Immigration Policy Vigil Speech


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.



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.




Metamorphosis


In a matter of months, we leaped from unthinkable to acceptable. I remember that during the primaries many of my friends - regardless of their party affiliation - denounced Donald Trump's behavior. His attacks on the other republican candidates, his nicknames for them, his absolute lack of respect or self-control - all of that was considered inexcusable. When he clinched the nomination, many of those same people decided that out of all the options on the table, he was the only one they could vote for. With that decision, the inexcusable suddenly became excusable. And now that Donald Trump is the president-elect, they not only accept the excuses for his behavior, they actively make them up. This is how fast we moved from condemnation to glorification.

This progression isn't limited to Donald Trump. Many people voted for Hillary Clinton not because they agreed with every single point on her agenda, but rather because they wanted to stop her opponent. Yet today, the nostalgia is already placing her on pedestal she would have most likely never achieved had she won the presidency. Think about the emotional response to Kate McKinnon's Clinton "Hallelujah" performance on Saturday Night Live.

Hillary Clinton was far from a perfect candidate - not necessarily because she was a Clinton, but because there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. This is especially true in the country that only has two major parties. Candidates come as a full package. Some parts we love and some we'd rather flush down the toilet. Yet instead of remaining sharp-eyed critics, we turn into blind cheerleaders. We turn politics into a sporting event. We paint our faces with our favorite team's colors, put on a jersey and yell obscenities at our opponents. Instead of pointing out the shortcomings, we blame the referee, the foul play, the bad luck, the useless coach - anything but our favorite player.

Who are we really electing - public servants, representatives, leaders or saviors? Can you be critical of a public servant? Can you be equally critical of a savior? Or do we not really care as long as the team we bet on pulls ahead on the score board?

Below is an excerpt from my book, written long before Donald Trump was relevant. Reminder - this is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental. (It's not about the president, anyways. It's about us.)


“Have you ever wondered about our obsession with heroes? People constantly search for one. They look for someone who would lead them, speak their truth, bring meaning into their lives. They look for someone who would take away their suffering. They hang onto the idea of a single savior with all their might. And when someone offers to take on the role, they pour all their energy into perfecting him. The more time and effort they spend, the less willing they are to acknowledge the flaws. The hero becomes their own beloved creation, and they will not allow any criticism. Instead, they find excuses. Take Aurel Swann. What did he do? He fueled the fears and fanned the flames of violence. But it was the people who did the actual work for him. None of the dirty work was done by him. And then they thanked him for saving them. By the time they realized he was not a savior but a monster, it was too late. You can't destroy the legacy of your savior without destroying your own." 

Today, I worry that for the sake of being right we will get it catastrophically wrong. 

L.0.V.3.




At times there is so much love in my heart I don't know how to contain it. I don't want to contain it. I want to sprinkle it all over the world. I want to wrap my children in it (forever) and pile it up around my family and friends until it builds a house that can withstand an earthquake (easily). I hope that after I die, all this love won't be wasted but instead will float up in the air and turn the sunset in those ridiculously breathtaking colors that will make people pause and take a photo and feel grateful for being alive. There are many things I haven't quite yet figured out that I want (to become) but what is becoming clearer every day is that I just want people to know the love. If I could I would tap the source, like a maple tree, and built the network to distribute it everywhere, because I swear on a night like this the supply is bottomless. Drink it up, drizzle it over pancakes, add a pinch to your soup, powder your face with it, spritz it like a perfume. Anything goes. (Put it in a jar and store it for later. Expiration date – never.)

I Won't Miss That


Here I am, a stay at home mom for more than five years now.

What was the plan before the kids came? I'm not sure, honestly. I don't think there ever was one. We moved to a different state right after the first one was born, so there was no return-to-work-date hanging over my head. I could certainly find a new job now, but the current set up is working out well for our family.

Other than the wear and tear of a stay at home mom. Other than the occasional yearning of having to worry about something more critical than dinner that someone is going to refuse to eat anyways. Other than the sting of "I go to school, Daddy goes to work to help people, and Mommy hangs out at home."

And when you're about to lose your marbles over the tiresome monotony of it all, people tell you that you should treasure the time. That you will miss these days. That the life will move way faster than you can, trying to catch that coffee mug flying off the table.

But we are speaking about different things.

I will miss their gentle faces when they snore peacefully next to me. I won't miss being woken up several times a night every single night for years. I will miss the laughter. I won't miss the constant noise that never lets up. I will miss their trust with which they want me to witness every dangerous idea that crosses their minds. I won't miss having to watch them fall off the monkey bars and break their bones.

I will miss their witty comebacks, but I won't miss the never ending arguments. I will miss their absolute love and its physical expression (oh how much will I miss that!) but I won't miss being trampled by them to the point when I want to sleep alone in the guest room just to get some space. I will miss the constant attention they are giving me but I won't miss finally going to the bathroom alone (and without them banging on the door).

I will miss our dinner conversations, but I won't miss the constant dilemma of what to serve them that is healthy enough by my standards but acceptable enough by theirs. I will miss teaching them new things, but I won't miss the tantrums they throw when they don't want to hear it.

And then people say: "No, you will miss even those things." Will I? I guess I can't tell for sure, because I am only here, and they are already over there.

But I think for them the experiences blended into the years of living with little children, when one instance can't be separated from another. Where it all blends together, because - and that is true - you can't have one without the other. You can't have the laughter without the tears, you can't have the playfulness without the mess. (Oh my God, the mess! The mess!)

Right now though, I live every single minute of it on its own. They are delightful little angels and I love that. They are miserable mean devils and I hate that. I'm a kind forgiving master and I love it. I'm impatient screaming failure and I hate it.

Some days are full of laughter.

Some days are full of screams.

In the end, they balance out. That's why I'm still doing what I'm doing.

But no - I won't miss all of it. I already know that, because my younger one is starting to do the things my older one used to, and I don't feel blessed that I get to experience them again. No, I go - shit, not again! and then I ask my husband: "How do people survive more than two kids? Why?"

Yes - I will miss the puzzle. But some pieces are just bitches that won't fit in no matter how hard you try.


The Eternal Guilt of An Immigrant


My oldest nephew will turn 16 on Christmas Eve. When he was born, I lived in Slovakia and my sister lived in Germany. The first time I saw him he was two months old. I still remember it like it was yesterday - getting off the S-bahn, my sister meeting me with the stroller and I couldn't see anything but layers of blankets. Holding him for the first time. Having him falling asleep on my shoulder every time I picked him up. The love. The dread. My sister bundled him up in a stroller and sent me out for a couple of hours so she could clean. Me, walking down the streets, too afraid to check on him so I wouldn't wake him, too terrified that he might be dead in there. What if he stopped breathing? I didn't have any maternal instinct, I wouldn't know!

But he didn't die. He will be turning 16 soon, the same age that my sister was when she met her husband. He is smart and caring and accomplished and funny and handsome. He has two younger brothers and a sister that will turn four next year. I love them all to bits. And I've completely missed out on their lives.

To keep my relationship with my sister is easy. It still hurts to be so far away. It always will. But we have an established relationship that can withstand that. My nephews and my niece - they are the ones I missed out on. They are the ones I was supposed to babysit, feed them ice cream and watch scary movies with. And I never did. And I never will.

To leave one's country is living a little death. Yes - everything still stays there. Yes - people still talk to you. Yes - we live in times of emails, Skype, FaceTime and social media. But it doesn't get you there.

All the things you left behind.

Not the things. The things don't matter.

All the memories and laughs and tears and hugs and fights and relationships and jokes and references and wisdom and words and language and scents and scenery and accomplishments and failures and needs and warmth and frustrations and dreams and DNA that will never let you forget. That will never let you stop regretting.

The guilt.

The very guilt of not being there.

The guilt of not being there in need.

The guilt of not being there in joy.

Maybe not every single day. Because there are days when you are just too grateful and too amazed and too thankful and too excited and too happy. Some days you are just too happy. Until it catches up with you.

Until your parent gets sick or your sister struggles or your friend has a baby. Until the one you love dies. And you are thousands of miles away, saying "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry but I am over here."

All the things you have to relearn. All the things you have to accept. All the things you have to embrace. All the changes. All the time.

And all the while, listening to "you are so lucky to be here" and "if you don't like it, just leave. Go home."

But I am home.

I am.

It just doesn't always feel the same.

It never will.

It will always be the music to an immigrant song.