When Your Dad Is An Immigrant
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When Your Dad Is An Immigrant

A fractured, true story about an immigrant's life behind the scenes.

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When Your Dad Is An Immigrant
Petapixel

1981

Daddy traveled a long way. From the heart of the middle east in third-world Syria to the golden state of California, he traveled. He journeyed, he trekked, he moved. He fled.

He and his family had waited three years to get their visas. When they finally landed in LAX in a new and unfamiliar country and culture, they did not know what the future held for them. All Daddy saw were pale skinned people with yellow hair who spoke a language with a lot of r’s. The land of the olive-toned was far away and long gone. Goodbye Hafez al-Assad, hello Reagan.

Syria was not safe anymore. Home was not safe. That is what prompted Daddy and his family to come to the United States. He said this country promised freedom and opportunity. “Maybe this could be home,” he had thought, “maybe here lies a better life for us.”

20 Hours A Day

My grandpa was swindled by a friend who isn’t his friend anymore and hasn’t been his friend for the last thirty-five years. He had trusted this man back home, in Syria, to get his papers signed quickly in order to get a visa. But the man didn’t know what he was doing and got my grandpa in trouble. The consequence: he had to stay in Syria an extra two years while his family had to leave. That’s all I really know of how it happened. But the most critical outcome—in my opinion—is that Daddy became the man of the house at age thirteen, in a new country with no one to guide or help him. So that’s where Daddy’s childhood died—in Syria. There was no memorial service.

In America, Daddy had to pay the rent. He had to bring home the food for his mother, two older sisters and younger brother. It was either that, or go hungry. After being a picked-on immigrant at school he went straight to work at Wahib’s Restaurant on Main Street in Alhambra. He worked as a waiter, a bus boy, and a cook from four in the afternoon until one in the morning. The pay wasn’t much, but it was pay. And who was he to ask questions? He was the immigrant, after all. He should have been grateful for a job anyhow. At least that’s what Wahib said. After work he walked all the way home, alone. Took a shower, did his homework if he understood the directions. Went to bed. School started at eight o’clock sharp.

Daddy did this for four years straight. He worked and he provided because he had to. There was no choice in the matter. There were several times where he wanted to drop out of high school. He kept on going. To this day he says, “If I hadn’t gotten that diploma…I’d be nowhere.” Daddy lived twenty hour days for four years.

At school, he picked up on and developed his English. A few kids were nice to him or left him alone. But most of them were curious about the new little foreign boy who didn’t understand. In the beginning, on his first day of eighth grade (his first year at school in America), an American boy was looking at him and chatting with his friend. My dad could not understand him, but he knew he was making fun of him by the twisted expression he made. The American boy started poking Daddy. He kept asking, “Who are you? Where are you from? Who are you?”

Looking back on the situation, my dad would chuckle and say, “He was just a little kid who wanted to know. He wasn’t really doing anything wrong.” But back then he didn’t know that, so he took it personally.

A year or two later, Daddy was walking down the hallway at school. A different American boy had come around. He was older, a senior maybe. Daddy says that all he remembers was that he had long, red hair and he was very tall. This boy started picking on Daddy. Calling him names. Towel-head. Camel-jockey. Sand-nigger. Terrorist.

By that time Daddy had made some kind of reputation for himself as a fighter. He was strong and solid. His jagged life had made him tough and unafraid. If someone tried to bully him around, he’d let him have it. This instance was no exception.

The red-headed boy kept pushing. A girl behind Daddy kept saying, “No, Simeon. Don’t do it. Just walk away, Simeon. Just walk away.”

The red-head laughed and turned his back to leave. My dad thought about walking away too. But it just wasn’t in him. Daddy stalked up behind him, grabbed his hair, and started wailing on him. The school had to call an ambulance.

Naturally, the school also called my dad’s mom. And if you know anything about a middle eastern household you know that when you call the mom, you call the whole family.

Daddy’s mom, oldest sister, aunt Elizabeth, and uncle Abraham came down to the school. There, his mother scolded him. But his uncle took him aside privately.

“You did good,” he said. “If someone pushes you around or hurts you, you defend yourself and your own. And then call me. We are immigrants. They’ll never understand.”

Once things settled down and school ended, Daddy went straight to work to finish out his twenty-hour day.

***

My brother and I grew up in a strict household. Nothing extremely authoritarian, but close enough. As children, the common method of punishment was either soap in the mouth, crushed red pepper in the mouth, or a shoe to be spanked with. As we grew a little bit older, that shoe turned into a wooden painter’s stick that was kept above the bathroom door in the hallway. I’m thoroughly convinced that me and Michael’s high tolerance for spicy food as well as pain come from years of disciplinary measures.

The rules of the house were direct: no talking back ever, no shoes on the carpet, do our chores, do our homework on time, eat what Mama made for dinner without any complaint or else we don’t eat, bedtime was set and there was no going around it. No immodest clothing, no foul language, and always say please and thank you. And one last thing: Daddy and Mama were to be respected in all circumstances because they are the parents. If we asked, “why?” they answered, “because I said so.” And that was that.

These rules were good. They molded us into respectful, well behaved people. But they were also damaging. Not the rules themselves, but the delivery of the rules. Daddy always had the issue of conveying his lectures and punishments in such a way that left Michael and I afraid as well as anxious. The results of this became more evident as we grew older. I never spoke my feelings to Daddy. I never showed any vulnerability. Michael lashed back, talked back in attempt to defend himself, which always ended up getting him into more trouble because we as children “needed to show our father respect.” Even when we were right, and he was not.

A lot of the time Daddy’s lectures would contain the phrases, “I work like a dog all day long…” and “When I was young, do you think I had what you have? I give you everything.” What he’s saying is true. He gives us everything we need, we want. We live in a lovely, safe home with good food and we go to good schools. He wants the world for us and he gives it to us. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever known. He does it for us, not for him.

This is where my guilt comes from. This is why it is so hard. I am thankful for everything I have because of him, but there is no escape from the constant trepidation that lies within the fact that we grew up in different worlds. He yells those words because they are true and they come from a place of frustration and exhaustion, but hearing them being hurled at us had other damaging effects. How are we supposed to show thanks and love for this good life we’ve been blessed with while at the same time feeling the guilt that the one who provided us with it has suffered so?

Tips for Football

One of the saddest stories I’d ever heard was when Daddy wanted to play football in high school. He told me it cost $60 to cover the uniform, helmet, and such. Daddy couldn’t take that out of his paycheck because that had to go to pay the rent, so he saved his tips. For weeks he saved the one dollar bills he’d get. When the time came to pay the football fee, he watched the other boys hand in clean crisp checks from their parents. Daddy walked up to the coach and handed him his sixty crumpled up dollar bills. The coach looked at him with a strange expression, but took the money without a question.

Daddy tried to go to practice regularly. But he realized it was hopeless. He would be late for work all the time if he continued. And he couldn’t risk getting fired. So he quit football before the season officially started. While the other boys got to play, he was sentenced to work. And never saw a dime back of those sixty dollars.

***

Daddy and Mama always gave us their very best; they expected us to give our best in return. I remember Daddy coming home late most nights from work, tired and dirty. Michael and I would hear the garage door open around seven or eight in the evening and come running down the stairs shouting excitedly, “Daddy!” and leap into his arms. As the years went on, that enthusiasm started to fade. Now when the garage door opens, Mike stays in his room. After a few minutes, I head downstairs and get him a “big glass of water with a lot of ice.” After hearing that request by him for so long, he doesn’t even need to ask me anymore. It’s my implicit job as his first-born daughter. Of course, he deserves much more than a glass of water. I wish I could buy him the purest, coldest water from some far off mountain spring. I wish I could give him a life where he did not have to work so tirelessly anymore. Mama too. I wish I could pay off our house for him. Pay the bills. Get him the car he’s always wanted. Send him and Mama on a long vacation. I wish I could give him the life that the world never gave him.

But I can’t. So I’ll keep getting him his glass of water.

Pumps

One day, when Daddy was about eighteen years old, a cousin of his said he had found another job for him. Of course, Daddy was more than eager to know what it was. Working for Wahib was bordering on child abuse and he had put up with it for four years. He was tired. He stayed only because he had no other option. But now, a glimmer of hope.

His cousin took him to a gas station and said there was an opening for someone to pump gas. It paid more than Wahib did and the hours were far more pleasant. He’d be crazy to not take the job.

On his first day there, it hit him. This simplicity of the job. The shade under the awning, the generous tips. The ability to grab a water bottle or coke if he wanted to. During his shift he turned to another employee and asked with honest astonishment, “This is work?” And suddenly he felt foolish. All these years he’d been slaving away with hardly any sleep and there was a job as heavenly as this just a couple blocks down from him. He never stepped foot into that restaurant again.

***

Daddy is over-protective. To the extreme.

When I was in junior high and Michael was in grade school, he would drive us every morning and drop us off. There were several times when I would walk down and out the door, almost into his work truck, when he’d stop me and make me go back inside to change because my shorts were too short. Or my shirt was too low. He’d always make sure our shoes were tied tightly, and our jackets were on if it was chilly. On the way to school, he’d ask if anyone was bothering us. He’d ask if we needed him to talk to a teacher about something. At the time it was annoying and we saw it as over-bearing. Now we understand, it was only because he never had anyone to protect him.

When I grew older, the topic of dating was never addressed. Yet it was implicitly known that I could not date until I was in college. I knew that whenever the time came that I’d be in a relationship with someone, it would be hard for my dad. What makes it even more difficult is that I am the first born and the only daughter. Plus, I think Daddy always assumed I’d marry an extremely educated, middle eastern man. Someone who would take care of me and protect me, just like him. Someone who spoke the same languages, ate the same foods, had the same culture. And even then, he’d interrogate him to the last degree to make sure I was in safe hands.

I Dream America

My father has never specifically said the words, “The American Dream.”

Never in his lectures or stories about how difficult his life was growing up in this country did he say those words. But in his strict punishments and reprimands I could easily see how his life does depict the American Dream. My father has worked his whole life in order to sustain others. First it was for his siblings and parents, and now it includes my brother, mother, and I. He came from nothing and now is the most successful out of his whole household. He is the backbone of our family. He is the pillar which we are able to rest upon. His role has been provider, worker, and bread-winner for thirty-five years now. He’s only forty-eight years old today. But this climb does not always have a happy ending. He knows only how to provide, how to work, how to bread-win. It’s out of the pure goodness of his heart; the idea that this is his sole purpose in life has been etched into his mind for thirty-six years. It’s all he knows.

It’s out of the goodness of his heart, but he is tired. He’s only forty-eight but I can see how his life has made him age far beyond that. He has tirelessly worked and struggled to provide a better life for his family in this country that promised him just that. But it didn’t come cheap. I can only imagine how he feels about home, about Syria. It’s all blown up now. His flat home, the church his father helped build, the school and shops that once were parts of his daily life are nothing but rubble rock right now. I can’t begin to understand how that must feel. To have your home destroyed and constantly working to build a new one in a country that calls you terrorist. Towel-head. Camel-jockey. Sand-nigger. A country that calls you immigrant.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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