This essay by Sofia Montes is part of the May 16, 2017 cover story, "A Place of Sanctuary."
I am different than most of my peers. I stay quiet, and I avoid interacting because I cannot fully grasp the Southern accent. I want to say something in class — my interpretation of the poem we just read — but I can't seem to sew my English together. Also, words do not roll off my tongue correctly; I cannot pronounce them like most Americans can. My classmates laugh at me when I say "comfortable" or "mirror," so I avoid saying them.
As we welcomed 2017, there has been a sudden rise in discriminatory actions against Asians. This encouraged a nonprofit organization to step up — Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) is addressing the rise of violence towards Asians and Asian-Americans alike. AAAJ built standagainsthatred.org, a website that holds stories of violated Asians all over the country. An anonymous submitter said that a man in his late-thirties followed him to his car while shouting "JAP," "VIETNAMESE," and "YELLOW [n....]!" while telling him to "ship his things back to his country." Another submitter said that somebody harassed her while she was eating Asian noodles, saying "Watch her slurping those noodles. Suck on us, you ch*nk wh*re."
I am one of the 18,700 immigrants in Charleston, and we have all sorts of stories to tell. Immigrants like me have various purposes as to why we're in a different place now. We did not freely choose to flee our homes, because admit it, who in their right minds would want to leave their comfort zones? "Moving to the U.S. is like taking 10 steps backwards. You don't know the culture and the language. The education and experience you have doesn't always translate our context." This is what Noor Amiri, a refugee from Afghanistan who moved to South Carolina, said when he shared his transitioning experience in the country. I can state a million reasons why we are residing in the United States now, but mostly, it's because we are seeking a better window for ourselves and our families. We dream, and we are dreaming big; we know that we deserve something more than staying in a Third World country where all our aspirations are suppressed by poverty and violence.
Home is supposed to be that lullaby a mother sings to her child. It's supposed to hold and comfort you, especially when things get rough. But if there are a couple of us who feel threatened, or feel like they are being marginalized because of all the stereotypical titles and images people have of them, then is Charleston still home?
- Ruta Elvikyte
- North Charleston High student Sofia Montes
I have not been in the country long enough to claim that the U.S. is "the feeling of relief as soon as I pull into the driveway after a road trip." It's not the morning of April when grandmother's Sopas is smelling from the kitchen, and it's definitely not my old, ragged hammock in the backyard. I am not familiar with this country; it is not my home, but if I were to take advantage of the "American Dream," I will have to make it one.
But how do I make Charleston, a city that's 8,900 miles away from where I was born, my new home?
For immigrants like me, home is where we can be our true selves without worrying about the prejudices of other people. It is where we feel comfortable practicing our norms and customs. It is where our beliefs and opinions are recognized and respected.
If Charleston is to be designed as a home for everybody, it will have to start with us — the communities that make up the city. One of the core features of a true home is acceptance. It's the welcoming, embracing feel of the surroundings. We should start seeing cultural differences as they are, without ridiculing them. We have to stop telling people of color to "go back to their own countries."
It is particularly difficult to encourage people to prevent degradation toward others, especially if they have strong viewpoints about them. I know it's nearly impossible not to have judgments about something; everybody is entitled to an opinion. However, we can always lead our peers to a positive environment. It's not too late to instill in each other's hearts and minds that wherever we come from, whatever we believe in, and whoever we are, we are not as different as other people. Because in reality, all of us are more alike than different.
Lastly, Charlestonians can organize support groups and organizations where people can discuss their experiences and provide emotional support for one another. We have to learn how to break the walls we built for ourselves, and realize that there are actually people around us who are on the same page. At present, South Carolina already has a couple of nonprofit organizations that provide comfort for minorities and immigrants. In 2014, the Sisters of Charity of South Carolina launched the Immigrant Families Initiative that is dedicated to lifting immigrant families out of poverty. It is a partnership of other small groups that offers resources to build inclusive, welcoming environments for immigrants as they integrate into South Carolina, their new home. Let us build more connections with one another; empowering the marginalized is the best way we can eradicate racial discrimination.
We, foreigners, may be different. Our culture is like another world. Our English is not something we know like the back of our hand, and we may even speak with an "accent." But as humans, all of us feel the same emotions, and one of them is the ability to feel hopeful. Hope motivates us — it rubs our backs and assures us that life will be better one day. But for immigrants, hope is what keeps us going. Hope allows us to build a home away from home. It's the whisper in our ears that someday, the people around us will be able to respect our fervent desire for betterness in our lives. So for now, all we can do is hope. Sofia Montes, a ninth-grader from North Charleston High School, is a Filipino immigrant. While aspiring to be a pediatrician, she wants to be the voice of the unheard and misunderstood, like immigrants like herself and the LGBTQ community. She also speaks for women's rights and stands up for the harassed and abused.
Sofia has written and edited for her schools' newspapers and has won awards in news writing, feature writing, and copy-editing.