Immigrant Students Provide Lessons in Perseverance

Newcomers construct their new lives, one challenge at a time.

ESL students gather at Hudson County Community College. From left: Melissa Ojeda, Walid Kaddah, Letice Zunguze, Hanaa Farahat (front) and Fatiha Abdelli.
ESL students gather at Hudson County Community College. From left: Melissa Ojeda, Walid Kaddah, Letice Zunguze, Hanaa Farahat (front) and Fatiha Abdelli.
Photo by Axel Dupeux

On the first day of the new semester at Hudson County Community College there is something I promise my students and something I dare not reveal.

I teach English as a Second Language (ESL); my students are all immigrants. They are from Latin America, India, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, the Philippines and Mozambique. On that first day, I see anxiety in their eyes, the same unsettled feeling that rumbled in the pit of my stomach when I moved here from Soviet Russia in 1980. I am now on the other side of the desk, where I am supposed to know all the answers.

I tell my students I’ll help them learn enough English to speak with their children’s teachers, study for their college courses and find a job. What I don’t reveal is that they will always be pulled between their past and their present, that they will never fully belong in either land, and that the wounds of exile will never completely disappear.

HCCC, with campuses in Jersey City and Union City, is a microcosm of New Jersey immigration trends. More than a third of HCCC students were born outside the United States; they report more than 100 countries as their places of birth.

From my students’ essays, I know that their stories are more harrowing than mine. I arrived here on an Aeroflot flight to join my new American husband in a middle-class suburb of New Jersey. My students fled hopelessness, poverty, gangs and war, parting with their families and abandoning their homes, friends and jobs. They paid a heavy toll to come to this country, and while that sacrifice weighs on their smiles, they diligently labor on the construction sites of their new lives, one ESL class at a time.

Fatiha Abdelli arrived in New Jersey in 2008, when her husband, Nabil, won an immigration lottery on his 10th try. “To Nabil, Algeria is nothing more than Alcatraz,” says Fatiha. She is thoughtful and observant, with short blond hair and an unassuming demeanor that hints at her inner strength. “He worked for 20 years in Algeria and couldn’t save a penny. The immigration lottery was our only hope for a better life.”

Fatiha and her family are Berbers, descendants of pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. The family lived in Selloum, a village of fewer than 2,000 people. What little Fatiha, now 45, knew about America came from watching Little House on the Prairie on her small TV. Yet the impending move, which would uproot her family and deposit them in a foreign country, never intimidated Fatiha, who saw the journey as their own version of the story of Moses.

“Behind us was the army, in front of us was the Red Sea,” she says. “We felt that together, we could part the sea and cross to the other side.” In America, she believed, anything was possible.

Nabil, now 52, says his wife and their three children gave him the strength to survive the challenges of the first few months as they searched for work and a place to live, and struggled to decipher the paperwork of immigration and school enrollment. What eased those tough times, Fatiha adds, was the generosity of strangers. To save money for rent, they walked everywhere: 40 blocks to get the children vaccinated, another 50 blocks to file their green-card papers. Fatiha still remembers the car that stopped on a North Bergen street and offered them a ride. “Americans are so nice!” she says. “It was this kindness that kept us going.”

For the first three months, Nabil delivered bread to stores in New York City; for the next seven years, he parked cars in a Manhattan garage. Eventually, Nabil obtained a commercial license to drive a tractor trailer. He now unloads container ships in local ports, hoping to earn enough money to buy his own truck.

Meanwhile, Fatiha raised their children (a fourth was born in the United States in 2009. They named her Stella, the star of North Africa). In 2014, Fatiha began ESL classes at HCCC, bringing her strength and determination to her studies. In my classroom, she usually sat in the back, quietly constructing English sentences. She regrets that she had to end her studies after three semesters, after which the family’s finances required her to find a full-time job. Her current schedule at a bakery allows her to be home before the children return from school, but this, too, may soon have to change. Since her mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia, Fatiha now needs to find a way to care for her.

Despite what seems like a difficult life, Fatiha says her family is happy. “We feel security and respect here,” she says, composed and convincing. “America gave us a lot of things our own country didn’t. Here you have freedom to do anything you like. Back in Algeria, you take your dreams and put them in a drawer under lock.”

Three years ago, Fatiha took her children to visit her mother and sisters in the old country. “It is important that my children know they are Algerian,” she says. She wants to teach them they are not Arabic but Berber, descendants of a rich culture with its own language and history, a formidable warrior queen, Kahina, who led the Berber resistance in the seventh century.

“We are proud to be Berbers,” says Fatiha. “There are a lot of famous Berbers in history.” She pauses to brush a stray hair from her forehead, her eyes shining with pride. “All Berbers succeed.”

Melisa Ojeda was 17 when she left Cuba in 2008, alone, in a boat full of strangers bound for Mexico. She remembers the boat bobbing in the open water, with 40 passengers and no lights, waiting for help to fix its two broken engines. “I wasn’t afraid then,” says Ojeda, tall and self-reliant, with a steely demeanor that only sometimes cracks to reveal her anxiety. “We had water, food, everything we needed. It wasn’t scary until we reached the coast.”

A year earlier, when she was in high school, Ojeda had started a relationship with a Cuban-American man who wanted her to come to New Jersey. He agreed to pay the $10,000 fee charged by a Mexican drug cartel to traffic Cubans to America. “Four to five boats left Cuba daily,” she says. “It was a big business.”

Ojeda admits that leaving her native country alone at 17 was reckless, but her family—parents, sister and grandmother—agreed that Cuba offered her no future. “There is no law to protect you,” she says. She points to a pen on the desk. “Today, the president tells you it’s purple. Tomorrow, he says it’s white. And you must agree.”

When Ojeda arrived in Mexico, she was instructed to call her boyfriend and have him wire the money to the cartel. Once the wire was received, the traffickers were to send her by bus through three checkpoints across Mexico. Next, a taxi would take her to the U.S. border.

The money was wired, but changes inside the Mexican police force compelled the cartel to halt their trafficking operations. Ojeda was told she had to stay in Mexico for three months. She was terrified. “If you’re a woman and alone, you’re in trouble,” she says, her commanding presence crumbling at the painful memory. “They know they have complete power over you.” She began to question her decision to venture alone into the unknown.

With her tenacity and wit, Ojeda landed a job as a driver for people connected with the cartel, picking up new arrivals from incoming boats and shuttling them to their temporary accommodations. She earned enough to move to a hotel, buy a cell phone and keep some savings. She kept in touch with the cartel by cell phone and never revealed to her contacts where she lived.

Once she finally made it to New Jersey, Ojeda’s new life did not begin as she had hoped. Her American boyfriend lived with his parents, two sisters and a grandmother in a two-bedroom apartment in Weehawken. Two days after her arrival, Ojeda found a job in a shoe store and encouraged her boyfriend to begin to look for a place of their own. He refused and became increasingly jealous of her. Every morning, he parked himself in a chair at the store where she worked, observing her interactions with male customers. It wasn’t long before his behavior spiraled into violence. Ojeda called the police and fled to a friend’s house in Florida, where she found out she was two months pregnant. Reluctantly, she returned to Weehawken to marry her boyfriend, but their situation turned even uglier. This time, she left for good.

Today, Ojeda is remarried. Her son is eight, and she has a 2-year-old daughter. Ojeda’s second husband, Yandi, also Cuban, works at a redecoration company, and Melisa recently become a licensed home health aide. She is studying English at HCCC and taking courses to become a nurse.

Ojeda has no regrets about coming to America. “There is no point in raking up the past,” she says. “I only know that in Cuba, I’d still be working for $100 a month, and my children would have no clothes and no future. Here, the future is all theirs.”

Letice Zunguze arrived in New Jersey from Mozambique on December 30, 2013, a date she celebrates as the start of her new life.
In Mozambique, her family lived in a large farmhouse in the countryside. She was 19 when her father, a specialist in conflict resolution at the General Board of Global Ministries, was offered a 10-year contract to work in America. Although Zunguze’s mother was reluctant to leave, her parents decided that the possibility of an American education for their four children was worth the trauma of the move.

Zunguze, petite and watchful, with big brown eyes that seem to absorb and question everything, was excited by the prospect of leaving her native land. She had never traveled outside Africa and had never been on a plane. “I was thrilled to be able to see President Obama, Beyoncé and all the other celebrities on the streets,” she says, giggling at her own naiveté.

Based on the American movies she had seen, Zunguze, 23, expected her new home to look like Times Square. Union City, with its rows of two-story houses, parking lots and snow-crusted sidewalks, was nothing like what she had envisioned. The weather was frigid, and the family had not brought warm clothes.

In the beginning, Zunguze, whose native language is Portuguese, was grateful that she could partially understand her Spanish-speaking neighbors. What confused her was the different notion of friendliness. “In Mozambique, people on the street look each other in the eye, smile and engage in small talk,” she says. In Union City, things are different. When she tried to greet passers-by, they glanced at her suspiciously and walked on.

A few days after her arrival in New Jersey, Zunguze registered at HCCC. Although one of the youngest students in my ESL class, she was highly focused, the only one who didn’t stare at her cell phone instead of concentrating on writing essays. Three years later, she graduated with an associate degree in business and is now majoring in management at Rutgers-Newark as part of RU-N to the TOP, the school’s Talent and Opportunity Pathway program.

Although her parents plan to return to Mozambique, Zunguze does not want to go back. “I don’t see myself living in Africa,” she says. “I’ve always had bigger dreams. I want to manage a resort for businesspeople, and you can’t do that in Mozambique.”

She twirls a strand of her hair, now highlighted red and tamed into braids, then adds, “I do miss my country, but now America feels like home.”

Walid Kaddah and Hanaa Farahat moved from Syria in 2014, as their country sank deeper into war. In the past, they had regularly visited their son and two daughters in New Jersey, but they had always returned to Damascus, to their big apartment on the seventh floor of a beautiful building in the center of the city they loved.

Walid, 67, had always returned to his work as an architect, designing and building houses. Hanaa, 63, had gone back to her housework and her law studies. But since the war began in 2011, they heard bombs getting closer to Damascus, leaving their neighborhood for hours with no lights and no water. One of those bombs destroyed their second home in the city’s suburbs. When they came to visit three years ago, their son and daughters begged them to stay.

Now they live with their son, his wife and three grandchildren in a cramped West New York apartment. When he talks about Syria, Walid—observant, wry and fiercely ambitious—extends his mouth into a brief smile, followed by a frown.

“Before the war, Syria was a beautiful place to live. I was independent.” He sighs. “We were important people in Syria,” he says, his eyes brimming with sorrow. “Here, we are nothing.”

Walid is studying English in hopes of finding work in America—but he harbors dreams of returning to Syria. “I dream of the war ending so that we can go back and live the life we used to live.”

Hanaa agrees, her mouth buckling with grief. “I dream of living only with Walid,” she adds quietly and lowers her face so I can’t see her tears.

In my ESL class, Walid and Hanaa always sit in the front row, solving the puzzles of the new alphabet with the same intensity they no doubt applied to their work in Syria.

When I ask them if they consider America their home, each smiles ruefully, as if stating a fact they haven’t fully accepted. “We’re happy here,” says Walid. “But we’re not happy about Syria.” Syria, after all, is where they have lived independently for much of their lives. Their souls will always be split, and their wound of exile will never heal.

Maybe this wound is what drives immigrants. Maybe the trauma of that split soul is the engine pushing us uphill to where we finally feel worthy. We straddle two societies and are nourished by two cultures. This dual nature enriches not only our own lives, but also the country we live in. We plant the seeds and then we wait, as my students say.

Immigrants are persevering and restless. The hunger and anguish we brought from the old country motivates us, generating the vitality and spirit we need to thrive in the new one.

Elena Gorokhova grew up in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Her latest book, Russian Tattoo (Simon & Schuster, 2015), is a memoir about adjusting to life in America. She lives in Ridgewood with her American-born husband.

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