ENXHI DYLGJERI, 24
“It was complete mayhem. Albania had a ‘communist regime’ but it was totalitarianism really. Everybody was locked in, no one went in and out. In 1996, our dictator’s regime crumbled and all the prisons and armories were open. There had been a lot of political prisoners but also real prisoners who now had access to guns and weapons. My parents initially immigrated to Greece but applied to the green card lottery for the states. So, we immigrated here in March of 1997, I was five years old. I have gone back a few times, half of my family lives in Greece, but the rest lives in Albania still. The first time I went back I was around eight years old but visiting during that time felt like we were going back to visit family. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that it sank in how severe the differences were. I remember passing by a gas station that was run down and someone had spray painted ‘AMERICA HELP US’ and I didn’t know how to feel because I was from the states. I remember thinking to myself ‘what could America possibly do?’ Except for what? Take over this country? What was interesting though was after that regime it was sort of like that when the IMF and the World Bank took over all our trade policies. It caused a shock in the country. It opened all our trade barriers. Since it had been communist originally, it was sustaining itself only on the resources it produced. We were exporting a ton but didn’t have enough money to import so we were just depleting ourselves even more. Big companies would come in and build luxurious skyscrapers while so many streets still weren’t even paved, we didn’t have 24/7 electricity. I remember I got food poisoning at some restaurant that I had to go up this fancy ass elevator to get to but the reason I got food poisoning was because of the milk, the ice-cream hadn’t been refrigerated properly. It was so backwards, but that’s what happens when you have people coming in thinking the same solution applies to every country.”
LOUIE DASILVA, 56
“My father came here because my grandfather was visiting my uncle who lived here. My grandfather thought this would be a good country to live in and he told my father that. My father had his reservations. He didn’t want to come to the states because he was already established in Portugal. He had a restaurant there and he had just finished paying all his debts. My father never knew what it was to have a childhood, he never knew what it was to be a child. All his life he always worked. However, out of respect to my grandfather he decided to move. We landed at JFK in 1967. He did a lot of soul searching before he came and it is something that always bothered him, to this day it still does. I didn’t realize as I was growing up that I was surrounded by immigrants. Most of the people during that time were Caucasian, so I wasn’t paying attention to immigration. I knew I was different though because I didn’t speak the language. I consider myself an American. Not always, but I’ve been here all my life. This is pretty much all I know. My Portuguese culture is still an important part of my life. The people from my country are a very close knit family and when you have that, you keep your traditions with you. There is a lot of reminiscing of things that happened back in the old country, always listening to your parents speak about their friends and family back home, it stays with you. For me, as a Portuguese American I feel confident and privileged to live in the United States. My identity— it is not one or the other. I don’t know if it is complicated, it’s pretty simple really, it balances itself out for me. It’s natural to feel that your culture is foreign to the country you are in, but if you’re too attached to that one identity then you’ll never feel like you are part of another culture.”
MERETHE KJÆR TWOMEY, 55
“I wanted excitement. I came from a very small town up north and it was a big deal to be accepted into a program like AFS (American Field Studies). I arrived in June of 1979 and I stayed here for a year. Around February of that year was when I met my husband Brian. We met while we were hanging out with our mutual friends at a bar in Suffron, New Jersey. When your program ended, they stamped this sort of notice on your passport that signified this person is to not return right away. We had to promise that we would stay home and not come back for a full year… but I ‘lost’ my passport. I wanted to be able to return before an entire year to spend time with Brian.
When I went back home to Norway, Brian visited me in August and that was when we got engaged. It was a lot of back and forth before I actually stayed here. We went to the immigration building in lower Manhattan so I could apply for a green card. We had to wait overnight and sleep on the street because the doors opened at six or seven in the morning and the line was always very long. I remember being separated from him and they were asking us different questions in different rooms to make sure this marriage was not a sham. I had to surrender my passport while I waited for the green card and I was not able to leave the country during that time. It took five months and I got a resident alien green card, but I never became a citizen. I would have had to give up my Norwegian citizenship and I didn’t want that.
I always wanted to be a Norwegian citizen and be able to give all my children their Norwegian citizenship. My two oldest kids Trevor and Triona have theirs, but I have my youngest daughter Melissa left. So once Melissa gets her Norwegian passport maybe I will consider it. I do consider myself an American now though, I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived in Norway. Sometimes when I go back to visit I feel like I have been here too long. My life is so different now that when I talk to old friends we have very little in common. Not necessarily in a negative way, just different. I was home a lot before my father passed away and in my old hometown I loved walking around and just taking everything in. I would see the things that have changed and the new developments being made. I was walking around looking for this church, a place where my friends and I always used to hang out when we were young and I couldn’t find it. It took me a little while to realize that they had torn it down.”
MIKI GOLOD, 33
“There is always something happening in Israel. There is a war every couple of years it becomes hard to keep track. I grew up very close to the Lebanese borders, so living with war was always a very prominent part of my life. There were rocket attacks and shootings all the time, at least once a month. When it is your reality, you just live with it. It was not anything like you see on TV, like Aleppo. I had a great childhood and my parents were always able to provide for me. I went to private school and we had a nice house and lived in a nice community. It wasn’t like I grew up in a war zone but somehow we just integrated those elements into our lives. So each time there was a rocket attack, what it would mean was I didn’t have to go to school the next day. Which, as a kid, was great, these things were just always there. They are still there.
My parents live very close to the Syrian border. What is going on in Syria, my parents can hear that all the time. We don’t feel it in Israel, but we still hear it. You can feel America in Israel the minute you arrive. It is very westernized but of course there are still a lot of elements that feel Middle Eastern. I think that is why the transition to the culture was easy for me. There are a lot of political reasons and cultural reasons for this, Israel was always supported by the United States. Still, I was always shocked by the little things. One thing that I don’t understand about Americans is that they drink soup from cans. That is just disgusting and they put caramel in peanut butter. Everything is already made. When I want pasta, I have to make the sauce. Now you can just use sauce from a jar which I find odd. I always thought it was strange that Americans buy groceries that are already prepared from the supermarket and then just heat it up. Everything feels like plastic…
We all criticize the United States but the fact of the matter is we choose to live here. I like being here, my home is here now, my husband and my dog are all here now. I still don’t consider myself an American though. Maybe in a few years… It’s a funny place to be. After five and half years of living here I don’t feel 100% American, but I also don’t feel very Israeli anymore. When I go to Israel I feel like a tourist. New York feels more like home than Israel. So, I can tell you for sure that America is my home but I still can’t call myself an American.”
KITTIPHON PONCHAREON, 24
SUMAT PRAKAN, THAILAND
“My mom is the daughter of a GI solider who was in Thailand during the Vietnam War. He met my grandmother while he was stationed there. He had a family back here in the United States so he forgot about my grandma and my mom when he had to leave. We don’t know who he is... My mom was adopted through this program called the Pearl S Buck Foundation. The program links families and sponsors in America with orphans from GI’s and soldiers in Southeast Asia. She was always in contact with the people who were sponsoring her, the people I consider my family today. They would send food and clothes because my mom didn’t have a lot, she was very poor.
My grandma chose to be with the GI soldier. My grandma, she likes to seek a thrill. She is the head of a motorcycle club organization in Thailand. I guess when she met him she was curious. He wasn’t a Thai man and that excited her. My mom came here in the 80s for the first time through her sponsor. She came for college but she moved back to Thailand which was where she met my dad. She had the opportunity of coming here because her adoptive family was able to provide her with a visa. Later, she went through the process of getting it for me, my sister and my dad. We moved to Greenwich, Connecticut which was a crazy transition for me. I lived in this rural, third world, outer area of Bangkok and moved to this far more developed suburban town in the United States. There was a point in my life when I didn’t go back to Thailand for 8 years.
A few weeks ago, my grandfather passed away. When I found out he was sick I tried to go see him. I was on the plane when he passed, I missed him by an hour. It sucks because I could have made an earlier flight but it just didn’t work out. I was expecting it. The last time I went he was just very old and he himself said he didn’t know how much longer he could live. I spent every day with him while I was there. This was about a year ago. I would walk with him every day at 4:30 in the morning. He would get up from his room, grab his cane and we would walk back and forth a couple of times in the neighborhood but it would take about an hour because he was just so old. Sometimes we wouldn’t even say anything, he was just there and I was happy. He dedicated the last bit of his life to Buddhism. He spent a lot of time meditating and giving back to his community. He enjoyed going to the temple and feeding the monks and helping them with the ceremonies. My family is Buddhist; I consider myself Buddhist too but not in the way that my grandfather was. I still believe in those ideals and moral values but it is hard to hold on to them when you are part of this consumer culture that is so present in the United States. I think I’m still Buddhist because at the end of the day, I always want to make a good choice. I’ve messed up a lot in the past but my religion lets me try to make the best decisions.”
TUIJA RANTANEN DASILVA, 51
“I have to be honest, I never thought it was going to happen. My mother told me, “You are probably going to stay there. You aren’t going to come back.” I met Louie when I was 21 years old. I was on vacation in Algarve, Portugal for a week. He told me he saw me at a club one night but didn’t approach me. The next day he found me on the beach and we spent the entire week together. I went back to Finland and he was from Portugal but moved to the United States at a young age. So, when he went back he called me every week for an entire year and invited me to stay with him for a while. I considered myself free spirited at that time and thought that I didn’t have anything to lose. I arrived in New York in 1987 and stayed with Louie for three months. I didn’t plan to stay here. I was never the person who wanted to have a wedding and get married. At the time a lot of young girls worried about that but I was not like that. I just happened to meet Louie and my life turned around. That’s just the way it worked out. If I stayed in Finland I would have not been able to reach the goals I have accomplished here. The goals I have accomplished with Louie. I just felt there was so much more possibility here in the United States. I didn’t leave because my lifestyle was difficult there, it would have probably been much easier if I stayed.
I remember my home was always full of people. The entire community was like that. People would walk in and out of the house. Which is interesting because sometimes I see that the Finnish mentality can be very closed. It is almost like things must be done a certain way and if it is not done that way, it cannot be done any other way. I have to say, I never really thought I was an American. I married Louie in May of 1989 and received my residency. It was easier to receive your citizenship then but I chose not to do it because back then the laws in Finland would not allow you to hold both. I became a citizen on August 1st 2005 when I was 40. The law changed so I was able to apply then. I don’t mean it in a bad way but I don’t feel like I am an American. I respect this country and am appreciative of it but in my heart, I have never felt I was, I’ve always felt Finnish in my heart. I do everything in this country the way I am supposed to but deep in my soul I am Finnish. You know, rather than say I am Finnish, I would say that I am more European. I’ve lived with another European for so long. I don’t think I can say that I am just Finnish but whenever I go back, I feel so comfortable. This happens right away, anything that is going on back home, I feel like I am a part of it.”
OLIVER BRÜNING, 19
WICHITA FALLS, TEXAS, USA
“I came to study here with the same motivation other people do, it opens more opportunities for people. I want to have something to do with this country. My mother and father came to the United States three years before I was born. My mother studied here and my father was stationed at an Airforce base in Wichita Falls, Texas. The unit was the 80th Flying Training Wing and it was through the Euro-NATO Joint Pilot Training Program. I was born in 1997 and I lived here for three months before my parents moved back to Germany. They separated shortly after I was born and I live only with my mother now. I don’t see my father anymore. I have visited the states maybe six or seven times. The first time I came to New York I was around 12.
Growing up a lot of my perception of the United States came from the movies and New York is not like Texas, it is like what you imagine from the movies. My first memories that I can recall were from my second time in Texas but only fractured images. I was maybe two or three, I remember going to a rodeo. Rodeos seem to be a very American thing. There are differences like this in Germany too. The dialect we have where I am from is very different from Hamburg or Berlin. Some festivities and other things differ from place to place as well. Oktoberfest for example, in my area we don’t have it as big as in Munich. Today you start to see less of these differences however. You see a lot of American influences in Germany too. In the language, we have English words that come to the country and have the same meaning. The word ‘download’ for example, this is not a German word. We don’t translate it; we just use it the same way. What comes from film, music or food, these are all things Germany adapts to. I have always held a dual-citizenship but I don’t consider myself an immigrant to Germany. I am as German as my friends who were born there. I grew up in Rheine my entire life. I don’t have any relatives here in the United States; my whole family is German. I’m an American but not because of the culture. I wouldn’t even know how to accurately explain American culture. It is just different, every country is unique and to explain culture, I don’t know how to.
For me, my identity as an American has been more of a matter of convenience. I use whatever suits the situation better. When I travel to the states, I am a US citizen, when I travel to Germany, I am a German citizen. To study here I didn’t have to worry about getting an I-20 or a visa. I am fully a US citizen so I have the same rights and I know that I have this passport but I have nothing to do with it. I wanted to at least have some connection, which is why I came here for the year. One can say that I am an immigrant to Germany, but I don’t feel that way. I think to feel as an immigrant it has more to do with not feeling the culture of the country, as opposed to being dependent on where you are born.”
SOLOMIYA ANTONIV, 21
“When I came here to the United States I did not imagine that my family would be staying here permanently. My dad had a business where he was transporting cars overseas from the United States to Ukraine. He ran the business with childhood friends and they had to pick the cars up in Poland and take them into Ukraine by driving through the border to look for possible wealthy clients. This was until one of the cars went missing at the border. His friends panicked and instead of trying to solve the situation themselves they blackmailed my dad for money. He was living here and my mother, brother and I were unprotected there in Ukraine, so they found a good way to get him to come back by threatening to harm us. We didn’t know about any of this so when he arrived in Ukraine, it came out of nowhere. I had visited the United States in 2004 but only for a month, so I expected it was going to be the same way. We left behind a beautiful home in Drohobych. It was four of us living in one room there but I loved my country. All the sudden I was living in Brooklyn, attending an American public school and I didn’t speak English. My brother was still in fourth grade when we came so he had an easier time adjusting. He didn’t have a life in Ukraine, but I had to leave behind everything and start over.
I was delusional about it for the next two years because my parents kept telling me ‘you’ll go home next summer.’ This lasted for six years before I realized they had no intention of going home. I was unhappy here and I used to blame that on my parents. I accused them of having ruined my life. I had always thought about what my life would be like if I had not moved here. If I did not make the decision to visit, no one was ever going to take me home. I worked my ass off, bought my ticket and went to Ukraine by myself this summer. On my way there I was crying in the airport, terrified. I did not know what to expect. When I arrived it was strange walking into a home that nobody lived in for eight years. I was happy to see my old friends and my family, but my whole perspective changed. After seeing my friends and the situations they were in I became grateful that my parents brought me to the states. It is hard to build a future for yourself in Ukraine right now. I have a good life here, I go to a great school and I could not tell you that I would have had that if I stayed there. My friends are all looking for ways to leave and drank almost every day I was there. The sad truth is there was nothing to do. Not just because it was during the summer, but because the youth has nothing to do. My friends say it is impossible to find work. So, they live the way they can looking for things to do on their free time, which aren’t always good. I was there for that month to enjoy myself but for the people there, that is their reality. To live like that, every month, of every year. I would not be able to handle it.
I was part of the first generation to grow up in independent Ukraine. We were raised being taught about our beautiful culture filled with stories and poems but I was not taught the reality of it all. The reality that the politics in my country would not have allowed me to be the person that I would want to be. My parents probably suffered the most because they built their entire lives beautifully in Ukraine. To me immigration is giving up everything you love and everything that you love being around in hopes of a better life. They gave up everything they worked for because my life and my brother’s life mattered more to them. Now I am responsible for my own life but I also feel responsible for theirs. I am very proud to be Ukrainian, some might say that we are very nationalistic people but those people do not know how to understand that. Ukraine has been a country that for centuries has been struggling to keep its culture together.”