The following is part of a new project in which Hannah Hasan adapts her ongoing Muddy Turtle Talks spoken-word storytelling event series showcasing immigrants for the pages of Queen City Nerve. Visit their website to learn more and check for Epoch Tribe’s upcoming events. This month, she rings in Welcoming Week 2020 with stories from immigrant neighbors around Charlotte.
Here’s the thing. I know — or know of — so many amazing people in our community who make important and beautiful contributions to this place that we call home. While I’ve had the chance to get to know some of them on a more intimate level, it’s not lost on me that I only know most of them through their work: their art, the programs and events they create, the organizations they manage. Yes, these people’s work is a snapshot of who they are, but it’s not all that they are.
These people who make extraordinary contributions to our city and our world are full human beings with stories and experiences, and those stories and experiences directly correlate with the way that they show up in the world. Welcoming Week 2020, held between Sept. 12-20, is a national celebration of immigrants and their contributions to the fabric of American society. To ring that celebration in, I decided to interview some amazingly diverse Charlotteans who work to lift others in our community and write stories from the experiences that they shared with me. Through storytelling, we can get to know the stories of Charlotteans with immigrant roots who are using their experiences to create the kind of community that we can all be proud to call home.
Beautiful Like Chai
Amarra Ghani is the thoughtful leader of “Welcome Home Charlotte,” a group that was formed to help resettlement and relief efforts for local refugees. Follow them on Instagram.
Growing up in a household with Pakistani parents while living in the United States, I navigated two worlds. It’s a delicate dance that most children of immigrants learn early. In our home, my parents only spoke our language. So when I went to elementary school, I was required to take ESL classes for the first few years. While at school, I wore the American clothes; jeans and t-shirts. As soon as I got home, I would change into my Pakistani clothes. It wasn’t about erasing my Pakistani identity while in the outside world, it was about learning to navigate both worlds while holding on to the language and traditions that shaped the woman I was to become. I can acknowledge the imperfect parts of my Pakistani culture that also exist within the greater American culture. Colorism. It’s a very real problem.
I was in my early 20s when I was inside of a coffee shop and had a moment that I have never forgotten. I ordered chai. As I went to pour the tea into the cup, I marveled at the beauty of the color of the chai. “Wow! What an amazing hue. That is such a vibrant and rich color that this tea has created.”
I was immediately overwhelmed. It was the same as the very unique color of my skin. It was an overwhelming moment for me. I went into the bathroom and wept in the mirror. My skin is special and beautiful and it carries the traditions and sacrifices and the love and history of my parents and their parents. It tells the stories of my family and my people. It deserves to be honored and cared for. I deserve to be honored and cared for. Who knew something as small as a cup of chai could teach me a lesson as big as self-love and acceptance?
A Language Of Our Own
Hector Vaca Cruz is an organizer and photographer and is currently featured in the Levine Museum of The New South’s Counting Up Exhibit. Check out Hector’s work by following him on Instagram.
My mom is Puerto Rican. My dad was Ecuadorian. After we moved from New York, they raised our family here in the South. Much of who I am is deeply rooted in the lessons and traditions that I embraced from my mom and my dad and their background.
The biggest similarity in their respective cultures was that they both speak Spanish. But Ecuadorian culture is mostly Spanish and Native Indigenous people with some African influences. Puerto Rican culture is really a blend of Spanish, African, and Tajino natives. As for me, I grew up identifying with both Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian with roots in New York. By college, I started to explain it as Equo-NewYorican.
A huge portion of my identity is connected to my language. I grew up more Puerto Rican. I spent summers there when I was younger. The Puerto Rican side was more familiar with the ways that they spoke Spanish. These family members were louder and more gregarious. It was more light-hearted on that side. The Ecuadorian side of my family is more formal in the way they speak their Spanish. I was taught on that side to enunciate all of my words and to use better grammar. Even dinner was more formal on that side. You sit. You eat. “You have one mouth, you can’t do both.”
At some point, my parents developed a neutral accent between the two of them. My mom came a little over to the Ecuadorian side and my dad shifted a bit to the Puerto Rican side. So within my household, we spoke our own language that was a combination of both. Our mixed accent has been difficult for others to understand, and that’s OK because through developing our own family language we have built a connection that is unique to us and our story.
Kurma Murrain is a published poet and educator. Find her bilingual book In the Prism of Your Soul for sale on Amazon.
I have my beautiful mother to thank for my love of poetry. She was an amazing woman who wasn’t afraid to be different. She was a mantissa (mixed-race) woman married to a Black man living and raising children in the mountainous city of Bogotá, Colombia, in South America.
When I think about my love for words when they come together to tell a story in a melodious way, I think about my mother reading the works of Chilean poet, diplomat and educator Gabriela Mistral to me. Her work sounded very musical, and it reminded me of the freedom that poetry has. I was a young girl, but I started writing then. I would write to my friends. My friends would ask me to write letters for their boyfriends and girlfriends.
I was famous for that. I fell “in love” when I was 12. I wrote a very emotionally vulnerable poem. My mother asked, “What happened with this boy?” I explained that I didn’t know. It was just in my head. He didn’t know.
The relationship wasn’t that deep, but I understood how to capture feelings in this unique and poetic way. I learned that at a young age. When I moved to the United States for a teaching opportunity in the ’90s, I was afraid that Charlotte would feel like a small town, and that there wouldn’t be much to do here, and that I would be so far away from my home. But I was pleasantly surprised when I got here, and I’ve been able to continue to do things that I love, like write poetry.
I think in English now. I haven’t written much poetry in Spanish but the memories — the flowers, the fields, the mountains, the food — will always be in my writing. Colombia will always be in my writing. A greater extension of that is that somehow my mother always comes to my poems. I mention the word mother often in my poetry. It just comes. I can’t avoid it. Since my mother is synonymous with home, I always carry her with me. Wherever I am in the world, as long as I have my poetry, I will always have my home.
Liliya Zalevskaya is an artist whose work has been featured in galleries locally and in other cities. Find out more about her work on her website.
I was 13 when my family immigrated from Ukraine to the United States with refugee status. Before we moved to Charlotte, we lived in Philadelphia. I didn’t speak English but luckily in Philadelphia, they have a large Russian/Ukrainian community. So when I went to school I just hung out with other Russian kids, which meant there was not a lot of pressure to learn English. My sister was a couple of years older than me and she picked up the language quicker than I did.
When we came to Charlotte, we went to International House and they did placement tests and it was determined that I would need to take ESL classes. I learned English, but there was still some insecurity there. It’s something that a lot of immigrant children experience.
When I was a kid, I was quiet and observant. I wanted to go into theatre, but when we moved here I was so shy about having an accent that I never took any theatre classes. I was fascinated by The Little Prince story books. They are by a French writer who had the idea that certain people, when they grow up, they can still have imagination but some don’t. It has all of these metaphors about looking beneath the surface and finding truth and meaning.
This really inspired me and helped to shape my career as an artist. I like the idea of duality in things and perception is interesting to me. One of the things about growing up in Soviet culture, everyone reads between the lines. People know that whatever you say there is always a hidden meaning and a metaphor. Nothing is always just as it seems. And as a person who has learned to navigate the waters of cultural diff erence, I understand that if we search deeply enough we can find meaning in things and experiences that connect all of us to each other. That is a part of what I try to create in my art.
Meki Shewangizaw is the vice chair of Tesfa Ethiopia, an organization that helps support the children of Ethiopia. Learn more on their website.
My family moved when I was four. We came over on what was called a Diversity Immigrant Visa. It’s kind of a lottery type of process. Every year, my dad would sign up, and every year he didn’t get chosen. People would ask him why he kept trying. He said it doesn’t hurt to try. On his 10th year, he signed up and he got it. He moved to America and brought me and my siblings and my mom a little later.
We grew up in America but we had a very Ethiopian household, and because of that, I’ve always felt at home in immigrant communities. I even worked at a refugee agency after college and it was ideal. I always knew that at some point I would want to go back home, I signed up for a fellowship to go to Ethiopia for six months. It was magical. I stepped off the plane, and the first thing I thought was, “Wow, everyone looks like me.”
And I know that might be strange for some people to understand, but the United States is very diverse and this is the first time I go to another country and everyone looks like me. Also, everyone was able to say my name so casually. I didn’t have to shorten it or enunciate to make it fit into their mouths. They were able to say my name — as it is — as it was given to me at birth.
There was also an instance of community, that was like a familial understanding, a feeling that you have with people that you have never met before. I’ve never felt anything like that. It was a great time for me and my family. It was an experience of a lifetime. It really helped me to understand my parents better, and what home means for me and so many like me. America is home, a familiar place. I grew up here. When I came home from Ethiopia, my dad was cooking food and playing traditional Ethiopian jazz music. I was like, “Ahh, Home.”
My physical home is like a little Ethiopia in America. And I love both of them. America is my familiar home, Ethiopia is my spiritual home.
Learn more about Welcoming Week 2020 at the Welcoming America website.