Coming to America: Stories of Immigrants

America, the world’s melting pot, has been welcoming immigrants since the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock. Woven into the fabric of our nation’s history, their stories and ancestry help paint a picture of who we are as a country, where we came from, and why. Seeking ideals like religious freedom and political asylum, their reasons for coming to America are as multifaceted as they are. But most share a single, common thread – the dream of a better life.

Andrei Brel – Belarus

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Born and raised in Belarus, an eastern-European country bordered by Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, Andrei Brel decided to emigrate to Connecticut when he was in his early 30s. After the fall of communism, Brel was doing well living in the capital city of Minsk, but he had concerns over a newly destabilized Eastern Bloc.

“It was so shaky, so unstable, and with two young children, … I didn’t see a future for me and my family.” Following in the footsteps of his father, who’d relocated to the U.S. in the 1970s, Brel – along with his wife, Zhanna, and their children – came to West Hartford in October 1993, leaving behind an established life, family, and friends, to start over from scratch.

“I always remember this date, because for me it’s very significant,” says Brel. “It’s almost like the birthday of my new life, my new family here in the United States.”

The first year or two was rough. “The language was tough, everything culturally was tough, the food was different, it was tough to adapt and assimilate.” Fortunately, he and his wife both found jobs. Within eight months, Brel was hired by the State of Connecticut, and began working for the Department of Social Services.

Taking advantage of a program that allowed him to attend UConn, he got his master’s degree in Social Work while simultaneously working his day job, as well as an additional side hustle. “I was working, plus going to school, and I had another little part-time job; this is how you have to survive,” he says. “I was leaving at five o’clock in the morning, and coming home at eleven o’clock at night.”

As hard as it was, his hectic schedule left him with little time to dwell on the difficulties of adjusting to his new life. And though he had occasional doubts, he never questioned the decision to come to America. “I know it’s not a mistake. It’s the right decision; it’s absolutely the best decision I ever made in my life.”

After years of doing social work, Brel recognized a need in his community for senior home care, and a better method of delivering meals that were culturally suitable to elderly immigrants. “I sensed a niche for myself to open some kind of kitchen, or some kind of service, and this is how I started my business.”

Nearly 20 years later, his vision, Juniper Homecare – which provides home and community services to residents in the Greater Hartford area – is thriving, with locations in Hartford, West Hartford, and New Britain. He feels his success is proof that the “American Dream” is not just a cliché.

“My friends say that I’m a good example of what you can achieve in this country if you really work hard and you have dreams.” He also values the freedom of expression and the ability to speak his mind, something that wasn’t permissible in his former country. “I still remember the Soviet Union. I still remember when you have to whisper, when you cannot say something loud because you can be overheard by somebody, they can report it to somebody, and then you can disappear.”

While there are things that he misses about his former country, Brel says for the most part, he’s now more American than Russian, and he’s living nothing short of the best life possible. “It’s true, you can do it. When people say you can become anything, I understand that it’s true.”

More than that, he’s proud that he accomplished what he set out to do – to give his children a better life than they might have otherwise had in Belarus. Grown with jobs and families of their own, they are proof that the decision he made 24 years ago was the right one. “Look at my kids. This is why I’m here. I look at my grandchild, I look around, and I’m so proud, and I’m so happy.”

Tatiana Melendez Rhodes – Peru

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[Photo: Tony Reynolds]

The desire to become a marriage and family therapist brought Tatiana Melendez-Rhodes to the U.S. in 2003. A clinical psychologist in Lima, Peru, the 26-year-old wanted to work with couples, and the kind of formal training she was seeking wasn’t available in her country.

“I researched potential universities in the United States, and I decided that the University of Connecticut was a good place for me to come,” she says. Though Melendez-Rhodes had found the place, getting here was another story. “The tuition was very expensive, especially when you exchange Peruvian currency for American dollars. It meant that what I had was not enough,” she says.

Her mother, a single parent, wanted to send her, but told her daughter that even if she worked for the rest of her life, there just wouldn’t be enough money for even a single year. Melendez-Rhodes was a very good student in school, and decided to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship – a competitive, merit-based grant for international students.

The application process took nearly a year, but much to her surprise, she was selected. “When I found out, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was completely speechless.” After considering her options, she decided to come to the University of Connecticut. While her American cohorts were enormously supportive and provided a much-needed network of friends, Melendez-Rhodes struggled with the language barrier and wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of the Storrs rural campus.

“I’m coming from a city, where there were so many things happening at the same time, so many fun things to do, and there was not so much to do in comparison with the city I came from,” she recalls. “It was really hard for me being a young woman, being in a place that was pretty much very isolated.”

But believing in her purpose, she persevered through the homesickness, receiving her master’s and doctoral degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy. A doctoral fellowship offer took her across the country to Portland, Oregon, where Melendez-Rhodes met her husband. But it wasn’t long before she was forced to part from him for two years, because of a condition of her grant.

“As soon as I graduated, because of my Fulbright Scholarship, I had to go back and contribute to my country,” she explains. Six months pregnant with the couple’s first child, she returned to Peru. Her husband, working in Portland, visited as often as he could. Melendez-Rhodes worked at several local universities, teaching and doing research while raising their son. “It was really hard for us emotionally,” she said. “But we had a plan, we loved each other, and we said that we are going to make it.”

Once her obligation in Peru was finished, she returned to Portland, and her husband. Realizing that she wanted to continue teaching, she began seeking academic positions. In 2014, she was hired by Central Connecticut State University as an assistant professor and clinical coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program. The couple relocated to Simsbury.

While she’s pleased with all that she’s accomplished, Melendez-Rhodes says there are still things she misses about her home, including Peruvian cuisine and the friends and family she left behind. “I see pictures on Facebook of everybody getting together, having parties, doing things … and I’m not there,” she says. “When you leave your country, there’s always a price you have to pay. You cannot have it all.”

But she feels fortunate that she’s able to visit, and that her family members are able to travel to the U.S. to see her as well. Overall, Melendez-Rhodes is grateful for the life she has here, the success she’s achieved, and the community she lives in.

“The U.S. has given me a lot. It has given me the possibility of fulfilling my dreams, and becoming the professional I wanted to become. It has given me the opportunity for me being able to do the kind of job that I love to do.”

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa – Punjab

[Photo and Feature Photo Courtesy of Swaranjit Singh Khalsa]

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa emigrated from Punjab, India in 2007 after being accepted as a student in the United States. Though he had earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in his native state, he felt that his opportunities there were limited, and was accepted to study for his master’s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

It was daunting here at first. “How are people going to react? I look different – I wear a turban. In India, you are living in such a comfortable environment where every person has a turban around you, or they already know who you are. And then [in the U.S.], people … notice you, even if you are walking without bothering anybody.”

It took time, but he came to realize that the looks he was getting were less about hostility, and more about a basic lack of understanding of his religion and culture. “After 9/11, everything changed. Even though people don’t intend to be racist, they have some kind of gap between themselves and people who look different, or who have turbans, or who are Muslims, or who are Sikhs.”

Instead of being discouraged by it, he did his best to just focus on his studies. While pursuing his degree, he met his wife, a native of Punjab who’d relocated to Maryland as a child. Upon completing his master’s, they returned to India to live, but only stayed for a year.

“There were a lot of rules, regulations, plus you don’t have that freedom that we have here,” he says, explaining that restrictions, corruption, and security concerns, especially for his wife, also factored into their decision to leave.

Upon returning to the States, they explored opportunities in California, Virginia, and Maryland before purchasing a gas station and settling in Norwich. Initially, business was slow. “People used to look at me, and turn their car and go next door – we have three gas stations in a row – so I said that it’s a scare factor that they have.”

But confident in his ability to connect with people, he set up a table outside, giving away free water bottles and brochures on his Sikh religion, “just to talk to people, so that they can feel comfortable talking to us.”

After that, Khalsa was never met with outward racism again. “I think that there’s a very big communication gap within our nation. We don’t have opportunities where people of different faiths and different cultures can get together and talk to each other, [so that] at the end, they end up saying, ‘We’re all the same; we’re all human beings.’ ”

Hoping to improve communication, he began working with the Department of Justice to educate Connecticut police officers and other first responders about Islam and Sikhism. Khalsa says with a deeper understanding, first responders can better identify hate crimes and help protect against them – and recognize important cultural artifacts in the event there’s a fire or other emergency in a place of worship.

Along with his work to improve religious tolerance and understanding and establishing Norwichtown Shell, his gas station, Khalsa started American Property Group, LLC, a home building and improvement company doing work in New London, Preston, Norwich, and Voluntown. He started that company in part to help people afford home ownership, and partly to help those affected by the 2008 recession.

“After the market crash, I felt bad for people who had to leave their house, so my goal is to help those families as well,” he says. Khalsa’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In April of 2016, he traveled to Washington, D.C. as one of only 56 people nationwide selected to receive the FBI’s “Director’s Community Leadership Award.”

The award was an acknowledgment of all the work he’s done in and around his community of Norwich. In May 2017, he was also recognized by the mayor of Norwich for his contributions.

Though he’s pleased by the acknowledgements, he says the true reward is that he’s able to continue working for change. He says if the things he does are acknowledged, “that gives me a boost to do more about it, and makes me feel like I’m doing something right.”

Biende Berroa Sanchez – Dominican Republic

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Biende Berroa Sanchez recalls having a knife held to his stomach during a robbery attempt when he was a young boy in the Dominican Republic. “It was tough back then. People would rob you for your sneakers or your change. There were a few times that I had to run because people were after me, just to rob me.”

Beyond fears of being mugged or assaulted, life on the small Caribbean island was not easy. “Back in 2003, there were always a lot of problems with electricity where it came and went, in and out. Sometimes we’d have to light up a candle to have light in the house.”

That same year, Berroa came to America at the age of 10 when his father, who’d previously emigrated to Connecticut, sent for him and his sister.

Having never been outside of his country, it was a culture shock. “That was my first time over here; everything was different because I came from seeing so little, to seeing so much. It was a whole new, different view,” he says. Fortunately, it didn’t take him long to meet and make friends in his Torrington neighborhood, as his dad worked long hours and wasn’t often home.

Taking a special interest in him, one of Berroa’s elementary school teachers began helping him learn English, and improve upon his native language, Spanish. More than that, however, she took him under her wing. “[My teacher] always took me to places, things I’d never seen. She took me out to eat. She took me to concerts with her kids. I always went over to their house. She took me to church,” he remembers. “She had me involved in things, so I never felt like I was out of place, I never felt like I was alone, or like I was getting bullied by other kids, because I was always doing something, or active.”

When he went off to middle school, she introduced him to guidance counselor Elena Sileo, who took over as his mentor. According to Berroa, times were tough during his adolescence. “I was involving myself in the streets a lot,” he says, explaining that he wasn’t involved in anything nefarious, but simply wanted to hang out with his friends all the time, causing friction between him and his father.

Their problems escalated, and when his dad took a job in Massachusetts, Berroa, 15, stayed behind. “I told my counselor [Sileo] that I was going to be moving, and that I didn’t really want to. She understood me, and offered me a room in her house,” he says. The room became permanent, and so did their relationship. Sileo and her husband became his guardians, and according to Berroa, it’s because of them that he’s the person that he is.

“They gave me so much; they just changed my whole point of view of life.” Now, at 25, he shares an apartment with his longtime girlfriend, and works long hours to support himself – along with his birth mother, who recently immigrated to America and lives with him; his grandmother, who lives in a skilled facility in the Dominican Republic; and several other family members who remain there, as well.

“He’s such a good person,” says Leanne Mailman, Sileo’s sister, and Berroa’s adopted aunt. “He was faced with so many obstacles that he was able to overcome to now live on his own, work a full-time job, and support his family.”

Mailman says Berroa is the definition of success, having made huge strides in search of a better life, and is now working to provide the same for the rest of his family. “I think of success as someone who’s been able to overcome some type of adversity and come out better in the end, and he is that,” she says. “Not only is he better, but he’s able to help others.”

Once his family is settled and he’s more financially secure, Berroa dreams of a career in law enforcement, and hopes to return to college, where he can complete his degree. But for the time being, he’s grateful for all he’s accomplished so far.

“I’m happy that I’m working. I’m happy that I manage to wake up every day to go to work and come home to a home of mine; I pay to live here. And I’ve got my own car that I bought.” He’s also credits the people who’ve have helped him get here, including his birth father, with whom he’s since reconciled, and his adoptive parents.

Had he not come to America, Berroa says, his life would have likely turned out much differently. “One thing I know for sure is that if I had stayed down there, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”