Mothers Day Immigrant Style


 I have written a previous blog about two mothers in Korea and China who I will never know but yet I honor each year on Mother’s Day.  This blog  post is about those moms from throughout the world who moved to America and have raised their children in a world where their family looks different, may dress differently and are caught between two very different cultures. While most of us will celebrate our mothers this weekend for providing us with guidance, car rides, food and love, immigrant mothers in this country have done even more to make sure that their children have a better life than they did. They have left their country of birth, their extended families and all that they have known, to move to America and start over so that their children would have more opportunities. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with four of these women and asked them to share their stories.

Mona was 15 when she moved to the US with her parents and three siblings from Somalia. Both of her parents learned English and held more liberal views, but still believed that girls needed to be more submissive in their behavior than boys. Mona often needed to stand up to her parents in order to gain much of the same independence that was granted to her older brother and friends. Because of the ongoing conflict in Somalia, her mother has not had an opportunity to return to her home to reconnect with her siblings and parents. If she had remained in Somalia, childcare would have been shared between relatives as well as cooking and socializing. Raising her family in America left her much more isolated and without a support system when her independent daughter brought home a Caucasian boyfriend who she would later marry.


Hieu entered the US from Vietnam at age one, accompanied by her parents and two older brothers. Their family was sponsored by a church in Hinckley. Unlike Mona, who grew up in a diverse metro high school, Hieu and her family were the only Asians in a rural community. Although Hieu never thought of herself as different from her classmates, she remembers her mother struggling to assimilate as she had a difficult time learning the language and mourned the lack of a community of women and the comfort foods of Vietnam.  A monthly trip was made to Minneapolis to purchase some of the ingredients for homemade Vietnamese food. This move to America had been Hieu’s dads plan and her mother went along with the idea as she believed her children would have greater opportunities in America rather than in Vietnam, which was just starting to rebuild after the war.  Although she has had a few opportunities to return to Vietnam, the memories and lost connection with family makes the trip emotionally difficult.


Jackie came to the US from Kenya at age 19 on an academic scholarship to attend college. Her parents had saved and worked 2 and 3 jobs in order to put her and her 8 siblings through boarding schools and college. As each child graduated from college and got a job, they were expected to give their paycheck back to their parents in order to help the next child in their education. The expectation was even higher for Jackie as she had the opportunity for a well-paying job in America and could send larger funds back to Africa to provide for education for nieces and nephews.


Jackie’s mom

Gladys won the green card lottery at age 36 due to the medical needs of her son with sickle-cell. The medical care that he could receive in the US far surpassed what was available in Kenya.  Gladys had worked as an RN in Kenya and soon found a job in the US but had to move here 3 months before her husband and children could follow.  Once her family arrived she noted that the big difference in this country was that she was not able to afford a maid or in-home childcare provider, as she had done in Kenya. Like many working moms in America, she was faced with a second full-time job when she returned home from her paying job as a nurse.


Gladys’s mom

Despite coming from different parts of the world and at different ages, all of these women shared with me many of the same stories. Feeling responsible for family members that remain in the home country – whether that be paying for the education of a niece or being asked to help fund the purchase of a house by a cousin you have never met. Trying to keep parts of the home culture alive in your children while also allowing them to feel fully American. Sharing stories of the struggles you had to overcome to make a life in this country in order to combat the entitlement that can be a pervasive part of teen life in America. Creating a middle ground in your nuclear family between the opposing pull of the individualistic American culture and the community culture back home.

Observing a woman become a mother is something I see happen every day in my work as an ob/gyn physician. Giving birth is not what makes a mother. That task is accomplished in the sacrifices mothers make for their children and the love they bestow on them. Immigrant mothers have often made one of the largest sacrifices imaginable – leaving all that they know to try to create a better life for their children in a foreign land with a foreign language. I often wonder if I would have the strength to do the same.

IMG_7214 (2)

Left to right: Gladys, Jackie, Hieu and Mona



The American Welcome Mat Has Been Pulled


Our country is deeply divided on many issues, the most recent concerning immigrants from Muslim countries. I find it disturbing that the wealthiest country in the world is shutting the door on those that are the most marginalized and in need of our grace and acceptance. Arguing with those who don’t believe as I do doesn’t work. But sometimes personal stories cause others to stop and consider how we may appear to the rest of the world.

I have felt more acceptance and a welcoming spirit during my travels abroad than I have felt from my own neighbors here in Minnesota. During a recent trip to China, our guide became lost during a 6 hour trek thru terraced rice fields. When asking directions of a young man on the path, he offered to show us the shortcut to our final destination. He saw that we were wet and cold and had us stop by his house so that his elderly grandmother could fix us hot tea and serve us oranges. Three hours later we arrived safely at our destination and he waved at us as he turned and walked back home.


I have been welcomed into humble Haitian homes and served a Coke, knowing that the family may have skipped a meal in order to purchase the beverages.


When we traveled to Kenya as part of a medical mission trip, my group was hosted and feted almost every night for hours at a stretch.


Tapestry, a movement I co-founded to increase interfaith dialogue and acceptance, has been welcomed into Muslim, Jewish and Christian places of worship in the Mpls area. Unfortunately, it has been the Christian places of worship that have expressed more reservations when it comes to accepting the beliefs of another religion. In an attempt to spread the wonderful work that we are accomplishing, I have spoken to representatives of churches outside the metro area about hosting similar gatherings in their communities. I have not been successful in receiving a single invite. Those Christian communities who follow the same teachings of Jesus that I do – welcoming the poor, oppressed and marginalized – won’t let anyone cross their threshold who doesn’t “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior”, to quote one person that I spoke with. And yet we Christians have been warmly welcomed and hosted by both a synagogue and a mosque.

Even Pope Francis has spoken out on the treatment of refugees by Christians. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

One final story about why America is already great. This picture depicts a Chinese American girl born in China, a girl whose father was born in Ecuador and a girl whose mother has survived breast cancer twice due to medical research in the US. These girls used their time last weekend to help pack reusable menstrual pad kits for less fortunate girls in Haiti. What are you doing to keep this country great? Are you reaching out to those who are less fortunate with a helping hand? Or are you supporting the America First Agenda where those who have much refuse to share with others. img_1551

Traveling to make the world a smaller place

Whenever I travel, whether it be internationally or domestic, there is one moment from each trip that seems to exemplify how small and interconnected the world really is. That moment on my recent trip to Kenya happened on my last night at the Imara Girls Home. Back home in Minnesota, I had recently started a Dining for Women chapter and the focus for February was the Kakenya Girls School in Kenya. Dining for Women is a nationwide organization that benefits girls and women in the developing world by helping them to help themselves. Each month women share a potluck dinner and donate the money that they would have spent dining out to the selected organization. I had downloaded a Ted Talk from the founder of the Kakenya school and was impressed with her mission to give back to the community from which she had come and to try to improve the life of young girls. This woman had suffered from some of the same plights that have been part of the Imara girls experiences. Who better to speak to them than a fellow Kenyan woman who had accomplished much despite overwhelming odds?

The girls crowded around the ipad mini to get a better view, interpreting for the girls who didn’t speak fluent English. Murmurs of approval were heard at the end and one girl softly asked if they could view it again. A women in Kenya was introduced to me thru a US organization and I was able to share her story with my new friends in Kenya. It is indeed an interconnected world!

photo (2)

Teen Pregnancy in Africa

imageAs I have been traveling thru Kenya for the past 2 weeks, I have seen many boarding schools for both boys and girls and also many children’s homes for orphans.  But when a teen girl becomes pregnant, often against her will, there are few options.  If the father and his family are willing, she can marry.  Abortion is illegal. Becoming a single parent brings shame on your family and often cancels your chance of future marriage.  When the founder of Imara first thought of establishing a home for unwed mothers, she found no resources available.  No hits when she googled teen pregnancy and Kenya.  18 months later she has 8 girls and 7 babies, with one expected any day.  The future plan is for 50 moms and babies.  The need is great and the options for these women few.  I have been given permission to share some of their stories with names changed.

Christine was given to her husband in marriage at age 10 or 11.  Shortly thereafter, her parents died and she was not allowed to go to the funeral by her husband.  She gave birth to her first child at age 12, delivering at home with the help of her mother in law. By age 14 she was pregnant with her third child and suffering from daily beatings, inflicted by both her husband and her mother in law.  In the middle of the night she made the decision to run away, not knowing where she would go and having to leave her 2 young children.  She traveled for 3 days by foot, sleeping in a tree at night.  After arriving at a neighboring village, a kind older woman took her in and fed her.  This same woman had heard of Imara House and contacted them.  Christine delivered her child shortly thereafter and is a good mother to her third child, while she is only 15.  She does not know what has happened to her other children and worries that her husband is now abusing them.  She is slow to smile and one of the quietest girls at the home.  She is only know starting to feel safe enough to voice some displeaure with certain rules.  While I was visiting, we sat all the girls down and had a frank sex education course.  Most of them were too embarassed to ask questions so we met with each of them seperately.  With downcast eyes, she softly asked her question.  “Do I ever have to have more children or get married?”  At the age of 15 she wishes to be done with childbearing and cannot imagine a loving relationship with a man.  The goal of Imara House is to provide these girls with a high school education and a marketable skill so that they can provide for themselves and their child.  Future marriage and children can be their choice, not a decision that was forced on them at all too young of an age.