Photojournalist Sasha Moslov has been traveling around the country, capturing the first hand accounts of Dreamers and asking them to tell their stories in their own words. The Queens Tribune will be periodically featuring some of these stories. We start with the story of Hina Naveed and Carlos Vargas, who are currently attending CUNY Law in Long Island City.
By SASHA MASLOV
My name is Hina Naveed, I was born on May thirteenth, 1990 in Pakistan. I grew up in Dubai until I was about ten years old and then my family immigrated to the U.S., seeking medical treatment for my older sister. When she was about eleven and a half she started limping and that set off a full set of medical tests. She was diagnosed with AVM which is arteriovenous malformation. So, the veins and the arteries in her brain instead of being smooth like highways are like a knotted ball of yarn which is susceptible to stroke, as well as other medical complications.
The doctors in Dubai told my parents that my sister didn’t have much longer to live, that we should just to keep her comfortable and that’s it. My dad refusing to take that final answer did a lot of research. We were very fortunate to be able to have the resources to immigrate to the U.S., specifically to Long Island. My dad was able to find a hospital with doctors that specialize in giving care to the type of condition that my sister had.
And my name is Carlos Vargas and I was born in Puebla, Mexico and I came to the U.S. at the age of 4. My father passed away a few months before I was born, so I never got to meet him. So my mom has always been the father figure for me up until now. My older siblings, uncles and cousins already lived in the U.S.
Hina: Coming to the U.S. my earliest memory was when we arrived and seeing snow for the first time. It was January 2001, seeing this white fluffy stuff everywhere and just kind of diving into it head first. That’s what I remember.
Of course, the main reason for us coming here was to treat my sister. Through the course of treatment, we moved from New York to Massachusetts because my sister was transferred to Boston’s Children Medical Center. During our move from New York to Massachusetts, we unfortunately found out a lawyer misfiled our paperwork. As a result we fell out of status. My dad had gone to my sister’s doctor and informed her that we would have to go back to Dubai because of some paperwork. The doctors told him that any interruptions in my sister’s treatment would be detrimental to her well-being and could reverse any progress that had been made. So, he made the decision to overstay our visa and remain in the US. Any parent would.
Carlos: And my most vivid memory is me being in school uniform, and I believe cutting food with a plastic knife and then in comes mom saying “We’re gonna leave school now”. I automatically thought “Great I’m going to go home”. But instead of going home we took a bus to Tijuana, which is the U.S./Mexico border. Now that I think about it, I remember my mom holding me over her shoulders as we were crossing the U.S./Mexico border through the desert. I remember she slipped and fell. I can hear her heavy breathing… I was just four years old, I didn’t know what was happening.
From San Diego we took a plane ride to New York. I remember when we arrived in California, a cousin of mine was saying, “Oh we’re gonna go to Disneyland and that’s the purpose of you coming here”. I was pretty excited.
Hina: Growing up I lived in New York for the first couple of years and then moved to Massachusetts where I went to middle school and then high school. That is where I experienced my assimilating into the community. I lived in a predominantly Portuguese neighborhood with a community that shared values that were very similar to my Pakistani values and upbringing. So, it wasn’t difficult to assimilate because living in a city of immigrants we all had the same values.
Carlos: When we arrived to New York city we first settled in the Bronx. My mom said “This is why I brought my children to the U.S., for a better life.” But the Bronx at the time was a little different than it is now and later we were able to find a home and an apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Brighton Beach had a lot of immigrants–from Russia, Pakistan, India, Mexico… so we felt in a sense at home.
Hina: I was very fortunate that growing up my parents were very open with us. For us our immigration status wasn’t really a surprise. My parents just kind of sat us all down together. They told us–this is what we’re doing. This is the decision we’re making, and these are the consequences that will follow. So, don’t get in trouble. Don’t fly above the radar just kind of be the best person you can be.
At the time I was eleven and a half or twelve and it didn’t have much impact on me. It wouldn’t really hit me until much later in high school when my peers were meeting these social milestones that I just couldn’t meet. I had to get creative with the stories I told, like I’m Muslim they don’t let me drive.
I think I felt it the most my senior year because I graduated at the top of my class. That’s number two out of more than three hundred students, and I wasn’t able to go to college or explore the educational opportunities that I fought so hard for. It felt like it didn’t matter how hard I tried or how good and smart I was. At the end of the day, I didn’t have the nine-digit access code to American life and that was disappointing and also disheartening. So, within two days of my graduation from high school, I moved to New York and my dad took me to the local community college. I got accepted right on the spot and I was so shocked; so excited to start my education because at that point I thought I wouldn’t have been able to go to college.
Even though college ended up being it’s own journey and full of trials due to my immigration status, I was felt like I got my life on track and could fight to become the best person I could be with or without an immigration status.
Carlos: When I first got here we knew we were undocumented. My mother clearly stated that “We don’t have an immigration status, we don’t have papers.” I didn’t really understand what that meant I just knew that I had to keep my nose clean, go to school, study. Because I lived in a heavily populated immigrant community I experienced deportations first-hand. Like some of my friends parents who would never came home. I never understood that. But, I did live with a fear that one day my mom wouldn’t be able to pick me up from school. It didn’t really affect me, I was just hoping my mother would be there every day and fortunately she was. A lot of the friends that we shared apartments with sometimes never made it home. They were like “Hey, I am being deported, I’m in a detention center”. So that fear has always been there throughout my life.
At the age of thirteen, I couldn’t see my mother working multiple jobs, collecting cans and babysitting. I decided to do my part and got a job at a restaurant. I was a busboy working at thirteen and fourteen years old, coming home at one o’clock in the morning. Then waking up at 6 o’clock, preparing myself to go to school and doing it over again. I guess until I started needing to drive my status didn’t affect me as much. I couldn’t get a driver’s license in high school. I didn’t see college as an option for me, so I thought this is gonna be my future. After high school I just took a pause, I didn’t enroll in college until the age of twenty-seven where it took me seven years to complete a Bachelor’s.
It wasn’t because I didn’t have the brains for it, I just felt that the traditional academic pathway wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until my brother Ceasar graduated from college that I said to myself if my brother could do it, why can’t I?
Hina: Because of my sisters’ journey through the healthcare system I was always passionate about pursuing a career in healthcare. Initially, it was pre-med but due to financial reasons, I knew that wasn’t a possibility. So, when I looked into nursing that was something that I was really inspired by and I remembered the impact that the nurses had on my family. So, I took the necessary prerequisites I went to the nursing department and took the test to get in. I had a great GPA and was then told that I couldn’t apply because I didn’t have a social security number. I didn’t have a status and there was a rule in place that prevented anyone who didn’t have one from even applying. I was really disappointed, and they said, “You know your score only last two semesters, so if you’re able to adjust your status let us know’.
Fortunately, what happened next, on June fifteenth, President Obama made the announcement of DACA. My older brother at the time was volunteering at a local immigrant rights association and he told me about it. I did my application, my sister’s application and my younger brothers’ application. We were so excited to get all of our documents together. It took us the longest time to get all of our tax returns, paperwork and report cards. I remember taking two buses to get to a local center in Bay Ridge called Arab American Association of New York, which had free legal services. About a week before my score would expire I got my DACA card and my authorization. I rushed to the school and presented my documentation. I said, “I can apply, my score is still valid” and because of that, a couple of weeks later I got accepted into the nursing program. I really experienced instant results from getting DACA and that it determined the path I took from there on.
Carlos: My older brother was involved in the immigrant movement. That was around 2009. During that time, I was what we call “in the shadows” within the immigrant rights community where we were very shy and didn’t tell people our immigration status. My brother saw young people on television screaming out, “Undocumented, unafraid” and he got involved. For me, at that time I was undocumented but afraid. So, I see my brother taking this journey and stepping out of the shadows and being really open. It encouraged me to say if my brother can do it, why can’t I?
In 2010 he invited me to Washington D.C. where the Dream Act was being voted on and I really didn’t understand what that meant back then. I do remember walking into a room where there were hundreds of young people like myself were crying. I later found out that the Dream Act failed by four votes. My older brother got to speak while everyone was mourning, distressed and just let down. I don’t remember the speech in detail, but he did say, “Today we are victorious, and our fight continues. This is just the first step to something greater”. I think from there seeing everyone get up and say “Yes, you know what? We will continue our fight” allowed me to get involved, attending rallies and organizing.
In 2012, we were pressuring the president. We knew that something was gonna come out of it. In the morning I was working at a restaurant and the president got on TV. He talked about Dreamers and I didn’t really pay too much attention. He talked about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and that caught my attention. On a small black and white television in the kitchen, where people are cooking, and he mentions that he’s gonna allow for two-year work permits. For me, that meant it was going to be my pathway, to be a part of this country’s society that I know as home.
So, from there, my brother organized a clinic where we were preparing documents for potential DACA applicants. The application was announced on June 15th and folks were able to apply in August. In August I did not wait and submitted my application. A lot of young people and community members were afraid that we were submitting our paperwork to immigration. I didn’t hesitate. For me, it just meant I was going to change my life and take the risk.
Hina: About 5 years ago I was volunteering at a local immigrant rights association in Staten Island. I had a fellowship from New York Immigration Coalition and they placed me in that location because I lived on Staten Island. My first assignment was to research Carlos’s brother Ceasar who was doing a lot of activism. He was working in immigrant rights and the first project was to start a youth group of undocumented individuals, as well as allies to partner with in Staten Island. To have a kind of safe space for them. I then had a meeting later in the week with his brother and after that meeting, we had decided on the following Saturday to bring together all of the contacts that we have in the community.
The immigrant rights organization called El Centro hosted it. We were going to run the meeting together to kind of just have an open forum where people talked about what their needs are, share their story etc. Up until that point, I was very private about my story. It was not something I was comfortable sharing. So that first Saturday, when we all met, Ceasar brought Carlos to the meeting and that’s when we first met each other. I remember at that time I had applied for DACA, but I hadn’t got my work authorization yet. Carlos had already gotten his work authorization and his license. I remember him kind of just sharing it saying, “Like look I applied, I got this” and me just being so excited that I would get mine too.
Subsequently, we co-founded the Staten Island Dream Coalition, which was really started out as an interest in a safe place for people to just come together. Then it turned into workshops to empower other youth to share their stories, to really take control of the narrative. Then it turned into a DACA Clinic helping people apply and showing people how, once they get their work authorization, what to do next. How do they get their social security number? How do they get their license? What schools can they apply to? Because we were living it we were able to do these workshops and conduct this outreach so much more effectively. We were a little bit older and the people that were coming in were a bit younger–it was a really fresh dynamic.
We were able to get a lot of work done. Together we organized lobbying visits to DC and to Albany. So, we were getting civically engaged and getting these youth civically engaged as well. Really exercising our power, where people previously believed they’re undocumented and didn’t have any power. To know that you can come together with allies and really push the elected officials to represent you, or your ally would not vote for them, was very empowering and that’s where we started working together.
Carlos: I was able to graduate college after seven years because I had to work twelve hours a day and then make it to school. Taking two classes at a time, my goal was to always get a job in the financial sector. I was planning to become a financial analyst and work on Wall street. After college, I graduated with a degree in finance and economics. I automatically applied to a big institution and got an offer as a financial analyst. The salary was very generous but then the calling came again. What was happening with immigration, a lot of raids and DACA not being a permanent solution, I said no. I thought I needed to do my part again. I need to step up and if people are out there doing what needs to be done I can do so as well.
So, I turned it down and continued working with the community. I am a Department of Justice accredited representative, so I’m able to practice law. I go to court and I fight against deportations. I see my cause as advocating for the community. And I think a lot of the immigration laws are very outdated and need to be changed.
Hina: I feel that true power and strength comes from our communities. I think that policies for a long time have not always reflected the needs of the immigrant community. But the strength that comes from these communities really helps people survive and thrive. For me, we survived and thrived before DACA. We owned houses, started businesses and got our education. I was already in college, so I had a life before. DACA helped a lot; not to minimize the work permit, being out of the shadows and all that. But now things are very uncertain again.
In terms of the future, I knew when Trump got elected there were going to be consequences. At that time we said, “We just need to protect as many people as we can until the end of this presidency.” We need to push locally on policies, push on local electives, our mayor, our governor and state to make sure they are protecting as many of our community members as possible. So, with the uncertainty, of course, there is an emotional roller-coaster that comes with it. Especially with Democrats who pretend that they’re sympathetic to the cause and pretend that they care but clearly their actions speak for themselves. That’s where the disappointment comes in for me. They let us down again; they let our communities down again.
Now we’re redirecting that disappointment and that energy to local politics. Making sure that we are recruiting and supporting candidates that understand the issues we care about. That they are supporting the communities that we are concerned for, and have the track record to prove it. That it’s not just more talk and no action. So, redirecting the energy has really allowed me to refocus and I’m very hopeful. You know this year we have a chance to flip the most number of seats at every level and I can see that there’s a lot of passion in the communities. A lot of energy around making sure that we have people who represent us in the seats that we put them in. Also, partnering with allies who understand and are sympathetic. Who understand that immigration and DACA are not just a talking point, it’s people’s lives.
Carlos: I think that there are people out there who do fear what tomorrow will bring or what today will bring. If their parents are going to come home? It reminds me of when I was four years old living in New York City with the fear of deportation. But I think one thing that I learn about living in this great country is that the immigrant community is resilient. But our lives are being politicized. We’re the “others”, we’re being vilified, we’re the ones who are committing crimes. I think every day more of our communities are debunking these myths. I think it’s becoming self-evident that we are here, and we are as American as anyone else.
We’re Americans in every way, in our mind and in our hearts. We are American in every way but one, right? On paper. And I think when I first came out of the shadows in 2010, I said very vocally that I was “undocumented and unafraid.” For me going back in the shadows is not an option. This is my home and I’m going to continue fighting. They can continue to deport, break families but they cannot deport a dream. I think that’s something that this community has been very vocal in saying. That we are American, and you cannot deport the American dream.