Modern Europe Journal: Recent Histories of Immigration

In the previous installment of Modern Europe Journal, Tom Keefe reflected on his family’s European roots, how aspects of their stories resonated with a guest lecture on the causes and experiences of European migration by our own Diana Magnuson, and why that history was treated with some level of indifference in his family nowadays. Today we’re going to share two very different responses to that assignment, by two Bethel students whose families have much more recent histories of immigration — one from Southeast Asia and one from North Africa — yet experienced some of the same changes and tensions as some European immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

First, Andrea Kanani (’13), a Chemistry/Biochemistry major with a minor in History, shares her family’s experience of immigrating to the United States from Egypt. Then after the page break, History and Social Studies Education major Johnny Yang (’14) reflects on being a 2nd generation Hmong-American.

My family’s history in the United States is a very recent one; my parents are Egyptian immigrants and my siblings and I are the first generation to be born in the US. Immigration to the United States in my family started on my dad’s side, when my aunt moved to Minnesota in the early 1970s because her husband had gotten a job. My older cousins, on my dad’s side, ended up being born in the U.S; they were all raised in Minnesota, don’t know any Arabic, and have never been back to Egypt. My dad had considered immigrating somewhere to study; America was most definitely not his first choice. However, he then decided to switch from an education visa to an immigration visa because he just wanted to get away from the religious restrictions and discrimination against Christians by former President Sadat. My dad ended up coming to Minnesota in the early 1980s only because my aunt was already here. One more uncle ended up moving to Minnesota, as well, in the 1980s.

My mom ended up moving to Minnesota after my parents got married in 1990. Later on my uncle on my mom’s side moved to California in the end of the 1990s, early 2000s. My younger cousins and I, who were all born in the 1990s or early 2000s, have grown up in America. All of us “younger cousins” were also all born in the U.S., but we do all speak Arabic and have all been back to Egypt to visit the family our parents left behind.

Some of the themes that resonated with me and my family’s experience immigrating to the United States are immigration historiography, global migration, immigrating permanently versus temporarily, and the misconception that immigrants come to America only because they are economically impoverished.

Though this was not really one of the themes of immigration, the brief mention of historiography has had an effect on my immigration experience. Although historiography is referring to how the story of history was told, it also reflects what the thoughts of the culture were at the time.  Prof. Magnuson mentioned that the 1960s-70s began a shift in thinking about immigrants as uprooted, but rather as begin to look at their ethnic histories, this trend was beginning to include not just Europeans, but also Hispanics and Asians. In the 1980s-90s began a shift towards preserving that ethnic history. These shifts in how immigration was viewed over time, even in such a short period of time, are exemplified in my family history. My “older cousins” that grew up in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s don’t have strong ties to Egypt because the culture taught them it was better to assimilate. The teachers told my aunt not to speak in Arabic at home to my cousins because it would confuse them in their school work. The language is one on the strongest ways to understand and be part of the culture; once my cousins lost the language, they lost the sense of being Egyptian. The trend that started in the 80s in historiography took about another decade to work its way into popular Minnesotan culture, especially where there were not many Middle Eastern immigrants and the trend had just been expanded to the older immigrant groups of Hispanics and Asians; this was too late for my cousins. By the 90s, it was acceptable to preserve the culture of my parents; in school I was encouraged to tell my classmates about Egypt and say phrases in Arabic. Only recently have my cousins considered learning more about their family history and have considered making a trip to Egypt. The change in how immigration was viewed academically, changed how much of my family’s heritage was retained in first generation Americans from the exact same family, growing up in the same exact location in the United States.

The theme of global migration fits into my family as well. My parents and their siblings are not the only ones in their extended families to emigrate from Egypt, and not all of them came to America. My dad has cousins in the U.S, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. My mom’s aunt and uncles moved to Australia in the 70s. My dad had wanted to move to the Netherlands with my uncle (who eventually came to the U.S.), originally, but that visa didn’t go through.

The moves my family made were considered to be permanent. However, it was always my dad’s plan to go back when Egypt had improved, or make his winter home Egypt, instead of Florida, when he retired. My uncle did move his family back to Egypt for a few years when he had gotten fed up with American culture, but then he came back for the same reasons he left: religious persecution.

As Prof. Magnuson had mentioned in class, not all immigrants came for economic reasons, and most immigrants are not the poorest of the poor. These are both the case for my family. My family is from the middle class in Egypt, and lives there comfortably. They are not uneducated farmers, but rather all college educated. In my Egyptian church, most are college educated; it is not until recent years that poorer people were emigrating from Egypt. The reason my dad wanted to emigrate was that he wanted his children to live in a place where they could openly practice their faith without fear of being discriminated from a job or in school just because they are Christian.

For my siblings, younger cousins, and myself, being Egyptians is not part of our identity; it is our identity. I consider myself to be first, and foremost, an Egyptian. As a far second is my American identity. Even though I was born, lived my whole life in America, have an American citizenship, and no Egyptian citizenship, the blood that runs through my veins, not the land I live in, determine who I am. When I visit Egypt, I know it so well that it feels like home as soon as I land. The culture I see at home, not the one at school, is the culture that resonates with me the most. Considering that my parents are the immigrants, and not removed by generations it makes sense that my heritage would be preserved. Also, with all the technology today, it is easy (and not too expensive) to communicate with home, go home, get imports of cultural foods, and preserve the language through lessons online or just by hearing it on Egyptian satellite. However, it is never quite home.

– Andrea Kanani

After the break, Bethel History and Social Studies Education major Johnny Yang shares the story of his Hmong-American family …

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