Points In Between: Episode 1
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 1: Leaving Home
Shane: Can you just introduce yourself by name in …what is your first language?
Shiraj: My first language is Oriya.
We’re starting in the middle of the story. Just so you can picture the scene: two of us are sitting at a table in a public library in the Bay Area. It’s winter break. The space is quiet, but it’s actually pretty full of patrons. There’s a guy sleeping in a chair not far from where we’re sitting.
Shiraj: [introduces himself in Oriya] This is pretty awkward.
I’m talking with a 17-year-old who attends a big public school near San Jose. He has kindly agreed to help me out with this project by talking with me on tape.
Shiraj: Okay, my name is Shiraj and I’m from India. I was born in Bangalore.
Shiraj and many other people I interviewed have had radically different experiences, but they all spent part of their childhood outside the United States and they’ve all attended school in the US. Which means they have something else in common, too: a story about leaving home. It’s the middle – not the beginning – of their tale and each story hints at what came before and also frames what comes after. This episode of Points in Between is about that experience of transition.
So back to Shiraj. When he was in fourth grade, Shiraj went off to attend a 160-year-old British-style boarding school in India. It took him a while, but once he adjusted he loved it.
Shiraj: And there was not a single person I don't know in the school. Even a twelth grader and fourth grader, they interact. It was so… it was so easy to speak about yourself and there's no one to judge you maybe. And the teachers are… because we lived there, we spend a lot of time with them. They're like our parents. They can – they help you. They become your…that’s your second home.
Each year ended with an extravaganza, with alumni returning to visit the school, famous speakers, and a performance viewed by the whole community.
Shiraj: And then there used to be this Sunset Sensation where you either play with fire or maybe sometimes it was hula hoop and then they would watch you either do fire playing with fire or maybe lights or maybe there used to be those sticks…girls used to dance at that time. There's like…there used to be like more than a hundred people more than a 100 people I guess. So it looked really beautiful from top.
The end of his sophomore year seemed like any other end-of-term for him and his class – or “batch” as he calls it.
Shiraj: And yeah that happened and I went … we just had dinner, like our whole batch had dinner and then I said, “I'm going to the US for these holidays because just to…because my parents are moving and I'm just going as a holiday.
But once he arrived in California to visit with his family, the situation changed.
Shiraj: And then we started talking, most my parents friends and my relatives and my family said that it would be easier for you to go to college here if you study here. It's a good exposure for you. I had no… I didn't want to. I mean my parents did not force me. But the way that they convinced me. They also talked to a teacher who was in our school. He also said it's better to study in the United States because it's more exposure and whatever and then it was kind of my choice. It was not my parents’ choice…the way everyone convinced me. I mean, I kind of had no choice.
This conflict, between the practical benefits of opportunities in America and the deep emotional ties to home, showed up in conversation after conversation. This trade-off can’t really be separated from a new student’s feelings about school in America. Decision made, Shiraj had to tell his friends that their end of term celebration had actually been his last day of school with them.
Shiraj: So and then there's like this WhatsApp, everyone’s there, and I was like, “Guys I'm leaving because… I have to. I mean it's better for me to study here and then yeah. I mean yeah, our farewell wasn’t.... We never knew I was leaving. Also most of my stuff was in my school, like my clothes, and then I told my batch mates that, “You can have them as a memory, as my remembrance, you can have that.” And then my jerseys…I used to be a sports person and I used to play every sport so all my jerseys were leftovers so all my friends had it. I told them keep it from me. And then they kept it and then after like two or three months or something they wore it and then they posted it on Facebook and they said, “For Shiraj.” It was so sweet.
In most of the accounts I heard, the process of leaving took months and kids were aware of – or even intimately involved in – the process.
Caroline: [Introduces herself in Czech]
Caroline spoke to me from San Diego, where she’s a college student. She left Prague, Czech Republic, at age 14. Her parents were divorced and she and her mom lived in a 2-room apartment. Her mother wanted to make a new start.
Caroline: She's always been a housewife she's always been at home. I've had her for myself half my life and that's just what she loves to do. She loves to take care of the home. So that was kind of the goal. We were first supposed to move to London because she was, she met a guy that lived there and she hung out with him a couple times and it was looking very promising and everything was fine. And then something happened and...I forget what the story was. She went over there and I guess it didn't work. Anyway, like within another year she ended up seeing somebody else who was from San Diego.
So just like, we were kind of already in the mentality of like OK like we could do this, we could move like... there's nothing here really holding us. She just said you know, “Let's do it.” That's when she start slowly started kind of cutting ties and everything and just packing and bank accounts, just doing all the very official stuff that took a really long time.
Unlike Shiraj, for whom leaving was practical but painful, Caroline looked forward to the move. But her mother told her to keep the plans to herself.
Caroline: But I just wasn't supposed to go out and tell everybody until like it was confirmed that we were going the next week or something. So I remember, sometime like near the end of 8th grade we were hanging out of the classroom up in a park somewhere. And me and my best friend were talking to our class teacher and some other one. And that's when I told them like, “Yeah, so, we're moving to America. I'm not going to be here next year.” And that’s when it started kicking in really when I was like, wow like, I'm not going to go here anymore. I'm not going to speak Czech most of my time.
As a frustrated teen who, by her own description, wasn’t the most popular kid in school, Caroline saw the move as an opportunity.
Caroline: It was exciting once It sort of really started kicking in that I was going to leave all that behind. I was excited to have a new chance sort of, at this whole I don't know... everything and just school because that's the primary focus of life at that age is just so you know because you go to school all the time that's where your life is - to just have friends, to do well. I wanted that second start.
The pursuit of Happiness, as Jefferson called it, is a common component of the decision to leave home and seek out a new life. It’s real. It does happen. But other times leaving is an escape, not a pursuit. One that is intended – initially anyway - to be temporary.
Roya – I was born in Kabul Afghanistan…
Roya left Afghanistan with her mother and sisters at age 11. Her dad had passed away when she was 6.
Roya – [Introducing herself in Farsi]
The year Roya turned 11 and left Kabul was the same year that Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan and what had been an anti-Soviet war began to turn into a civil war.
Roya – My older sister lives in America. She was convincing us to leave Kabul and it wasn't… the situation wasn't getting better. That's the time when the bomb rockets start exploding in the city in Afghanistan. The buses were blowing [up] the movie theaters, just… you know. And I lost a friend from school that she was at the bus and that she lost her life. It was a bomb.
And then I remember our teacher took all of us to her house. We went to see the parents. I thought that was very…that always stays with me, as a kid to go, you know, to a family's house with a bunch of school [kids] just to let them know that we're here. So the situation got so bad because they start sending blind rockets in Kabul. So that's the time my mom's said, “OK it's time for us to go.”
Leaving required strategy and resources.
Roya: My mom had a lot of girls so the situation of leaving Kabul to go in the rough route, like if you go and Pakistan or Iran - the smuggling area - it was very dangerous. A lot a women were being raped, snatched. So the whole situation was really scary, so my mom was decided that she would not take all her girls and just doing this smuggling way. If she would leave, she would leave in a flight, you know like a safe way. Because you hear so many horrible stories what happened to families who left. Their car would be bombed because people would think they were smuggling weapons or something and the government would blow up the buses or the trucks because they didn't know what was coming or what's leaving the city. Because still the government was controlling and wouldn't let anybody leave the country because it was kind of a sign of weakness if people are fleeing out.
Roya’s mother found a way to bring her children to India, by airplane.
Roya: …and then let the government know the reason why you're going. See, usually because India has the best medical facilities so a lot of people go for treatment in India. So everybody kind of used that token of like, “Oh we're sick we're going to India.”
They filled out forms for passports and visas and then Roya, 11-years-old, dropped them off at the passport office near her school.
Roya –I did initial process of getting that passport. I'm so proud of myself. [giggles]
Even with their passports and plane tickets, the family still had to maintain the fiction that their trip to New Delhi was temporary.
Roya: So my mom with my other sisters they left first, I stayed behind with my younger sister and then my aunt was watching us for three months, and then I got the visa and then I end up going there, joining my mom.
The irony is, it wasn’t entirely a lie. Roya’s mom was not trying to start a new life in another country.
Roya: Her ideal part was to just stay for a few years when the war gets done we move back. But that was her, she was hoping that the war is okay then we don't have to go anywhere where you know she wants to go back because it's her whole family is there. Her brother her sisters like her whole entire life because we didn't... we just basically pack our backpack and left. We left everything behind. So it wasn't like for my mom was like… she didn't really detach herself saying like, “We're fleeing we're not coming back.” She always like had this hope that she's coming back.
But if you know anything about what’s happened in Afghanistan, you know things didn’t calm down.
Roya: And she lost the hope because it was like everybody's leaving. She keep hearing all these bad news, people are dying. So it was like, OK. And then that's the time my older sister, she sponsored us, she brought us here in America.
About 4 years after Roya came to CA, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. She and her family were here to stay.
Our next account of leaving home comes from a 19-year-old college student currently attending school in Vermont.
Omar: I am Omar Al-Sayeed from Aleppo, Syria.
Like Roya, Omar didn’t come straight from Syria to the United States. First, he went to the United World Colleges to complete the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which is a pre-collegiate degree. UWC has campuses in 17 countries and each class is made up of students from around the world in a kind of conscious effort to promote international peace and global competency among its students. As I said, this is a story of leaving home. Omar is one of many people whose journey has multiple steps. Also, if you haven’t been paying attention to the events in Syria for the past few years, this would be a good place to pause and look up the Battle of Aleppo, between 2012 and 2016. Context is important. Omar begins by talking about his decision to apply to UWC rather than trying to enter Germany as a refugee.
Omar: My primary reason was basically just leaving the country. Was taking a ticket out, one way ticket out of the country, and that's it. Because that last year was the year when we, my family, decided to leave the country. We were… because we waited for about five years. And like every year every family in Syria in Aleppo especially was like, “OK we hope that this year it will finish something will change. You never know.” But then after five years we kind of realized that this is going to take longer and it's unbearable. So we decided to leave. But for me I was like, “This is this is one way of leaving and this is actually the best way of leaving.” Because the thing is that I knew since that time that when you arrive at, let's say Germany, they wouldn't just put you where you were and you would continue your life perfectly. You would need to struggle with the language first and then you would be put back three or four classes and then you would need to start all over. So I knew that UWC was like basically a perfect ticket out of the country. So I applied for it. I got in and … that was basically actually my last time in Syria, that time when I left to Armenia.
But, I mean, obviously Omar’s parents and siblings couldn’t go off to UWC with him. So that brings us to another frequent theme from stories of leaving home, which is separation from family – either geographic, or emotional, or both. For a lot of newcomer students, an American school experience comes at the cost of familial relationships.
Omar: And at the same time my family left to Germany, where they are now. So basically if I wasn't accepted to UWC I would be also now a refugee in Germany.
My mom always knew that like I applied to the school and I think she didn't really want to believe it. And it came… it boiled down to the last day, like the last the last day because they left like three days before my leaving. And it like ended on the door of my house. I think everyone was crying and they were all leaving together and leaving me. That was like the first time in the history of the family where one member would be left back and everyone else would leave. And we knew that it might be a long time where we see each other again and that was… that was a really… I don't know emotional moment where like my mom is saying goodbye to me. And she knew that… To be honest like we knew that something… like I was more sad because I knew that something might happen with them on the way and they are going on the same road that you always see in the news where people are drowning and people are dying out of cold, hunger, and many other dangers. So for me that was like, “Oh, that might be the last time.” And not for one or two of them, for all of them. So that was why it was really, really hard I would say, at that moment.
I taught high school for a long time and I had a lot of conversations with anxious parents, worried about their kids navigating everything from unfamiliar public transit to overnight school trips. As I listened to Omar’s story, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for his parents to leave their teen-age son in a war zone to make his way out of Aleppo, across multiple international borders, to a school they had never seen.
Omar: No…And something actually happened, that's the thing, because after they left…. So I stayed in the house and then after two days I left and I was stuck actually at the borders between Syria and Lebanon because I was a minor then and I had to have permission and the Lebanese national guards didn't really like me. Their mood wasn't really nice and basically they were sending me back and the school had to delay, like to renew my flights three times and it was really a mess because it was just basically like… my whole situation was legal and the Syrian part wasn't doing much trouble it was the Lebanese part.
And then it was solved. Somehow we managed it but then I made it and it was… I arrived to Armenia and that's when I was fine but I still knew that they are not fine. Therefore I wasn't fine. And this is when their journey took about 24 days and that was like I think one of the most stressful periods of my life where I couldn't really have communication with them. So that period was really stressful and it was really… and I mean, on top of all of, of course, the change from like suddenly taking someone from the middle of Aleppo and throwing them with like a bunch of people from like 70 countries and speaking English suddenly and having three roommates I had never met before and, yeah, that was like a huge change with all of the stress that is coming from the fact that my family is moving.
Omar spoke with me from Vermont, where he was spending the first part of his holiday break in his very quiet dorm. His family lives in Germany, but because of the current US ban on travelers from six countries, including Syria, they can’t come visit him here and, if he goes to see them he risks being unable to return.
In some stories about leaving home, like the one you heard from Shiraj, the international border gets only a passing mention. But in others, the encounter at that international boundary becomes a chapter unto itself. These last two accounts focus closely on crossing the southern border between Mexico and the united States. You’ll hear the stories interwoven, but first let me introduce you, starting with Yesica.
Yesica: My name is Yesica Prado. I’m 25 and I'm Mexican
Shane: Can you introduce yourself in your first language?
Yesica: [Introduction in Spanish]
Ruth: [Introduction in Spanish]
Wait, let’s try Ruth again.
Ruth: My name is Ruth and I live here in Oakland.
This is the thing. Ruth isn’t Mexican. She was born in Ohio. But, as you’ll hear, she did cross the southern border from her home in Mexico into the US. She grew up speaking Spanish. And, hearing her story alongside Yesica’s highlights some interesting questions about the complex identities created through migration. Before we continue, let’s just take a moment to find out why Ruth was in Mexico.
Ruth: I remember lying in bed knowing that we were moving to Mexico City, that there had been the possibility of us moving to Peru. But that we were moving to Mexico City and that I wasn't allowed to tell any of my friends or my neighbors or anyone at school, and that what I was to tell them was that we were moving to Texas. The reason why I couldn't tell anybody was because it was dangerous for me and for them to know and for other people I didn't know to know. My parents were assigned to go to Mexico from… the Communist Party to do support work for revolutions that were taking place in other places of Latin America and to raise awareness and consciousness and solidarity in order to further the international revolution.
Several of the people I interviewed had a hard time answering the question, “Where are you from?” Ruth would never claim to be Mexican, but she lived there for most of her school years. She adapted. She didn’t quite fit in but she also wasn’t the same person she would have been if her family had stayed in Ohio.
Let’s get back to the border.
I should note this section of the show contains a little bit of profanity.
Yesica: I remember exactly when I came. It was Sept 18 of 2002. I was actually enrolled in school, I was in 6th grade. I was looking forward to it because in elementary school in Mexico it only goes up to 6th grade so you get to be the cool kids, you’re the big kids in the school so I was excited about that year and that’s when they took us here. I was like “NO!”
Ruth: So I was 16 and again it was the summer. It was the end of June and my parents were deported.
Yesica: …So the week before they took me out of school when we were about to leave I had to say goodbye to all my friends and… I tried to give them some of my stuff because I knew I wasn’t going to come back to them.
Ruth: …I was in my…hat would it be? Sophomore, the end of my sophomore year. I went to a friend's house. And then I stayed at her house late till like 1:00 or 2:00. I guess I was going to spend the night…I heard the phone ringing and ringing and ringing and just hearing the phone ringing I was like, “Oh fuck, it's all over.” And then you know 20 minutes later I hear the front door bell [imitates sound of doorbell] being rung and I was just like, “ Oh, damn!” And then my friend goes out and I hear her say, “Ruth? Yeah? What do you mean she has to go with you?”
Yesica: … it took a really long time for us to get here. I want to say we departed on September 18 and we …it probably took us a month.
Ruth: …So then I got home and I packed a duffel bag and went outside and my brother was on the phone with lawyers and et cetera. And then my brother drove into the city to the city hall and he drove like a bat out of hell. We got there in no time at like 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.
Yesica: …We got to the border like probably… we left on a Wednesday, we got to the border probably like around Friday. Then we met with the lady that was supposed to cross us. They ended up charging my parents about $2000 per head. So… it was 8 of us, so that was $16,000…that was $16,000 just to cross us all. So that was kind of… so for people that work in Mexico that's a lot of money.
Ruth: …And I got there and my parents were there being detained and they explained to me that… the officials explained to me that my parents were being deported for unlawful engagement in political activities and I had an option to either stay or come with them.
Yesica:… Because my parents paid two grand per head, we were able to cross through the line. So basically it was just me and my sister in a lady's car and we crossed here with her daughter's papers. We just pretended that we were her daughters. They didn't check the pictures or anything. We just had to say, “I'm American” and then that’s it and then they’ll let you go.
Ruth: So then they put us on a private jet and flew us from Mexico City to Tijuana… on the other side of San Diego. And one of the… what are they called… judiciales, which is kind of like the judiciary system of Mexico who are immune to any repercussions if they hurt you so you're really scared of them. They're always dressed in black with big black sunglasses. And he said to me, “You're sad, huh.”
Yesica: …The ones that actually got more in trouble was actually my dad. He actually did get caught on the border. So first they tried to cross them through the river, actually the shallow part of the river, but he got caught with my cousin. My cousin is the same age as me. He was 9 at the time, as well. So then we were already at the border we had to wait for them to cross. So we were there waiting for them to cross for about a week and then finally they were able to cross the same things as… through the line.
Ruth: …Overnight they flew us and then we crossed the border by foot and the immigration officer on the U.S. side said, “Welcome home!” Had no idea. We had our passports.
Yesica: …We were in El Paso, Texas. So we were there with a host family. I think it was like the family of a coyote on the other side. So we were there probably like around… I want to say two weeks in her house because nobody wanted to take us. It was too many kids because we were going from El Paso, Texas all the way to Chicago and that was like a long travel.
Ruth: …and then we took a bus from San Diego to LA? Or to the airport of San Diego, and then flew here to San Francisco and had my uncle meet us.
Yesica: …So basically we stayed there until somebody actually was willing to take us. I think this guy was probably dropping off some, um, load in Dallas, TX. I'm not sure what kind of load he was carrying, but he had a big trailer. So he took us there in the cabin, so we didn't go in the actual...so that was nice at least. But we were in the cabin and we had to be hiding. So basically my parents had to hide under the seats and then I had to hide behind one of the...he had like a… you know a DJ system? Those big speakers? So yeah, so he put me inside one of those speakers and I was like okay well, at least I fit in here. But yeah, it was interesting because we like we actually got stopped and actually a cop did come in and tried to search his load. Just like, "What do you have?" And luckily they didn't find us as well either. We got lucky because I mean you got six kids in a cabin and they had a dog as well. So I'm surprised he didn't bark or anything so...
Yeah so we did get lucky. We got lucky so many times. So once he took us he dropped us off in Dallas TX and it was like, “Well, now you're on your own.” He dropped us off at the Greyhound bus station. Once we were there we had no idea how to buy our ticket and my mom was just like, "OK, You're the only one that knows some English." Dude, I only knew the colors, the numbers, like really, you know, “Hello,” phrases, “How are you?” And they expected me to buy the bus ticket for everybody to get us to Chicago. And I was only 9, so I was like, Okay...I went to the ticket booth with my mom and tried to buy a ticket. She kind of did understand me, so that was good, but I think I ended up buying the wrong ticket because we ended up buying like a tour bus ticket. So that took us even longer to get to Chicago because it was making stops all throughout. And it was just like, Dude! We can't even get to our destination! So yeah. it took us a whole month just to get over here.
What does it mean to ask someone where they’re from? If you get asked that question a lot, as happens to some people, it starts to sound like more than innocent curiosity. The answer to the question is, at root, a binary: you are either “from here” or “not from here”. Even if you’re being asked by someone who hopes you share a place of birth and is seeking a connection with you, the crux of the question still boils down to “are you from where I am from? Or Not…from where I am from.”
This first episode focused on leaving home, crossing borders, because wherever they end up, that’s the moment in each person’s story when the answer to the question becomes “not from here”.
In the next episode of Points In Between we’ll explore the nuts and bolts of school days outside the US.
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.