Calling All Poets & Storytellers!

Dear Friends,

I am writing this note to invite you to share your stories. You can choose a story that falls within any or all of these these themes: exileimmigrationnostalgia, and longing

I would love to receive your stories as a recording. I love listening to podcasts - so I thought it would be neat to hear your voices. If this option is not possible for you, you can send your story as a word document as well. Feel free to include other materials to support your story.

Please email your materials to:

elaheh@immigrantsandexile.org

By sending me your story, you are giving me permission to publish it on the Immigrants & Exile blog under your name or use it in a future podcast. You can choose to be anonymous. The point of this exercise is to open Immigrants & Exile to the public and inspire everyone to be open-minded in a time where hatred continues to seep deep. I believe that hatred stems from ignorance so why not educate the world and share love instead.

I look forward to hearing your stories.

P.S. If you need inspiration, here a is a short poem I recorded about my father and immigration.

With love & gratitude,
Elaheh

Picking at the Seeds

By Lilian Mehrel 

I have always felt a visceral lifting in my stomach when I watch my mother peel pomegranates. They are impossible to separate neatly — their insides rip like Velcro-lined jewels, pieces of the white foam-like rind stuck to the seeds. We are queens of the underworld with the seeds in our teeth and my mother’s fingernails stained with the juices. Somehow these fruits, like carmine breasts, hang from the memories of my mother’s family tree. They are an ancient and Near Eastern fruit, what Eve really liked to eat instead of little figs. Maybe it’s because my mother grew up eating them in Iran and brought that with her when she wove her life here, along with gold coins and the Persian New Year.

I wrote a poem about this once, what my mother brought with her to give to me. Among the poem’s images of double pomegranates and hearts, full moons, and a flying mother, there is a stanza about my birth:

Already when she knew me as a stomach moth
With alloy wings, wrapped up in her modern daughter.
Already she had plucked her heart from its humid strings, put it on my pillow.

I appear again in the poem in the last stanza:

My mother shouldered her heart and learned
To windsurf, just in case.
To tell me, This is yours.
To have a daughter, sitting in a moth-eaten closet, her nose
In the perfume of a doppelganger.

The windsurfing is my mother’s idea of how to escape in case the Iranian revolution ever happened again. And the part when I’m a moth in my mother’s stomach isn’t real, but I do have two hearts: my mother’s and my own. So I sit in her closet and lift her silk scarves to my face, breathing in all that is my background. It smells something like pomegranate.

...

To read the rest of Lilian's story, see her book.

 

 

Calling home

These days, I hesitate to call my mother.

I have to prep myself. I have to be ready for the emotions that follow after our conversation.  She tells me a new story about my father every time I call. “He can’t be left alone,” she says. “I placed his pills for the day in a bowl and hid the rest so that he wouldn’t confuse which days they were for. But he found the hidden bottle and took both including the ones in the bowl.  I was so worried. I kept asking him, ‘are you sure you are OK?’ and he just said fine, but he was quieter than usual. He can’t be left alone.”

I ache for my mother.  I ache for my father.  They weren’t soul mates, nor were they in love when they married.  My mother joined the revolution, and my father watched from afar, loyal yet hurt.  The government arrested my mother and imprisoned her for five years and my father was left behind to care for their three children.  This was their wound.  Immigration was their escape, but immigration has its own wounds and struggles.  Separation. Language barrier.  Finances.  My father finally retired at 81, but now his mind is far away, and my mother can’t retire yet even at 68. She is looking for jobs, unable to leave my father alone. They visited a senior home and my father refused to even consider moving there.

The is my wound now, having to accept their eventual disappearance.

These days, I hesitate to call my mother.

El Pedro on Instagram

Today is El Pedro's first day of taking over the Immigrants & Exile Instagram. Like myself, Pedro is an immigrant who's made NYC home. He thinks of his home in Ecuador often. Follow his journey on Instagram to learn more about the life of one immigrant artist.

 

 

Guest Post: An Immigrant's Story

By Alla Chrome

I started work at school as a physics teacher. It was impossible to have a full-time job as a fresh college graduate at that time. Full-time teachers had 18 hours per week and I had 10-12 hours. Two days a week I worked as a teacher at an extended day program for elementary school, which completed my hours for a full-time position. I wasn’t happy initially with my work at the elementary school, but it actually had unexpected benefits.

Teachers working at those cabinets established the rules and complied strictly with them. The laboratory had another door that lead to the recreation hall and was across the nurse's cabinet and in very close proximity, about two meters. The majority of visitors of the nurse cabinets were elementary school students. Some of them knew me from working with them at the extended program. It didn't take a long time when the nurse and I became good friends. Sometimes she came to me to ask a favor and sometimes I did the same. When her door was closed, students or teachers knocked at my door to ask to transfer some information or papers to her . The nurse was middle-aged, kind, a little naïve, single and without kids, cute but not a really pretty looking woman. Even though I was just 22 years old, I had a toddler at home, and she saw in me a person who knows how to deal with kids. Sometimes she came to me to express her frustration to deal with younger students but overall there weren't any problems or big accidents. 

One day, I was a teenage, single mom in Moscow, and the next, in a physics classroom and teaching a class when the nurse ran into my laboratory overwhelmed and panic-stricken. She was signaling to me in pantomime that she needed me;  something terrible was happening in her cabinet. I gave the class some work to do and stepped into the laboratory. The nurse was almost gagging about some first grade student who was sledding with other kids on the floor of the gym on their bottoms. The floor at the gym, as everywhere at school, happened to be made of pine tree wood which had some chips. As a result, the chip cleaved from the floor and had entered into that child’s derriere. The child was lying on the medical bench, and the nurse was running around the child, making him even more afraid. Oh, he was sobbing, and was ready to start crying. But he still had hope that big and powerful adults would rescue him.  I was staring at the kid’s bottom where the top of a huge splinter was visible, but it was the very sort that had to be pulled out with some medical forceps. But it looked like the nurse didn’t have such a tool. 

At the height of the calamity, I started to hear the noise from my classroom where I had left unsupervised about 30 middle school students. Minutes were running as seconds and nothing of great genius had come to my mind. The nurse and I came to close proximity of the kid, bent over him, trying to figure out a solution. The option was to call an emergency car. We knew that it would take hours before they would come. And for those hours the child would be scared, humiliated, and overwhelmed. And on the other hand it didn’t seem like such a big deal to pull the object out. I had  pulled splinters out by hand and teeth.  However, it had never been this big and located in such an unusual place. Time was running out and I was feeling the pressure to do something

I was in charge.

The nurse was not capable to handle that emergency situation. I had no time. I had no medical equipment.  I had no choice. The solution was simple. The next moment, I bent over the kid's bottom, hooked the splinter by my teeth, and pulled it out. I spit out the splinter into my palm and looked at him to see if he were okay. The kid stood up and pulled his pants up. He seemed to be okay. The nurse was shocked by my action and quick performance. Nothing more was I able to do. My mission was completed. The noise from the class was increasing dramatically, I was afraid that it would attract attention of the principal who was located on the same floor on the opposite side. I said good day to everybody, turned around and left the medical office. I was going to the class and felt it would be a problem to calm my students down since they tasted the freedom and carnivals taste blood, but that is a different story.

The Return Home

I see her body, floating above water, lifeless, surrounded by the living, the algae, the forest.  Her name is Beatriz.  She is an immigrant whose voice gets giddy and excited when she talks about her beloved Mexico and she can go on forever, telling you stories and marveling at the old memories.  She has been longing for the boat rides on the river, for the simplicity of a life that is beyond her reach now.  Here, in this America, she is questioned by how she came to this country. Is she legal or illegal? One must know her status, for as an immigrant, this is how she is defined. She is an outcast.  She is a healer, and a lover of the earth, and she suffers inside as people she knows begin to destroy this earth that she loves so much.  Oh, how she misses her home, her Mexico.  She keeps her goats and dogs in her home, gives them shelter, and love.

But one day a neighbor gets fed up with the goat, hearing it cry, that soft human-like cry, and out of the ignorance we call hate, he kills it. Beatriz is sad, grieving everyday. She misses him, and pictures his lifeless body again and again, as she drives through traffic, as she lays sleepless in bed.

You see, she is tired of healing others.  No one has healed her broken, immigrant soul.  Her soul has been neglected, like her Spanish conversations have been neglected, and the voicemails she leaves for the one friend from home whom she can't get a hold of.  No one understands the way she sees the world, the loving way she greets new people who only stare at her with incomprehension.

She can’t stand the hatred anymore, what’s going on in the world, that ignorance, that way the privileged get to live under bliss, pretending nothing is wrong because they are safe, in their expensive homes, in their expensive cars and clothes. They get to hide from the truth, run away from it, away from all the diseases that kill, the racism that bleeds through the streets, the anger, the ignorance. But not Beatriz.  Beatriz has a voice; she wants to heal the earth, save the lands from being eaten by multi-million-dollar developments. She protests. She suffers. She is tired.

But in the end, she stops fighting, but not because she gives up easily, oh no, she is far from giving up, but because she wants to return to mother earth, to the water that gave life to her once. This is her return home.

 

Baba's Mask

His family told him he was no longer permitted to drive. His eldest daughter sat him down that morning and said, “Baba, I am sorry to have to say this, but it is no longer safe for you to be driving.”

He could see her struggle as she held back her tears. He remembered that struggle well. When she was a little girl and her mother was serving time in prison, she learned how to grow up quickly. She hardly ever cried. She cleaned up after everyone, did her homework, and was so mature that Baba forgot she was not even yet a teen.

He looked at his daughter now with awe and sadness. He had no words to sum up his grief. He had lost the battle to retain the one thing that gave him control: the wheel.

Moments later, his son Hamid walked in to the kitchen and sat next to him. “Baba, we love you so much. We don’t want to upset you but this is important. It’s for everyone’s safety.”

Baba nodded his head but still said nothing. A long moment of silence passed before anyone spoke.

“Excuse me,” Baba said softly and rose from his chair.

“Baba…” Ra began but didn’t finish her sentence as Hamid motioned her to let Baba go.

Baba heard them whispering as he left. He tried to mute the sound echoing in his ears: “You’re nothing. No one loves you anymore,” the voice said repeatedly.

It was time to seek his special friend. Baba had discovered something in the attic that had become his savior and refuge in times like this when his family violated his freedom, when he felt defenseless. He admitted that at 80 years old, he was no longer as good a driver as he once was in his younger days. But he was tired of being punished for his age.

Baba slowly and gracefully went up to the attic. He had the key to himself and everyone was too busy and never bothered to see what was up there. Still, he locked it every time and kept the key in his left pocket.

Inside the attic, in an old wooden box, lay a mask. His special friend. When Baba wore it, he felt not only omnipotent, but also immortal. He resembled an eagle, with a distinct fierce face, big eyes and a defined jawline. He looked like he was ready for battle. He wore the mask at least twice a day, sometimes for hours. He forgot the passing of time. He forgot the tainted past, the years his wife spent in prison while cared for his children alone. He forgot that his body was decaying and that time would only prove his mortality.

“Baba! Baba!” he heard. Ra was yelling his name and the sound was getting closer.

“Oh no! I must remove the mask,” he said and began fumbling with it.

“Coming!” He yelled after he successfully took it off. “I will come back for you,” he said to his friend as he put it away in the box.

 

“Baba, you looked flushed,” his daughter observed. “Are you alright?”

“I am fine,” he said, slightly embarrassed.

He could still feel the power of the eagle’s disguise on his mind, his body, even his soul. It was as if he were elevated toward the sky, above earth, looking below down at his weak body. When did he lose his ability to focus? When did he lose his grip on the wheel? Could he have controlled it? Had he detected his weakness earlier, could he have prevented this?

“Baba…Baba, are you listening to me?” Ra asked as they walked back into the kitchen.

“Azizam, I am tired,” Baba said with fatigue.

“I am sorry. I don’t know how to say this, but I need your license,” she said.

“Oh,” that was all Baba could manage to say back.

He reached into his wallet and pulled out his license. He placed it on the counter and fought his tears. Baba did not cry. But he recalled the night of his wife’s arrest. The night the guards barged into his home and took her away. He had cried then, along with his eldest son, who was bellowing loud sobs in his room.

Baba never forgot that night.

Baba’s Disappearance

My father, my baba, was a muscular man once, clean-shaven, with just the right amount of cologne. He was the man, who looked after his children when the Islamic Republic of Iran imprisoned Maman. My Baba, an honorable man, a loyal man, never left his family, even in the hardest of times. 

“If you stop her from her political activities,” Mamanbozorg, my grandmother, warned, “she’ll divorce you.”

So my Baba stayed, out of love for his wife and children. He looked after his little girl and two boys for the five years that Maman spent behind bars, with the uncertainty of the future before her. Would she live? Or would she be executed like the many women and men, who were killed only because they spoke up against a dictatorship. In Iran, imprisonment is as normal and common as putting food on the table for the family.

Maman lived and a year after her release, she gave birth to me, a light out of years of darkness.  She was 38 years old.

Growing up, my Baba was strong. In my childhood eyes, he had no flaws. He prepared my breakfast sometimes and walked me to school. He made my sandwiches. Once he put honey in bread that literally had holes (Sangak). The honey leaked into the little baggy. I don’t think I ate that day.

In the afternoons at home, I called my Baba’s office. He worked for a textile company.  I asked the secretary to put him through and I waited patiently for him to answer. We may have exchanged only a few sentences, but it was comforting to hear his voice. 

In America, my father speaks broken English. He always has, and he always will. In America, my Baba works the same job he's had for the past 10 years His memory worsens day-by-day. His recent MRI revealed that because of his prior blood clotting, his brain has shrunk and his memory, as a result, is inevitably disappearing.

This is Baba’s disappearance and it hurts to write about it, to acknowledge and accept it as fact. It hurts to see him, a man of skin and bones, shrinking right before our eyes. Will he remember me the next time he sees me?

No matter what happens to our Baba, he will be the greatest father we, his children, have known. No one could have replaced him, replaced his loyalty, his forgiving heart, his unconditional love, his relentless fight to survive, to live, and in his own way, to dream.

The bitter taste of immigration

By Elaheh Farmand

Everything has a taste, a smell, a connection to the body, to the mind.

Immigration- the state of moving from one body to another, but carrying the same soul.

For the first few years, immigration was my mother’s home-cooked, saffron-infused Persian meals, bland due to my father’s non-fat diet. Bland and spice-less, saltless, forgettable and yet unforgiving of forever remaining the bitter taste of immigration.

Immigration was my father’s state of being, my father, whose fragile veins led him to America where doctors repaired him. His survival led way to his permanent residence in the States. My father, whose hatred for the Iranian regime stained the living room, the walls of our home when he cursed the television as the national anthem played.

My immigration embarrassed me, shamed and belittled me, made me feel inadequate, incompetent, insignificant. I had no words to express anger toward losing a country that at the time had done me no wrong. My mother recalls those first years: “you stopped laughing,” she says with guilt, as if my inabilities to smile and laugh were all her doing.

The discomfort of unfamiliarity constantly tore at my heart, like when we went grocery shopping and my parents’ English faltered. I stood watching words slip out of my father’s mouth, slippery and unconvincing. I watched my father struggle, and it was worse than his weak knees when he was ill before the surgeries, when his pace became slower, when he had trouble walking up stairs. This struggle, the one I related to, would remain a barrier for him, for as much he maintained and obsessed over his health, he never once attempted to mend his broken English – maybe because his heart too was broken beyond repair from the years he fathered his children alone, he the husband of an imprisoned wife. My father didn’t try to learn the new ways of American living. Instead he sank deeper and deeper into an unbreakable silence. He gave in to his new acquired power: his unspoken words.

It remained bitter for a few years, the taste of immigration. Immigration was a burden I carried, for I was supposed to, expected to feel free. This was my mother’s American dream but not mine. I resented her for betraying me. Before arriving to the States, she had promised me that if I didn’t like America, we could return home. She said this as she finished her prayer, kneeling before her God in her white, floral chador. Perhaps she had already given up her God. But those were her words. Even now, years later after we mended our relationship, in my dreams, I am upset with my mother. We continue to fight in my dreams, and I am angry at her. She often makes me cry. My heart aches when I wake up.

I don’t know at what moment I came to accept and love my immigrant self. It must not have been one precise moment, but an accumulation of realizations over the years. I used to get bored and tired of being asked where I am from at bars. My name was unusual, my accent was not. My Mediterranean eyes gave me away so I told the story of Iran. I recall the time my college roommate told a boy I was Japanese. I remember the confusion in his eyes. It was amusing and I appreciated her for saving me that night. For once, I didn’t have to tell the same story.

But that story gives me life now. That story is who I am now. That story, the broken English, the confusion, the anger, the sadness, that is how I’ve overcome my bitterness. That’s the story that allows me to bring people together now to talk about their immigrant experience. That story explains my hesitation to accept myself as the person I’ve become because of old fears I carry. I am a stronger woman because of that story.
Immigrant soul is weighted with loss and tainted with chaos.
Immigrant soul has anger, and sorrow and melancholy,
But also beauty and joy and freedom
Immigrant soul is heavy with nostalgia
But when it reaches lightness and contentment and confidence
Immigrant soul is at peace,
No longer at war with itself, its surroundings

Today, my immigrant soul is at peace.

Little women

By Elaheh Farmand

We stood in line: a formation of little women in uniform, covered from head to toe, our little faces only apparent through the headpiece, like nuns. We were little children, but expected to behave as adults. We raised our fists in the air, and chanted: “Death to America!” “Marg Bar America!” This was a daily practice, part of our routine.

America was evil, we were told, and our soldiers had their bloods shed, defending our country against the West. We stomped on the American flag and burned it. Uncle Sam was our enemy. We cried for our prophets, and mourned them for their martyrdom. We prayed and quietly accepted the silence that weighed heavy on us. When we turned nine, we became women. Women, forbidden to run around during recess. Women, forbidden to chatter with our classmates. Women, who would later be afraid to speak up. Women, who would later question our hatred for the West. Women, who would later immigrate to America, to the very land we were told to hate. Those of us who were lucky, may have been enlightened to learn that we were all part of an unfortunate political ruse.

After my father moved to America to tend to his illness, I stopped chanting “Death to America.” But my fist remained in the air, in compliance. My mother said: “We are not saying death to the American people. We are against their government.” Her words comforted me at the time. She taught me at a young age that the citizens were not at fault, but that it was governments and dictators that were at war with each other.

I grew up with so much fear. I cried before school everyday in the third grade. I prayed everyday, hoping for comfort to set in, for hope to grow within, but the prayers did nothing. I cried and I remember my brother Hamed approaching me one night to talk to me about it. I don’t remember our conversation. I wish I did.

Timidity and fear would burden me through adulthood.

It became especially hard as an immigrant to let go of fear, but I had to learn to raise my voice. I turned to writing because it didn’t require me to speak. It allowed me a space to express myself without having to raise my voice. Writing allowed me to make mistakes that could be edited.

Self Portrait

By KEFAS B

 If I could paint myself!!!

If I could paint myself I would start with my navel

And my mother.

On a fountain of white silks,

Golden threads and

Red lips

I would paint my brother

To my right.

The greatest love of my life.

And his patience.

Next to him, I would paint me at age 5.

Heels, dresses and wigs.

A mirror

in the bathroom.

Monologues and choreographies in silence.

I would paint shadows of me

at 6-7 and 8 years old,

When maybe I was more myself

Than never ever since.

If I could paint myself.

If I could paint myself

I would paint my eyes,

It’s fears and shames.

And a child with grown-up sins.

If I could paint myself,

I would paint me painting Dali

Painting himself,

when he thought he was a girl

At 6 years old,

And under the sea blanket,

Two dogs fucking…prematurely

If I could paint myself

I would paint in hopeful red

The words of the cowboy

Telling me I had something special

I would paint his boots and mustache

To remember I was told to be proud,

and to let the light shine

I would paint myself in his lap

listening for the first time I was something

I would paint my face in red, pinks and yellow

piercing shades of brown in my eyes

and a deep blue breath taking that moment in.

I would paint time still at that moment

before that memory got lost for decades.

If I could paint myself

I would paint a series of blows to my face

from the asshole in the sidewalk.

For free

For no reason

For fun

And the years of fear that came after.

And the burger and fries I never finished that afternoon.

And my 13 year old friends laughing it off.

If I could paint myself

I would paint 3 broken hearts.

And a decade without love.

I would paint my lips.

Tied up together with choked up words

Once for every year I’ve kept quiet.

If I could paint myself

I would paint myself in a room, in New York

Full of birthday and Christmas gifts, family pictures, summers in the sun, funerals, graduations, and conversations that never happened.

12 years of memories built through a calling card.

I could paint myself

I would paint dozens of needles and nails

Everynight in my head asking why, why, why.

And those little evil ferries whispering in my ear

Every single thing that has gone wrong.

Dropping memories I had long forgotten.

Telling me to tell myself why, why, why.

If I could paint myself

I would paint myself painting

W-H-Y all across that canvas

And setting it on fire.

Setting myself in fire.

And for this to be the last time I ask

Why why why

I would stop trying to paint myself and just be.

Immigrants & Exile: Series III

My dear friend and co-presenter Pedro and I met for coffee before the February 25th showcase.

He had a request for me.

“Do you think you could change the name to “Immigrants and Exile”, rather than “Immigrants in Exile”? Every time I see the title, I feel like I don’t belong in it because I am not in exile.”

We discussed the meaning of exile together. I explained that my idea was that a person could interpret exile in different ways. Anyone could experience exile without having to be an immigrant. But in the end, it made sense to change the title and allow more room for people to feel included if they didn’t relate to an exiled immigrant.

One of the performers, Dallas Rico, demonstrated exile by doing exactly this. Through a one-act scene, he took us through the time he was exiled by his church.  His performance was poignant, heartbreaking, and as an observer, I , along with the audience was able to experience his loneliness, his exile.  As much as I was saddened for him, I was grateful for his bravery to share such an experience, and to show us a different kind of exile.

 

Lost in Translation

By Elaheh Farmand

My hair was very short. I remember our friend's daughter told me that I looked like a boy.

Imagine.

Imagine that you are in a foreign country, dressed for the first time, not in a school uniform, but in denim overalls and a yellow tee. Your hair is uncomfortably short because your mother always cuts your hair for her convenience. You don’t speak the language and yet you are starting school, in a mixed-gender school, which may not have been a big deal had you not spent the last five years of elementary in an all-girls school, and had hardly any interactions with boys other than your male cousins and brothers.

So there I was, ashamed and embarrassed. I had no control over the situation. I didn’t want to be in America. Iran had done nothing wrong to me.  My siblings and closest cousins were still in Iran. I was alone, with parents who were also struggling with their English. Struggling already to make a living. Before our arrival, I imagined that my father had bought a house. It was natural, at the time, to think that my father could have afforded a house for my mother and me. He was my father, after all. A father who had provided for us back in Iran, who went to work everyday in a suit. We never had money problems. I knew we weren’t rich. We didn’t have a car, for one. But we didn’t really need a car so I didn’t care much. We had a comfortable home. We never went hungry. Money was never discussed, not in front of me.

To say that middle school was rough may be an exaggeration, but it was emotionally hard to accept myself as an immigrant. My mother was working at a high school cafeteria, my father the night shifts at 7-Eleven. Anytime we went shopping, money was a concern, which embarrassed me. Getting to the cash register was worse – hearing my parents struggle to communicate. I always looked away. I often tried to hide.

But I was fortunate still, to go to a school that offered an ESL program for non-native speakers.