Harrisites share their stories of immigrating to the USA

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In a heated debate about the Dream Act in his US Government class, a student described his own experiences as an immigrant, to which the class replied in a surprised clamor, “You’re an immigrant?”

When you hear the word “immigrant” today, it is usually in the context of a political debate over its legality. What people fail to realize is that immigration isn’t simply a political issue; it is a difficult process that all of our ancestors, at some point, have gone through. For some Townsend Harris students, immigration isn’t in their family’s distant history; it’s part of their personal experience.

The Townsend Harris community is known for being especially diverse, with the student population consisting of 6% African Americans, 13% Hispanics, 1% Multi Racial, 56% Asian, and 24% White students. Overall, 49% of all students speak secondary languages at home.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 720,177 people obtained legal permanent resident status in 1995. This number increased to 1,062,040 people in 2011.

With diversity so prevalent throughout the halls of THHS, one begins to wonder how these statistics apply to the student body.

There are different types of immigrants. Second generation immigrant children are US born children with one or more foreign-born parents. First generation immigrant children are foreign born children with foreign-born parents. Those students that fall under the first generation immigrant category carry more than just their Latin textbooks through the halls of Townsend; they carry a personal story of their transition into American life.

Senior Jaime Abbariao said, “Well, I was born in the Philippines where I spent seven years. Then, I moved to Singapore where I have the most memories of my childhood. Finally when I was 13, I moved to New York. The reason I moved from country to country was my parent’s work. My dad moved to Singapore first, then the rest of the family came along after a year. After a good six years, we moved to America. There were two reasons for why we moved to America. In Singapore, since we held citizenship, my brother and I had to serve in the mandatory military service when we turn 19. My parents didn’t want that to happen so we moved to America. The other reason was again work related.”

“I believe that school in Singapore is much harder compared to American schools excluding THHS,” Jaime continued. “In Singapore, they ranked their students according to test scores and would be placed accordingly in classes A-J. In each class, they would also be ranked among their peers. This caused a lot of stress in the students to get better grades so that they can avoid being bullied or thought of as stupid. Entrance exams to secondary schools were based on how high one scores on the PSLE, which is the equivalent to the SHSAT, but the student doesn’t really get a choice to which school they are accepted. This test, however, is unlike the SHSAT. It covers most biology, chemistry, and physics. The mathematics portion varies from year to year, but usually involves algebra. These exams are taken by sixth graders nationwide. So when I moved to America, it was a drastic change for me. I was relearning topics I covered one or two years back,” Jaime continued.

Junior Mateusz Chrobak recalled his experience as an immigrant, saying, “I came to the United States from Poland in 2002; I was 6 years old while my brother was 8 and my sister was 1 1/2 years old. When I lived in Poland my dad was often away from home in order to work abroad in countries like Austria and Germany. When my parents found out they won the lottery for a green card, they risked everything and we came here, and now we are all U.S. citizens through naturalization.”

Students’ stories varied, for each of their immigrations were ignited by a different force.

Senior Teodora Maftei said, “Luckily we won the lottery visa back in Romania so we were able to leave but that meant selling all our possessions to have enough money. My parents had no connections in America so the first few years were very rough since they barely knew enough English to decently communicate with others.”

“I immigrated from Russia to America at the age of 4,” said sophomore Igor Portnoi. “Although in the area of Russia I lived in my mom was famous for her musical talent, she was still discriminated against for being Jewish. There used to be signs on the apartment where my family lived in saying ‘We don’t want Jews’ and so then we moved to America with my family.”

Senior Katie Kang said, “Well I came here from Korea when I was 9 and I specifically remember crying because I didn’t want to leave my friends. I thought of it as more of a trip. I loved plane rides so that was a plus. My parents wanted me to get another perspective in life I guess. It wasn’t really because of education or a job, my family just moved.”

After the physical process of immigrating here, the next challenge for these students was the transition into American life.

“I was born in South Korea,” said senior Yerim Jee. “I finished 1st grade there as well, until I immigrated to New York. I started school here during the middle of 2nd grade, and went to ESL class to learn English since I had that language barrier. I could say that I initially had trouble in the beginning of my years in America in terms of language and difference of culture, but I think the experience of blending into another culture was a bit easier for me than for others because of New York’s diversity. I had many friends from different parts of the world when I first came here, as well as Korean friends who helped me cope with the language barrier. People were more understanding. I am glad that I had immigrated here around the age of 9 because although I was not completely set and established in one culture, I was still hugely influenced by my Korean background from my birth. Therefore, I was able to incorporate American culture into my being as well as hold onto my Korean background. I especially enjoy being able to speak both languages fluently.”

Junior Kseniya Davydova said, “Transitioning was hard. I remember I hated America at first because I didn’t understand English, I hated American food and everyone was so diverse. But then I obviously assimilated and now I’m a proud member of the American society.”

Senior Anna Parashak recalled, “It was tough at first, my parents had a hard time since they didn’t know English, and even though basically my father’s entire family lives here in New York, we didn’t really get help. I still remember our first apartment back in Jamaica, we couldn’t even afford beds. We slept on a mattress on the floor, there was no heating and it was really dirty. Eventually, we moved out and into my current apartment building, and I guess from there things got easier.”

Andreea Birtan, senior, said, “I was born in Romania but I first came here when I was about 2, although I immigrated here when I was 7. It wasn’t that difficult for me coming into 2nd grade having gone to school in Romania because I already knew English so the language barrier wasn’t an issue. People didn’t even realize that I was an immigrant, so I was treated just like everyone else. I guess reading and writing were the hardest subjects to adapt to considering they weren’t in my native language, but math was really easy because the curriculum in Romania was a lot harder, and it took about a year for me to learn something new in math class. I wouldn’t say I appreciate America more than most because I still have strong cultural ties, but I am glad the government is far less corrupt here, and I like how culturally diverse my environment is.”

Assisant Principal of Humanities, Rafal Olechowski, discussed his experiences as well. “ I came here when I was 16 years old from Poland. I initially came here to stay with my sister , and ended up staying here. I went to Forest Hills High School, where I was part of an eight semester ESL program, which I finished in a semester and a half. The transition was easy because in America everything is just better and nicer, but it was also demanding in that I didn’t know anyone, I didnt have any money or friends, and I barely knew English. I viewed this as an opportunity; for once school emphasized what I can do, as opposed to what I cannot do. What really helped me was that I didn’t isolate myself to only Polish friends, I surrounded myself with English speakers and I really learned a lot from just being in that environment.”

Mateusz later continued by saying, “I guess being an immigrant I don’t really feel that it is harder on me because I was young when I came. I can see it is harder for my parents though because it is not as easy for them to master the language. Coming here I was raised at home to always remember and honor my native culture and language, to always be proud of my roots. Meanwhile, outside of school I was influenced by the American culture and society. Due to my young age I learned to find a balance between the two. My parents, however, came here as adults and did not adjust to the American way of life as easily. In that sense it is harder being an immigrant, but that can be said for anybody who moves. I think I appreciate America more than others because I distinguish the opportunities that are available for me here, to which I would otherwise not be exposed. My dad always tells me and my siblings that he wants us to take advantage of school and to get a good education in order to be better off than he is right now. This is my goal, and as a result I appreciate the opportunities before me.”