, Texas. Though he had few resources, he steadfastly worked his way through college to forge his own path to success. Now as Mansoori, a neuroscience senior, prepares to pursue a rewarding career in medicine, she draws inspiration from her father’s courage, grit and perseverance.
Taking a leap of faith… “Lured by the opportunities of an education, employment and freedom, my father traveled to Houston, Texas alone, without a job, family, friends, or an ability to speak English. My father was brave to leave his parents and eight brothers and sisters behind in search of a better life. On his first flight to America, he met a couple on the airplane who were gracious enough to let him stay at their apartment during his first nights in this new country.”
A circle of friends…”Over the years my father has told me many stories about the people who helped him along the way as an immigrant and his memories, enshrined in profound gratitude, have been very impressionable on my own life. Though my father didn’t know anyone here, he created for himself a new network of friends who help him confront the many challenges and adventures to come over the years. One difficult period for him and his friends was during the Iran hostage crisis. He and other Iranians in the United States were threatened at work and faced discrimination during casual encounters with acquaintances due to the political mess between the two countries that they have called home.”
Building a new life… “After saving money from years of hard work, my father could finally begin his pursuit of a higher education and a degree in mechanical engineering. He later married my mother, a first-generation American whose parents were from Mexico.”
Freedom rings… “Aspects of American life that my family never takes for granted are the liberties guaranteed to us in the Constitution like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. My sisters and I greatly appreciate the freedoms we have in the U.S. as women who can wear what we want, go to the gym when we please, and cheer on our favorite sports teams next to our male friends.”
The power of perseverance…“I am inspired by my father because through the combination of street smarts, curiosity and perseverance, he has improved his quality of life and showed others the generosity that was once showed to him. My father has built everything we have in this life with his own two hands. Today he is a successful businessman who, among many things, seeks to improve his community through commercial real estate developments.”
Mansoori’s activities include: Austin City Hall Fellows, Longhorn Center for Community Engagement; Managing editor of the Texas Undergraduate Research Journal; Clements Center Fellowship, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Liberal Arts Honors Junior Fellow; Polymathic Scholars Program, College of Natural Sciences