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Prominent U.S. Immigrants Share Their Stories of Hardship and Triumph

By Samantha Subin

As the long-running debate over immigration fueled by Donald Trump’s presidency heats up with the recent influx of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, four Americans shared their immigration stories to offer a more personal perspective on the divisive issue, beyond the headlines and statistics.

“It is not about me,” said University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, his voice trembling. “It is about the opportunities that this country provides.”

Loh and three other prominent U.S. immigrants shared their stories of perseverance, loneliness and triumph during an event at the University of Maryland in College Park on April 11. The featured speakers were Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at The New School in New York who fled the Soviet Union; Bolivian-born Maria Otero, who served as U.S. undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights; and Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera’s regional director in the Americas who emigrated from Morocco.

The panel, moderated by professor Shibley Telhami, celebrated Social Justice Day at the university and the release of a new university critical issues poll on immigrants and family separation that gauged the opinions of 3,015 Americans between March 15 and April 2. 

In the survey, 42 percent of respondents believed that immigration helps the U.S. more than it hurts the country, and 56 percent said that the U.S. should do everything to keep families together.

Statistics were divided by political party, with 56 percent of reported Republicans responding that immigrants are more likely than citizens to commit crimes, wile only 30 percent in total agreed.

The results come amid increased tensions across the Mexico-U.S. border and a doubling down on family separation and refugees by the Department of Homeland Security and the Trump administration.

Shibley Telhami Nina Khrushcheva Wallace Loh Maria Otero Abderrahim Foukara
Professor Shibley Telhami moderates a discussion between Nina Khrushcheva, Wallace Loh, Maria Otero and Abderrahim Foukara (left to right). Photos by: Tom Bacho and Ramsey Telhami

Khrushcheva opened the panel, sharing her story of immigration from the Soviet Union and her experiences growing up as the relative Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who presided over the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War until his ouster by the communist party in 1964.

“He really didn’t exist because that was the Soviet politics — that you delete leaders,” she said. “I grew up with a name that was also a nonexistent name. Everybody knew that Khrushchev was a big name and yet it was a name that was unpronounced.”

Still, Khrushcheva described her life as privileged.

“Because we were a nobody — a name that was not supposed to be mentioned — we actually became human beings,” she said.

Afterward, Loh, who emigrated from Shanghai to Lima, Peru, as a child, spoke fondly of his formative years in the U.S. and his experiences in the Midwest as a college student.

“Who would have thought that a 15-year-old coming to this country with $200 in his pocket, the life savings of his parents, speaking hardly any English, would be the president of major public research university,” he said.

Shibley Telhami Nina Khrushcheva Wallace Loh Maria Otero Abderrahim Foukara
The panelists shared their experiences as immigrants with a crowd at the University of Maryland in College Park. 

Like the other panelists, Otero shared the difficulties of assimilation with the audience, arguing that oftentimes for immigrants, the politics of their home country remains central to their lives.

Otero remembers only Bolivians and Latin Americans visiting her home growing up in America. Even during the March on Washington, her family cared more for Bolivian politics than for the Civil Rights Movement or Martin Luther King Jr.

“We had no idea who he was,” she said. “We did not know any of the issues related to the march and we didn’t care. You know so little about the environment that you’re in that you retain that force, that pull that still gives you your sense of identity.”

Oftentimes, Otero felt alone, a common sentiment felt by many U.S. immigrants and a significant driver of depression and anxiety.

For every immigrant, the journey is “arduous,” said Foukara, the D.C. bureau chief for the Al Jazeera media outlet. He said that “dreaming” — a skill his mother instilled in him as a child in Morocco — is one aspect that he attributes to his success as an international journalist.

“I’m sitting here on top this mountain watching history unfold day after day,” Foukara said of his career. “Somedays I wake up in the morning and I pinch myself and say, ‘Wow, I consider myself so fortunate that I am in the nation’s capital, observing the crossroads of the Middle East and the United States.’”


Samantha Subin is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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