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'Green Card Stories' offers compelling interviews of 50 immigrants


“There are no neat bows on these stories," Saundra Amrhein says.

Amrhein relates the journeys of 50 immigrants who came to the United States from all over the world in her new book, Green Card Stories.

With portraits of the subjects by photographer Ariana Lindquist and an introduction by immigration lawyers Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, who spearheaded the project, Green Card Stories looks not at the politics of immigration but at the people, at individuals — all of whom now have permanent U.S. residence or citizenship — whose experiences are both personal and part of the much larger history of an immigrant nation.

The people whose lives are described in the book have come here from five continents. They are business owners and artists, doctors and carpenters, an Army nurse, a law school librarian, a backup dancer for Gwen Stefani and Janet Jackson, a Buddhist monk. Some are millionaires, and one is a billionaire, Yahoo! co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang.

Amrhein wrote their stories after extensive interviews with each of them. For a decade, she was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, covering various beats but always "carving out time" for immigration stories. In 2009 she left the Times to pursue a master's degree in Latin American studies at the University of South Florida; she is now working on her thesis.

At a cafe north of downtown Tampa last week, Amrhein talked about working on Green Card Stories and about her personal connection to the book.

The 50 immigrants in Green Card Stories are a very diverse group in every way. How did you and your partners in creating the book choose them?

Stephen and Laura, because they're immigration lawyers, wanted to focus on showing the different paths to getting that green card. Ariana and I were both interested in mirroring the larger immigration trends today. More immigrants are coming from Latin America and Asia, some from Africa, less from Europe than in the last great wave of immigration in the last century. There are more immigrants of color, and more women. There is more migration to the Midwest and the Deep South.

And of course we were looking for compelling human stories, the ones that were powerful on an individual level as well as reflecting those trends.

Were there any surprising themes that ran through the stories?

Two things surprised me. One was how huge a theme education became, the enormous role it played. Some of them came from poor or working-class families but did well in school. Some of them were concerned about the rising cost of education and how that would make it difficult for the immigrants coming along behind them, like Francis Price, a self-made millionaire who has personally put several other immigrants through school.

In other cases, it was the gap between the quality of education here between primary/secondary school and higher education. Those who came here as young kids were shocked to find they were one or two years ahead of American kids in school. But those who came for college say the reputation this country has for university education and research is the best, bar none.

It taught me something about this country. If we cannot produce our children ready for college, we'll need to fill those research positions somehow.

The other surprise was that despite what everyone had gone through, they all had such a deep appreciation for this country. It was very moving. I did six, seven, eight hours of interviews with them and saw no bitterness or anger. Not that they had an uncritical eye. But they would say, "You don't understand the systems we come from. Even when it breaks down, this is an amazing system."

One of the stories you tell in the book is that of your husband, Cesar Domico, a professional magician who left Colombia after death threats and a kidnapping. What was it like to write about his story?

After living with him all these years, it was certainly the most intimate look at the process, short of going through it yourself. I watched him go through the emotional transformations as well as the legal process, saw him missing Colombia so much and missing his family so much.

When he finally got to go back for a two-week visit, for the first time in seven years, he had this lost look on his face. He said, "I don't belong here anymore. I want to go back to Brandon." Having your feet in two worlds is part of the process.

But he's been able to reinvent himself here. He's a real entrepreneur. People ask, "Did your wife get you your green card?" No, he got his green card himself.

I had covered naturalization ceremonies before as a reporter, but with him, it was so moving. He was so proud.

I rarely see him cry. He's a comedian. But there was this moment when he was holding the flag, and he clutched it to his chest. Sometimes the American dream can seem like just a cliche, but when someone who is such a big part of your life finds it, it adds some depth.

Green Card Stories

Introduction by Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, stories by Saundra Amrhein, photographs by Ariana Lindquist

Umbrage, 127 pages, $40

Meet the author

Saundra Amrhein and Cleto "Sundy" Chazares will appear at a panel discussion and book signing at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Patel Center for Global Solutions, Room 131, University of South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa.

Amrhein will discuss and sign Green Card Stories at 7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa. She will also appear on WMNF-FM 88.5 on Latino 54 at 3 p.m. Wednesday and on Radioactivity at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Cleto "Sundy" Chazares

Country of origin: Mexico

Entered United States: At age 7

Occupation: Principal of Simmons Career Center, Plant City; recently named Hillsborough Counselor Association High School Principal of the Year

(In grade school a) guidance counselor named Dorothy Bell noticed Sundy. Ms. Bell, as he called her, was a tall woman with a Southern drawl. She brought him to a classroom with a Spanish-speaking aide. As their friendship grew and his English improved, Sundy told Ms. Bell about his time in the fields. She encouraged him to stay in school when his father took him in May to work apples and tobacco in the Midwest and the Carolinas. He called Ms. Bell from the road, depressed, falling behind in school. His family returned every November. Sundy labored at homework until midnight, struggling to catch up.

But when junior high ended with another round of D's, Sundy dropped out. Angry, he grew his hair long, joined a gang.

Ms. Bell parked her car in his driveway until he came out. Go back to school, she told him. You are special. After two years, he gave in. But something had to change, Ms. Bell said. He could no longer migrate with his family. She invited him to live at her house with her husband and teenage son — as long as he quit the gang. He said okay.

Nelly Boyette

Country of origin: Peru

Entered United States: At age 22

Occupation: Operates Nelly's General Merchandise at a Tampa flea market with her husband, Jeff Boyette

Nelly Quinto busily unpacked fruit in her flea market stall in Tampa when she noticed a fellow merchant walking by for the third time.

He wore a cap, tank top, and jeans. Nelly had seen him before at the outdoor market, amid the maze of tables that offered everything from clothes to fresh Florida produce. He had a stereo bearing a bumper sticker that admonished foreigners to "Speak English."

But he had taken an interest in the spunky woman from Peru who cracked jokes in broken English with vendors and customers. That day he worked up the courage to approach Nelly. She watched, amused, as he timidly asked to buy a banana and then if he could have her phone number.

They were about to enter a relationship that they would spend years defending to the federal government.

Soumaya Khalifa

Country of origin: Egypt

Entered United States: At age 12

Occupation: Founder of Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, consultant to businesses and governments on working with Muslim and Arab countries and on the role of women in business and interfaith work

In 1969, when Soumaya was twelve, her mother accepted a research position at the University of Texas in Dallas. Soumaya and her parents and twin siblings moved (from Alexandria, Egypt) to a two-bedroom apartment with a green shag carpet. . . . In her first terrifying days of eighth grade, Soumaya was shocked by the lack of discipline. Her peers were a year behind her in math. Students, instead of teachers, changed classrooms. She followed them through the hallways, afraid to ask for help, her Arabic and French of no use. Students questioned whether she was black or Hispanic.

Within a year Soumaya was elected to student council and belonged to the French club, Spanish club, and Honors Society. But she could not attend sleepovers and her mother made sure her shoulders were covered, skirts long. Soumaya felt she had an American side, an Egyptian side, and a Muslim side. But rarely did she feel comfortable with all three at once.

'Green Card Stories' offers compelling interviews of 50 immigrants 02/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2012 3:30am]
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