I stepped off the plane and walked through the airport with my family. It was 2001, the summer before 9/11. We had a layover in Alaska before flying to New York City, our final destination. Through the tall windows lining the airport waiting area, we witnessed snowfall for the first time in our lives.
Needless to say, my brother and I–age 10 and 11 at the time–were overjoyed. Winter wonderlands were not exactly part of our childhood experience growing up in the Philippines. We took pictures with a big polar bear display, and pranced around with no cares. As the snow came down, we watched in awe with our noses pressed to the glass until the next flight called us for boarding.
Later that night, we landed in New York. We had several suitcases, filled with as much of our life as we could fit. And that was it. When the plane grounded, it was home.
I remember driving through Times Square as soon as the car started moving. I sat looking not exactly out of the car window, but up. At tall skyscrapers in a city full of life and light in the middle of the summer. It was my first impression of America: an endless bright sky even at night. I couldn’t believe that I was here.
Before I knew it, we were driving on quieter streets, much darker than 42nd and Broadway. Suburban houses. White picket fences and people walking their dogs on sidewalks. Exactly like I saw in movies and books.
We pulled up in the driveway of a quaint little home.
My new home.
This was the home my mom prepared for us in the months before the move. She flew the day-long flight back and forth getting all sorts of things ready. Paperwork, visas, green cards. Our house, our school, our neighborhood. It was all waiting for us. And everything fell into place, a dream and reality at once.
My mom walked us through the front door and gave us a tour. A living room, a kitchen. A piano. Bathrooms. A basement. A backyard with a deck and a pool, and a swing set for my brother and me. I had never dreamt of living in a house in America before. But there it was. A dream I didn’t know I had, come true.
I had a room.
My own room that had a bed for only me.
My brothers and sister had their own rooms, and my parents theirs. My mom decorated it with toys and posters, and a clock with Tweety Bird on it. I had everything; my whole family in one house, and a bedroom that I could call “mine.”
In the following months and years, the American dream kept unfolding, and I know exactly who I have to thank for that.
I had a neighbor on one side who asked me to come over and play in her backyard in the summers, and a neighbor on the other who went out of his way to plow our driveway when it snowed in the winters. I had a friend in school who taught me how to use a computer when I told her I didn’t know how. I had teachers who treated me and encouraged me the same way they did all the other kids. I had invitations to birthdays and block parties from classmates and neighbors. I had friends to ride bikes with, a team to play sports with, camp friends to spend summers with, a brand new culture to participate in, and a safe home to return to at the end of each day.
Looking back, I feel so lucky. I just had so much–all of which I can now say I took for granted. I grew up to call America “home.” And in some ways, it felt more like home than where I came from because of the strangers who, over time, became the people I shared this “home” with. They showed me love and kindness and respect as I grew up and found myself in a country that wasn’t mine until they showed me that it was. Actually, they showed me that it was ours.
Today I woke up and cried because I feel so lucky, and I also cried because there are children right now who aren’t. While reading the news this morning, I was brought back to the first time I arrived in New York, and how I felt no fear. I was a child, and I didn’t have a single worry–and that’s exactly how it should have been. I didn’t know I was an immigrant. I didn’t even know what that meant. Surely I didn’t have a full grasp of how much bravery and doubt it took to pick up and move lives the way we did.
What it would be like if we had arrived in New York today? Would I be terrified? Would I just want to go back where I came from because this seemed so much harder and scarier? How would I feel? What would people think of me? How would they treat me?
It pains me that there are children and families facing these questions as I write this. In ten or twenty years we’ll be reading what it was like for them as they landed in America to find that people didn’t greet them with open arms. We’ll read about those who came to our country in these last few years, and those words will be much different than mine. They’ll be about how much it hurt to be looked at differently, or what it was like watching their parents deal with disrespect. And they’ll write about how they didn’t understand why.
I feel a ridiculous sadness in recognizing my luck and circumstance sixteen years ago, and how it would have been different today. It makes me guilty thinking of how the families like mine might be treated in the current state of our country and politics, and the hardships they’ll face that I never did.
But through all of my tears and sadness this morning, there was one thought that gave me hope and assurance that immigrant kids like myself will discover goodness in their new lives in this country: There will be people who will make this place feel like home.
There will be people who understand. There will be kind strangers who open their homes to share their food and time, and there will be children who will play with them and treat them well. There will be people who go out of their way to help. There will be teachers and leaders in the community who will show them that they are part of something important. There will be parents who will teach them to be brave. There will be others like them to remind them that they are not alone. And there will be all of us, those who came before them, who will continue to fight to give them the new beginning they came here for.