Giving a human face to the immigrant experience

Since our latest intervention in the Syrian War earlier this month, conversations about refugees have resurfaced. So far this year, the United States has resettled 44 Syrians, while tens of thousands of others are waiting for an answer from our government. Conflicts in other regions (Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria) have led the UN to declare the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Given this dire geopolitical backdrop, policy change is desperately needed. But we must also change the way we talk about refugees, and immigrants more generally.

On both sides of the aisle, when we discuss immigrants or refugees coming into the United States, it’s mostly a numbers game, making the entire discussion distant and impersonal.

It’s true that many people seeking to come here are fleeing political conflict or other struggles, but this doesn’t mean their personal plights can be ignored. The United States prides itself on giving everyone the building blocks to live the American Dream, but we rarely address the emotional toll that leaving your home country (in pursuit of said “dream”) can have on individuals and families.

Being born to immigrant Cuban parents and living in Miami my entire life are two factors that have made me particularly sensitive to the immigrant experience. My parents were born in 1973, 14 years after Fidel Castro seized the government in a coup and 12 years after he declared Cuba a socialist (read: communist) state.

Conditions in Cuba slowly worsened and my family, like so many others, knew that they would have to flee from the oppressive regime. In August of 1994, my family boarded a small boat, taking with them some pictures and a few other personal belongings. When they were only 20 miles away from the United States, the boat was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard and my family was taken to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they would remain for six months, unsure about their fate, which was left up to the whims of the Cuban and American governments. Thankfully, in February of 1995, my family received the approval they had been waiting for and were flown to the United States.

I always try to keep in mind how lucky they were, given the tragic fate of so many other Cubans who drowned trying to cross that same 90-mile stretch.

However, I was reminded of the emotional toll that “starting over” can have on people, especially those who are middle-aged or older, when my grandpa came over last weekend.

Shortly after my grandfather’s arrival, Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot were on full blast as he reminisced with my parents about the home they all left. Every once in a while he’d yell for me to get him more Havana Club and ice. From the dining room, I could hear my grandfather’s tearful voice as he spoke about the Cuba he once knew and the musical talents it had birthed.

I mentioned to him that he arrived here at a relatively young age. He replied that although he wasn’t an old man at 47, it was too old for him to uproot his entire life and start fresh in a foreign country. His first job in the United States was in construction, and he told me that he worked hard but could only stomach a pastelito for lunch every day because he lived in an eternal state of anxiety. Months passed and the feeling slowly subsided and gave way to joy and gratitude, knowing he had left behind a country that offered his family few opportunities.

Then on New Year’s Day of 2000, my grandpa’s father suddenly died. There were no goodbyes, no last words, making the day my grandfather left his home the last time he would see his father. Aside from the sadness one must feel when a parent dies, being in a different country must also add a layer of desperation and impotence that I can only begin to imagine.

By the time I was born, I met a different version of my grandpa. He was funny, smart and crafty. He cooked well and would always pick me up from school. Although he never learned English, he found his way with the help of his daughters. Today, he’s retired and spends his time making lamps, notebooks and anything that calls his attention. He’s taken a liking to social media and asked me to help him log into Netflix on the Apple TV last week.

My family has lived in the United States for more than 20 years now, so it’s easy to forget their six-month detention at Guantanamo, their arrival here in 1995, the odd jobs they worked, the family they left behind and the tough adjustment period they dealt with in hopes of living a happier, freer life.

There’s a reason people want to come here, and that reason is twofold: They’re leaving the problems at home and they’re coming here specifically because the United States is heralded globally as the land of opportunities.

When we talk about immigrants coming to this country today, we need to complicate the narrative a little more, especially given the toxic rhetoric that has permeated the highest levels of our government.

If we acknowledge the difficulties of the immigrant experience, perhaps we will be better able to empathize with people who look and speak differently from us, creating a more loving and compassionate culture in the process.

Alexandra Diaz is a junior majoring in political science and women’s and gender studies.