Posts tagged "New York City"

'It’s always been ‘Cesar the New Yorker’'

Mexican immigrant Cesar Vargas has been profiled in media organizations including The New York Times for his advocacy for the Dream Act — legislation which would give legal status to immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, have resided here for at least five years, earned a high school degree and completed two years of college or military service. Cesar, who is undocumented, came to the U.S. with his mother when he was five-years-old. His dream was to join the military. He repeatedly tried to enlist, but was rejected. He recently graduated from City University of New York School of Law and passed the New York state bar — and now his goal is to serve his adopted country as a military lawyer.

Courtney: When and why did your parents move to the United States, and what age were you?

Cesar: “I was actually five-years-old when I came to the U.S. My father passed away when I was, maybe three. Naturally my mother had a tough time working there, with that kind of climate in Mexico, especially in small towns. She did the most natural, courageous thing, which was to make sure that we were provided for — and that we had the opportunity for education. So my mom decided to go to the United States. And I have older brothers and sisters who came to the U.S. first, and they really helped my mother get there.”

Courtney: What was it like for you growing up in the U.S., and what was it like for your mother to adjust?

Cesar: “For me, the way I tell people, I consider myself Brooklyn-born and raised. New York City has been my home for the past — almost 25 years. So I grew up here, I went through the New York City public school system, I graduated college in New York, attended and graduated law school, passed the New York state bar, and am now in the process of applying to be admitted as a licensed lawyer in New York state. So this has been my home. And it has been definitely a challenge, because as undocumented students we did not qualify for state financial aid. It was definitely challenging and different. My mother, she had to work all throughout her life to support me, in whatever capacity, whatever way that she could. It was definitely a struggle for both of us to cope, not even socially, but to live with the reality that we didn’t have the same employment opportunities. I had to work two, three jobs to pay for college. I had to be in a restaurant, had to tutor, just to make my tuition payment — never mind eat. I understand there are issues for other college students, but I think you can definitely see throughout our lives, us working three times harder.”

Courtney: What does the word immigrant, or migrant, mean to you personally?

Cesar: “I think it’s really about seeking an opportunity to find a good opportunity. This is what Senator Marco Rubio outlined in his recent book — he’s a senator from Florida — that his family also came for a better future, really to find themselves a new beginning, for family, for happiness. So that’s what I consider a migrant or an immigrant, someone who really goes out there for their family for a better future.”

Courtney: Is there any way that you carry your Mexican background with you in your daily life in New York?

Cesar: “New York is so diverse, that yes you do identify with a specific culture, but I think in New York state you have a very different attitude than someone from Florida. For myself, yes I’m Mexican, but I’ve always considered myself a New Yorker. People from other states tell me I speak like a New Yorker; I have the attitude of a New Yorker. I am Mexican, but I don’t think my Mexican culture has affected me in my everyday life; it’s always been ‘Cesar the New Yorker’.”

Courtney: What was or is your ‘American Dream’? I had read in The New York Times that you had always wanted to join the military; was that it?

Cesar: “Yeah, I think that’s still one of my goals that I’m hoping to work now to ensure. Right now, with the present announcement, we do have the employment opportunities. But my goal was, for one, to go to West Point after high school, and that didn’t happen. After college I wanted to go into the ROTC program to become an officer; that didn’t happen either. Right now I’m working to ensure that hopefully there is legal authority that the Secretary of Defense and the president can allow dreamers with deferred action to enlist in the military. And for me, one of my dreams has been to be a military lawyer, and also to be a marine.”

Courtney: You have been featured quite a bit in the media related to the Dream Act. Can you explain how you became involved with the promotion of it?

Cesar: “The way people get involved in the dream movement is really to shed the fear and tell your story of who you are. And who you are not only as an immigrant, but also as an American living — we’re undocumented immigrants. So I got involved because I saw other students really going out there and sharing their stories. Going out there at rallies, at state legislatures, really fighting for their dreams — and fighting for my dreams, really. For me it was enough of being on the sidelines, and I needed to come out and tell my story and really get on the field, at rallies, and call on my congressional members and senators to join the fight. That’s how I got involved. And it was my first year of law school that I really forced myself to go out there, and the first time I told my story it was in front of the Senate, so it was a moment that you need to take on.”

Courtney: So President Obama has announced this new version of The Dream Act — I’ve read that it is not as strong as the actual Dream Act would be, but would have some of the same provisions and potentially affect 800,000 people. What is your opinion of this act?

Cesar: “The president announced it as a very temporary step — the age cap is pretty low than what was in the original Dream Act, and we definitely hope to include more people. But it’s a first step and we’re working very hard all across the country to try to press the president to present the legal arguments, the political arguments — to try to provide the support that he needs — but there’s definitely more to do. And I think that is what the president has said — this is temporary.  And we need Congress to pick up the issue, and we have seen in the presidential elections one of the main issues is immigration, and that’s something we want to continue the momentum on, to ensure that the politics and the policy converge to bring both sides together for immigration.”

Courtney: The Supreme Court ruling on the Arizona immigration law has been criticized by some, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, for not repealing the provision that police officers can demand immigration documents of those they stop legally . What is your opinion?

Cesar: “The court agreed that immigration is strictly a federal prerogative — states, no matter how frustrated they are, they need to yield to the federal government. What we saw in the last provision, the provision that allows officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop lawfully, is very disappointing. We do see that as really a discriminatory provision that’s really just going to stop people based on the color of their skin. At least what we saw at the Supreme Court — it’s didn’t uphold it, it just said once it’s implemented, then we can challenge it again. But we’re very confident that we can challenge it again because it’s going to lead to discrimination — and it has led to discrimination lately. Immigration just recently stopped a former governor of Arizona who is Latino. That just goes to show you, no one’s safe from this. But we do hope to see it challenged again based on the fact that it’s discrimination, based on equal protection, and civil rights.”

Courtney: In your experience as a New Yorker, do you think the city is becoming less or more friendly toward immigrants in recent years?

Cesar: “New York is a very different issue, it’s always been the state of immigrants. It’s been fairly progressive on many immigration policies, to ensure there’s access to education, to diverse languages. So New York has been very progressive — at least to me, to my family. Because many of my family members are citizens we have seen New York as a very comfortable, safe place. You also have your pockets where it’s very rural, upstate New York or even Long Island, where we have seen anti-immigrant fervor really targeting immigrants, and Latinos especially. So you definitely have your pockets, but overall New York City has been fairly progressive and fairly friendly on immigrants — that’s completely different than Alabama, Mississippi, or Arizona.”

Check out Japanese immigrant Masako Emvall’s story in audio format! Produced by Courtney Brooks.

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"I feel this is my country now"

When John Arvanitis, 56, moved to Astoria, Queens in 1974 he found that the area was filled with coffee shops and diners, but devoid of the type of cafes ubiquitous in his native Greece. So, he opened his own. “Omonia Cafe” initially only sold coffee and pastries; today it has two pastry shops and a large restaurant — they even baked the wedding cake for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”!

Courtney: Why did you move to America, and to New York?

John: “To be honest to you, I came to see America, what it’s all about; like the ‘American Dream.’ Everybody wants to see America. I have a sister here who’s married with a couple of kids, so I came to see my nephews. Then I decided this is a good country, a strong country, there are good things here. To compare to my country — I’m from Greece — there’s a big difference in the business way, life wise, but I see everything with more opportunities here. A  lot of opportunities. So I decided to stay here for a little more, then a little more, and then I started to love it. And then I decided, in 1974, 1975, when I was here, that it was missing a cafe like this. Back then they had diners and coffee shops, that’s all they had. So I had the idea, but I didn’t have the money to do it right away. I started in 1977, with a small amount of money, I started with $19,000. That was the amount of money I had. And then the cafe got bigger and bigger and bigger. Thank God today I’m okay, you know?”

Courtney: What does the work immigrant, or migrant, mean to you?

John: “Immigrant means people from different countries. I’m an immigrant too; I came here from a different country.”

Courtney: Is there any way that you bring your home with you?

John: “Of course, always I think about my life in Greece, how I grew up, and everything. I miss it, I go there once a year and see it, but always come back here. I feel this is my country now.”

Courtney: Is being an American, or living in America, different from what you expected it would be?

John: “America, no, when I came back then, I loved the way it is. I love the roots in this country, I love the opportunities, of course it’s not the European style of life, it’s different, but it’s much better here. More opportunities, more things to do here. My country, like a lot of other countries, is very conservative, very small, the opportunities are much less than here. Here, if you’re smart and you know what you want to do, you can do it in this country.”

Courtney: What has your greatest challenge as an immigrant been?

John: “I see the opportunities for business, doing business. You can grow and go very high here, go as high as you want. You can be anybody you want to be in this country. You can be a doctor, you can be a businessman, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything you want. They give you all the opportunities to be high in life. No other country gives you this opportunity. I love America. I do love America. I’m here, I have family here, everything is here. “

"I was looking for a better life, like anybody else."


Mohamed Bayomi, 49, owns a cafe in Astoria, Queens. He moved to New York in 1989 in search of a better life, and managed a sandwich shop for 20 years before opening Bagel Nosh in November of 2010.

Courtney:  Why did you move to New York?

Mohamed:  I was working in Egypt, and the economy over there was bad. I couldn’t make a living over there. I was working at a good job, and the job gave me a chance to get a visa. I got the visa and adjusted my status over here. Of course I was looking for a better life, like anybody else.”

Courtney:  What does the word immigrant, or migrant, mean to you?

Mohamed:  I don’t think about it that much. I have a different opinion than the other people. you know. Even between the Arabic countries it’s the same thing, it’s very hard to get a visa. I have a bachelor’s degree in economics. Egyptian people are very educated, engineers, etc. People should move all around the world freely, as long as they are needed. If you don’t need me, and you’re not going to hire me, and I’m not going to find a job, I’ll go back to my country. If you need me, I’ll get paid — and that’s it.”

Courtney:  How do you bring your home with you?

Mohamed:  There’s no way to… but over here in New York, on Steinway, the whole block between 25th avenue and 20th avenue is Egyptian stores. You go there at night, you feel a little of Egypt, you know? Coffee shops, hookah, the food smell. Egyptian people all around, walking, so you feel like a little of Egypt, but it’s not like Egypt, of course. [There’s] nowhere like home.”

Courtney:  Is living in America and being an American different from what you expected it would be?

Mohamed:  Over here, this country has a system. It’s very important and it makes everybody’s life easy. You forget to put a quarter in when you park? You get a ticket. This is the rule. Nobody argues because everybody works in the same like everybody else. A governor is like a regular person. In our country, it’s not that way. You treat people differently. If you have power, you have different laws than the other regular people. Here everybody adheres to the law. You break the law, you pay the penalty. So when you do something you know what to expect. In our country, you might do something very good, and they treat you like nothing. If two people applying for a job, and the other guy is the son of somebody — even if you know 100 percent that you’re better then him, your degree is better than his degree, your score is better than his score — he will get the job. Over here, everything has a system… That’s what’s good about it.”

Courtney:  What has your greatest challenge been as an immigrant?

Mohamed:  I was trying to — like anybody else — I was trying to prove myself. I’m an accountant… I had a lot of responsibility in Egypt. I had to pay money for my family, I had to do this, I had to do that. And so I didn’t study, I worked right away. [And in New York] I worked as a sandwich man, but it’s not my type of work. After six months I was managing one of the biggest stores and was with the people for 20 years. I never changed the job, they liked me, and then I became a part of the company. So that was the challenge — I had to prove myself in a different kind of job, I had never worked it before. But of course accounting helped me a lot.”

Our Mission

The mission of Voices Beyond Borders is to document the experiences of immigrants and migrants from all walks of life in New York City and Chicago. We are not here to comment on general immigration or policy; rather, to paint the human side of incredibly politicized terms. We encourage a democratic exchange of storytelling—open, honest and sincere.

Our aim is to foster a greater understanding of immigrant and migrant communities in our two cities. We fuse together street style photography, with news aggregation and long-form multimedia profiles. With every profile we ask five basic questions: Why did you move here? What does the word immigrant/migrant mean to you? How do you bring your home with you? Is living in America and/or being an American different from what you expected? What has your greatest challenge been as an immigrant/migrant?

The project was borne out of the desire we feel — both as journalists and as Americans — to provide a platform where the everyday stories of American immigrants can be told.

Two years ago today Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law the nation’s most restrictive immigration law in generations. The law, known as SB1070, set a new standard for restrictions on immigrants, and laws around the country — especially in Arizona and Alabama — have been ramped up since. This Wednesday the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments challenging the most controversial aspects of SB1070.

Hitting closer to Voices Beyond Borders’ home, last year AP broke the news that New York police had created an agressive surveillance program to gather intelligence on New York’s Muslim communities. Muslim neighborhoods, businesses, and mosques were infiltrated, with individuals and groups monitored even if there was no evidence they were linked to terrorism.

New Yorkers surveyed were supportive of the terrorism-combating initiative; last March a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 82 percent of New Yorkers thought NYPD was doing a fine job in preventing terrorism, while 58 percent said police acted appropriately in dealing with Muslims. 

In an era of increasing xenophobia in our country, Voices Beyond Borders is looking at our communities and asking: Who are our neighbors?

Want to contribute? Email borderlessvoices@gmail.com or share your pictures and thoughts through Instagram (voicesbeyondborders), Twitter and Facebook

We centrally focus on the immigrant and migrant experience in New York City and Chicago. We are also open to submissions from anywhere in the U.S., as well as occasional stories from abroad.

Voices Beyond Borders is a collaborative effort by Andrea Hart and Courtney Brooks, two journalists who met while working in South Africa. They together covered the 2008 xenophobic attacks which saw more than 60 foreigners living in South Africa’s townships killed. They also covered the ensuing refugee crisis in which tens of thousands of foreign nationals were shunted to hastily-constructed camps around the country. Andrea also led a reporting project on Zimbabwean refugees which unearthed an illegal holding center where South African police were abusing orphaned immigrants.

Since then, Andrea returned to South Africa to report on the youth voting population during the country’s 2009 elections. After graduating from Northwestern University she served as the assistant news editor for Circle of Blue and recently worked as a local editor for AOL/Huffington Post’s Patch.com. She is currently a Chicago-based multimedia journalist exploring how online media gives voice to the voiceless by putting issues in the context of people. She experiments with community journalism that empowers youth and utilizes citizen reporting at Radio Arte, Yollocalli, Mikva Challenge, Digital Youth Network and Young Chicago Authors.


Courtney returned to South Africa twice, first working as an intern at Agence France Presse in Johannesburg and then as The Associated Press’ Cape Town correspondent. After graduating from Northeastern University in Boston she worked as a correspondent for GlobalPost in Cape Town during the 2010 World Cup. She then moved to Prague for a year-long fellowship at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where she covered immigration, human rights violations and politics in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. She was hired by RFE/RL in late 2011 and now serves as the company’s United Nations and New York correspondent.

This is an independent blog and in no way connected to our present or past employers.

Voices Beyond Borders documents the experiences of immigrants and migrants from all walks of life in New York City and Chicago. Our central aim is to foster a greater understanding of these communities in our two cities.

We want to foster a democratic exchange of storytelling — open, honest and sincere.

We encourage submissions from anywhere in the U.S, as well as abroad. Please contact us if you would like to contribute: borderlessvoices@gmail.com.

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