and all that jazz.....

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I came to the US from Germany in 2000 to study jazz, an American art form. I am now a permanent resident. I found the whole visa process emotionally and economically taxing--paying immigration lawyers,and not knowing whether I could stay in the country. Long term planning was not possible. After obtaining the Green Card, New York felt more like home, although even that can still be taken away. 

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Also, finding an identity between two countries, my home and my chosen home, is a challenge. Recognizing traits of my origin country country of origin in me, good and bad, is sometimes the source of frustration and embarrassment. For example when I feel like my actions confirm common stereotypes about Germans, for example when I am very punctual and people are not.  To me, time is important and being on time can say a lot about a person. At the same time, realizing that the positive parts of my cultural heritage can add to the immigrant experience in the US is a great feeling. All this shapes our identities and is something we often deal with after the initial struggle of finding work, a decent living situation, and a social circle.

My advice is not to forget that you came here because you thought that you will have a happier life here than in your home country. For me this has been a sustaining source of strength, knowing that I can realize my potential in my professional field here better than at home helps me in the face of adversities adversity,and difficulties dealing with the system.

Ecuador, of my heart!!

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Maria Elena - NY via Ecuador

I come from Quito, a town high up in the Andes, whose name means ray of light.  

The city is alive, it is dirty, busy, always with an energy. Maybe because Pichinca (the volcano that overlooks our city) often spit out smoke, or maybe because the earth shakes with the earthquakes that travel the coast, or maybe, as my mother says, with the happiness of being Quechua....

When I think of home, I think of food..... my mother would make a large tub, yes tub, of ceviche each month.  We would come from school and eat a small bowl, stuffed with fish and popcorn, and if my dad was around, chifles (fried plantain chips). Even now, when I taste it, I am taken right back to Quito, to the Avenida de los Amazones, to El Bosque and to my home. Here is the recipe I use...

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ingredients

  • 1 lb of white fish, cubed (Tilapia, bass, corvina)
  • 1/2 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped into small pieces
  • 1 pepper (yellow or green)
  • 10 limes, 5 are for the juice and 5 for marinate
  • small bunch of cilantro, chopped finely
  • 2 tablespoons of oil
  • salt & pepper to taste

 

Ready?

Put the raw fish and shrimp into a glass dish and soak with half the lime juice and salt. Cover with plastic to seal the flavor. Refrigerate for about 4 hours.

Add the chopped tomato, onions, cilantro and peppers to another dish, adding the remaining lime juice. Let this dish marinate for an hour or more.

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The marinate 'cooks' the fish in dish one, infusing it with delicious flavor. After you remove it from the fridge, drain the lime juice, as it can be very sour and acidic.

Add the fish to the other marinade of onions, peppers and lime. Add salt and a little oil to your own tasting.

Serve cold with chifles or unsalted popcorn, and enjoy!!

 

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My Shakshuka (or ‘how I learned to stretch my food’)

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For 10 years, I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and worked in the kitchen of the communal dining hall.  That is where I learned to cook a lot of really good food, and where I also learned to ‘stretch’ my food.  We didn’t have a lot of money when we lived in Israel.  And we certainly didn’t have a lot of money when we first immigrated to the United States.  So, we had to learn how to adapt ingredients to make our food go from feeding 2 people to feeding 5 people (in my case), or from feeding 50 people to feeding 100 (as in the case of the communal dining hall!)

Shakshuka is a Middle Eastern dish, and  it is one of the most beloved foods in Israel.  Traditional shakshuka is made with vegetables and eggs, sometimes meat.  But to make our shakshuka last longer, to stretch out the recipe to feed many people and to fill our tummies, we add rice to the recipe.  Because rice fills you up and is less expensive than meat, it is the perfect choice for ‘stretching’ this delicious dish.

 

 

Ingredients

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  • 2 medium onions (sliced)
  • 1 green pepper (sliced)
  • 4-5 medium tomatoes (sliced)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Hot pepper (optional)
  • Garlic
  • ½ cup rice
  • Eggs

 

How to Make Shakshuka

 

In a large skillet, stew the onions and pepper in olive oil

Add the garlic (make sure not to burn it)

Add the tomatoes and salt (to taste)

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Cook until the tomatoes are soft

Add the rice and let it cook in the vegetable juices, until soft

Crack the eggs on top of the shakshuka

Bake at 400 degrees F until the eggs are  cooked to your liking

Enjoy!!

 

A taste of home

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A taste of home

Being an immigrant is a wonderful thing; you belong in two places at once, sometimes more.  However, that doesn't mean that you don't have moments when you miss the country you were raised in.  Homesickness is a real thing, and for many immigrants the option to return to their home to visit doesn't exist.

When you leave your country, often you leave behind things that are special to you, heirlooms or trinkets that hold memories.  Still, recipes take next to no room in your luggage, recipes can be stored in your memory and passed down through the generations.

So, what is an immigrant to do when they are homesick? For many people, food plays a prominent part in bringing your country into your new home.

Every two weeks, we shall feature recipes from our staff and students that remind them of home. They will share the delicious foods that evoke a sense of calm and belonging.  Perhaps you will feel inspired to cook some of the recipes, bringing their world into your kitchen.

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Time to bake!

First up, we have our founder, Caroline, from the UK:

"Despite what people think, British food is wonderful, or at least some of it!  Whenever I think of home, or I am homesick, I long for certain foods.  I'll make foods with funny names such as Toad in the Hole, or Bubble & Squeak.  These foods that evoke a taste of Sundays for me.  They were comfort foods that were eaten with family in winters.  

Shortbread is definitely comfort food, originating in Scotland, it makes me think of the Highlands and Islands of my ancestors. So when I am homesick, I will often make a batch of homemade shortbread biscuits (or cookies).  Today I made flavored biscuits, one chocolate chip, and the other lavender. 

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Here is the simple recipe:

  • 4 oz of butter (125g)

  • 2 oz of caster sugar (55g)

  • 6 oz plain flour (180g)

  • flavoring (Lavender) 

  • Chocolate chips

 

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  • Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C
  • First, mix the sugar and butter together until you have a smooth paste.
  • Slowly stir in the flour.  (I prefer to use my hands to mix.)
  • Split the dough in two.  In the first, add chocolate chips.  In the second, add Lavender flavoring, and coloring if desired (I use red & purple.) 
  • Roll the dough and cut into the size and shape you want.  As shortbread is quite rich, I favor smaller biscuits.
  • Sprinkle with sugar.  Place in the fridge and chill for about 15 minutes.
  • After 15 minutes, bake the cookies for approximately 15 minutes.  Check the cookies after 10 minutes.  I prefer for my shortbread to be a little soft, but some people prefer it harder.
  • Chill and serve with a lovely cup of tea!
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A sense of home.....

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We were driving somewhere. All that we could do was look out the windows at the other cars, the streets, bus stops and people. Mom took a deep sigh and said “This is not your home. You are not from here.”

This scenario played out multiple times in my childhood. In many ways, directly and indirectly, my mother would assert that we came from “back home.” She never even said “Africa.” Back home to me was this far away, inaccessible land where she left her happiness. She told me she used to be one of the fastest people in her village. She told me how the women could dance in ways to make your jaw drop. The food. The music. The air. The beauty. Whenever she talked about “back home” she smiled the most I ever saw. Then she stopped, almost immediately and sighed. Sometimes it seemed like she waited for me to leave so she could cry.

Because of my mother’s assertions, I believed I too, was not American. I didn’t understand the concept of nationality beyond that I am where my mother is from. I grew up with a false sense of ethnicity and belonging that filled me with pride and a strong sense of self.

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It took me many years to critically evaluate who I was. I was Black and Indian. My Indian mother and her Indian parents were born in East Africa. Grandfather from Tanzania. Grandmother from Kenya. My mom was born and raised in Kampala. Although she ate choka and curries and spoke Gujarati, she was also fluent in Swahili. 

In 1972, when the Adi Amin regime tortured and expelled the South Asian community, my mother and her family ran for their lives. She was only 15 years old. After living as a refugee in Austria they were sponsored by a church to enter the United States. She was multilingual but she refused to speak English for some time. She was stubborn, too smart for her own good and got in a lot of trouble in school. 

She probably feared that assimilation meant the death of her identity and she held on strongly to it, putting her past on an unrealistic pedestal. Eventually she met married my father. They divorced and my mom raised my brother and I as a single mother.

How many of us would be able to leave the USA and live somewhere else for the rest of our lives without missing it in some way…never really tasting the authentic food (no matter how bad it is for us) nor hearing the voices, seeing the mannerisms, and the small day to day symbols of our culture and society?

When I met other 2nd generation youth and their parents I noticed a major difference. Their families were much more well-adjusted to society and had completely different outlooks. I could see that on the other hand, my mother was deeply affected losing her home at a young age. When I researched it more, I discovered the serious psychological impact many refugees face fleeing war and political persecution which makes their experiences very different from immigrants who willingly choose to move somewhere to attain a better life. I know that this is one of the reasons she has a fear of planes and has never traveled outside of the US and Canada since she came in the 70s.

My mother’s deep sadness has always been the backdrop of my childhood memories. There were times, however, where she was different. Once when we were driving she saw a mother at the bus-stop with her children with many bags. My mom made a U-turn and called her from the window. She insisted the woman get in. We drove her to a shelter and my mom stepped out of the car and gave her money.  Another time, I remember scooting over while several children got in the back seat with me. My mother tried speaking to their Hispanic mother in broken English until we were able to get them to their destination. She never said a word about it afterwards. Growing up, every day when I came home from school and passed our dining room table which was unusable because of all the gifts she received from her patients in the hospital. She turned her deep longing into acts of kindness for others in need, but she never said a word about it.

I spoke with her on the phone the other day and heard her talk about retirement for the first time. “What will I do now?” she said. She started crying “Where the Hell am I going to go?”

 I shouted at her, “Mom this great!” 

“Finally!” I said.  I had to get the words out. I was alone in the house but I worried someone would interrupt me in that moment. I shouted, like my life depended on it…

“You could go back! You could go back mom.”

She stopped crying. 

Twice as nice!

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I’ve been lucky enough to experience the amazing feeling of adopting a new country as my homeland twice in my life.  My family immigrated to the United States from Israel when I was six years old.  I was too young to fully process the experience, but I do remember being afraid to speak this new language (and what a funny alphabet!), and the overwhelming sense of loneliness when I couldn’t find my older sister at recess on the first day of school. 

I remember my parents struggling to make our new American life as easy and comfortable as possible for me, my sister, and my brother, while they struggled to learn the language, integrate into the culture, and make ends meet.  But we made it through!  We made friends, learned the language, and were ultimately accepted wholly and unconditionally into American life.  I love the fact that, thirty-five years later, as I interview her about her immigrant experience, my mother confidently tells me that she is a proud Israeli and a very proud American citizen to boot.

I moved to Colombia straight after college and decided to make that country my home for the following eight years.  The experience of being an immigrant at the age of 22 was very different from that of being a 6-year-old immigrant, but I will never forget how warmly I was accepted into every part of Colombian culture and life.  That feeling will stay with me forever.

This is what I want immigrants and refugees new to the United States to experience.  I want them to feel the warmth and acceptance that I felt as an immigrant, both in the United States and Colombia.  I know that the least we can do as a country is to extend the same courtesy and love to others that was extended to us.

Dreamers...

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My name is Angeles, and I am a Dreamer.  Such a weird name, I mean, don't all 20 year-olds dream?  I came to the US when I was two, and I really had no idea that we were undocumented. It wasn't until I needed my social security number to get a job that my mom explained it.   My life is not easy, but I love it. My friends are awesome and so are my teachers.  The current world, however, isn't.  My family is from El Salvador. Mom was the only survivor of violence in her town.  She gave up everything to bring me here.  She didn't care about papers, in the sense that she only cared about safety.  She worked all the hours she could so that I could have the same clothes, the same experience as my peers.  She encouraged and supported me to register with DACA.  It isnt an easy process to get this status-- you have to be better than everyone.  I am not, but I am good, I didn't act up and I didn't do bad stuff because that was dangerous.  

FeLT helped me with my college applications, I wanted them to stand out, but I didn't want to tell anyone from school about my dreams to be a teacher, I wanted to prove I could do it alone.  I did, I applied and was accepted to my first choice school.

I am in college now, and I am training to be a teacher, I want to help kids in the same way that my teachers helped me.  But now I don’t even know if I will graduate. I feel unmotivated.  Why do I bother, when all of this, the cost of study, the friends I make, the future I am building, can be ripped away from me? I have no answers.  I hope someone does.

 

A new home in America.

I didn't choose America. My home was in at war and many people died.  I wanted to stay in Africa. My country is so beautiful it caresses my heart.  We left in the middle of the night and travelled with one bag.  I have 6 children, and they learned not to cry.  Crying is dangerous. It took four years. We went to 3 countries before America.  

Then America said yes, so they brought us, and put us in NYC.  The American people are so nice to us. My children learned again to love and be loved.  

Then it changed.  People look at me and see that I am Muslim, they look and say 'you are a terrorist-- but I am not, I am a victim of terrorism.  Terrorists killed my people, they burned my home.  I know terrorism and I hate terrorism.  I want an American life. I want my children to know it is ok to be free.

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My journey from teenage immigrant to Literacy teacher!

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I came to the US right after finishing high school in my native Taiwan.  My father always had the plan for me to finish education abroad as he thought the US education system would be more well-rounded than that back home. I was lucky as I did not have to go through some of the complicated and grueling immigration processes some have to go through. My father had taken care of most of my paperwork for me over the years. It's what came after that was difficult.

Adjusting to a whole new culture and starting everything  new at that age was not easy. I had to find my own identity and my own voice among my new peers. I had to make new friends in a new country, all the while trying to overcome language and culture barriers.

It was a lonely journey and very tough at times but the experience as an immigrant makes me strong and compassionate.The diversity of this country, especially here in NYC, makes the whole process especially rewarding. I am constantly meeting and learning from people from all over the world. 

Also, be open to seeing cultural differences as a chance to expand your own value system, and at the same time bring in the aspects from your home culture that you feel strongly about. Be a part of the constant renewal of our social environment in an effort to make it more diverse and more human.

Now, I teach Literacy, I help immigrants when they arrive.  It feels good to pay it forward, or should I say, to extend the hand that was extended to me.

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Confessions of a First Time Volunteer!

Ever since FeLT was formed, I have admired its mission. In a time when many immigrants feel unwelcome and even frightened, I have wanted to add my voice as an American to the chorus of caring, openhearted people who empathize with the difficulties of getting settled and assimilating into another culture.

Yet, I was nervous and afraid. I’m not proud to admit it, but I had never volunteered for anything! Plus, I am very shy around strangers. I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to offer. But here is the thing:

Once upon a time, that was my grandmother!

 

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In 1940, she fled with my grandfather and my infant mother from wartime Belgium, coming to this country not knowing the language or the customs. Then as now, immigrants and refugees were not exactly welcomed with open arms by many in America. But my life as an American would not have been possible without her courage and perseverance. I take my secure status as a citizen for granted, but a generation ago my family were strangers in a strange land too. So with that in mind, I told myself that if these women today can have the courage to show up and learn, reach for a better life, surely I can overcome a little shyness and see if there’s anything I can do to make their journey easier. 

So, biting my lip with trepidation, I hopped on a subway and headed to an East Harlem school to meet my dear friend Caroline, who created this organization. I hadn’t stepped foot inside a school in ages. It was a little disorienting and I felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what I would find, or if I had the tools to help.

One by one the students filed in. Women in hijab, one even in a full veil. Some women who spoke maybe ten words of English, and some who were further along. Some younger than me, some older, but with shy smiles and determination in their demeanor. I wondered how I appeared to them, a freckle-faced Jew with tattoos and uncovered hair. We exchanged names, settled in, and got to work. Caroline led the class with so much energy and skill, and all I had to do was be an echo, someone they could practice with, correct pronunciation or just cheer on. There were laughs and frustrations and moments of “ah-ha!” It was exhilarating. I learned who was confident, and who was hesitant, and felt so much compassion and desire to bring everyone into the lesson. The time flew. I even learned a word or two of Arabic!

Afterward, I wasn’t so sure if I’d done a great job. I felt like maybe I’d gotten more out of the experience than the students. But then we received an email from one of the women in the class. She said, “Thank you to the friendly smiling teachers with beautiful souls.” Even if I accomplished nothing else that first day, I was a friendly face to someone who needed it.

It was my first, but it won’t be my last time volunteering!

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