Thursday, April 14, 2011

Independence Day

April 15 is tax day for most of us here in the U.S., but for my WH, it means a lot more.  Twelve years ago today, he arrived here from Iran.  He told me this story:

When I found out I was getting a green card, I didn't know what would happen. I had to wait to find out when my appointment at the U.S. Embassy would be.  They tell you they’ll send you a letter to tell you your package has arrived, and when your interview would be, but I didn't trust it.  I used to call the U.S. Embassy in Ankara every day to find out if my package had arrived.  And I’m so glad I did, because I never received a letter.  The last time I called, they told me that my package had arrived and that my appointment was set. Then I went to Turkey.  I had lived there 10 years earlier for a year, hoping for a Humanitarian Parole visa and I didn't get it, but my memories in Turkey were still good memories.  Ten years later I went back to get my green card and stayed in the same hotel.  Walking the same streets, going to the places where I used to hang out, it was such a great feeling.  Going back to somewhere I knew before – it was wonderful.  I have been to Turkey three times, and I only have good memories there. 
Finally the day arrived to go to the embassy, and I was so nervous.  I had all my documents very well organized.  I was so nervous.  Many times I went with high hopes to different embassies – Switzerland, Turkey, Germany – and was rejected.  Always the answer was no.  In fact, in Zurich, I had an invitation from a Marine Corps general that my brother, who was in the Marines at the time, had gotten for me, and I was so sure I was going to get the visa.  I’ll never forget it.  The counselor said, "I don't know who you are, or why you have this invitation, but I'm not giving you a visa." I was nine years old. 
This time I didn't have high hopes. All I had were worries.  All kinds of worries.  When I got to the embassy, I walked in, looked at the American flag and saw the Marine standing there and it reminded me of my brother.  I wasn’t able to see my brother when he graduated and I hadn’t seen him in ten years.  Every step I took, it felt like one step closer to him.  

American Flag
Photo Courtesy of PMillera4 via Flickr

At the embassy, it's exactly like the DMV – you get a number and you sit down.  The counselors are behind bulletproof glass like at a bank.  When it was my turn, I got called up to the window.  The counselor was a Turkish-American lady, and she was only a little bit older than me.  She looked at my number and asked me, "Do you want me to talk to you in English, Farsi, or Turkish?" And even though I didn’t really speak English very well, I said, “English,” and gave her my package.  She looked at it and said, “This is the most organized package I've seen all week,” which made me very happy.  But I did have one document missing.  When that happens, usually you have to go and come back . . . and it takes six months or so before you can come back.  Luckily, this lady was so nice and she liked me, so she told me to get the document faxed to me and just come back tomorrow.  I got the document, but I didn't sleep that night. I had everything I needed, but I still didn't sleep that night.  
The next day, I went back to the embassy, which was in walking distance from the hotel.  I had the fax in my hand, and put it in my jacket.  But then I was afraid it might fall out of my jacket, so I held it in my hand.  Then I was afraid someone might steal it from my hand, so I put it back in my jacket.  I kept putting it in my jacket and taking it back out, the entire way to the embassy.  I got there and gave the package back to the same woman. Then I had to pay, exactly like at the DMV.  I paid and everything and boom . . . they gave me a package. A sealed package.  That’s how you get your green card.  (When you get to the United States, you come with that giant package and give it to immigration in the airport and then they send you your actual green card later.)
Walking out of the embassy, holding that package, it felt like winning the lottery.  Looking back, I think there were very few times in my life when I felt truly happy deep in my heart where it shook my body.  When I had that package and walked out of that embassy, it started raining, and I put the package under my jacket.  I never enjoyed rain that much in my life . . . just walking in the rain.  
I know lots of people get their green cards, but I had been waiting all my life for this moment. Millions of people come to the U.S. every year.  I know I wasn’t the only one.  It was just that I had waited for it for so long.  I hadn't seen my brother for 10 years. Finally I could start my life where I wanted to be.  But first I had to go back to Iran and get ready – that was in October.  I came to the U.S. in April.  For those few months, packing up, figuring stuff out, slowly breaking all the barriers.  It's interesting – many people come here and still have a home where they came from, but I had to figure out how to pack my life into two suitcases and bring it with me.  It's like when you move to a new house and you throw out the stuff you don't want and the stuff you don't need, and save the stuff you don't want to throw out.  Except this is beyond that.  You get to the point where all the stuff has sentimental value, all the clothes you love, and still you have to make a choice which things you want to take with you and which ones you want to leave behind.  
Saying goodbye to everyone I knew – my family, aunts, uncles, cousins, my friends that I grew up with – and going somewhere that I didn’t know anybody, created a ball, a rolling ball of mixed emotions inside my stomach.  On the one hand, I was leaving everyone I knew, but on the other hand, I was coming to the U.S. and getting to see my brother, who I hadn't seen in 10 years. I was very happy, and very sad.  Really mixed emotions.  It wasn't Facebook time, where we could all be in touch between two worlds.  We were out of touch for years.  It exactly felt like dying, it was so painful.  And the happiness felt like being reborn, the way it was powerful.  From the airport in Iran, getting on the plane going to Amsterdam, coming to the U.S. – traveling across the universe to get here – I died and was born again.  It was another life I had there, and yet I remember every second of my past life.  
All the time during the trip, I kept my package with me.  It was close to my heart. I was so nervous when I got to Iranian airport.  My soul was inside of that package and I had to protect it.  While I was in Amsterdam waiting to get on the plane, a man in a suit came and sat next to me. He started asking me questions, like “Did anyone pack your bag for you?” and “What do you have in your bag?” and other things. I was nervous and my English wasn’t very good, so I mixed things up.  The man started to test me, “But you said this . . . you said that. Your stories don’t match.”  My hands started sweating.  Fortunately, a lady who worked in the airport walked by who just happened to be Iranian, and saw what was going on.  She explained to the guy, and he let it go.  It was very interesting, and as I looked around, this happened to many people.
When I landed in the United States, it was exactly like a new world.  I saw the American flag again and as I got off the plane, my heart was beating like crazy.  I was so happy, but so afraid that something, anything, was going to go wrong and I would have to go back.  In fact, I was so nervous I left my passport in the airport.  It wasn’t until two or three days later that I realized that I didn't have my passport.   When you get to the airport, they take you to a little room, interview you, and take the package. It takes about 45 minutes or so, and then they let you go.  I went and got my bag. When the doors opened, I started looking at people. I saw someone who looked like my brother, but he was shorter than I remembered.  The last time I saw him, I was just 13 and I was shorter than him. By this time, I was slightly taller than he was.  His hair was longer – no more military haircut.  But he had that nose – the same nose – and I knew, that was my brother.   
I’ll never forget the feeling the next day of walking out the door, after my brother went to work. It was a sunny, clear, warm day.   I remember thinking, I can't believe I'm here. And as I walked around Dupont Circle, I realized that I could walk for hours and hours and not bump into anybody I knew.  I could guarantee that.  That’s the first thing that really bothered me.  But I changed it for myself.  Now I can’t walk down Connecticut Avenue without seeing someone I know.  It’s a new world, a new life, but it's mine finally. Today this is my home.  Where I was before is the old life.  You can’t un-die and go back.  I'm in a new chapter.  I will not go back to chapter one.
Many people see July 4 as Independence Day, but for me it's April 15 -- my second birthday. 

Happy Second 12th Birthday WH!


  1. what an amazing story, especially for emancipation day!

  2. Thanks! He's a pretty amazing person.

  3. What a story, you have me in tears. From an American living in Canada, I know how lucky we all are for having been born or been able to move here.

  4. Thanks Carrie. It reminds me how lucky I am, too.

  5. I don't even know your husband and already I have respect for and like him. To continue to go through the painstaking process of legal immigration into our country for such a long period of his life shows a lot of his character. I think it also shows that he truly wants to be here to be here rather than for his emigration to be purely opportunistic. Bravo to WH and I wish him an unforgettable second 12th birthday tomorrow!

  6. i love this story so much. and only a little because my dad got his green card in april as well. yay wh!!

  7. I really don't know what to say - I am so humbled by the recounting of WH's experience. Thank you (and him) for sharing it with us.

  8. Oh, what a fabulous story! I have tears in my eyes; I could totally feel what WH felt. Happy 2nd birthday indeed!

    Thanks for sharing his story, WT -- it reminds me to be grateful for what I was born to, what others risk so much to get to. We take so much for granted, when we should be grateful every day.

  9. Happy April 15th to WT & WH !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Oh this is a beautiful story! It made me cry and feel so proud to live here, just as WH feels. Great post!

  11. So many of us take our citizenship for granted, and forget that people, wonderful people, from all over the world wait patiently and survive unbelievable obstacles to become a member of our club. Thank you for sharing this story and reminding your readers how precious it is.

    Happy April 15 to WT and the Peacock.

  12. Happy 15th of April!

    I'm with Sassy, I almost cried. It's a beautiful story, and it's so great that you decided to share it with us :-)

  13. Thanks everyone for your comments! WH enjoyed reading all of your responses. Here's to another Tax Day!

  14. Just got around to reading this and I am moved by WH's and so many other's stories of their journey to America. A belated Happy April 15th to WH and you, WT for sharing his story.