Filled with uncertainty, challenges, and risks, most immigrants would say coming to the United States is worth it. People seeking a better existence for themselves and for their children eagerly embrace this land of opportunity.
Dwayne, Fan Chiao, Miguel, and refugees at the Tonawanda, N.Y., Corps share their unique stories of hope. Today, they are bound by a common thread—their faith in God and in The Salvation Army.
More than 100 years ago, Army Founder William Booth helped such people in need—London’s “submerged tenth,” as he called them—by sending the poorest of the poor to more developed countries to pursue better opportunities.
Today, we can only imagine Booth’s opinion on the controversial issues surrounding immigration. What is clear is that the Salvation Army’s mission to help marginalized people in our society continues to include everyone, without discrimination.
An opportunity to serve
In 2012 and with visa in hand, I immigrated from Montego Bay, Jamaica to Greenwich, N.Y. at 19 years old.
Since I was 14, I had known that my family, who are Salvationists, would come to the United States. I had hoped that I would complete my last year of high school in the U.S. Instead, I remained in Jamaica during that time, waiting for the immigration process to finish as I watched my peers take college entrance exams, pass them, and go on with their lives.
My own American dream was to serve in the U.S. Army. But weighing 325 lbs., the recruiter told me I had to lose weight before I could even be considered. In 2013, my family relocated to Glen Falls, N.Y. and I put my dream in the back of my mind.
We had thought about attending the corps close to our home in Glen Falls. But when we visited the Sunday service in Saratoga Springs, we noticed that the corps congregation needed more people. Although it was 30 minutes away from our home in Glen Falls, the corps in Saratoga Springs became our church.
In 2014, after I had all but abandoned any thoughts of going into the U.S. Army, I accompanied my younger sister Stephanie to a recruitment center. She enlisted as I had tried to do. The recruiters then turned to me and casually asked, “Why aren’t you joining too?” When I told them about my weight problem, they offered to weigh me again.
I was surprised to learn that, in the two years since being turned down, I had lost the weight that had prevented me from enlisting. Stephanie and I went to the Army’s Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) where recruits receive medical tests to see if they are physically healthy enough to serve. I passed the tests. When a recruiter asked me “What do you want to do now?” I said, “I want to start the paperwork.”
Stephanie and I enlisted in the U.S. Army together. Being able to serve my new country brought me closer to permanent citizenship, and provided me with an opportunity that I would have never had in Jamaica.
Ready to work
In both my military service and as a Salvationist, I have been privileged to help other people who are immigrants. To this day, my U.S. Army recruiter calls me when he’s trying to help someone get enlisted who was born in another country. If he’s not sure of the immigration procedures, I’m happy to help in any way I can. At the Saratoga Springs Corps, people from countries such as Turkey and Ukraine seek assistance for their families. They also need help with tasks that many of us might take for granted, such as getting a driver’s license. I understand their struggle and desire to live a better life. When I was a 20–year–old immigrant with no car, no job, and no citizenship, all I had was my faith in God. I prayed to Him that He would guide me towards a better life—and He did.
Immigrants come to the United States to better their lives and to be the best persons they can be for their new country. They come ready to do the difficult jobs and work long hours, whether it’s manual labor outdoors or defending the country, as my family did.
Sometimes, immigrants are welcomed and put to work, but when the job is finished, someone finds a reason to send them right back to where they came from. I feel that is the most heartbreaking thing you can do to someone.
To anyone who seeks a better life like my family and I did, please do not give up. God will make sure that there is a place for you, whether it be in the United States, or anywhere else in the world. Strive for what you want to be and follow God, because He already knows your hopes and dreams.
Understanding the struggle
When my father brought our family from Taiwan to Hawaii in 1985, the first thing he did was choose our new “American” names. He found them in an old magazine. My mother became Tina, I became Gina, and my brother became Stan (to this day, he doesn’t like that name). Renaming us opened the first chapter of our story and is typical of the stories of many immigrants with unusual names. They simply pick a new name that sounds American, and hope it’s easy to spell.
To a seven–year–old girl who had been born poor in Taiwan, Hawaii seemed like a paradise straight out of a movie. I spent every day on the beach. Sometimes, I even wore my bathing suit underneath my school clothing just so I could go swimming as soon as I came home.
While my brother and I enjoyed our new island, my father, who had come to the United States on a student visa, was getting his education at Brigham Young University in Hawaii. My mother worked as a cleaning lady at the same university. She also babysat children during the day. Many of the children she cared for were the sons and daughters of other immigrants.
Mine was the classic immigrant family—parents who left their country of birth so their children could have a better life. Ironically, today Taiwan has universal healthcare and a booming economy. It’s a different place than when we lived there.
At the Salvation Army’s Newport, R.I. Corps, one of my roles is to supervise the food pantry and soup kitchen. While doing this, I have met families that need help with clothing, utilities, and groceries. I know how hard those first few months and years in a new country can be when you’re an immigrant, especially if you’re undocumented.
My own life experience helps me understand the mentality of those who seek assistance. When someone who doesn’t look like us or speak like us acts differently, we can attribute negative connotations and motives. But it’s important to understand that what someone who grew up in the U.S. would consider normal can be strange or off–putting in another culture, and vice versa. Look beyond your own cultural norms, and try to not fall into the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ paradigm.
Also, remember that immigrants feel uncertain regarding their present situation and their future. They don’t know if their children will have the better life they pray for or if their own hard work will pay off. I’m sure my parents felt that uncertainty every day.
Most in need
The recent anger and negative rhetoric towards immigrants, sometimes even documented ones, has been shocking to witness. The Newport Corps welcomed refugees from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated their island. These American citizens talk about the anger and animosity they faced from some people when they arrived on the mainland. For me, this reaction feels like a betrayal to them and of our American values. I sometimes wonder, if this type of culture was present when my parents came here, would they have wanted to stay?
Yet, I still believe the United States is an amazing country with unlimited potential, and we can all help it reach that potential. My work with The Salvation Army in Newport is my place of influence where I can do my part.
I became a citizen in 1995. I don’t have to be scared about my future here anymore. I now help those people who remain scared. They are the people with the most need, because they are uncertain about their place in the United States.
An Army welcome
Five years ago, the Salvation Army’s Tonawanda, N.Y., Corps welcomed refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and other African countries in the region affected by two decades of deadly civil wars.
The families of Meya Kayi, 16, and Joule Mazikou, 15, were among the people who left their city of Brazzaville in the Salvation Army’s Congo Brazzaville Territory to eventually live in upstate New York.
Chazia, Meya’s older sister, is a Salvationist. When the family arrived in New York, Chazia and a group of women from Congo visited different corps in the area. They all spoke Lari, the language of Congo, and French. A French–speaking Salvationist introduced the family to Major Celestin Nkounkou, corps officer of the Army’s Tonawanda Corps. Major Nkounkou had also immigrated from Congo years before the wars. When the Kayi family and other refugee families from Congo immigrated to Tonawanda, Nkounkou and his ministry staff welcomed them.
Nkounkou’s heartfelt outreach to Joule Mazikou’s family touched their lives. The Mazikous were all raised Catholic, and Joule’s father wanted to continue that tradition. But when Joule’s father had to be taken to the hospital for treatment of a serious hand injury, a family friend invited Major Nkounkou to visit the Mazikous. “The Major had never met us, but he still came to pray for us. We were grateful for this,” said Joule.
“Refugees come from countries suffering from daily violence and death,” says Nkounkou. “They may have spent months or years in camps. Their children may not have received the proper education. And when they find themselves in a completely new country, with new rules, new languages, and a new climate, it can be a real culture shock.”
Nkounkou says that language barriers can prevent many immigrants from being the best they can be. Refugee children, he says, may have a difficult time learning English.
“In Congo, school–age children study French,” said Nkounkou. “This becomes a stepping stone to learning English. But if you are a young refugee, you may not always have the type of education needed to learn new languages.”
“In America, sometimes having a good translator isn’t enough,” said Nkounkou. “It’s important to understand that, just because refugees find new, safe homes, it does not mean that their struggle is over.”
Today, Tonawanda continues to welcome refugees from other African countries such as the Ivory Coast and Togo. These new corps families have legal residency status, and like Meya and Joule, are grateful to America for saving them from the refugee camps.
Meya expressed her particular perspective on the immigration debate. “When I hear about immigrants being discriminated against, threatened to be sent back, and the effort to build walls to keep them out, it hurts my heart,” she said. “I wish that there was more help for the undocumented person to become documented. Though our situations as immigrants or refugees may be different, we all come to America looking for a better life.”
Last September, Meya and Joule became senior soldiers.
God’s path for us
My American dream is to have an opportunity to do God’s will in the United States.
At an early age, I had accepted Jesus as my Savior. As a young child in Colombia, my father abused both my mother and me. However, in 1998, the Lord rescued us. Through His grace, we gained the courage to leave my father and our home country to move to Queens, N.Y. Five years later, we began attending the Queens Temple Corps.
My mother raised me alone and worked all day to provide for us. I had a lot of freedom and time to myself. Unfortunately, this led to teenage years filled with drug use and negativity.
But at 20 years old, God helped me take control of my life. I gave up the behaviors that were poisoning my soul. I could hear God telling me, “Miguel, I didn’t just sober you up for yourself; I have a purpose for you.” As a teen, my idea of pursuing the American dream was to finish school, find a job, and become rich. This was not God’s plan.
As I became more involved in the Queens Temple Corps, I discovered a new dream: to serve God as an officer in The Salvation Army. To take this new path for my future, I attended Candidates Seminars in 2013 and 2014. It never occurred to me that my status as an undocumented immigrant might keep me from God’s path for me.
I remember speaking to Major Angelo Rosamilia about my plans. He was very excited, and worked to set up all the appointments needed for me to enroll in The Salvation Army College for Officer Training (CFOT), without telling me he had done so. When I told him I was undocumented, I could see the disappointment in his face. “But don’t worry,” I assured him. “I’m going to get my papers.”
His face lit up. “Yes! Yes, you will!” he said. He didn’t see my undocumented status as a negative. Instead, he saw that I was sure I would have my papers in time to go to the CFOT.
I applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and received my paperwork in April of 2014. I could now legally stay and work in the U.S. But I had processed the documents too late to enter CFOT that year. I was heartbroken, but God still had the final part of His plan in store for me.
In June, Captain Giovanni Guerrero, my mentor, informed me that, with my DACA papers filed, he could help enroll me in the CFOT’s fall semester.
Because of DACA, I was able to attend training and became a pastor.
The Lord is in control
I am not a political person. I don’t see things as a Democrat or as a Republican. Instead, I see all sides as being controlled by God. His hand guides whomever is in charge. I saw Him at work when President Obama introduced DACA. The Lord has brought me far in life and saved me many times over. DACA was another example of His love and compassion. I know that He will continue to bring what is best for immigrants like myself, whether it’s through President Trump or anyone else in Washington.
Nashua, N.H. has a large immigrant population. Many people who are there and undocumented are afraid to ask
for help. I tell them to seek the Lord and ask for His protection, as I did. When I had to renew my two–year application for DACA, my loved ones were afraid for me. They knew the angry political climate, and they feared that I would be unfairly questioned, or worse. Fortunately, I renewed without any problems. As immigrants, God is guiding us and has a great plan in each of our lives.
If you find yourself in a new land looking for a better life, trust in His plan, and know He has not forgotten you.
by Hugo Bravo