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July 21, 2021
The Face of Immigration in Chester County During COVID-19
Written and photographed by Emily Nelson
This project came out of a desire to gain a greater understanding of people’s experiences coming to the U.S., with all of their hopes and expectations, and the reality that ensues—for the better, for the worse, or just the unexpected. Growing up, I witnessed my mother’s joy from being a part of international communities. My own interest in other cultures increased while I was part of an international community living in England and surrounded by friends from Brazil, Hungary, South Korea, Kenya, Pakistan, Egypt, and many other countries.
We all inherently carry many differences from those who have been born and raised in another country, but there are also countless connection points. It’s these connection points that fascinate me, as well as how we can create and then foster genuine relationships. There are no doubt differences, but those differences don’t have to lead to the subjugation of either party. Interest and curiosity in one another can lead to care, not objectification. And differences can be beautiful—not things that denote value, but uniquenesses that make us endearing to one another.
For international students and residents, life in the U.S. is often transient and emotionally straining as they struggle to handle the constant unknowns and unpredictable life changes. This stress can feel overwhelming, especially when it’s multiplied by the preconceived notions that others might have about you. And then COVID-19 has inevitably caused greater separation between immigrants and others living in the States. One is either entirely isolated or constantly with immediate family, and as relatives struggle with COVID-19 back in their home countries, these people cannot see them or say goodbye.
But there’s a resilience about each of these individuals. They’ve not only had to live with uncertainty, but they initially had to take a major risk in moving across the world with no imminent plans of returning home. I want to depict the strength and dignity they carry: some waking up at 6:00 AM and working until 1:00 AM in the morning, persevering though they haven’t been able to see family in years, or holding onto the hope for an initiative they plan to start one day.
I believe that there is so much to discover that is not part of one’s own comfortable sphere. I hope that this project will encourage unity. By listening to stories, absorbing the reality of others’ experiences, and by seeing subjects shown with realism and dignity, it can encourage us to find ways to learn from our international neighbors. We can learn about what knits humanity together, the facets of our shared identity.
Allsama, Suhil, & Sarim—North India
“We went to India in February of 2020 and came back at the perfect time. If we went 15 days after, we’d have been stuck there,” says Allsama.
She came to the U.S. because of her husband’s intercompany transfer, saying, “Before Covid, I was accomplishment-driven, but then all the scenarios changed. The office demanded I come in, but I didn’t want to so I left my job to protect the family. Suhil began working from home and Sarim’s school has been from home.”
Her husband Suhil says, “Covid has been full of mixed feelings. We were able to move into this [new] home in the same year, but I miss the office culture and it brings doubts of what will happen in the future, like whether you’ll have a job or not or how long this will last.”
Allsama explains, “Because there is a greater population per square foot, it’s difficult to social distance when going outside in India. I know a few of my friends who lost their parents and relatives due to Covid and they couldn’t reach them because they’re in the U.S. You also cannot see someone after they’ve passed away in India because of hospital regulations. I cannot even imagine that.”
Allsama, Suhil, and Sarim spend all day together, but she says, “We try to celebrate everything during Covid to keep up the spirit of being together.”
“It’s a tough question to think about the long term,” Suhil explains. “We came with the intention to at least spend 10-15 years here but there’s so much uncertainty. Life for Allsama and Sarim in the U.S. totally depends on my job and my visa. When we bought this home, we put so much financial investment in and don’t know what will happen next—we took a 50/50 risk.”
Allsama says, “I never dreamed of coming to the U.S. or of starting my own dance school but I have to be ready with anything. I have to be on the roller coaster, opening my mind and brain. If I settle in somewhere, it will be hard for me to come out of the bubble and psychologically, that’s what happened when I left India. Whatever changes, I will happily accept it.”
Although her immediate family lives in Malawi, Emily says, “My mom has been a big influence in my life. She taught me to be selfless and to go after my dreams no matter how challenging they may be. My dad would say, ‘Oh she’s going to be a doctor.’ I ended up going to my undergrad at 15 [years old] in Malawi because I studied ahead.”
In 2018, Emily got her Master’s in Organizational Leadership from West Chester University and then started her doctorate the following year in Education Policy, Planning, and Administration. After getting her Master’s, she says, “I interned for a program that focused on developing leaders and worked mostly with inner city kids. It shocked me when I came [to the U.S.] that in the inner city, there’s another poverty and high crime here—not proper guidance, but growing up around violence. Before coming, I would see the TV which was mostly the good side—they don’t show the violence, crime, and kids going without meals.”
Once finishing her doctorate, Emily would like to teach at a university because she sees a lack of diversity and believes that students need to see teachers who look like them. She’s open to living in the U.S. or in a developing country: “Eventually, I would like to work with organizations like the UN or the World Bank with several developing African countries. I’d like to give back to my community. I’ve always wanted to do that. Back home, I worked with organizations that would empower women, which has been my background and is also the research in my doctorate.”
Coming from Cameroon, Yannick arrived in wintertime to the University of Maine five years ago, saying, “It was tough at first. I had to watch YouTube videos, and it would give my brain so much work to be able to understand what they’re saying because I had done everything in French.”
But when 2020 hit, Yannick found his reaction to COVID-19 to be dissimilar from many people in the States: “Where I come from, I’m used to gunshots and war. Some places are really tough, people are looking for food, but here people are living like kings and the government is reaching out with stimulus checks.”
Yannick says that because of COVID-19 and working as a software engineer “with all these laptops, I’m stuck. The few friends I had I couldn’t visit anymore. I was completely cut off and started working at home 24/7. I miss home so much. Sometimes sitting, I think about how I miss my nieces and nephews. I have not seen my niece yet and now she’s walking and dancing. But sometimes, you have to accept your situations and trust God.”
Yannick hopes to work with “technology transfer,” saying, “We have a lot of smart people who would be able to do the job I’m doing back [in Cameroon]. Bringing them the knowledge that I have and putting something together. We will definitely face some challenges but the idea is really precious to me and every day I’m thinking about it. I think a society that doesn’t have education is a society that has no direction. If you’re bringing that education to other people, you’re bringing them purpose. People with purpose in life, nothing can stop them. We need knowledge.”
The youngest of seven siblings, Gloria initially arrived in the U.S. from Kenya in 2015 and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Education Policy and Administration at West Chester University (WCU). She says, “I had to do one in-person class for an elective for my visa because they announced in 2020 about international students that if you don’t have any in-person classes, you can’t stay in the U.S.”
Because the possibility of visiting Kenya has diminished since 2020, Gloria says, “I want Covid to be over so I can travel more without worrying about quarantine or testing. It would be nice to go to Kenya for Christmas.”
She first came to the U.S. for an annual conference in Boston for undergrad students who would like to work for the UN. She says, “I liked the subway. In New York, what’s not to love to visit?” After the trip, she said, “I felt like if I had the chance to live in the U.S., I would take it.”
Once connecting with a family friend living in Bucks County, PA, Gloria asked what she could do to move to the U.S. The friend said, “The easiest way to get a visa is to go through school, so look online at the requirements for application, and if they take you, that’s your open door.” Gloria finished two and a half years at WCU, gaining her Master’s in Public Administration and Nonprofit Administration. With her one-year work permit as an international student, she worked for a nonprofit connected with the housing alliance in Delaware helping homeless people.
Having returned to Kenya in December of 2019, she says, “I was applying for jobs in January, February, March, and nothing. In my country, it’s really about who you know and even some of those people want a bribe. It’s not really married to a qualification system.” It was at this point that she again returned to the U.S. and began her doctorate. “I love education,” Gloria says. “It’s in my heart. In Kenya, my dad runs a primary school. He taught before he started running his own school, and my mom taught for 38 years.”
As a Project Manager a large coffee company, Quan says communication is 90% of his job. So now “working from home, I don’t have a chance to meet my team face to face anymore, and I miss that.”
Coming to the U.S. from Vietnam for college in 2013, he says, “I haven’t been back for four and a half years. I planned to go back in 2020, but my plan got pushed back to I don’t know when.” Vietnam reacted to COVID-19 with an isolation mindset, blocking all international flights and combating against COVID-19 to the extreme. “I can’t go back,” he says. “To go back, I’d need a government sponsored flight, and I wouldn’t even qualify to visit temporarily. For people like me, I can’t go back to my own country. Now I’m just stuck here.”
The process of acquiring a job as an international student was immensely challenging for Quan. “The uncertainty of knowing when [I could] receive work authorization was insanely stressful. I lost my first job because the company could no longer wait.”
“I’m planning to emigrate to Canada to stabilize my future. Here the emigration process is like five years and not a guarantee. Even though I graduated here, have my Master’s, and have been working, I’d need sponsorship from a company, and still wait to find out. With the uncertainty, I can’t. I have a girlfriend at home, so right now I want to go to Canada as fast as possible.”
“I’m a kindergarten teacher in Austria, but I didn’t want to start working yet so I sought out an au pair job at 19 [years old]. Then I came [back to the U.S.] on a student visa and now I have OPT [Optional Practical Training] so when you graduate, you get to work for one more year. I hope I get a visa before 60 days after June because otherwise, I’d have to leave the country.” With a new teaching job, Vicky will have health insurance and benefits, assuming her visa comes through. “I’m trying to go day by day because I don’t really have a choice,” she says. “If I get the visa, I want to stay and work here. If not, I’d have to go home to Austria and work there. Whatever happens, happens.”
“[My friend] came back just to go to school so she could be on a visa to be in the U.S. But I could see myself living [in Austria too]—I can get a job without problems and have friends and family there. I don’t want to go to school just for the sake of staying in the country. [I think it’s] a waste of time and money. If I go back to school now, it would take another two years of my life, and I’d be 29 or 30 by the time I’m done. And the situation would be still the same [after graduating]—that I have to get a new visa to stay. Maybe I want to start a family but I can’t do that if I just keep going back and forth.”
Arpita, Shiva, Milky, & Princy—South India
From Andhra Pradesh in South India, Arpita and Shiva’s families arranged a marriage for them. Arpita says, “Mostly nowadays it’s love marriage, but in our time, it was 99% arranged marriages.”
They’d been married eight years, but it was always Arpita’s dream to live in the U.S. “I wanted to see different cultures,” she says. “I’d never been outside of India, but we were settled there, had full time jobs, and a lot of friends. We didn’t know if people would accept us.”
Shiva says, “We’re both on a Green Card track. There are a lot of Indians with a big queue so maybe another five or six years. But we are sure things will work if you keep trying. Nothing is impossible.”
Working in downtown Philadelphia for Comcast as a Data Architect, Arpita will soon return to the in-person office. Shiva works for SEI in financial markets while their two daughters are currently in cyber school. Milky is in sixth grade, planning out her whole day by herself. In first grade, Princy gets supervised by her older sister whenever she’s not on Zoom. Shiva says, “Milky is Princy’s main teacher, and she makes a few bucks.”
“We miss everything back in India,” Shiva says. “There is more life because of the atmosphere or the climate, it’s not too hot or too cold, so in a way it is full of life. There are lots of events, people, and relatives. But we’re always worried about what is going to happen in the next day. A lot of people have expired [died] in the last 2-3 weeks. They would have stayed for another 15-20 years, but nothing could help. It’s just upside down. There is no proper information, the mutations are coming up, the virus is surviving well. [People are mistaking the vaccine] and rushing to the hospitals and the hospitals are making huge money.”
“There is a lot of uncertainty post-Covid. We’ve seen how people are dying in India; it’s like ants. An insect’s life and a human life has become the same. The media is giving false information—it’s much worse than they say in India. Maybe now is the best time to do whatever we wanted to do because you never know who is going to be alive and who is going to go.”