It is perhaps one of the most profound and widely known passages in our nation:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words still ring as true today as they did when they were etched into our Statue of Liberty more than 100 years ago. Immigration is undoubtedly an American tradition. Masses far and wide still flock here hoping just beyond that “golden door” there’s a better life — or as one immigrant says: “You’re not at the pearly gates with Peter, but it sure feels that way.”
That attitude is a reminder that we live in a great nation, a place where people can come as they are and take their best shot at their own American dream.
These are the stories of some who have left it all behind for a new life here in our neighborhood. As we celebrate our nation’s birthday this month, let’s celebrate with some of the immigrants who help make so remarkable.
Olvera, 20, her mom and dad, one brother, and four sisters (a fifth has married and moved out) all live together in a big East Dallas home. But their happily crowded existence didn’t come easily.
The family started out in San Luis Potosi, . In the late 1980s, Lizeth’s father came to the to find work because the Mexican economy was so bad.
“I was only 3 when he left,” Olvera says. “I don’t really remember him leaving. But it was really hard growing up with out my dad. Whenever he came to visit us, we’d cry for like two days after he left.”
Her older siblings — one by one — moved to the , and in 2003 Lizeth followed, leaving behind her mother and younger sister, Elsa.
“I knew I would be coming here when I was old enough to go to high school,” she says. “My dad wanted me to learn English and to get the best education.”
She enrolled at Woodrow Wilson High School, where the environment was very different from what she was accustomed to. The students here in Dallas, she says, seemed to take school for granted.
“In , it was very important to students to make good grades, but here they didn’t even seem to care.”
Because she didn’t know any English, Lizeth enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
“A lot of the kids would just laugh at us,” she says.
With help from ESL teacher Marjorie Shaw, Lizeth learned the language that year.
“Ms. Shaw was so nice and patient, and she taught really helpful exercises to help us learn English.”
Shortly after Lizeth settled in, younger sister Elsa moved to Dallas and enrolled. Elsa says she was very glad to have her older sister around.
“She told me what to do and where to go. It would have been hard without her,” Elsa says.
Elsa learned English, too, and by the end of their respective senior years, each had won the Gustavo Ipiña Memorial Scholarship, a scholarship that honors former Woodrow student Gustavo Ipiña, who died during his senior year. The award is given to students who exemplify Ipiña’s exemplary leadership, service and character.
Elsa will attend junior college at Eastfield and eventually hopes to become a bilingual teacher. Lizeth, a student at Richland College, works at Washington Mutual and hopes to go into international business. She also recently achieved her goal of becoming an American citizen. Even though she was a legal resident, she wanted to enjoy the benefits of being a citizen, such as the right to vote. When Lizeth applied, she was given a list of questions to study.
“For me, they were pretty easy, it was the same thing we studied in government and history classes at school. When I went to the interview, a man started asking me questions; it went on for about five or 10 minutes, and then he said, ‘Congratulations. You are an American citizen.’
“Now I have to watch the news and decide who I want to vote for.”
It was their first time to vote in a election, and when Berisha and her father walked into the early voting polling location, they weren’t sure what to do. Election clerk Bob Ackerman noticed their hesitancy, and asked if they were first-timers. Then he announced the good news to the entire room, which was greeted by hearty applause.
“I was so excited to be a voter,” Berisha says. “I also expected there to be a line much longer, but it wasn’t.”
Ackerman ran into Berisha again at the Albertson’s on Mockingbird and Abrams, where she works as a service supervisor. He told her he was one of the judges for the upcoming primary election and asked if Berisha would be willing to help.
“He told me, ‘I’ll be grateful, because I know how hard you work at Albertson’s,’” Berisha says.
So on March 4, she carried an American flag, wore an “I Voted” sticker, and chatted with people who had helped elect President Ronald Reagan. Berisha watched nearly 400 citizens cast their ballots for the future president, knowing that her vote would count right along with theirs.
It had been more than a decade since the Serbs began bombing Prishtina, the capital city of Kosovo, when Berisha was 8. Her family is Albanian, as were 90 percent of Kosovo’s population, roughly 500,000 people, but the Serbs had more military power, she says.
At the time, Berisha’s life wasn’t much different from most of middle-class . Her father was an economist who worked for Kosovo’s department of labor and employment, and their family lived in a three-story house in Prishtina. But when the bombing began, they left it all behind.
“The Serbian government was trying to get Albanians out of Kosovo,” Berisha says. “They said, ‘You either leave, or you’re dead.’”
Her family took only what they could carry and walked the three hours to the nearest train station, boarding six hours later after nightfall.
“We got into the train somehow, but everyone was pushing,” Berisha says. “Everyone was trying to leave so they wouldn’t die. I’m just very, very, very thankful that I didn’t see more people get shot right in front of my eyes, like some of my friends did.”
A 10-hour train ride later, her family was dumped onto an expanse of land bordering Kosovo and Macedonia, and waited in line for three days before being granted entrance to a Macedonian refugee camp. A month later, the family boarded a plane to Dallas. President Bill Clinton had granted all Kosovo refugees permanent resident status, but life in wasn’t easy at first.
“We didn’t know English at all. The only words I knew how to say were ‘sugar’, and ‘thank you very much’ — not just ‘thank you’ but the whole thing,” she laughs.
She mastered the English language quickly, however, and eventually was admitted into Dallas ISD’s School of Science and Engineering at the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center. Berisha graduated with honors and this spring finished her first year as a biology/chemistry major at the University of Texas-Dallas, where she is studying to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.
The war ended a couple of years after she left, and in February the Republic of Kosovo declared its independence. Berisha’s family has returned to visit but chose to stay in , even though they have had to make sacrifices. Like his daughter, Berisha’s father works in a grocery store, a pos
ition less prestigious than his former role as an economist.
“But the education here is much better, so he decided to do this for us,” Berisha says, and plans to follow in her father’s footsteps.
“I am very proud of being an Albanian. That’s something that’s part of me, and I will never forget.
“But I am also an American now, and I like being here.”
Marketing and design firm TheEyeWorks is stationed inside a comfortably modern office overlooking Central Expressway. Within the fashionable digs, friendly staffers greet guests, and graphic artists create smart designs for clients.
Other employees work from an office in . President and CEO Camú says e-mail and related technology can circumvent borders. He has been blessed with opportunities, he says, and wants to see the same thing happen for others.
Camú spent most of his early life in Cabo San Lucas. His family moved around frequently because both parents were ministers. When he was 9 years old, his family moved to the temporarily, and Camú and his younger sister enrolled at Mark Twain Elementary School in Oak Cliff.
“It was quite the culture shock,” he says. “I remember almost every day somebody would bring my little sister down to see me because she’d be crying, and they didn’t know how to talk to her.”
Taking English classes just a couple days a week, he quickly learned the language.
When Camú was 11, the family moved back to Mexico City, where he lived through high school and a couple years of college. Then, a Dallas church offered Camú’s father a job — his dad would ultimately found Christ for the Nation’s Spanish Bible Institute.
Camú was unsure whether he wanted to come along or not. He decided to check out Southern Methodist University. If he liked it and was accepted, he decided that he would move to Dallas.
The rest is history. He finished math and engineering studies at SMU and started a Spanish recording business.
“I always knew I wanted my own business — that I was running a business mattered more than what the business was.”
The recording company, Aliento, called for a lot of traveling, which Camú didn’t mind — that is until he met wife Tatiana. They had a child, and he left the music business to start up TheEyeWorks, which allows him to remain close to home.
Camú is grateful has nourished his entrepreneurial spirit.
“In , to start your own business, you have to know people, have contacts. Here, anyone with a good idea and the drive can find capital and make it in business.”
Just recently, he also opened a coffee shop called Motopia at Fitzhugh and Central.
Though Camú became a legal resident when he was a child, he still wants to become a citizen. He says he has been lucky — “a lot of people don’t get the same opportunities I’ve had. I’ve been here for years now, and I feel if I am contributing to the economy and working hard, I’d also like to be able to get involved in the democratic process.
Gomez’s journey to the States was nothing short of the “epic story of coming to a better country for a better life,” he says. As a small child making the trip, however, it was just baffling.
His mother was a single mom trying to make ends meet. A relative suggested was a land of opportunity, so she went to check it out, leaving her infant son with his grandparents. A couple years later, she returned to retrieve her son.
“One of my earliest memories is of this strange beautiful lady coming to pick me up … they all tried to explain to me that she was my mom.
“She took me away with her. The whole trip I kept asking her where’s mommy and daddy (the grandparents he’d known). She just didn’t know how to explain it to me.
“We lived in a low-rent apartment complex that had a big courtyard and pool where all the kids would gather to play. I was learning English — mostly from them, so a lot of what I picked up was slang … and, well, cuss words. The other kids thought I was really funny, and I had no idea at times what I was even saying to make them laugh.
“Once I was settled into school, though, my mom let me know that if I was going to speak English, I was going to speak right.”
As a child, Gomez traveled between his two countries, and he remembers bewilderment over switching languages.
“I went back to to visit after learning English and had nearly forgotten Spanish. Then after being in four or five weeks, I came back to Dallas … I opened my mouth to speak and … no English.”
Despite the moments of uncertainty, Gomez and his mother embraced American culture — including pop culture. Gomez’s American-born little sister was named Tabitha, after a character in the TV show “Bewitched”.
“Mom learned English, studied, and went from legal resident to citizen. Over the years, she’s petitioned for family members to get here. She’s helped a lot of people — she’s meant so much to them, but she is still as humble as ever. I am very proud of her,” Gomez says.
At age 17, Gomez petitioned for citizenship, but found the paperwork so cumbersome that he put it off — until recently.
His wife, a socially and politically active U.C. Berkley graduate, pushed him to obtain citizenship for various reasons. For one thing, she wanted him to be able to travel overseas with her. They both feel voting is important, too.
“I usually tried to influence my friends on how they should vote … it was like I had to vote vicariously through them,” he jokes.
Gomez voted for the first time in the fall 2008 primaries.
“I want to make a difference — at age 20, that doesn’t make much sense. Today it does.”
Despite the demands associated with being the eldest of seven children, Kim Ngo was content. She and her parents knew the meaning of hard work, but they didn’t know misery until the Communist party took over their homeland, .
“Everything changed,” Ngo says. “If we just did what we were told, we would be OK.”
At least that’s what she thought back then.
An agriculturalist working from home on a small island, Ngo’s father regularly had to sail the river between and to transport produce. His travels raised Communist officials’ suspicion. He was twice arrested for treason but released when no evidence against him could be found.
During one of his trips, he received word from a friend close to the government warning that he would be arrested again if he returned to , only this time he would be killed. Relatives helped the family members reunite in , and together they trekked more than a month through the jungle to a refugee camp.
“It was hard,” Ngo says. “We had to leave everything behind. There was no food. Nothing. We just walked.”
They lived in the refugee camp for about a year before moving to the . Ngo was 16 at the time and understood little of the English language or American culture.
Ngo enrolled in school at North Dallas High School and was hired to clean rooms at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. When her father fell ill, requiring three months of hospitalization, she quit school to work. Young Ngo and her mother financially sustained the family until her father got back on his feet. She never returned to school.
Within a year, her family established frie
ndships at their church and through the local Asian community. They found work and embraced business opportunities, first operating a cleaning business. Later they founded the now-defunct Vien Tiane Market on Bryan Street.
After marrying a man from , having three children, and becoming an American citizen, Ngo continued her industrial endeavors. She owned and operated Bangkok City, a popular neighborhood restaurant, for many years. After selling it, she went to beauty school and opened her own nail salon.
Today, she makes a living doing nails in an Oak Cliff salon and lives with her three teenage children in a spacious turn-of-the-century home on Swiss Avenue. She’s endured heart surgery — only a year ago — and heartache after her marriage of 17 years dissolved.
But Ngo is a survivor. Her experiences have strengthened her, she says.
“I’ve been through a rough life. There have been hard times, but they have made me very strong. So that even without a husband, I can raise three children and work and take care of my family.”
Since she came to , Ngo has never returned to her homeland. In fact, the tireless 45-year-old has never even taken a vacation.
“I will someday,” she says. “When my baby graduates from high school, then I would like to take them to see where I grew up.”
Until then, she wants to keep her focus on work and her children.
“I am just happy to see the kids growing up here and having a chance for a good education — the things I didn’t have.”
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