I still remember it vividly. I was eight, in the grocery store check-out lane with my mom. Her German accent was heavy, and hard for some to understand. Like many immigrant children, I stepped in as translator and intermediary. But time stood still when I heard the clerk say to her, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” My mom grabbed my hand and walked out, leaving the groceries. In the car, she adjusted the rear-view mirror so I couldn’t see her face, but I heard her muffled sobs.
To most people, I look and sound like any other American. But I’ve never forgotten what it felt like – especially for my mom and dad – to feel “other,” and unwelcomed in our new country. I was born in England, to a German mother and Dutch father. My dad was in the hospitality industry, so we moved around a lot. I mostly grew up in Vancouver and Toronto. By the time I started school, I spoke English, German and French. That may sound exotic, but I wanted nothing more than to fit in.
In my first year of high school, we moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. My dad earned a U.S. visa because of “exceptional ability” in his field of work. That was defined as expertise beyond the norm for sciences, arts, or business. With the help of a team of corporate lawyers, my dad received his visa. We had to wait almost six months to get our visas to join him. I now understand that team of lawyers (and the circumstances that let us afford it) is what helped me become a permanent U.S. resident, as opposed to the deplorable experiences so many immigrants are forced into these days.
Right now, I’m in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. But I’ll always identify as an immigrant. When I read about the mistreatment of immigrants who are hoping to build a new life in America, I flash back to that moment in the grocery store. I take personally the bigotry and narrow-mindedness that spurs people to tell immigrants to “go back where you came from.” It angers me, and drives me to create change.
That day in the supermarket has fueled my career. I’ve spent the last 15 years mostly fighting poverty and inequality. As the CEO of the United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley, I’ve made it my mission to welcome everyone to my community of Winchester, Virginia, and to give every person the opportunity to grow and thrive. United Way fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community, and I’m honored to be part of that.
I’m working to battle the harmful narrative of anti-immigration. Please join me in speaking out against intolerance. Find out what local United Ways are doing here. Contact your local United Way to find out how to get involved. America is better than this. #United4Humanity