You’re four years old and your parents tell you you’re going on a trip to America. Yay! At the age of nine, your friends are all going on cruises for summer vacation. You can’t, because you don’t have a green card. At the age of 16, your high school offers an opportunity to go to Europe for winter break. You can’t, because you don’t have a green card. At the age of 20, your classmates are going to study abroad in London, Paris, Sydney and even Tel Aviv. You can’t, because you don’t have a green card. You are about to graduate college. And after 18 years of being in America, you still don’t have a green card. This is the story of Farhin Lilywala.
Q: Do you remember coming to America?
A: My memories of India are sparse, at best. I remember feelings more than exact memories. The flight over had two stops: one in London, one in Cleveland, and then finally Atlanta. I know how my parents felt when they came here. They left a life of comfort behind for my siblings and me.
Q: What was it like growing up in America?
A: We had only my aunt, uncle and their kids in Atlanta when we moved. We actually lived with them for the first six months. My cousin and I attended the same preschool. My dad worked more than 40 hours a week at Quizno’s to gather enough money for us to get our own apartment. Then, my brother was born. I remember as a child knowing the languages my parents spoke but being embarrassed to speak them. Because I was so young when I moved to America, I had the privilege of grasping English at an early age. I remember talking to my friends and making fun of people who had an Indian accent, but the reality was that that could’ve been me.
Q: Did you move around a lot?
A: I have lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia for almost 18 years, except for six months when I lived in Kansas with my cousins, and now New York for college. Before moving to my house now, I didn’t have very many friends because I was never in the same part of Atlanta for long. My dad’s job location kept changing so we wanted to be closer to wherever the business was.
Q: What was the college process like as an immigrant?
A: After graduating high school, I had my pick of colleges; however, my family could not afford to send me to college. I was not eligible for any significant scholarships because I was not a permanent resident. I’m still not a permanent resident. Even if I were able to get a partial scholarship, then I would not be able to attend the universities I had gotten into. Graduating high school, I spent the summer in Kansas working full-time for my cousins at their gas station to lessen the financial burden on my family at home. In August, I started attending community college in Kansas. Between going to school on the weekdays and working on the weekends, I had very little time to do anything else, but I did it for my family. My mom called me in November, letting me know that our financial situation was better and that I could come home. I was thrilled. I finished out my associate’s degree at a community college in Atlanta. I always wanted to come to New York and I thought that if I didn’t do it while I was in college, I would be too afraid to do it later on in life. After two years of attending community college, I wanted to pursue my journalism degree somewhere I felt I would be able to pursue the best education for my field. Great story
Q: What will you do after you graduate without a green card?
A: I can work in the United States because I still hold status and so do my parents, but until I receive my green card I still will not be able to leave the country.
Q: How does your religion influence your life now?
A: As an immigrant, you look for a sense of community. I found that at my prayer hall. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim. From a young age, I was involved at the prayer hall. I volunteered. I attended weekly religious classes. I went to prayer hall as often as my parents could take me. It was part of my socialization. As I grew older, I began to receive leadership opportunities through prayer hall and I met my some of my closest friends through prayer hall. The older I became, the firmer I became in my conviction that as a person, my first responsibility is to be human towards other humans.
Q: What is the biggest struggle of being a millennial immigrant?
A: Identity. As a child, I didn’t really see color. I thought my friends were my friends because we were nice to each other and we played together. I considered myself an American, but evidently all of my friends at school didn’t feel the same way. I had a friend in my fourth grade enrichment class, and in a conversation about religion one day, my friend asked me about my religion and I told her that I am a Muslim. She later repeated the conversation to her parents, who then restricted her from any contact with me outside of class. I was shocked. I knew that the Twin Towers had fallen. I knew that everybody said it was a terrorist attack, but what I didn’t know was that all Muslims were being blamed. I couldn’t understand why. I was just a heartbroken nine-year-old that was forbidden from inviting one of her best friends home to play. Why? Because I said I am a Muslim.
Q: Did your struggle with identity ever change?
A: As I grew up, I understood that I am an Indian, as well. My parents took the time to explain Indian culture to me and to ensure I never forgot how to speak our mother tongue. Another part of my identity was being a Muslim. Now, when you’re four years old, you don’t really understand what it means to be all of these things, to embody all of these personas. All you know is that you’re four and three quarters and you play with dolls and you love everyone because your mom told you to always be nice. Then, when you grow up, you realize that you get to call yourself a Muslim and an Indian and an American! Wow! Then, you get a little older and realize that everybody isn’t going to accept you for you. Then, you finally get to the age when you can call yourself an adult and you realize that this world is more twisted than your four-year-old heart could’ve taken.
Q: You’re graduating in May. What happens next?
A: My parents, my religion, and my life have all taught me to be kind and to stand up for what I believe in. I intend to do just that by pursuing journalism. As a child, I always kept journals. I would write about anything and everything. I think my mom bought me fifty of them and I wrote on the first five pages of all of them before I stopped. As I grew older, I loved writing because I realized I could write the things I wasn’t able to say. In ninth grade, my English teacher suggested that I apply to be a part of the newspaper staff. I was really enthused by the idea. Being a part of that newspaper staff and all of the opportunities I’ve had after made me ask myself why I haven’t been doing this all along. It felt like I finally had a purpose to make a difference and I want to keep doing that. I will stand for those that have been silenced and those who are too afraid to speak. As children in America, when we learn about other countries in classrooms or in the news, we tend to have a skewed perspective on what is actually going on in that country. I want to be a foreign correspondent to remove that veil between the US and other countries.