On February 1st, a candlelight demonstration was held in San Luis Obispo in support of the Muslim and immigrant communities, in response to President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and temporary travel ban preventing people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. As one of the co-organizers, and an immigrant myself, I gave a short speech.
I understand the fear of these communities because I have been there before. My green card application did not go through on the first try. I had faced several immigration officers - upon returning to the US as a lawful permanent resident - questioning my integrity and threatening me with canceling my green card on the spot. I have been through so many fingerprintings and application reviews that I only chuckle when people warn me about privacy issues - this government knows more about me than my own mother. Regardless of whether this process is necessary for the safety of the United States, the fear of those who are affected is real, and having been through that fear, I can't but acknowledge it. And let's not forget - the worst case scenario for me was returning to a functioning country that was a part of European Union, not a place of war and terror.
My husband tried to record a video of my speech, but his phone ran out of space shortly before the end of it, so I'm including a partial recording, and a transcript.
Hi and welcome everyone.
My name is Andrea Chmelik. I come from Slovakia, which used to be a part of Czechoslovakia, which used to be a part of the Soviet Bloc. Which means, technically, that not so long ago I was your prime enemy.
When I was growing up, we used to have drills in school to prepare for the bad guys – meaning you – attacking us with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. And I understand that you did the same, only you were afraid of us.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about the danger of a single story and stereotypes. She says the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. And I think that we are seeing a lot of that narrative right now.
Today, I am what you would call an undercover immigrant. I don't look threatening and when I walk down the street, you wouldn't know that I wasn't born here. Until I open my mouth. This accent is not going anywhere. And when I do, people ask me where I come from and often they say: “Congratulations on being here! You are so lucky!”
And I am lucky. I am lucky that in my life, I have been given the opportunity to see past the stereotypes. After 14 years in the US, I know that the stereotypes about Americans are, indeed, true, yet they don't define the people of this country. I have gained so much by coming here – new family, new friends, new community, new language, new culture, new experience and new ways of looking at the world around me. At the same time, I left a lot behind – my family, my friends, my language, my culture...and it seems to me that the immigrants' sacrifice doesn't quite get the same acknowledgment in the midst of all the gratitude.
Junot Diaz, a Dominican American writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner, summed up this part of my immigrant experience in one simple sentence. He wrote: "I don't belong to English, though I belong nowhere else." Those words resonated with me so deeply that I wrote him an email. And he responded to it and said: “We immigrants deserve medals.”
I want to thank every single one of you for your support tonight and always.