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Coming to America 

Happy and heartbreaking stories of four Charlotte immigrants

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They're all around us. Sitting at Amelie's eating croissants. Performing next to your kid at the end-of-year school recital. Kneeling in the pew behind yours at church. They are immigrants — documented, undocumented, political refugees — from around the world, each with a remarkable story of how they came to Charlotte. Stories filled with tension, humor, heartbreak, struggle, love and hope. Some of them have happy endings — families reunited, a new life of opportunity in America, hope for future generations. Others are not so happy. Many immigrants feel lonely and homesick; others have found that, after an arduous journey, they are met with a broken and arbitrary immigration system that forces them to live in the shadows, in constant fear of deportation. Instead of a "happily ever after," their stories end with an ellipsis.

While it's impossible to estimate how many political refugees are in Charlotte, locally based Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency estimates it will place about 300 this year. Last year it was about 250, and the year before about 276. The agency, founded in 1996, is one of two local nonprofits that resettle refugees.

Whatever their story, what immigrants share in common is that they are here. If we knew the gritty details of their journeys, we wouldn't care so much about visas or green cards or walls along the border. We'd stand in awe of their courage and lead a slow clap to their resilience. We'd feel honored to call them Charlotteans.

These are just four of those journeys.

Bhutan to Charlotte

PHOTOS BY MEREDITH JONES
  • Photos by Meredith Jones

Radhika Gautan, 45, sits at a picnic bench behind a church on the east side of Charlotte. She has lived in a nearby apartment complex for three years, and her English, although broken, is better than she thinks. Gautan is from Bhutan, a small country in South Asia at the eastern end of the Himalayas. In 1992, she was forced to flee her village, Gelephu.

"There was a bad situation in Bhutan," she says. "My family is Hindu, we speak Nepali, but the king was Buddhist. If you weren't Buddhist, you were killed or jailed."

When her family, who made their living farming, found out the army was closing in on their village, they had to leave everything behind — livestock and small fields planted with corn and rice — and head to India right away. Gautan and her mother, brother and sister spent an entire day on foot in the forest that connects Bhutan to India.

The family crossed into Nepal, where they knew the United Nations had set up refugee camps for the Bhutanese people who had been forced out of their country.

Gautan lived in that camp with approximately 10,000 other refugees for 18 years. She and her family were provided with bamboo and other materials to build a small house and she worked in a modest hospital inside the grounds.

In March 2008 a fire ravaged the camp, destroying thousands of homes, including Gautan's. "We lived right next to a river," she says. "When the fire broke out, we crossed the river and stood on the other side, watching our homes burn to the ground."

The UN provided Gautan with plastic sheeting, which she used for shelter while she and her family worked to rebuild their home. "We hung the plastic from a branch and slept in a tree for a month and a half," she says.

A year before the fire, in 2007, she was approached by the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental migrant-assistance program, about the possibility of resettling to the United States. Gautan initially declined the offer because her brother had said he was not interested in leaving. He was concerned about the difference in language and culture in America. But after the fire, he changed his mind, and they applied to come to the United States as refugees. They were placed in Charlotte and arrived in 2010.

Because of the past turmoil in her home country, Gautan and other refugees like her are technically stateless — not Nepali, not Butanese — and have no home to return to. Gautan plans to stay in the U.S. indefinitely. When I ask her if she likes living here, she forces a smile. "Yes, Charlotte is very nice city," she says. "But it's not home."

Cambodia to Charlotte

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"God brought me here," Syvany Om, 51, tells me from her house in south Charlotte. She is from Cambodia but has called Charlotte home for the past 21 years. When her country collapsed under communist rule in 1975, her world fell apart.

Om grew up in Battambang, a major commercial hub located in the northwestern part of Cambodia. Her father was a colonel in the army and she lived a good life. "We had a big house and a car," she says. "Everyone in my family had a good education." Shortly after the communist takeover, her father — like many other army colonels and generals — was killed.

She and her family were forced out of their home and into the country, where Om had to work the fields as part of the communists' attempt at agricultural reform. Her brothers and sisters went to university. Om was 14.

During her time working in the countryside, four of her older siblings were killed by the government. Om says she later visited the field where she thinks they were buried, a shallow mass grave with body parts emerging from the ground. "I don't know why I wasn't killed," she says. "Maybe because I was still so young."

In 1978, she managed to escape to Thailand with a group of other Cambodian refugees. "We walked for two days," she recalls. "When we finally made it to the border, we were helped by the Red Cross." She lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for over two years. While in the refugee camp, Om, who had grown up Buddhist, converted to Christianity.

On Oct. 31, 1981, she was resettled to the United States and moved to New York City. There, she met her husband, another Cambodian refugee who went on to become a Methodist pastor. She came to Charlotte in 1992 after her husband met a woman at a Christian conference in California who told him about a group of newly arrived Cambodian refugees at her Charlotte church. She said her church needed someone to start a Cambodian congregation.

Om recalls how difficult it was for her to adapt to life in Charlotte. "There was only one Asian store in the whole city," she remembers. But with time, she has seen Charlotte grow and is happy to call the Southern city her home.

Cuba to Charlotte

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Kenia Honorate, who lives in the university area, left Cuba with her 4-year-old son five years ago. The following transcript has been translated from Spanish to English and was edited for brevity and clarity.

"My husband Joel came to Charlotte, and I stayed in Cuba with our son. Joel was working and saving money so that he could get us out of the island. He called one day and told me that he'd heard about a man who could get us out for $12,000 each.

The way the plan worked was that I had to pretend I had met a Costa Rican man who had been vacationing in Cuba, fallen in love and married him. Now I wanted to move to Costa Rica with my child to live with him. Joel's contact had already gotten us Costa Rican visas and a fake marriage certificate, but we needed permission from the Cuban government to leave the island. I had an interview with the Cuban authorities in which I had to tell them this whole made up story about my new, imaginary husband who I was supposedly madly in love with. The Cuban authorities believed the story and granted me permission to leave.

The night before we were supposed to get on a plane for Costa Rica — the first plane ride of my life — I received a phone call from our contact telling me that I had to go to a park in Havana to pick up two additional visas for Guatemala. I was told that the plane I was getting on had a layover in Panama and once I got there, I needed to get on a different plane to Guatemala. Costa Rica was no longer my destination. I couldn't stick the visas to my passport until after I left Havana. So, while in transit from Havana to Panama, I went to the airplane's bathroom and stuck the visas for Guatemala on page eight of our passports.

When I arrived in Panama, I looked for the gate to Guatemala and very nervously showed our passports to the attendant. I made sure to distract her with my son so that she wouldn't pay close attention to the passports. She let us through and I arrived in the Guatemala City airport. I was told that, once in Guatemala, I needed to put $1,000 in each one of our passports and hand them to any of the immigration officers. I was nervous that I would choose an officer who couldn't be bribed. I picked one at random and handed him our passports. He saw the money, gave me a look and welcomed me to the country.

I had no idea what was supposed to happen next, but was approached by a woman who told me to follow her. She'd been told that I'd be wearing black pants and a pink shirt and that I was traveling with a boy in a red T-shirt. I got in her car and went to a hotel with her. We had to stay in the hotel for a week before we could move to a town on the Guatemala-Mexico border.

We got on a bus at noon and arrived at the border city at 7 p.m. We were taken to a hotel in the border town and told that someone would pick us up in the middle of the night. I didn't sleep a wink, and when I heard a knock at 4:00 a.m., I started shaking. Two men I'd never seen before were standing at the door and asked us to follow them. We got on a pedicab and started going through some fields where the grass was so tall, it completely covered us. Eventually we arrived at a small hut and the pedicab driver asked us to go inside. It turns out that he lived there, and his wife let us in. He had to contact the person who was going to take us across the border into Mexico. After he made contact, we had to head out on foot. We walked for about half an hour. I could tell that my son was petrified, but he didn't cry. Instead, he was so nervous that he started talking and talking. The man who was guiding us kept telling me I had to keep him quiet, otherwise we'd be discovered. We finally arrived at the banks of a river and another man came to take us across. We climbed on a makeshift raft, constructed out of wooden boards and inner tubes, and a man pulled us across. Mexico was on the other side.

Once in Mexico, I knew that I could turn myself in to immigration, pay $2,000, and be given a deportation order that allowed me to remain legally in the country for 30 days. At least that's what I thought, but the rules had recently changed. When I went to Mexican immigration, I was detained by the authorities. A woman assured me that I would be released the next day and suggested that I let my son go home with her so that he wouldn't have to spend the night in jail. But I decided during my journey that I was not going to let my kid of my sight. We ended up spending a month in jail at the Mexican border town of Tapachula.

When we were finally released, we took a taxi to the nearest bus station and got on a bus to Matamoros [the border town across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas]. The bus ride took 48 hours, and we arrived in Matamoros at midnight. We waited at the station until 7:00 a.m. and took a taxi to the bridge that connects Mexico and the United States. Once we were on the bridge, we started running like crazy toward a yellow line on the floor that marks the border. We knew that once we stepped across that line, we'd be safe. After we crossed, we turned ourselves into U.S. immigration and asked for asylum under the Cuban Adjustment Act. We were given a parole and allowed to leave.

I remember standing on the steps outside of the immigration office in Brownsville and taking a good look at my first American city. I had never seen anything like it. A woman noticed I was disoriented and helped me call a taxi to the Greyhound station. Another 48-hour bus ride later and my family was together again."

El Salvador to Charlotte

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Juan Ramos was 11 when his parents emigrated from El Salvador to the United States without him and his brother, leaving the children in the care of a relative. Ramos' parents moved to the U.S. and started working and saving money to one day bring their children here. Three years later, the day after his 15th birthday, Ramos and his older brother began the long journey to be reunited with their parents.

They used a guide, or coyote, from El Salvador, who charged $14,000 for the entire journey. Half of the money was paid before they left El Salvador and the other half had to be paid once they arrived in the United States.

Their journey began when Ramos and his brother followed the coyote through a field until they arrived at a house. "The only rule was to follow him, but keep our distance," Ramos says. "We were really hungry, but he didn't give us any food, just a soda and some chips."

A few hours later, they left the house and were told to get on the back of a pick-up truck with a covered bed. Right before they set off, a bus stopped in front of them and five people got out. They all got on the back of the truck as well. After several hours squeezed in the back of the truck, they were told to get off and walk along the edge of a ravine until they reached the river that separates El Salvador from Guatemala. A man pulled them across the river in an inner tube. It took several shifts for them all to get across.

Once in Guatemala, they walked for about two hours, mostly uphill, until they finally arrived at a house. There, they had some dinner, washed their clothes and spent the night. The next morning, Ramos and his brother were given fake Guatemalan documentation and a Guatemalan school uniform. "I spent the morning studying my new identity," Ramos says. Fortunately, he wasn't stopped or questioned as they made their way to Guatemala City by bus.

Their next stop was a huge house near Guatemala City. Ramos remembers seeing lots of people in the house packing what looked like medicine into boxes. "I think it could have been drugs," he says. "But I was 15 and I didn't really know what drugs looked like." They were then given instructions to follow a woman.

She took them to a restaurant and they had some food. There, they waited for another man to pick them up and take them to the Guatemala-Mexico border. Once again, they were pulled across a river in an inner tube.

In Mexico, they followed their new guide into a van and were taken to a hotel, where they were able to rest for a few hours. Early the next morning, another man came to their hotel and sent them to a white car that was waiting at a nearby street. They were ordered to approach the car and tell the driver the word, "montaña."

The car sped through the streets when suddenly they were told to get out and onto a nearby bus. The bus was empty, but after riding for a few minutes, a man got on carrying a couple of bottles of cold water. Then he took them to the bathroom located in the rear of the bus, removed the bathroom's mirror and revealed a secret hiding place. The man handed them the water bottles and they squeezed into a compartment no wider than a standard bathroom mirror. "We were there for three hours," says Ramos, now 19. "The worst part was how hot it got."

After their ordeal behind the bathroom mirror, they were told to get off the bus in a field in the middle of nowhere. It was 2:00 a.m. and, after waiting for a while, a car came by to pick them up. They were taken to a house, but no one was home. They were told to sleep outside while they waited for their next guide to show up and give them further instructions.

They continued to travel through Mexico by bus and at one point were stopped by Mexican police. "We told them we were from Guatemala, because if we were going to get sent back, at least Guatemala was one step closer than El Salvador," Ramos says. He isn't sure what transpired, but they were let go after a few hours. "Our guide was making a lot of phone calls; maybe he paid the cops off," he says.

Several buses, cars and even a cargo truck ride later, they made it to the U.S.-Mexico border. Once again, they crossed a river on a makeshift raft of inner tubes.

After 12 days of travel, they were officially in the United States.

Once in Texas, their guide told them to run across a field and hide behind some bushes. "He told us to stay put, that he'd be right back," says Ramos. "A minute after he left, the border patrol showed up and we were arrested."

Ramos and his brother spent 40 days in an immigration detention center in Texas until they were released to the custody of their uncle, who is a U.S. resident, and given an immigration court date. They traveled to Charlotte by car, to be reunited with their parents. Once Ramos and his brother arrived, they went to their immigration court hearing and were both given deportation orders, or voluntary deportation. Ramos and his brother have decided not to return home and remain in the U.S. without papers.

Ramos, an active participant in the United 4 the DREAM movement, graduated high school last year and wants to go to college. But despite the scholarship he was awarded, he can't afford tuition without the federal financial assistance available only to those who live in the U.S. legally.

"I'd never told anyone the whole story before," he says to me as we part ways. "I can't believe I went through all of that and survived to talk about it."

EDITOR'S NOTE: In late June, the U.S. Senate passed an immigration-reform bill that would tighten border security and slowly give green cards to the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. The bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House, which, as of press time, hadn't voted on the measure.

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