My Immigration Story

by Sarah February 09, 2017

(me – 4th grade – Fall, 1977 – Australia)

I have lived in the United States for 40 years. I am a green card holder and in process of becoming a US citizen. Most people do not know this about me. On the surface I look and speak like any other American. I am married and have 2 children that were born and raised in this country. I am by birth, Australian. My family is all Australian and I only have one family member currently residing in the US – my step father; which is how I came to move to the US at the age of 10. He was and still is a scientist and at the point in his career when we moved to this country, he had exhausted all his opportunities for research and a Ph.D.. In order for him to continue and grow and make a difference in the science community he needed to make a shift and my mum, my sister and I followed him.

In some ways this is a story about love and following your heart as much as it is a story about the people that come into your life that are meant to teach you a lesson about that love and help you grow as a person.

We moved from Canberra, Australia (Canberra is the capital city much like Washington D.C.) to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois the home of University of Illinois in the fall of 1977. I remember sitting in the airport in Canberra saying goodbye to my family not realizing of course at the age of 10 that I would never live in my home country again. Our travel to the US took us to Sydney, Tahiti, and then Los Angeles where I experienced my first Sambos restaurant and a grilled cheese sandwich – the one with Kraft Singles – american cheese melted to perfection. I had never seen cheese like this before and was enamored with its color and texture. We visited Disneyland and stayed at a hotel where all the bushes were shaped like animals. As a 10 year old this was thrilling! After Disney we flew up the coast of California to San Francisco to visit my mum’s cousin. I instantly fell in love with the hills, the ocean, the cable cars and the fresh northern California air. I would not know until much later how significant this city would be in my life today. On a walk around Fisherman’s Wharf we stopped at a cart vendor selling sea shells and I purchased two cowrie shells. Those shells have followed my travels around the US and sit on the side of my sink in the bathroom as a reminder of moving to this country as a little girl.

(our first home in the United States – Orchard Downs, Urbana, Illinois)

Once we left San Francisco we arrived in Chicago at O’Hare International Airport. It was cold and dreary and grey much like Chicago is from November to May. It was bustling and loud and much different from anything I had ever seen before. After a short stop we boarded a small plane for a quick trip to Champaign. Exiting the plane was like entering a new world. Central Illinois was home to farmland – cows, corn and soy beans. To this day I cannot eat soy beans as the smell of them in that flat country air is too strong a reminder of the place I would spend the next 8 years of my life. My step father picked us up at the airport and drove us to our new home in faculty and student housing just south and east of the main university campus. The housing was a series of apartment buildings from the 1960’s. Our apartment was at the end of one of the buildings on the first floor. It was two bedrooms and I would be sharing a bedroom with my sister. There was no carpet in the apartment just linoleum floor that in the summer would flood because the neighborhood was constructed on swamp land. In addition, there were no laundry facilities in the apartment so my mom would walk two blocks to the laundry building each week to wash our clothes.

(my Australian home)

This was so different from where we lived in Australia. We had a house in suburban Canberra with 3 bedrooms and beautiful property that my mother had purchased as a single, working mother in the early 70’s. I think at how difficult it must have been for her – coming to a new country, a new culture so drastically different from what she was used to and unable to work because of her visa. But somehow she managed and made friends.

(1978 – Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School – Urbana, Illinois)
My friends and a family that still have such significance in my life today would be met through school. My first day, just a few days after arriving in Urbana, I would enter 5th grade. There were elementary schools close by to us but we were bused to an outlying black neighborhood north of the university. I along with friends from Japan, Israel, Zimbabwe, Australia and the US intermingled with students from the neighborhood and it did not seem to make a difference who we were or where we came from. I remember entering Mrs. Malone’s 5th grade classroom and being welcomed by students from all over the world. Somehow I was still very nervous because I was different. I had a very thick Australian accent and that made me feel uncomfortable. There was a sweet girl with beautiful brown hair that her mother would hand curl into the most incredible curls I had ever seen – she smiled at me and offered for me to sit next to her – we became fast friends and later that first day I would ride the bus back to our neighborhood with her. She lived with her mother and step father as well in another set of apartments just a few bus stops down the street from me. Together, my new friend Sonya and I would experience sushi, Halloween and learning about the Jewish culture from our Israeli friends. One of my favorite memories was ice skating together on the weekends and stopping for ice cream at Baskin Robbins before getting on the bus to go home. We would stand at the bus stop in 15 degree weather eating our favorite flavors Rainbow Sherbet and Mint Chocolate Chip on a sugar cone. Our parents became friends as well and shared a similar background of science and university life in Urbana.

As our family began to grow and we added another sibling – my brother, we moved into faculty housing and a 3 bedroom house. Sonya’s family moved as well and lived just down the street from us. I would spend many Saturday nights with them and was introduced to Saturday Night Live on their black and white television. We watched Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and John Belushi make light of American culture in the 70’s. We would have weekend sleepovers that consisted of listening to music, watching TV and singing songs while getting ready for bed. Sonya’s mom Linda would make us waffles, bacon and strawberries and fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast. Why I remember the breakfast is because she would heat the syrup so it was warm when we put it on our waffles. I had never known anyone to do this and I thought it was wonderful. We listened to Saturday Night Fever and Grease on her stereo and Linda, a librarian at the university, introduced me to American writers that added to my love of reading. Andre, her step father shared his love of art and watercolor paintings that I still receive today in a handwritten note each Christmas. My family now has dubbed it “Andre art” and it fills my house in every corner.

I loved going to Sonya’s house. It always felt like home should feel – warm, loving and kind. Their house smelled good, like fresh baked cookies and lavender all mixed together. Throughout middle school Sonya’s family would include me on trips and I traveled with them often to visit family in Southern Illinois. Her grandfather was an officer in the air force and I remember going to his retirement party at Scott Air Force base and being enamored with what an important man he was. They always made me feel welcome and part of the family.

(Summer 1984 – Stamford, CT)

 

By the time we were in high school, Sonya’s family moved to the east coast. We remained in close contact and visited them one summer on a trip to New York City. After high school, Sonya returned to University of Illinois for college and she and her family would become a significant part of my life again. As a junior in high school, my mother returned to Australia with my newly born sister. At the age of 17, I decided to stay to finish out my senior year of high school. I lived with my step father and after graduation left for Carbondale, Illinois to attend Southern Illinois University. At this time in my life my parents decided to divorce. Sonya’s family again, made me part of theirs. I would spend the next several years joining them for holiday’s and being included in all their family festivities. I would visit Sonya at school and stay in her dorm with her on many occasions. Her friends became mine and we share a group of women that are some of the most important people in my life still today. Many of my own family traditions, I have extracted from things they did for me and their loved ones during the holiday season. What I remember most from my time with Sonya’s family is the generosity and kindness that they shared with everyone. It did not matter who you were or where you came from but if you were in their house you mattered; you were family and they never made you forget that.

(June 1990)

After college, when I married my husband, they were there again. Sonya was a part of my wedding party. The extension of our friendship from such an early age, does not happen often and I am grateful for the love and kindness of Hardin and D’Avignon families. Sonya met her husband through Teach for America and they both fight for education rights of students around the country and in their hometown of Baltimore, MD. We don’t see each other as much now but we pick up where we left off and our friendship remains strong. As I write this I realize that I have been friends with this family and Sonya specifically for 40 years this November. Three quarters of my life has been influenced by their kindness, love and generosity. This American family who took in a foreigner and befriended many others from varying cultures who to this day fight for education, inclusion and rights of all people. This is what a true American family represents and I am proud to say that I know them and love them deeply.




Sarah
Sarah

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