Edited by Literary Cleveland board members and immigrants Lisa Chiu, Jackie Feldman, and Sujata Lakhe.
Global Cleveland’s upcoming Welcoming Week (Sept. 10-19, 2021) consists of a series of events that focus on culture, community, economy, and internationality. The event will bring communities together to celebrate unity and friendship, as well as exhibit the countless benefits of welcoming newcomers to Northeast Ohio.
To celebrate, Literary Cleveland invited local immigrants to share their personal experiences of coming to America and adapting to life in Northeast Ohio. We welcomed stories and poems from people telling us how they came to Cleveland, why they came, what they left behind, and what they found when they arrived.
In response to our call, Cleveland immigrants shared recollections of fear and joy, loss and perseverance, trauma and triumph, exclusion and welcoming. Most of all, the submissions challenged assumptions and defied categorization, showing that the stories of immigrants know no boundaries.
We are honored to present a select portion of those submissions representing perspectives from South Korea, Kuwait, Germany, Ukraine, and India. The following collection includes a poem about speaking a second language, a story of being detained while watching birds fly free across borders, a prose poem of war-ravaged homelands and a past kept silent, memories of the last moments leaving home, and a series of musings on American culture.
Curated by Literary Cleveland, in partnership with Global Cleveland and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, with gratitude for the many immigrant and refugee service organizations in Cleveland, we are pleased to showcase stories of those from around the world who now call Northeast Ohio home.
Jewon Woo is your ordinary immigrant person who has many stories to tell. She has taught literature, writing, and humanities at Lorain County Community College since 2013. She is a city-lover, as she was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. She came to the U.S. to pursue her graduate degrees in Iowa and Minnesota, and later moved to Cleveland, which she claims as her chosen home. When she does not teach or research, she enjoys hiking in the Valley, listening to audiobooks, sewing, and cooking Korean food. Above all, she loves to spend time with her partner, daughter, and cat.
By Jewon Woo
is broken into
hundreds of pieces to become
In my foreign mouth
the pieces fall
down like glass
To speak out that one word
my tongue must be
tastes like a fresh wound
Even silence never leaves it
That’s how I got an
Fatima Al Matar sought asylum in the United States after facing prosecution for her political and social activism in her home country Kuwait. She lives in the Cleveland area with her daughter, Jori, and their cat, Ty. Her writing has appeared in The Wry Ronin, Acumen, The Journal, Angelic Dynamo, Further Monthly, Fleeting Magazine, Bad Language, Staples Magazine, Word, Jaffat El Aqlam, Oyster River Pages, Gordon Square Review, and OffSpring. She is currently querying literary agents for her book Detained, a memoir that relays what happened to her in Kuwait, and inside the Dilley Detention Center in Texas, USA. Learn more at fatimaalmatar.com.
by Fatima Al Matar
I paint migratory birds: Canada Geese, Snow Geese, ravens, herons, and starlings. I spend hours perfecting their plumage on my canvas. Canada Geese have a special place in my heart. With my fingers curled around the chain link fence, I watched them fly over the Dilley Detention Center, where my daughter and I were detained as refugees in the United States. Always in a V shape, with their comical honking cries, they rushed across the sky above me, the epitome of freedom, knowing no boundaries, accepting no border.
My daughter, Jori, and I should not have been held in a detention center. We arrived at O’Hare Airport late December 2018, carrying valid passports and visit visas. The date on our return tickets exceeded the permissible six-month stay, which raised suspicion. Our luggage was searched, and the documents I brought with me proving my prosecution back in Kuwait were found: translated papers detailing that I’m being tried for my political and religious views, and for my social activism.
“If you don’t tell me why you’re really here,” the angry officer demanded, “I will put you on the next plane to Kuwait.” Inside the interrogation room of The Department of Homeland Security, under the jeering gaze of five other armed cops in that room, I explained that I came to America seeking asylum.
My love for birds, or my hate for oppression, started early. I was 11 years old when I saw a great Golden Eagle in a cage at a local park in Kuwait. Staring in those Herculean eyes, I saw that the cage was too small for it to spread its six-foot-long wings. Enraged, I brought it to my parents’ attention but they just shrugged. At home I looked up the park’s number and phoned them in secrecy, afraid of my parents’ reaction. A woman answered. Breathless and anxious, I explained that I was at the park, and that the cage in which the eagle was detained was too small for it to spread its wings, it needed a bigger cage. First, there was only silence on the line, then the woman let out a snort. In an awkward voice, she muttered something about letting her boss know. The way she said it sounded like, “Who cares! Run along now, girly!” She hung up before I could put in another word, and I remember understanding this, understanding her disdain and her belittlement of what was to me so important and urgent, enough space to spread one’s wings, enough space to fly.
My life in Kuwait felt like a tiny room with a very low ceiling. I couldn’t go far; I had to keep my head down and stoop. When you are continuously threatened with “you better not think that, you better not say that,” it terrorizes you. It keeps you small and unsettled.
As a girl, I didn’t have feminist terminology. I never heard words like “feminism,” “patriarchy,” “misogyny,” or “sexism.” My feminism was organic; it didn’t come from a book I read, it was a fire that burned within me each time I was subjected to servitude simply because I was a girl. To serve food for men, to clear men’s dirty dishes, to answer men’s angry shouts. I resented that my brother was sent to an expensive private school, while us five girls went to free public schools. I resented that as a woman, I had no autonomy over my body or my mind.
Despite the tight control over my life, I did well in college and got a scholarship to do my postgraduates in the United Kingdom, a privilege that few women have where I come from. As a lawyer, a law professor, and a feminist, I strongly believe in democracy, freedom of speech, and gender equality—but I couldn’t live by my beliefs in Kuwait. I spoke up about the human rights violation against the “stateless” (tens of thousands of people who are longtime inhabitants but are deprived of citizenship, health, education, and work). I blamed the Sheikh for their tragedy and was prosecuted for it. I spoke up about the poor treatment of women and the growing problem of honor killings (femicide) in Kuwait and was prosecuted. I called for the rights of the LGBTQ in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, and I organized protests against the government’s ban of more than 5,000 books.
When my imprisonment became imminent in 2018, I fled, knowing that my daughter and I would never be safe in Kuwait.
After four days of being detained in a tiny room at O’Hare with access only to a dirty public toilet and no shower, we were flown to the Dilley Detention Center in San Antonio Texas. Our luggage and phones were confiscated, but we had access to showers, we were given clean clothes, comfortable clean beds to sleep in, and food was served three times a day.
We had to pass our Credible Fear Interview conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Through this interview ICE agents determine whether or not refugees have enough plausible fear to not be deported back to their homelands. But even if we were released from the center, we would still have to appear in court and convince an immigration judge that we have good reasons to remain in the US. This process can take years to complete.
Jori and I passed our interview and were released from the center after two weeks. We took a plane to Akron airport, and settled in North Olmsted. Jori started school right away. I still remember how the city looked in January 2019, coated in thick snow like a wedding cake.
Two years later our immigration trial is still pending, but Jori and I remain hopeful.
Every March when the Canada Geese migrate back to Ohio, their honking cries remind me to look up, the way I looked up at them everyday inside the Dilley detention center.
Clarissa Jakobsons was born in Hildesheim, Germany, during the end of World War II. Her parents escaped Lithuania because the Russian Communists were coming, and “they were worse than the Nazis.” Poet – artist – instructor, Clarissa was a twice featured poet in Paris, France, at The Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore and winner of the Akron Art Museum New Words Competition. Her work has been featured by The Raven Review, K.S.U. Wick Poetry Center, Blue Nib, Hawaii Pacific Review, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, and Kattywompus Press, among others. She is currently working on a manuscript of poems, The Last Stronghold, and wishes to share her experiences so the past is not repeated. Pranas, her father, was captured by Nazis in Poland and sent to several prison camps. After the Yalta Conference, he was traded like cattle for free labor to Stalingrad’s Gulag. Eventually, after seven years, he was released, and they were miraculously reunited, in Chicago.
Ragged Trail of Bones
By Clarissa Jakobsons
—after historical research by Daniel W. Michaels, retired Defense Department analyst and Fulbright Scholar
“The last man called to work-detail was always shot.”
In articles and firsthand texts I learned that under the Yalta provisions, the U.S., U.K., and Russia, agreed to use German POWs in Gulag reparations. Each laborer received less than a pound of black rye. Productive workers earned a tad of meat, sugar, veggies, or rice. Almost a million POWs died after a decade of forced labor;10,000 men survived. My father lived.
In 1945, Brit and U.S. authorities ordered German militia forces to deport thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians to Soviet camps. Cattle-cars transported nine million prisoners, including my father. Selected women were raped, paraded naked in front of camp officials promising easier workloads for sex.
One out of three inmates died the first year. By 1953, 12–20 million perished, succumbing to exposure, hunger, exhaustion, and malnutrition. A wooden marker with the deceased inmate’s identity was affixed to the left leg. Gold fillings were extracted, pried, and cut; skulls hammer-smashed, chests spiked with metal rods. Bodies thrown into unmarked graves.
Somehow my father survived Nazi concentration camps and the Stalingrad Gulag. Released beyond reason, he never mentioned the past ordeals harbored in his bones. Without question, silence reigned in our home. He spent days in quiet labor at the Solon office, Bedford and VA hospitals; doctoring patients to bring forth life. I research while the Gulag system disappears from our landscape. What can I do or say? But remember—to wipe clean the empty shoes lining riverbanks.
Jane McCourt was born and raised in Donetsk, Ukraine, and immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of 21. She holds a degree in Russian Philology from Donetsk National University and degrees in psychology and human resources from Cleveland State University. In her early days in America, she worked in the Russian Acculturation Department of the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, assisting new immigrant families and children from the former Soviet Union and teaching English as a Second Language. In her spare time, she writes in Russian and English, gardens, cooks, volunteers, and is always eager to learn something new.
In Search of My Second Home
By Jane McCourt
On December 21, 1997, my family loaded four canvas bags, one for each of us, into a minivan that was to take us to the train station. In my most prized clothes, a deep-green coat of rabbit, tall Italian boots, and a black alpaca hat, that made me feel like I might just fit in America, I said goodbyes to a couple of friends and neighbors who gathered around the van. I tried hard to contain both my excitement for the journey ahead and my guilt for leaving them behind in a place that seemed to have no hope.
I had taken trains many times before and did not immediately recognize that this was the last train out of my childhood and out of my homeland. We finally found the right platform and were standing there cold and silent, waiting for a train to pull in. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the platform clock.
These last minutes must have been agonizing for my mother and my grandparents, Lisa and Semen. For many years, we were one big family, nine in total, bundled together in a small apartment. Nobody questions privacy when your corded telephone (yes, we were lucky to have our own) is in the middle of the hallway and secured to the washroom’s outer wall. Even when my grandfather, a WWII veteran, qualified for a second apartment owing to a growing family, we stayed barely a 10-minute walk apart.
An approaching train broke up the awkward silence. We picked up our bags and trotted forth. Suddenly, my grandfather’s weeping cut the dusk, “Goodbye, Zhenechka, we will not see each other again.”
There were many emigration agencies, all busy calling, processing, and stamping like clockwork. Years later it occurred to me that the country was still missing one most important office that would account for the value of people. Jews became synonymous with the term Soviet emigration, but the brain drain was not limited to Jews. Between 1991 and 2014, nearly a million of ethnic Russians fled Ukraine, and since the outbreak of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, this figure grew by another half a million. As a result of an accelerating down spiral of post-Soviet Ukraine, countless ethnic Ukrainians and other nationalities leave daily to seek living wage and shelter elsewhere.
When our train arrived in Kiev the following morning, we were in for a big treat. My uncle Anatoliy who left for America four years prior was on a job assignment in Russia and traveled to Kiev to meet us. The next day, a plane took us from Sheremetyevo to Charles De Gol Airport. This was my first airplane ride and the first time being outside the Soviet borders. Another plane ride, and a loud cheer of the passengers was followed by the outline of the Hudson River on the horizon. One final plane took us from New York City to Cleveland.
My second set of grandparents, Liza and Misha, were anxiously waiting at the end of the terminal. I clearly remember hugs, kisses, and cries of joy coming from my grandmother. But the most amazing sight was the big smile on Grandpa Misha’s face, an ever-emotionless face of a man broken down by Parkinson’s disease.
Our entire journey took all but one day. Yet almost a quarter century later, I feel like I am still wedged between the two sides of the world waiting to learn of my true destination. Maybe I feel this way because my story began in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, and everything is equivocal about this region. A hybrid war in the center of Europe now surpassed seven years and has become a never-ending frozen conflict, with a whole generation of first graders growing up in bomb shelters, elderly collapsing at the block posts on the way to collect their meager pensions, and all the rest aging and dying much faster than their biological clocks summoned them to.
By and by, with no progress made toward resolution, the conflict rarely piques anyone’s interest anymore. It seems as if everyone long settled accounts for themselves. When I introduce this topic in a conversation, I receive puzzled looks as if there is no controversy to it whatsoever. Everything published in Russian is pro-Russian. Everything published in Ukrainian is pro-Ukrainian. Nearly everything published in English is anti-Russian. A revised cold war rages on, and we, former Soviets, know too well how swiftly history can be rewritten.
I often go back to my last moments in Donetsk, to my prophetic dream where I see bombardiers in a dawn sky and hear people screaming, to the final few days in our empty apartment, with heavy-duty canvas bags, thoroughly sewn by my mother, lining the hallway.
Suddenly, everything goes dark and quiet in my dream. I’m in America, working at a bookshop, longing for a bibliophile young man to strike a conversation.
Reema Sen is currently working on her doctorate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She has lived in a number of different countries and worked in consulting, financial services and nonprofits with a focus on diversity. She is an avid traveler and blogger who has explored 59 countries. Her first degree was in English Literature, followed by an MBA, MSc in human rights and criminology and an MA in sociology. She continues to gather experiences in her pursuit of learning and writing.
Rolling Stone Gathers Moss
By Reema Sen
“They’re Coming to America” played on the radio when I lived in India. I had grown up listening to Neil Diamond, and although it was never the plan, I did end up coming to America!
America was the fifth new country I tried to make my home. I am a bit of a rolling stone and accustomed to old-time friends inquiring jokingly, “where in the world are you now”? It’s also a question I ask myself constantly while also trying to set roots down somewhere desperately. Enrolling oneself in a Ph.D. program in an American university forces you to settle down long term (five years this time).
It was nice to be able to speak and understand the language, as opposed to when I was trying to live in Hong Kong and China. I remember having to draw an airplane for the taxi driver in China who was heading to the train station when he saw me with a suitcase. I have to admit it took a little adjusting to get used to the English spoken in the U.S. as opposed to the Queen’s English that I am accustomed to growing up in postcolonial India, educated in an Irish convent school, and then working in a British bank in London. It’s not just the missing ‘u’s (color, labor, neighbor), but the accent and some grammatical quirks are different and thus made it distinctly American. But that would be incorrect since America comprises 35 countries, the U.S. being just one of them. So how then should I describe the U.S. specifically?
The country of Hollywood, Starbucks, big bucks, or Black Lives Matter, food desserts and drive by shootings? When I first heard Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” it didn’t really hit home like it did when I got here. I realized it’s all about Black or white (what is brown but a shade of black, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were really color blind?). Race trumps (no pun intended) even class and gender. This pervasive narrative is something I was unprepared for, uncomfortable with, and it is impossible to ignore the history of this country which is more than a mirror of other colonizers. Native Americans tend to get obscured in the fray sometimes and the dynamics for an outsider are fascinating, frustrating, formidable, fractious, and festering (indulge my penchant for alliteration).
I have to say I am still trying to understand this country. Where people sit in their cars for hours on end (despite living in large houses compared with the bite-size condos in Hong Kong, Tokyo or Mumbai) doing what exactly? Where there are endless varieties of pet food and fashion in supermarkets (trying not to think of the refugees I had worked with) and the dedication to dogs that locals demonstrate. Where most meetings begin with chit-chat about pets, markedly different from the weather-related chit-chat in Britain or food-related chit-chat in Bangladesh. Where I’m still trying to figure out what soul food really is—just homemade comfort food like mac and cheese, or is it to do with the music genre and its roots that cry out with genuine passion? The outdoor staple is monotonous barbecued meat and corn on the cob, as opposed to the culinary expertise of even the ordinary street chef in Asia.
However, only here there’s Mitchell’s ice cream and Mason’s Creamery and some beefy, cheesy soups to die for and Louisiana seafood boil (who would have thought it could be spicier than Shanghainese crawfish!), not to mention a sterling selection of pale ales and stouts freshly brewed every few miles.
Here is the Cleveland Museum of Art with its magnificently curated collection and motto of “free for all”, the orchestra at Severance Hall, the variety at Playhouse Square, and the multitude of hiking trails!
Here I experience stunning seasonal landscapes faithfully every year. Freezing fairytale snow vistas (just like my childhood storybooks in India), flaming trees in fall, and the lush green of summer. The picture-perfect tulips in spring and gardens flushed with bergamot geranium lavender or carpets of wildflowers; spectacular sunsets from the Solstice Steps on the sweet water lake that feels like an ocean. Who would have imagined chancing upon myriad mushrooms in all shapes, colors, and sizes as you walk through parks with rabbits and squirrels and deer merrily scampering about and giant turtles ambling along the lakeside with the occasional blue heron majestically taking flight. At the same time, a gaggle of geese squawk their way at dusk in an unerringly straight line, and robins, kingfishers (reminds me of Indian beer), and blue jays flit about happily. I love the space, freedom and privacy here, coming from the world’s most densely populated country.
And yes, I have discovered lately, a community of writers/book lovers who make me feel quite at home. The air is clean, the people have voted, the opportunities are immense, and people still read (curl up at Loganberry Books anytime) and write!