Thursday, September 14, 2017

My Immigrant Experience

When I came to America in 1978, besides what was portrayed in books and my limited TV intake, I had no idea what to expect.

Subconsciously, I thought everyone was rich until my older brother told me there were lots of poor homeless people right where we lived. Subconsciously I thought I could easily acquire the foods I was used to and they would taste the same, but I soon realized that there were ethnic neighborhoods where we could shop. As far as things tasting the same - they never did, but I adjusted. Subconsciously, I thought everyone had two parents and a family similar to mine; I soon learned that I was viewed as an aberration.

School was the great equalizer - for though I spoke with an accent and very fast (exceptionally fast), the smart kids received attention. I was skipped and hung out with the other smart kids and never had any real issues adjusting to school as the work came easily to me.

As an immigrant, we immediately looked for others that were similar to us. My uncle lived in Flatbush, which was a Carribean mecca at the time so we made friends and learned the ways of this brave new world from those who had gone before us. We learned about government programs, the best schools to send children to, where to shop to get what we were accustomed to, how to sign up for health plans, real estate, public transportation, and the little nuances of day to day living. In the Bahamas we had our private doctor, was chauffeured to and from school, wore uniforms to school, and someone came to help my mom with housework once a week. My mom was a seamstress, my dad was a  high-level manager and life seemed grand.

In this brave new world, my mom felt empowered and completed her education. She eventually ended up with a Bachelors and two masters degrees. My dad on the other hand never achieved the professional prestige that he had in the Bahamas. Instead, he joined his brothers and worked at a bakery. These things tear at relationships yet they persevered so that we could have better opportunities.

In all of this, the transitions were navigable until it came to discovering my blackness. Though Black, because I was of Carribean descent, American blacks were resentful of me. I didn't understand what they were dealing with and minimized their experiences. I didn't realize that in the late 70s many of their families could still talk about what it was like to live through Jim Crow. I didn't understand what that mentality could do to a generation or a person. I'm so sorry for my short-sightedness but the resentment was not warranted as we were all fighting the same battle - to be seen and valued by the greater society.

My friend says I came here strong. I came here whole. To a degree this is true and I can only thank my parents and God's intervening hand. But I was shortsighted about how America handles race. I don't buy into it (i.e. you're not better than me because you're white) however I had to become aware of racism and its ramifications and in spite of race - survive and thrive.

Immigrants are all over the news these days and some countries aren't as welcoming of them though they're all people just like the citizens of those countries. No one can control where they are born, but once here on earth they can play a hand in their destiny. Abraham, one of the original immigrants was called by God to leave the land of his birth and settle in the land of Canaan where he would become the father of many nations. (Genesis 12:1-7) What we have in common with Abraham is that it is often an act of faith to move out of our familiar places and go to new lands. The only thing Abraham could rely on in this new land was his faith in God. It was his faith that allowed him to make the choices he did and to prosper as was promised to him. He had many setbacks, many ups, and downs but what was for him, no man could take away. This mindset is what is common to people acting in faith, to the immigrants among us -what God has for them no one can take away. Leaving your homeland for whatever reason is faith in action. This faith can move mountains, can give you the courage to interact with strangers, and can create new roadways for our families. May our faith be rewarded as we become more willing to accept the immigrants around us.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Genesis 12:1-4

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. Hebrews 11:8-9

Do you have an immigration story you wish to share? Do you accept the immigrants among us?


  1. As always Nylse, very thoughtful, and clear. It was tender, and intelligent. A rich heritage you your family's courage, strength, and courage. I hope that I am encouraging to ALL people for Christ, immigrants and natives, regardless of skin color.

  2. I so admire those who come to a strange land and want to better themselves, have a better life for their children, escape the ravages of war and violence; the reasons go on and on. I am a Navy kid as my father was a doctor in the USN for 20 years. I grew up moving all around the country, changing places every few years. I lived among all different peoples whether it was a racial difference, economic, type of parenting, etc. I believed as a child, even high school that we were all one people. I did not see color. I was in high school and college in the 60s and began to see how others saw color. I was so upset to see that Blacks were treated so poorly in this country, this country where "all people are created equal." It was not so, yet I still believed it was so. I was a school teacher most of my life. In the first school, I taught first grade and had a beautiful (her heart) Black woman teaching next to me. A few years later, she and her family moved away. She came back to visit one day and I introduced her to my class. One little girl raised her hand and asked, "Is she your sister?" Lessie and I looked at one another and just smiled, hugged. We truly are sisters in the Lord. But this child saw no color. Then I was teaching in Washington, DC, Kindergarten and First grades. I was on the floor one day with a reading group. I had a bit of a sunburn on my face and this child said, "You light skin and red skin too?" My co-teachers told me that she saw me as a light-skinned Black (with some Native American blood thrown in too!). I was one of two white teachers among all Black staff and children. I loved it that she saw no color either. We are taught to see color and then as something positive or negative. I pray that this nation, this world, would open their eyes to see people as God's creations and we are all beautifully made in the colors of the rainbow because God is beautiful. I am sorry I have typed so very much, Nylse, but you moved me today so deeply.

  3. I grew up in an African household. Both my parents came as immigrants from Ghana to America. Due to this, they also were not aware of a lot the racism that Black Americans are accustomed to. They weren't aware of the stories, the hurt, etc. Due to this, we did not grow up with stories of Jim Crow, etc ... and I was truly clueless. I also did not understand why black Americans thought the way they did and it was hard to relate. As I'm older and hopefully a bit wiser, oh how I wish I could go back and say things differently. Understand more deeply. But I do now. And I've never been more passionate about loving immigrants, fighting racism and speaking truth. This was a beautiful post. I also enjoyed getting a little history about your parents :)

  4. Thank you so very much for sharing this with me. I wish every immigrant could have a forum and an audience to share their story. I wish more voices could share the expected and unexpected shifts that occur when you exchange all that is familiar in the hope of a new life. Please continue to write your words. Your voice is lovely and clear and honest and discerning. Blessings on your Sunday.

  5. Thank you so much for your story. Living outside of my home country at first in Russia and now in Belize. I can identify with your story. Adapting to food, culture, and for me language barriers.

    I'm more patient with accents and with broken English now. I was grateful when someone gives me grace when I spoke Russian. Now I am in the Caribbean with my American accent and well aware that I speak way too fast!

    Each time we go to the Immigration Office I am aware of what it is like to live outside of our true home country and it makes me long for my heavenly home!

  6. Hey Nylse! I'm so glad to meet you. What an interesting, beautiful story. My family is comprised of people from numerous nationalities, so much so, that I can hardly trace our roots. I'd be interested to look into it more closely at some point in life. My husband's family is from Sicily. They immigrated here in the 60's, very poor. They subsisted on pasta with pesto made from the basil they grew on the fire escapes in Manhattan. I'm thrilled that you've joined the Writers' Collective with such a rich and important story I hope that we'll see you back again tomorrow morning with another share. Have a wonderful evening !

  7. I loved your blog post, Nylse. Your post helps me understand my black community better. I've never really thought about how living through Jim Crow could affect a perspective or worldview. Thank you for educating me! Blessings!


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