Share Your Story
June is Immigrant Heritage Month across the nation. Immigrant Heritage Month is a nationwide initiative that recognizes the diverse and valuable contributions of immigrants to American society. Every family has an immigration story or knows someone who is an immigrant. We sure do!
To celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month, here are some immigration stories from our clients, staff, and volunteers.
Interested in participating? Please email us a personal photo and a story description to Info@NSLegalAid.org. Stories and photos will be featured on our website and social media.
Director of Immigration Lia Hyunji Kim-Yi’s father was a college professor in South Korea. When her family arrived in the U.S. back in 1985, her father got a job as a deliveryman. When he realized his job couldn't support his wife and three children, he went back to South Korea to continue teaching. Her mom stayed behind to raise Lia and her siblings, while she worked 12-hour days at her own business. For almost 18 years Lia’s father sent back almost his entire salary to the family in the U.S. and only saw them during his vacations. When Lia passed the bar and called her father in South Korea, he cried and told her that she “made his American dream come true, and all those years apart were worth it.”
Esteban Carbajal is a Staff Attorney. This is his immigration story. “Both my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico nearly forty years ago. Each arrived with no more than a fourth-grade education because they came from very poor families that needed them to help contribute to the household income, even as children. However, these unfortunate circumstances molded my parents into the hardest workers and most benevolent persons I have ever known. Both have always been willing to sacrifice so much for the sake of others. After immigrating to the U.S., my father worked twelve-hour shifts as a cook in numerous restaurants and my mom worked multiple jobs at the same time, ranging from housekeeper to seamstress, in order to provide for my sister and me. Their demanding work schedules allowed for very little family time, but I always recognized it as a necessary sacrifice that my parents willingly bore without any complaints because of their dedication to us. Their extraordinary work ethic and kindness were what motivated me the most in pursuing a law degree. Today, I can proudly say that I have obtained my Juris Doctor degree and I will continue to follow my parents’ example by helping others.”
Daniel Schack is a member of the North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic’s Advocacy Committee. His grandfather escaped Nazi Germany. He watched his hometown of Munich burn on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, he knew needed to leave. After heading first to England and then Australia, he finally ended up in Chicago. Like so many other refugees, Erich Schack owed his and his family’s lives to the willingness of others to take a chance on him. They made a good bet. Daniel’s grandparents built a business in which he and his two brothers now represent the fourth generation.
Lake County Resident
Más o menos el año 1980, mi mamá me trajo a los Estados Unidos, al estado de Texas, en la ciudad de El Paso. Después de llegar a El Paso, estuvimos dos días ahí.Después tomamos un vuelo hacia Chicago. Nunca habíaestado en un avión, y me acuerdo de tener un poco de miedo;era muy chico –tenía solamente 4 años. Lo importante era que volvería a ver a mi mamá después de 6 meses. Ella se había ido de la ciudad de México, 6 meses antes. Afortunadamente, al venir chico puede estudiar desde el kinder hasta la High School. Tuvimos la oportunidad de legalizar nuestro estatus en Estados Unidos;con la reforma migratoria conocida como IRCA o Simpson-Mazzoli Act quefue pasada el 6 de Noviembre de 1986. Mi familia y yo recibimos nuestra residencia en 1988. Duré 35 años con mi residencia. Este año me hice ciudadano Americano.Si algo recomiendo es que si tienen una experiencia como la mía: deser ciudadano Americano háganlo después de cumplir los 5 años de hacerse residente.
Around 1980, my mother brought me to the United States, to the state of Texas, in the city of El Paso. After arriving in El Paso, we stayed there for two days and then took a flight to Chicago. I had never been on a plane, and I remember being a little scared; I was very young—only 4 years old. The important thing was that I would see my mother again after six months. She had left Mexico City 6 months earlier. Fortunately, being young, I was able to study from kindergarten to high school. We had the opportunity to legalize our status in the United States; with the reform law known as IRCA or Simpson-Mazzoli Act that was passed in November 6, 1986. My family and I received our residency in 1988. I had my residency for 35 years. This year I became an American citizen. If I can recommend something, it’s that if you have an experience like mine of becoming an American citizen, do it after being a resident for 5 years.
Lake County Resident
La vida en México, fue difícil y así como precaria para los distintos niveles de desigualdad, el cual nosotros fuimos parte,mi padre un humilde campesino que se dedicaba a cultivar y cosechar las tierras de nuestro hermoso Estado de Guerrero. Cuando se casó con mi mamá,mi padre decidió emigrar a Estados Unidos, en busca de mejores oportunidades y un apoyo pues siempre atendió a mis abuelos, dándoles una mejor comodidad, en busca de ese “sueño americano” dejó a su familia, mi madre, mis hermanos y yo. Mi padre tuvo una travesía muy triste y fuerte, cuenta que camino por el desierto donde se tuvo que esconder de “la migra” entre matorrales, piedras y aventura hacia su destino. También se encontró con hombres que se burlaban de las mujeres y niñas, es un terror inexplicable. En su camino le faltaba agua, comida y abrigo, solo su fortaleza lo ayudo siempre ha sido Dios,pues es creyente y eso si nunca olvida sus ideologías.
Después del sacrificio al cruzar y dejar atrás su familia, sus raíces, sus costumbres y mirar su sueño hecho realidad. Lamentablemente, la primera barrera fue el idioma, pues nadie le daba trabajo ni oportunidades para ganarse algo que comer, fue entonces cuando buscaba comida en los cestos de basura para tratar de sobrevivir, mientras tanto por las noches buscaba un lugar donde dormir, fue debajo de un puente donde durmió por meses, posteriormente un carro abandonado y descompuesto era su hogar, hasta que los policías lo corrieron, en aquellos años menciona mi padre que había malos tratos hacia los mexicanos y no los dejaban ni trabajar ni manejar. Poco a poco, fue ganándose su lugar aquí, con su trabajo y esfuerzo ha logrado vivir feliz logrando sus metas como su casa y su familia unida.
Es difícil el cambio cultural, familiar y emocional que todos vivimos al dejar nuestro país de origen. Las razones por las que emigran es para tener algo mejor para nuestras familias. Posteriormente emigraron mi madre y mis hermanos, también tengo un hermano nacido aquí, es difícil explicar cómo se forman nuevas ideologías, costumbres en este nuevo país.
Ahora, aquí me encuentro con mis hijos, recuerdo que solo tomé papeles importantes mientras que mis hijos solo llevaban juguetes en sus mochilas. La manera en que cruzamos no fue la correcta pero gracias a mi fortaleza y a buenas personas que nos apoyaron a cruzar la frontera de Paso, Texas., logramos cruzar y después tomamos un vuelo a Chicago, lugar donde me esperaría mi familia por primera vez nuevamente. Desde hace 36 años, no veo a mi padre y mi demas familia, es difícil esta nueva relación y costumbres así como emociones encontradas, que estoy estrechando y agradezco a Dios y a mi familia por apoyarme en traerme a este nuevo país, lleno de nuevas oportunidades para mis hijos y yo, ahora me encuentro estudiando para obtener mi High School Diploma, para seguir superándome y estrechando relaciones nuevas con tantas personas maravillosas como es la biblioteca de Highwood que apoyan a todos los migrantes.
Life in Mexico was difficult and precarious for the different levels of inequality of which we were part. My father was a humble countryman who was dedicated to cultivating and harvesting the lands of our beautiful state of Guerrero. When he married my mother, my father decided to immigrate to the United States in search of better opportunities and support, as he always looked after my grandparents, providing them with a better life. In search of that “American dream,” he left his family, my mother, brother, and me.
My father had a very sad and hard travesty. He recounts his walk through the desert, where he hid from “la migra” among bushes and rocks and adventured toward his destiny. He also encountered men who mocked the women and girls. It was inexplicable terror. During his journey, he lacked water, food, and shelter. Only his fortitude helped him. It has always been God, as he has always been a believer and has never forgotten his faith.
After the sacrifice of crossing and leaving behind his family, roots, and customs, he witnessed his dreams become a reality. Unfortunately, his first barrier was the language, as no one would give him work or opportunities to earn a living. It was then that he resorted to looking for food in garbage cans to try and survive. Meanwhile, at night he would look for a place to sleep, spending months under a bridge. Later, an abandoned and broken-down car became his home until the police forced him to leave. During those years, my father mentions that there was mistreatment of Mexicans, who were neither allowed to work nor drive.
Little by little, he began earning his place here. With his hard work and efforts, he has managed to live happily, achieving his goals of having a home and a united family. The cultural, familial, and emotional change we all experience when leaving our country of origin is challenging. We immigrate for the sake of providing something better for our families.
Later my mother and brothers also immigrated. I also have a brother who was born here. It is difficult to explain how new ideologies and customs are formed in this new country. Now here I am with my children. I remember only taking important documents while my children only carried toys in their backpacks. The way we crossed was not correct, but thanks to my strength and the kind people that helped us cross the border of El Paso, Texas, we made it across and then took a flight to Chicago, where my family awaited me for the first time. For the past 36 years, I haven't seen my father and the rest of my family. This new relationship, customs, and conflicting emotions are difficult. I am adjusting and grateful to God and my family for supporting me in bringing me to this new country full of new opportunities for my children and me. Right now, I am studying to obtain my High School Diploma in order to continue improving myself and building new relationships with wonderful people like those at the Highwood Library who support all migrants.
Cinthia is an NSLAC Intake Specialist. This is her immigration story ”25 years ago, both my parents immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. despite only knowing Spanish and being unaware of the barriers to come. My parents both came from an environment of poverty, where having two pairs of shoes meant that you had won the lottery. Growing up, I will never forget the wait times my mother had to endure to receive aid just to be greeted by rude behavior from those who were supposed to help families like mine. When I look at my father, I see a man who has demonstrated selflessness and has always put the needs of his family before his own and in the process never once complained about his little pay and long hours. Contrarily, after every long day of work, my father would always find time to make my siblings and me smile. It is through my parents’ resilience and fighting spirit that they were eventually able to purchase their own home, a long dream of theirs. My parents' story makes me feel an intense gratitude. This motivated me to join the U.S. Army. This opportunity gave me a chance to provide a pathway to residency for my father. After 25 years, it was such a privilege to have been able to make his American dream a reality. The experience that my parents endured to immigrate has shaped the person that I have become. My parents’ story has inspired my passion for helping others and making resources and services available to others who may share a similar story. Every day I work to become the person that can help alleviate barriers and provide a helping hand.”
In 1854, the Zimmermann family emigrated from Prussia, now modern-day Germany to the United States. Nikolaus (36) and his wife Agnes (25), along with their children, Theodore (7), Arnold (6), Franciska (5), Margaretha (4), Clara (3) and Elizabeth (6 months) left the small town of Aach in Bavaria and traveled to Antwerp, Belgium. There, they boarded Ship Talleyrand and began their three-month journey to the United States. They arrived at the Port of New Orleans on May 11, 1854. The family eventually settled in St. Louis, MO.
We came to the United States in 2002 when I was 10 years old. There were so many new experiences in those first years, including embracing new traditions, pumpkin carving being one of them. As immigrants, it can sometimes be challenging to balance these new traditions with our old traditions from our countries. However, it is important to remember that even with all the challenges, we can still find joy in all the newness. Happy Immigrant Month to all of those who left their homes for this new country we now call “home.”
Executive Director Susan Shulman’s grandmother, Ruth Shulman (nee Liederman), was born in Leeds, England as her mother made her way from the Ukraine to Chicago to meet her husband. When they arrived, Ruth’s father had already taken another wife. Things were not easy for Ruth – her mother ended up in an asylum, and she grew up in different foster homes. After her father kicked her out of the house at the age of 12, she worked at a department store in downtown Chicago. Eventually, she ended up at the Yellow Truck and Coach Company, where she worked for a dashing manager named Louis Shulman. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ramon was a North Suburban Legal Aid client and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. In March of 2018, he came to us for help to petition his wife and fourteen-year-old stepson—both of whom lived in Mexico—for permanent resident status in the U.S. Ramon and wife had been married for a little over a year by then and finally saved up enough money to pay the processing fees for their case. The following month we submitted both petitions and by December of 2019 the U.S. Department of State had finished processing the cases. Both cases were then placed in a queue for an interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, which at the time was taking about one year to be scheduled. Consequently, he was expecting that his wife and stepson would not be able to come into the U.S. until January of 2021. Around the same time the Department of State had notified us that processing of the cases had been completed, Ramon was visiting his wife and stepson in Mexico for the holidays. While there he started to feel very sick and eventually had to be admitted into a hospital where it was discovered that he had cancer. The doctors there advised him to return to the U.S. immediately for further evaluation and treatment.
Before returning to the U.S., Ramon contacted the Clinic to see if there was a way to get his wife and stepson into the U.S. sooner since he was worried that his condition could ultimately be fatal. He wished to have them by his side for support and stated that he did not want to leave them without the opportunity to immigrate. The Clinic prepared a letter to the Department of State explaining Ramon’s situation and sought to expedite the cases based on humanitarian reasons. The Department of State granted our request and scheduled an interview for March 19, 2020.
However, two days before the interview the Department of State announced that all interviews would be canceled because of COVID-19. Luckily, Ramon’s wife and stepson were granted an exception to still be seen because of the extenuating circumstances of their case. They were interviewed on March 20th and approved for permanent residency the same day so they could be reunited with our client shortly afterward.
Ramon just completed his chemotherapy and says he is so grateful for the help we provided him so his family could be by his side during these difficult times.
Miguel & Rosaura
Miguel was a North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic Client. We were honored to help him on his journey to become a new American. His father first came to the U.S. in 1985 with the hope of earning a better living to support our family of eleven back in Mexico. He settled in Colorado with a group of friends from his hometown and worked in agriculture picking various fruits. Seven years later, he joined him at the age of seventeen to help lessen the burden of supporting his large family. Together, they picked peaches, apples, and cherries during the warm months. During the winter months they would make apple juice. About three years later, he made his way to Illinois to reunite with the love of his life and now wife, Rosaura. The Clinic helped her to obtain her LPR status after living in the U.S. undocumented for 25 years. Together, they worked multiple jobs, made many sacrifices, and persevered through countless hardships to establish roots here, but they say, “it was all worth it. We had two beautiful daughters here and I finally became a U.S. citizen this year—something I never imagined when I first came here many years ago as a humble seventeen-year-old from a rural Mexican town. I am so appreciative of the many opportunities this country has provided my family and me, and I am especially proud of being able to say that I am a U.S. citizen.”
Rob Muriel is a North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic board member. Rob’s parents were raised in large families in Bolivia, South America. His parents were married in late 1962, and one month after the birth of their first child, William, in August 1963, Rob’s dad Hugo came to Chicago. Hugo had just finished his medical degree in Bolivia, and upon the advice of a Catholic priest he met from Chicago, Hugo secured an internship for postgraduate training at Mother Cabrini Hospital in Lincoln Park. Hugo worked multiple jobs while studying for the foreign medical equivalency exam. About seven months after arriving in the U.S., in April 1964, Hugo’s wife Eleanor and son joined him in Chicago. Hugo completed his training and passed his equivalency exam; he began practicing medicine in 1970. Nine years (and two more boys) later, Hugo was appointed by Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne to the position of Commissioner of the Department of Health. In the 15 years following his arrival, over 25 medical graduates from Bolivia followed him to Chicago. These physicians formed the Bolivian Medical Society and regularly returned to Bolivia for medical missions and conferences to pass on their knowledge to medical students in their homeland. Rob did not follow in his father’s medical path, but instead chose the practice of law. Forty years after his father was chosen to be Chicago Health Commissioner, Governor JB Pritzker asked Rob to serve as Director of the Illinois Department of Insurance.
Khemarey “Khem” Khoeun
Khemarey “Khem” Khoeun is a Board Member. She came to the United States just over 6 months of age. Her parents survived the Cambodian genocide (1975-1979) and met in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp. From there they went to Sa Kaeo, another refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border, where Khem was born.
They arrived to the U.S. in 1981, and settled in Uptown Chicago, a port of entry for many immigrants and refugees at the time. Khmer was the primary language spoken at home. The family eventually moved to the southwest suburbs, in hopes of leaving the inner city and providing more opportunities for education.
As a young adult, Khem was interested in reconnecting with her heritage and history - something she struggled to understand as her parents and the community she identified with struggled with untreated mental health issues. She went on to become President of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial and later became the first Cambodian American woman elected to any position in the country. She has been an advocate for immigrant and refugee voices and engages in breaking the cycle of trauma through personal and collective healing.
Belany is a Law Clerk in the Immigration Law Practice. Belany and her mother came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a baby. Last year, her grandma finally joined them in the U.S. Her family started her grandmother's immigration process a few years ago. Her grandmother's attorney unfortunately passed away during the process and by this time, the pandemic had just begun. Her family was desperately looking for help. At the time, Belany was taking an immigration law course and reached out to her professor for help. Her professor reviewed her grandma’s case and walked Belany through what needed to be done. Belany did what she could to help her family. This experience reminded Belany of why she wants to become an immigration lawyer. She wants to continue helping families and individuals live their American Dream.
“I don’t remember a time in my early life without my grandparents.” Nicole—first from the right--is our clinic Pro Bono Coordinator. Her mother Nenita immigrated in the 1980s during a nursing shortage here in the U.S. After Nicole was born, her grandpa Teofilo and grandma Veronica immigrated to the U.S. to help Nicole’s mom and dad care for their two kids so they could work to provide for the family. They became U.S. citizens in 1993 and continued to care for Nicole and her two siblings, and later newer members of the Paredes family through to the last Paredes cousin born in 2001. With the support of Teofilo and Veronica, Nicole’s parents, aunties and uncles were able to navigate life as new immigrants with more success and give their children opportunities they would have otherwise not have had in the Philippines. Nicole recalls spending most of her childhood with her grandparents, while her mom worked nights and her dad worked days. “Growing up, I didn’t appreciate the sacrifices my parents and grandparents made to ensure that we, the kids, would be well-educated, safe, and fed. I now better understand the challenges they all faced as immigrants in the U.S. and am in awe of how their hard work and dedication to us allowed us to explore our fullest potentials. Without my grandparents, my life would have been so different. Not just because it would have been more difficult for my parents to raise three children, but also because they taught me to be proud of my Philippine heritage, and to never forget where I came from."
Rachel Doherty is an Immigration Law Practice Assistant. Her maternal grandfather (Albert Erlebacher) was born in Karlsruhe Germany. In 1940, Albert and his family members were deported to concentration camps in France. In 1941, he and his parents applied for visas to the United States to escape persecution and be reunified with his brother, who had come to the United States at age 13. Eventually, Albert was rescued by OSE after his parents made the difficult decision to sign over custody. He escaped with a group of other eight-year-olds across the train tracks from France to Switzerland. By the time their visas were ultimately granted, it was too late to save his parents. Albert was eventually able to come live with distant relatives on the south side of Chicago.
Rachel’s paternal grandfather’s dad (Patrick Doherty) immigrated from Carrick, Ireland to the western United States to work on the railroads. Her paternal great-grandmother (Hannah Byrne) had immigrated from Carrick, Ireland to Indianapolis. Patrick got in touch with the girl he’d grown up with, moved to Indianapolis, opened a grocery store, and started a family with her.
Rachel’s paternal grandmother’s family immigrated to the United States from Luxembourg in the 1880s and 1890s.
Rachel reflects on what her immigration story taught her. “It’s important to me, as the descendant of immigrants and refugees, that I remember that history. Over 80 million individuals around the world have been forced to flee from home. It is our job to welcome those who are lucky enough to make it here,”
Pictured: 2nd from the left is Rachel’s great-grandmother, Irma Erlebacher. She is shown here with other Le Comité volunteers who cooked meals for sick people in the concentration camp.
Marina Maric is an Immigration Assistant at NSLAC. This is her immigration story. "My parents first immigrated to Canada in 1992 in search of better economic opportunity. My mother had just graduated medical school in Serbia and employment opportunities were scarce in the former Yugoslavia during times of war and hyperinflation. During my parents’ immigration interview in Canada, the officer very matter-of-factly let my mother know that she wouldn’t work a day in her life as a doctor in Canada. She accepted this at first, but after some years had passed, she knew she needed to find a way to exercise the profession she had worked so hard for. She took the leap to begin interviewing for residency positions in the United States, where she knew there were many more opportunities open to foreign medical graduates. She was already 5 months pregnant with me at the time of the interviews and worried that she might be rejected if the interviewers were to find out. After she was accepted to the residency program at John H. Stroger Hospital here in Chicago, my parents immigrated to the United States with an 8-month-old baby in their arms, ready to begin their next chapter. My mother spent the next three years juggling the rigorous demands of a medical residency alongside the emotional demands of being a new mom with an infant waiting at home, which she could not have done without the loving support of my dad. She graduated and became an attending physician in the year 2000 and has proudly served historically underserved communities on Chicago’s West Side with the Cook County Health and Hospitals System for 25 years. I am proud of her every day."