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Would you remember your first day as a migrant?

My own journey to America and SAADA's work on preserving our stories

If you were to pack all your belongings and move to another country, would you remember your first day there?

I'm writing this from Cartagena, Colombia, where I am on a mini trip for the weekend, my first excursion into South America. There isn't as much English spoken here as I had expected. My broken Spanish seems to be accented incorrectly, because I am basically unable to converse with most people in more than two-word phrases.

It's the perfect place to be writing this, as I'm thinking back to January 15, 1990, my family's first day in the U.S. I was five years old, the middle child with siblings just a couple years apart from me. My parents were around the age I am now. They spoke English, my father more fluently than my mother, but no amount of Hollywood movies had prepared them for the foreignness of this place they would now have to call home.

I remember two things, although I can't be sure now whether these memories are real or just creations from stories told and thoughts accumulated in the years since:

1. Lady Liberty's warm embrace

I remember my father sitting in the window seat of the airplane, pointing out the Statue of Liberty to me on our descent into New York City. It seems too storybook now, but maybe it's true. Maybe Lady Liberty was the first to welcome us to our new home.

We were certainly tired, having lugged as much stuff as possible with us and spent two days in London with a distant cousin on our journey across the globe, if not quite yearning to be free. (I still can't sort out the real reason why my parents left Lahore, although I suspect it had to do with the instability of a newly created Pakistan and the lack of uncertainty about future prospects for their children. And maybe my father's affinity for Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck. But I'm pretty sure they were free there too.)

Were we poor? Certainly, we arrived with privileges. My parents spoke English, were college educated and came from wealthy backgrounds by Pakistani measure. But they had to build a new life here in the U.S., and none of the currencies in which their wealth resided seemed to translate — including their degrees, their connections, their class.

We were lucky to have family to stay with in those early days, a generosity that was both a marker of the hospitality of our people and a debt I feel I can never repay to my cousins. We stayed with family in Brooklyn and then San Jose, where I would grow up, but after that, it was all hustle and grit. My childhood is marked with memories of tense financial situations and stressed out parents who didn’t quite know how to handle being completely separated from the communal way of living in which they had been raised.

I think my parents reasoned that, as long as they could hang on until their kids were in college and on their way to well-paid careers, it would work out. And it did. As my people say, alhamdulillah. Praise God for that. (We are a superstitious folk, which is why we constantly evoke God to humble ourselves. It's not meant to be militant, in the way that it's often painted here in America. But I digress.)

2. Welcome. Now, pee

I remember peeing in a cup in a public bathroom stall at JFK Airport. I was confused as to why this new country and its officials wanted my urine. I did as I was told, but I suppose the confusion made the memory stick in my childhood mind. I still don't think I've worked out the reason for the sample (DNA? Drugs?).

Ambreen at the age of 4

Me in the backyard of my family's home in Lahore, before we moved (Photo courtesy of Ejaz Ali)

That's all I remember about my first day in America. It's a distant memory now, but migration is forever etched into my Americanness: I will never be president, I will always carry a hyphen, I will forever feel like I am not an American-born citizen, despite this being the only country that feels like home. I became a naturalized citizen at 15, but for years my childhood friends enjoyed teasing me for being an "alien," as stated on my residency card. As a writer, I have grappled for decades with my insecurity about English being my second language.

I write all this because I recently connected with the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), a sweet little organization just across the Delaware from us in New Jersey. This Philly-based nonprofit "uses the power of stories to create belonging for 5.4+ million South Asian Americans." They have a new office, a growing staff and several innovative projects that document the Desi immigrant experience.

One is the First Days Project, a collection of stories by immigrants about their first day in the United States. You can browse the stories by geography, or by date of arrival. I'll point you to the ones from New Jersey, but I hope you take your time exploring it.

For this issue, I interviewed Samip Mallick, who has led SAADA for over 10 years, and who is an infectiously warm human being. The doors to SAADA are open to you, figuratively and literally. Get involved in one of their projects, or visit them the next time you're in Philly. They'll even take you on a walking tour of historic Philadelphia through the lens of South Asian American history. Powerful stuff.

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6 questions with SAADA's Samip Mallick

Samip Mallick

Samip Mallick (Photo courtesy of Sej Saraiya)

It seems like SAADA has been around a while, but that you recently saw some major growth. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

SAADA is an organization that I helped to establish 15 years ago, after recognizing that stories from the South Asian American community weren't being systematically collected and preserved by any dedicated museums or archives. At the time, I feared that not only were our community stories not being heard, but moreover that they were in danger of being lost entirely.

We've been very fortunate in that — because of our community's support and participation, as well as more recent recognition from major groups like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation— SAADA has been blossoming in recent years. Our staff has now grown to include six full-time employees in the last year.

We recently moved into an office of our own—our first, after 15 years!—and there's an incredible amount of energy and momentum behind the work that we're doing to ensure that our community stories are preserved and shared.

Why have you devoted yourself to this work? What is the power of stories?

Our work is incredibly personal for me. As someone who grew up in the United States in an immigrant family and felt throughout my childhood that I wasn't seeing myself reflected in the American story, to begin to learn about my own community's history was incredibly transformative. It changed the way I saw myself and my place in the world.

It is SAADA’s mission to be able to share that transformative feeling with other members of our community. We especially want to reach young people, many of whom unfortunately still feel excluded from the American narrative. Stories are what make that transformative impact possible — It's through the power of stories that people begin to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of connection with others, and a sense of seeing their place in the world.

What's your own family's background, and how do you feel that SAADA's work is helping preserve the stories of that experience?

My parents immigrated from India in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were part of that first wave after the 1965 Immigration Act. I have interviewed my parents for the First Days Project, where we collect and share stories from immigrants and refugees about their first experiences in the country, but otherwise my family's personal story isn't significantly represented inside the archive.

However, our community’s stories are, and knowing that there are other people who shared my experience and the experiences of my parents helps me feel that sense of belonging that I referred to previously. I know that even if my own specific story is not in the archive, stories that represent mine are!

What kind of impact do you think this work has on the South Asian American community? Are there any memorable moments when that impact really came alive for you?

I think what's most meaningful for me personally is seeing the impact that SAADA's work has on young South Asian Americans, because it reminds me of myself and that sense of “not belonging.” I've been so fortunate to be able to witness the archive’s impact directly.

I remember sharing stories about the early immigration of South Asians in college classrooms and seeing students moved to tears, feeling like for the very first time they felt represented. They felt like their identities, their communities, their stories mattered and that they were a part of that.

At your recent stakeholders meeting, I heard that you will also be providing support to other communities seeking to do similar work. How do you think this kind of initiative can help other communities?

SAADA has been a leader in community-based storytelling through the work that we've done for our community, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to share our approach and experience with other communities that have been historically marginalized as a way to support similar work of their own.

For example, SAADA is one of the initiators of the Community Archives Collaborative, which is a collective of more than 20 archives, each working to share stories from their own marginalized communities. I feel like we have a strong responsibility — coming from a community that does have strong needs but also has lots of privilege — to share the benefits that we’ve had with other groups that have been excluded.

We're so lucky to have you in Philly, right in our backyard. What are some other ways New Jerseyans can get involved with SAADA?

The best way to begin getting involved is to visit our website! From there you'll see the myriad possibilities for getting engaged with SAADA’s work. Specifically, for those in New Jersey, what's really exciting is that New Jersey is now one of four states that has passed legislation requiring Asian American history to be taught in K-12 classrooms.

SAADA is currently creating resources that can be deployed in New Jersey classrooms, and on our website, you can learn about ways to support our efforts to ensure that South Asian American stories are being taught in New Jersey classrooms. Beyond that, if you're in the Philadelphia area, we host a walking tour called Revolution Remix, which shares stories of South Asian Americans in Philadelphia dating back from the 1700s through the present day; we would love to have any local readers join us on that tour the next time you’re in town.

And, of course, anyone can apply to join the SAADA Street Team, our volunteer force that collects immigrants’ stories to add to the archive.

Thank you, Samip! I hope that hearing from him leaves you inspired about the power of building community through storytelling.

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