Brain Pickings

Green Card Stories: A Visual Catalog of Immigrants’ Triumphs and Tribulations

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Poignant portrait of a system caught between hope and despair.

Having spent a good portion of my adult life wrangling the nine circles of my very own immigration hell, I feel a profound personal investment in the immigration debates that have swelled to particularly prodigious proportions around this year’s election. Green Card Stories (public library) tells the heartening, and often dramatic, tales of fifty immigrants who recently attained their American residency or citizenship, accompanied by powerful profiles by journalist Saundra Amrhein and evocative portraits by documentary photographer Ariana Lindquist. Created in collaboration with acclaimed immigration lawyers and scholars Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, the project is in some ways a beautiful celebration of the triumph of hope embedded in the promise of the American Dream, and in others a poignant glimpse of a brutal system of struggle that can, if allowed to, eat away at one’s deepest sense of dignity.

At its heart, however, the project aims straight for the bigoted misconceptions that immigrants are somehow less hard-working and passionate and full of potential than “real Americans,” revealing instead the remarkable kaleidoscope of human life and purpose in those who have come to share their gifts with America. Humble yet proud, the voices in these stories — of artists, of scientists, of entrepreneurs, of dancers — bespeak a simple truth about place and personhood: Who you are and what you have to contribute to society cannot, nor should it, ever be reduced to or measured by a few legal checkboxes, a set of biometric data, and a passport.

Saah Quigee escaped Liberia with bodily and emotional scars from torture and beatings at the hands of rebel and government forces during his native country’s civil war. On a student visa, he moved to the United States and obtained a master’s degree at Cornell University. He and his family now live in New York, where Saah, a U.S. citizen, is a supervisor at Cornell’s Africana studies library.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

When Rino Nakasone first saw Michael Jackson on TV at her home in Okinawa, Japan, she was transfixed. An avid dancer, she studied his moves until she could imitate him perfectly. In 1999, she moved to California to chase her dream of becoming a professional dancer. Rino has since performed with Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Janet Jackson.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Thupten Lama was a Tibetan teacher living for decades in exile in India. When mobs attacked his home there because of his religious beliefs, he moved to Minnesota, where he obtained political asylum. Today, Thupten Lama holds Buddhism classes for Americans as a newly naturalized U.S. citizen.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Nelly Boyette made an odd pair with husband, Jeff. She was an undocumented immigrant from Peru with a mind for business. He was a Florida native who worked hard and carried a radio with a bumper sticker advising foreigners to speak English. After the two met at a flea market where they both worked and fell in love, they didn’t realize the uphill battle they faced convincing immigration authorities that their relationship was real.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

For years Charles Nyaga dreamed of moving to the United States from Kenya for graduate school. His dreams seemed to come true when he won the diversity lottery and appeared close to getting a green card while pursuing a divinity degree near Atlanta. But after immigration officials failed to process his application in time, his faith would be put to the test during a decade-long court battle that nearly ended in detention and deportation.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Farah Bala was raised by a single mother in India, where divorce was taboo. She immersed herself in the world of theater, began acting in school plays, and eventually won a scholarship to study theater at Sarah Lawrence College in New York in 2001. Farah has gone on to become a critically acclaimed actor and drama therapy instructor.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Randolph Sealey, brought up in a Brooklyn public housing high-rise apartment, felt just as American as his classmates when he learned he was an undocumented immigrant. His dreams of becoming a doctor seemed dashed. As he studied on private scholarships, his family took a risky gamble and turned him into immigration authorities. A judge cancelled his deportation and he was granted permanent residence; today he is an orthopedic surgeon in Connecticut.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Susan Delvalle was steeped in a business management career in Curaçao, a Caribbean island in the Dutch Antilles. But her love of the arts intersected with her business background. The two merged in New York, where she grew enamored with El Museo del Barrio and helped spearhead a major fundraising campaign that led to an overhaul of the museum near East Harlem, establishing her as a key player along New York’s Museum Mile.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

Soumaya Khalifa, born in Egypt, longed to share the rich complexities of her Muslim religion and background with fellow Americans of different faiths. But she never imagined her first experience doing so would be after the horrific events of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Today her Islamic Speakers Bureau reaches thousands of people, focusing on education and debunking negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

Image courtesy Ariana Lindquist

With its cross-section of magnificent diversity within a lump-sum “minority,” Green Card Stories is part Gay In America, part Created Equal, part something else entirely. Find out more about it on the project site.

NPR

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