Our neighbors from afar: Stories of immigrants we know

Mar 8, 2017 at 10:39 am
Julias Musanii
Julias Musanii Photos by Nerissa Sparkman

At the heart of any national issue are the people affected by policy changes, new laws and executive orders.

In Jefferson County, the people affected by Donald Trump’s xenophobic messages and actions number about 52,000, or almost 7 percent of the population.

They are immigrants.

Some of their past lives have been marked by fear, death, danger and unspeakable hardships, which is why they came to Louisville. Some came seeking an American education, or to chase prosperity and happiness not attainable in their homelands.

But most are all regular, working folk. In their daily lives, they each try to make their own important contributions, becoming part of the fabric of our community. And guess what? In Kentucky, immigrants make up 35 percent of agricultural workers, 27 percent of software developers and 16 percent of physicians and surgeons, according to a 2016 study by the New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors. Immigrant-owned businesses generated $315 million in business income in 2014, and the state’s foreign-born households contributed more than one in every $27 paid by Kentucky residents in state and local tax revenues.

With immigration again a subject of contention and debate, LEO presents four brief profiles of immigrants living in Louisville.

Julias Musanii, 21, political science student at UofL

While immigrants live all over Louisville, there is a concentration in the Southland neighborhood, where Musanii lives, and where organizations like the Americana World Community Center and the Iroquois branch of the public library offer support to immigrants and refugees.

Despite having a compelling life-and-death story, Musanii would rather talk about music, the library system and his ideas about helping Louisville prevent youth violence.

“Last year was not good. I’m not sure the number, but it was the highest in 36 years, the murder rate,” said Musanii, referring to the record-high homicide rate in 2016. He believes changing that starts with kids, and the effects will spread to our whole community. “If young people grow up with a mixed up mind set, it’s going to affect not just us, but the whole future of where we live and what we stand for.”

Perhaps to understand why Musanii is so passionate about stopping youth violence, it would help to know some of his background. He has lived here since he was 12, but he was born in a refugee camp in the Congo, where Musanii’s parents had moved, fleeing violence in Burundi.

Shortly after his birth, his family was forced to move suddenly to another camp, escaping violence again. “The story is that when my parents found out the war was coming, they got all the kids together. My father wasn’t with us when it happened. My father was in Rwanda. So we left him.”

For several years, they thought he was dead. “But the truth, we found out later, he was alive and trying to look for us,” said Musanii.

The family was reunited in a Tanzanian camp, named Ndutu. But life there was difficult. Musanii’s father had connections in a safer camp, Mtabula. Their nuclear family moved, but the extended family, Musanii’s grandparents and uncles, were left behind.

After several years in Mtubala, Musanii and his family heard that America was admitting refugees from their camp, so they began the process. It took almost three years.

“A lot of people want to come here. They [immigration authorities] want your story, your history. They want to make sure they get the right people, and there’s a lot of people that didn’t make it through.”

By the time Musanii and his family arrived in America, he was 12. “Honestly it’s a little embarrassing, but I didn’t know how old I was till I got here,” said Musanii. Birthdays weren’t something that got celebrated in the refugee camps. “There was a lot of stuff going on for that to even be on your list. There was other stuff we were dealing with.”

It takes a good bit of prodding to get Musanii to reveal even the broad strokes of the story of his time in Africa.

He’s much more interested in talking about his life in America.

“We got here and I started going to Shawnee High School, the Newcomer Academy.” Newcomer is a special program for immigrants, and it helped Musanii start the long process of learning English. “I don’t think those people get a lot of credit. They deserve a lot. A lot.”

But soon, Musanii was mainstreamed into middle school at Olmstead Academy. “People are kind of afraid of saying, embarrassed to say, but I’m not: I got bullied a lot when I was there. There’s a lot of people that didn’t get along with the way I speak, the way I dressed, maybe.”

These experiences left Musanii with a desire to help other kids, which would eventually lead him to working in a community center and helping to run music programming.

He started out as a guest at Americana World Community Center, a nonprofit in the Southlands Park neighborhood dedicated to helping immigrants, refugees and other underserved communities. But he eventually became an employee, while he was attending Waggener High School.

As Musanii spent time at the Americana, he began writing lyrics and poetry seriously, and producing beats. “My job would start around 8, but we would come early to work on music.”

He would eventually begin offering other teens a program called “Mix Down Mondays” that focused on hip-hop and poetry, because he felt that the genre wasn’t taken seriously by the older folks at the Americana. The program is on hiatus, but Musanii is hoping to get it going again soon.

After receiving an associates degree in art at Jefferson Community and Technical College, he began his current course of study at UofL.

He spoke at length about the violence level in Louisville, and his feeling that music, writing and community can help kids, and, in turn stop, violence. He proudly recalled meeting Mayor Greg Fischer, telling him his ideas in person, ideas that include putting music studios and places to dance in local libraries.

Despite the compelling aspects of his own story, it’s the music and the community that Musanii wanted to become the focus of this profile. “My story is not more important. This is way more important than my story. I believe this.”

Youn-Kyung Kim (photo by Nerissa Sparkman) - Nerissa Sparkman
Nerissa Sparkman
Youn-Kyung Kim (photo by Nerissa Sparkman)

Youn-Kyung Kim, associate English professor at Spalding University

Born in Seoul, South Korea, some 50 years ago, Kim jokes that she wasn’t a great student as an undergraduate. “In high school, I was a good student. I did a very good job passing the exam to get into a good school. So study, study, study, study.” That changed when Kim got to college. “Once you got in college, it’s your freedom to enjoy, and I just enjoyed my freedom. I didn’t study very much.”

The education wasn’t necessarily the point of getting a degree. Kim said that traditional women were more interested in finding a husband, and English was a good major for a traditional woman.

After Kim married, her husband came to America to study, and Kim came with him.

They were basically newly weds — married just a year — when they moved from the bustling metropolis of Seoul to the small college town of Ames, Iowa.

“I remember the endless cornfields,” said Kim.

After studying and working, Kim felt lonely staying home while her husband continued his education in animal sciences. After having their first and only child, Kim decided to go back to school. She was, after all, at a university.

As she prepared to start her master’s degree in English, she discovered a love of learning. She recalled a particular moment in a study hall, which was mostly full of international students, putting in the extra hours to study in English, which was a second language for most of them. The air was still, as the students focused. “I really liked the silence, I can hear the flipping of pages... and when I opened [the book], I really like the smell of books.”

For her master’s degree, Kim focused on teaching English as a second language, but she was also drawn to the study of linguistics. It led her to consider language in a way she never had.

“What is language?” asked Kim in our interview, her professorial tendencies coming into sharp focus. By way of example, she discussed the principle of arbitrariness. “The relationship between the object that we signify and the language is not a relationship of fire and smoke.”

Fire causes smoke; the two are physically linked. Not the words fire and smoke. “Our human mind creates the connection between the object and the word, and the connection is our creation.”

While Kim worked on her master’s, her husband moved to Oklahoma City to begin a doctorate. When she finished her master’s degree in English, she joined her husband and began her doctorate.

Their plan was always to return to Seoul, and after finishing his doctorate, Kim’s husband did work there for a little while, but he returned to his family in the U.S. But then, the Kims had spent 12 years in America, and it was almost time for their son to start middle school.

Kim talked about trying to decide to stay or go. “We can still go back, but let’s say that my husband has a very solid job, and I can still have a job there, and then my son is there in middle school, speaking not very good Korean, English only; if we just send him to regular school he would suffer greatly.”

The decision ended up being made by a job offer from Spalding University. She joined the university in 2001. While she started as an instructor in English as a second language, and now her teaching is more on linguistics.

The Kims’ son is now 27 and living in Washington, D.C. What started as a brief tenure in America to study became a full life, a career and a child. She still teaches at Spalding, helping new students have that same moment of realization that she did when she was a student, in a linguistics class for the first time. “I had never thought of it before, it was like opening my eyes. It opens my perceptions of the human beings,” said Kim.

There is no inherent relationship between the signified and the signifier. For example, there is inherent relationship between someone who moved to this country and the word “immigrant.”

The connection is our creation.

Alonzo Lopez, 37, baker and owner of Rosa de Oro bakery

“As an immigrant, you don’t come to this country to take jobs away. You make your own, make your own company, and make it work,” Lopez said.

In our conversation, the Juarez, Mexico-born Lopez mostly stays away from politics.

He’s more focused on talking bread and business. A common complaint about immigrants is that they are taking jobs from Americans. But that is at odds with Lopez’s story and his successful bakery.

I interviewed Lopez in the bakery, at 9 a.m., just when the last baguettes and pretzel buns were coming out of the oven. It smelled amazing. On a busy night, the bakery bakes around 2,000 loaves for local restaurants.

You’ve probably eaten Lopez’s bread. It’s in 25 local restaurants, including such area favorites as Havana Rhumba, Mussels & Burger Bar, and Taco Luchadore. I’m unashamed to say that I stopped the interview and shook Lopez’s hand when I realized he was responsible for the bread that Luchadore uses for their tortas, hands down my favorite sandwich in Louisville.

The shop isn’t open to the public, but occasionally people show up looking for bread. “The other day there was a guy right here who wanted to buy a piece of bread, and I told him we didn’t have anything. I had one with me, so I was like, here man, you can take this.”

It was a loaf Lopez was taking home, and he just handed it over.

Lopez moved to Louisville, following his sister, in 2001. He was 21, and ready to work hard. He started as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant. He moved up to dish-washing, then serving. He saved money along the way, putting in long hours.

When he had enough money, he invested in a local chain, Ernestós, sharing ownership in one of the six area locations. But, eventually, Lopez decided he wanted his own place.

He set up shop in a sleepy strip mall way out Six Mile Lane, his own small restaurant, which also baked and served Mexican sweet breads. “It wasn’t a bad move, but it didn’t work out the way I planned. And I had to be here from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and we had to wait for customers, and sometimes they didn’t come in. So I started thinking.”

He came up with the idea of shifting his business’ focus to bake bread for restaurants.

His plan included talking to locally owned restaurants, places he could walk into with a piece of bread, and hand it to the owner. “That’s what I do: I don’t even take business cards. I take pieces of bread.”

“Local for local.” It’s a refrain, and a business motto for Lopez, who can speak at length about the effect of keeping money in the local economy by working with local businesses. Many, if not most, restaurants use food distributors Sysco of GFS. “And what we do is tell them we deliver every day, and whatever frozen product you are using, we make it fresh,” he said.

The local focus also allows Lopez to create strong relationships with clients, which he said is crucial to demonstrating why his product and services are worth more than bread from a bigger company. “If there is an emergency I come in and make it right. It’s another advantage of using a local. Like I said, local for local.”

You get the feeling in conversation that the sense of community connected to his business model isn’t just about making dough, and it doesn’t take long for Lopez to whip out his phone and show me pictures of his daughter Valentina. She turned two in January, and she’s adorable.

“This country has been amazing for me. I’ll speak for myself — this country has given me my dreams. I have a house, I have a business, I have a beautiful daughter and, right now, man, I can’t complain about life.”

It’s a good life, and that’s what it’s about for Lopez.

“We’re in this world to help one another. You don’t have to get religious or political, if you give a piece of bread to a person who needs to eat, that’s humankind right there. We don’t come here to take anything from anyone, we just want to make our own story. We wanna make our own good living.”

M, 55, UPS employee

M spoke to me after being assured that his name could be withheld, and that his face wouldn’t be in pictures, because he is gay, which is frowned up on in his native Egypt.

The 55-year-old was born in a farming town in Egypt, with a population of about 5,000. He emigrated only a year and a half ago.

If anyone in his hometown found out that he’s married to a man here in America, he could never go home again. If he did, he’d risk being stoned to death. “It’s very dangerous, because they are Muslim in my country, and it’s not allowed for religion, to be gay,” he said.

“It’s a big story,” said M, when I asked him when he knew he was gay. Arranged marriages are commonplace in M’s town, so long before he had any inkling that he wasn’t straight, M was already married to a woman he barely knew.

“Your families say you have to marry this one — she has good family, or she is beautiful or something.” But M and his wife never got along. “She is big different than me,” he recalled. Their marriage bed was a cold, upsetting place, which M eventually abandoned.

“We have kids, after three kids I say, ‘No I can’t.’” M was afraid to get divorced, but he craved affection and real love. He had a brief, unhappy affair with another woman. “I feel like, big shame for me to do this. I feel bad,” said M.

The ill-fated assignation had been arranged by a friend of M’s. After the failed attempt to have an affair, that friend carefully opened up about his own sexuality, admitting to M that he was gay. The two began a secret relationship, which in some ways was strangely public. “It is easy to walk with man, or hold man, or kiss man in street. It’s easy, it’s allowed in my country… but they don’t imagine you are gay. They say you are very good friends.”

M had a few relationships with other men, usually foreigners, which is how he eventually met E, a Louisvillian.

In conversation, M speaks in hushed tones. It’s hard to say if it is because he is still struggling with English, or if he is a quiet person in general, or if he is just used to whispering about these things that carry a death sentence in his homeland. The hushed tones give a huge amount of emotional punch to even the slightest change in his voice. When he talks about E, there is warmth.

“With E, I found he has really light heart, and he care 100 percent about people, and I feel safe with him... I choose E because I feel very safe with him.”

It took three years for E to bring M to America, and, in that time, gay marriage became legal in Kentucky, a lucky break for the couple.

Stateside, it didn’t take long for M to get antsy. He wanted to work. He had to wait for his Social Security card to seek employment, and then his English comprehension made finding a job hard. E had to fill out all the applications for him.

After working briefly in a hotel, M got a job at UPS. In addition to work, M spends his time sketching, and examples of his work hung on the wall in his house. M had just returned from a visit to Egypt, to see his children. He’s trying to bring them to America, but the process is long and difficult.

For his visit to Egypt, M had to once again hide his gayness, on fear of death.

Despite the conservative Islamic view of gays, M still considers himself a devout Muslim.

“I care about Qur’an, and Muslim religion. Because I believe, and read a lot and I understand very well about, but I never make any mistake in my life. Just to be gay.”

Discussing his faith, M’s voice shifts slightly again, and has the first cold hint of sadness I’ve heard from him.

“Anything else, I never do. I never steal, I never hate someone, I never talk behind someone. I like to fix the problem if I can. But the problem — is for me — to be gay.”