Immigration: The American Story

Editor’s Note: Some students’ names have not been used for privacy concerns.

Canal in Ottawa, Canada where Janet Dibbs skated with her friends in the winter. Photo courtesy of Tourist Destinations.

“Different is different, it’s not bad, it’s just different. Immigrants may talk differently, eat differently, it doesn’t mean they are bad, it just means they are different” – Janet Dibbs

Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, in the 1970’s, Janet Dibbs, a current Richmond resident and mother of Gillian Laming (‘17), had a very similar childhood to many Collegiate students. She would walk to her neighborhood school every day, where she would take classes much like Collegiate’s, including the five core courses of math, English, foreign language, history, and science. After school she would go to sports games, like basketball or boys volleyball, though she did not play any sports because, “sports were just not that big of a deal.” On most days, though, she would just hang out or go home and do homework after school. After graduating from Waterloo University and the University of Western Ontario and working for General Electric in Toronto, Dibbs was transferred to Connecticut around 1993 while in her mid-thirties and eventually moved to Richmond, Virginia.

“Canada and America are about as close as two countries can possibly be, but when I came down here, I felt so much like a stranger.” -Janet Dibbs

On November 25, 2014, Upper School English teacher Vlastik Svab shared his family’s immigrations story in a speech during Collegiate Upper School’s Thanksgiving assembly, describing how thankful he was for his parents’ sacrifices that allowed their family to come to America. On September 26, 1981, Svab (age five), as well as his sister, mother, and father landed in America. His parents planned in secret their way to escape the heavily restricted country, having to plan only outside their apartment in fear that it was bugged. Using the black market and familial connections, his family was able to get travel documents and foreign currency for their “vacation” to Austria. They traveled to Vienna in the summer of 1981 and in the fall, left for Columbus, Ohio to stay with extended family. When the four arrived, they had only $400, two suitcases, and knew very little English.

“We assumed we’d never see Prague again, or our extended family, for they were being questioned by the secret police, and my parents were tried and convicted in absentia for treason in Czechoslovakia. If they had changed their minds and gone back, they would have gone to prison.” -Vlastik Svab

Harry F. Byrd Middle School. Photo courtesy of Cloud Front.

Like Dibbs and Svab, there many more immigrant stories, including those who have come to Richmond. Since 1970, the number of foreign-born Henrico residents has risen from 1% to over 11% in 2012. As a result of this mass migration, there are over 60 languages spoken at Henrico County’s Harry F. Byrd Middle School, located off of Quioccasin Road about five miles from Collegiate School. Students in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Byrd have varying English skills, depending on how long they have lived in America. Some students have lived in America for as long as a few years, while others just arrived in the past month, so the skill levels vary drastically. Upon enrollment at Byrd, the students take classes through the ESL program; however, once deemed proficient in English, they will take a few classes such as math, history, art, and science with the general Byrd population.

“The first day I was crying in school, like ‘Dad, dad, don’t go, don’t leave me here!’ and I wasn’t speaking any English.” –  7th grade Byrd student from Afghanistan

Coming to America from Afghanistan was a drastic change culturally and linguistically for one particular Byrd Middle School student with deep brown eyes and a love for watching American movies with her sister. Growing up, she lived in a big city with her parents, sister, grandfather and grandmother in house that was “big and it was kind of gloomy but it was [their] own house.” Like Byrd Middle School, she says “my school was [teaching] us English, too. It was big, and the teachers were [teaching] different [subjects] from here. It was one teacher and she was teaching all the classes. They were teaching us how to say things like ‘apple’ and ‘Hi’ but it still helped [when coming to America].” She came to America “because [her] dad was working with people from here and because there was fighting.”

Afghanistan War (2001-2014). Photo courtesy of Nation of Change.

From 1838 to the present day, Afghanistan has been influenced and at times controlled by other countries, including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and United States. In 1996, an extremist group called the Taliban took control of major Afghan cities, including the capital Kabul, instating a radicalized version of Islam that banned women from work and introduced ancient punishments for crimes, including stoning and amputation. Intervention by United Nations and United States troops attempted to suppress the expanding powers of both the Taliban and al-Quaeda, focusing mostly on capturing leader Osama bin Laden, resulting in a war that has killed nearly 26,000 civilian deaths since 2001. The Byrd student remembers,“When I was in my country, I wouldn’t sleep in my room [because I was afraid].”

Another Byrd Middle School student, a 13-year-old girl from Egypt who loves reading and wants to be a doctor and lawyer, attended a school very similar to her classmate’s school in Afghanistan. After school she would change, eat, do her homework, and play outside. She says, “We had this little outside [area] where it was so beautiful, and we spent our time just playing there… when it was hot, there was a tree of [guava fruit] we would eat.” She lived in a spacious house with her mom, dad, sister, and brother. Before the political turmoil, she remembers, “We used to put beds outside and sleep.” However, “everything changed when the president [took office] and people were fighting.”

Muslim Brotherhood Uprising in Cairo, Egypt. Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

Egypt has suffered from political unrest since 1981, when President Anwar as-Sadat was assassinated, but most recently hit a breaking point in June of 2010 when the Muslim Brotherhood did not win seats in parliament, allegedly due to election rigging. Protests lead to the end of President Ben Ali and President Mubarak’s administrations, and the Army Council took control of Egypt. After a year of protests and parliamentary elections, Islamist parties hold parliamentary seats, ending the state of emergency which existed for over thirty years. The Egyptian student came to America because of the unrest, but also she says, “I came here because it was my mom and dad’s dream to be in America because they [were from Sudan] and came to Egypt to get us a better education and then to America to get us a better education.”

“I spoke the same language and I looked like everybody else; [transitioning to life in America] should have been seamless, and it was not at all. I was really surprised at how different it felt being down here.”- Janet Dibbs

Coming to America from Canada, Janet Dibbs quickly realized that while there was no language barrier, there was a clear cultural divide between herself and Americans. “Everybody talks about their colleges, and everybody talks about sports. So if you didn’t go to college in the states, and if you don’t know anything about sports, all of the sudden you don’t have anything to talk about.” Svab remembers, “My sister and I were thrown into American elementary school, and we had to learn English quickly and navigate this new society.” America was very different from Czechoslovakia, and Vlastik’s parents had to work hard to find jobs. They were both engineers, but were only able to find jobs initially as dishwashers and box loaders, making it difficult to support their family. Similarly, the Byrd students felt as though language was their biggest difficulty coming to America. The Egyptian student remembers, “I just knew like [how to say] ‘hi.’ I kind of understood what they were saying I just didn’t know what to say back.”

After school, the two Byrd students attend a program called STAR, which stands for Strengthening Teens Academically and Recreationally, through the Tuckahoe YMCA. Through this mentorship program, high school and college students from around the Richmond area, including twelve Collegiate upperclassmen this past winter, help the Byrd students complete their homework, study, learn English, and teach them lessons on topics such as the nutrition and internet safety. Kate Kinder (‘17) says, “A lot of the kids are not strong in English and are having an extremely tough time with their school work. It is not uncommon to come across a kid who has a 30 in a class. While we cannot drastically improve their grades with twice-a-week meetings, we have seen their homework and overall comprehension of the material they are learning in school improve.” Kinder enjoys tutoring at Byrd for “selfish reasons,” saying, “I love talking and learning from the kids I work with and I love how each and everyone of them can make my tiresome day at school instantly brighter.”  Bobbie Edmonds (‘17) sums up the experience perfectly, saying, “What makes the STAR program special is that it is equal parts us helping the kids as it is the kids helping us.”

Protesters in Prague, Czechoslovakia just before the fall of communism, November 1990. Photo courtesy of Alamy.

“You will miss [home] after you leave it. You will realize it is important”- Egyptian student.

Janet Dibbs and the two Byrd students all miss their native countries greatly. Dibbs says, “I miss Canada all the time. Imagine what it is like to leave your home and everything that you grew up with and that you are familiar with is gone. Every time I go back to Canada and the plane lands, my heart flutters a little bit. I am an American citizen now, but Canada is home.” Svab’s family was initially unable to return to Czechoslovakia due to the charges against his family for their departure and the travel restrictions set in place by the Communist regime. Though, once the regime ended in 1990, the family returned to see their family and home. While Svab was very young while living in Czechoslovakia, visits from his grandparents to the U.S., “strengthened my bond to my heritage, and helped me keep the Czech language, which I am now trying to pass on to my son.” Similarly, it is more difficult for the Byrd students to visit their families. The Afghan student says, “[my first day in America,] I was crying and my grandpa and family [were still in Afghanistan], but one of my cousins is here.”

According to research done by Duke University, an average of 30% and 50% of skilled working Indian and Chinese immigrants respectively return to their native countries. Although immigrants often have a lower income upon returning, they feel as though their quality of life is better because being with friends and family.

“People these days forget that every single American was an immigrant at some point, and it was very recently for some people, three or four generations for other people, but every single person here is an immigrant who came because they wanted to improve their lives and I don’t think that is any different from the people who are coming here today.” -Janet Dibbs

Immigration to America between 1990 and 2008. Image courtesy of PBS.

Immigration has been a prominent topic in American history and politics, given that we are a nation built by immigrants. In recent political debates, fear has emerged from the different values of prospective immigrants and their close proximity to anti-American terror cells in their native countries. Most popular in media being the discussion of Syria and ISIS. However, many Americans do not know the steps that a refugee must take to come to America. This nine-step process checks the backgrounds and medical health of all refugees in the most thorough research of anyone attempting to come to the United States. Dibbs says, “[Allowing refuge of potentially dangerous refugees is] like a needle in the haystack. Is there one bad apple out of thousands of immigrants? Sure, but there is also a bad apple living around the corner living in your neighborhood… the vast majority of immigrants just want a better life, they want to get away from oppression, get away from the fears, the poverty, the lack of opportunity, and start fresh, and contribute, and make their lives and make this country a better place.”

2016 Republican Presidential candidates. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

“We’re not a country based on religion, or genetic or ethnic similarities. We’re a country based on ideals: democracy, freedom, and the ability to reinvent yourself. ” -Vlastik Svab

In recent presidential debates, many politicians, most notably Donald Trump, have verbalized strong stances against refugees and immigrants. He caters to the American fear regarding immigration; for example, when discussing Mexican immigration, Trump hopes to build a wall between Mexico and America for which the Mexican government will pay. He explains, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” According to the US Sentencing Commission, in 2013, 38.6% of primary offenses were perpetrated by immigrants, though 76% of these immigration law infractions. Immigrants held only 17.6% of of drug trafficking charges and 3.8% of sex abuse cases.

To break the fear regarding immigration and refugees, Dibbs encourages people to, “talk to an immigrant and get to know them personally and hear their story and realize they are a really good person and they really want to improve themselves and their family.”

To be more involved in the Richmond immigrant community, students can volunteer at the Tuckahoe YMCA STAR Program on Wednesdays and Thursdays to tutor students in English. For more information, contact the Tuckahoe YMCA. Students taking Spanish as their language course may also volunteer with Esperanza Soria-Nieto on Saturdays with the Oak-Grove Bellemeade school, tutoring lower schoolers in English and doing educational activities.

“In the 21st century, our country will continue to be more diverse and heterogeneous, and we should welcome those changes with open arms.” -Vlastik Svab

Feature image courtesy of E EUCLID Public Library.

About the author

Elizabeth Murphy is a junior at Collegiate.