For native-born Americans, These powerful personal stories open our eyes to the struggles and triumphs of our newest neighbors, but also teach us a lot about ourselves. They helped me more fully appreciate the many challenges of adequately representing my immigrant-rich district, home to Truman College.
Jan Schakowsky, U.S. Congresswoman
I’ve never met someone who is living in our building. “Is there someone really living here? Are we alone? Never. I said, “That’s impossible.” Most of the time I try for the first time to say, “Hello,” but they don’t answer. That’s so hard to believe. People in my country in the neighborhood where I live, every morning you will say, “Hi,” to more than hundreds of people. You will meet everybody first in the street, just raise your and or say, “Hi,” and keep going and everybody knows everybody or least they try. You don’t feel alone. There is no loneliness [in Burkina Faso]. None at all. You are always surrounded by people you know.
If I think of my daughter, try to understand this. I would like her to study here but to live over there because I love my culture, I love my country, I love how parents grow up their children over there. When you are here and you see that parents are always working or somewhere else, and several times you have to take your children to other people to take care of them. I think that sense of family and parenthood and all that, it’s kind of secondary. But in our country, whew, since a child is born and starts breast-feeding and is always with their parents and everything. I think the education of childrens is better in my country ’cause that sense of family and respect and all that stuff.
March 30th. We landed at O’Hare. It was already 5:00 at night, getting dark and all my husband’s relatives were inside the building, and Boris, also. Oh, my goodness. It was hugness! I was almost dead. I thought that I was dreaming. Hugness, laughness, tears, smileness. They touched me and they touched my family like we were not here, just the shape of us is here. Boris said, “You’re here, you’re here!” 200 percent we knew it was for good.
I wrote extensive, large, huge letter to my family explaining everything, but I say, “You know what, I am buying at the Aldi [supermarket]. This is very, very cheap place. I don’t know why people doesn’t like to buy here. It’s the same food that’s in the Jewel[supermarket]. It is excellent. It is good. I will buy there forever.” And I say, “The Family Dollar. Oh, this is fantastic. For one dollar you can buy very good things here.”
Now I don’t know how long I have been in this Aldi or this Family Dollar. Now I hate these places [Laughs.] because the quality is not the same. I have learned that the things that are cheap are no good….At the beginning I have to buy my shoes at the Payless Shoes. Now, I don’t buy any shoes at Payless Shoes. Now my shoes have to be no less than $40 or $60.
[I was a] waitress. To waitress where I have to heat the food, pizza, or strudel, take the order and take the money, too. And then it really was hard. I didn’t know the English… The worst of all was one guy get there asking me something, and I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. And then he said to me, “Can you find somebody that speak English!?” But in a way like you were [dirt].
I didn’t answer…But the way I look at him, I was showing how much I hate him. And in myself I was thinking, “Yes, I don’t speak English, this is true, but how many languages do you speak? What is your degree? Who are you? I don’t speak language, but I’m not stupid” But I didn’t say nothing. I only look at him all the time until he sit down. And when he left, I still keep my eyes on him and I look to let him know what my feeling was about him.
The American dream for me is leave many things which you have in your country. Maybe a good life. American dream is leave many things, many friends, many good times, is work a lot, is feel many times frustrated. That is for me the American dream.
What I think is to be immigrant—what an immigrant feel, only an immigrant can really understand. But really, when you know that you are closing the door you have behind, it is closed, and you are opening a door that you doesn’t know what is in front of you, you doesn’t know your destiny, it is really hard, really hard. You have to change the way you think sometimes. You have to change some of your culture. You’re obligated to change. Not everything. I don’t mean you have to Americanize, but I mean you have to make a lot of change. And it is really hard. Everybody are not so lucky like us…
I think we sometimes work harder than the Americans because we have to jump many barriers. The barrier of language, the barrier of culture. We didn’t, for example, never before knew about taxes or credit card, or nothing like that. We have to learn. When you are a boy, you have five years to learn the basic language. When you are immigrant, you don’t have any years. You have to come here and you have to start speak if you want to survive…The immigrant doesn’t have time…I think many people can get so stressed and so depressed…Maybe the people that was before very fun, or happy, or very nice, they can get angry, sad, until they suicide. We have to think that an immigrant usually, I think, 95 percent are depressed. And I’m very conservative because we sometimes are depressed, too. They feel that they are not human, that somebody’s better than you and you are nothing.
I remember sometimes at the time I used to go to bed in Cuba, I was so, so, so hungry that I got a pain in my stomach and I couldn’t sleep. And I told Pilar, “Pilar, you know what? I am so hungry that the pain is killing me.”
And Pilar told me, “You know what? There is nothing to eat, so go and drink a little water with sugar and there is nothing more.” And in this country, a homeless has $5 to go to McDonald’s or Denny’s or whatever. Even I don’t understand now, I couldn’t understand before, and I won’t understand in the future how come in this country there are people homeless. Because here if you got a job, even the worst job, $5 and hour, you can live, because we did it. Without English, without anything. So how come American people can be homeless?
Let’s not talk about immigrants. Let’s talk about in general all the people. You can’t judge anybody just for the appearance or the color of skin or the nationality. Or you can’t judge anybody for the money they have. You have to go a little more behind the rags the banker can have on, or maybe a little more than the blond and the pretty eyes. You have to go to the person, not the body or the appearance. You have to go for the person because everybody has a lot pf story behind, and you don’t know why the person is here, what circumstances of his life brought him here. And maybe you have to think that maybe you can be in that position sometime because the life, you don’t know where you are going to end. In my country there is an ancient saying that, “You don’t spit to the sky because sometime it come back to you.” No escupas al cielo porque te puede caer a ti mismo. So, you can’t judge anybody, so you are not going to be judged. Well, I think this is it.
I’m not going to say I’m Haitian only. I’m Mardocheé Jean Charles. I feel everywhere I go is my country, I can live. Even if someone wanna send me to Africa, I’m not gonna have any problems to go there, because I’m gonna live anyway. I’m a person and the world is for everybody. It’s not Haiti for me and U.S. for you. I’m Haitian because my culture, my country, but I’m not gonna say, “I’m Haitian,” like I wanna be just Haitian. I’m a man in the world.
The people talk about the freedom, but the people do not understand exactly what is freedom. You have to stay in a freedom place, but it’s important that the other countries, the other place have to be freedom, too. If not, you never will be freedom. If the people there don’t have a good country, a good life, they come here to damage you. I think Americans need to learn about that. For me, I understand that more. I know the bad countries. I know the freedom countries. And I know what the people think about that. You cannot be free if the others is not free. This is the situation.
Every day was just a hustle day. At times you got one meal at night. The war just disrupted the economy and everything and hunger was all over. To get a meal is very hard, too. Even you have the money, but you can’t get it. If you got one meal, you can stay until the next day. But mostly with the kids what happened was we have those trees like mango trees and you just go and hustle on your own and get something. If you get one or two, you eat it and you drink water. That’s how survival was because if you depend on the meal at home, you’re not gonna survive on it because it was hard to come by…And sometimes you walk miles to go in the bush and find some fruit and take some, eat it, and come back home. It was just survival. That’s it. It was not eat and enjoy. We were going to school sometimes, sometimes not, because even sometimes you don’t want to go to school because you’re hungry. And at that time, nothing get in your head. You’re thinking about when you’re gonna get a meal today.
I started as a steward [at the Hyatt Regency]. You wash dishes basically on the machine. We got a big machine I never seen before. [Laughs.]
I think what I learned from that was that it was so hard for me to look at that and waste food actually. I didn’t want to do that, but it’s part of the job. I just think if I could have a way to feed people back there with all this food, I would have done it. But there is no way that you can do that. But there is so much food that is wasted in most of the hotels in the United States. It’s not given to anybody. Even some food comes back and nobody touched it and it’s your job, it’s your duty. You have to waste it. You can’t do nothing with that. So that was a difficult thing. Sometimes I would just look at the food and stare at it and think, “How many people will this save at this time?”
I got my ID card. I got my social security, everything. Just a funny thing I remember. I went to get my driver’s license. And usually in the back of the license they ask you agree to donate your organs. And I was new. I was here like one month. I tried to get my driver’s license. And the guy ask me, “Do you want to give your organ?” Something like that.
And I didn’t know organ means also tissue. I thought organ means, “Can you play organ?” [Laughs.]
I said, “What is relation between driving and playing organ? Why is he asking me?” I said, “I cannot play organ.”
He told me, “Oh, we cannot give you driver’s license then!” [Laughs.] He just teasing me. He said, “You cannot do any playing? Nothing? Guitar? Anything?”
I said, “No.” [Laughs.]