Crossing Borders: Students Share Experiences Immigrating to the U.S.

10 mins read

M-A’s classrooms are filled with stories of resilience, courage, growth, and the pursuit of a better future. Among the school’s diverse student body are many students who moved to the U.S. from different countries and speak English as a second or third language.

From the bustling streets of Colombia, to the vibrant landscapes of El Salvador, the rural farms of Uzbekistan, the colorful neighborhoods of Mexico, and the vast deserts of Jordan, the journeys of these students have taken them across continents, cultures, and languages. They offer unique perspectives and bring value to the school community.

Estefanía Piedrahita Gonzalez

Estefania Piedrahita Gonzalez, a senior at M-A, moved to the U.S. from Colombia at age 11, starting sixth grade at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School. 

“When I first got to the U.S, it was challenging because I didn’t know anyone and I also didn’t know any English,” Piedrahita said. “I got bullied the first couple of years because I couldn’t really communicate with people. The other kids would laugh at everything that I would say wrong. Other people spoke Spanish too, but they spoke Mexican Spanish, which is a lot different than Colombian Spanish. Some words have different meanings, and the accent is a lot different.”

“On my first day of school,” she remembered, “The principal was like, ‘Are you ready to come in? You can just say your name.’ and I was like, ‘My name? In front of the class?’ That was my first challenge: saying ‘My name is Estefania’ in English.”

“In Colombia, everyone is really friendly,” Piedrahita continued. “If you start talking to someone, they’ll talk to you for hours. Everyone gives lots of hugs and smiles. Here, people are more in their own little groups. Some people are not that friendly or they don’t really open up to anyone, so that’s been hard for me. My parents always taught me to be really friendly and open, and to just talk to everyone.”

Piedrahita lived in Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, which she remembers as “a really loud city with a lot of traffic and beeping.” 

“Over there, the food is really good,” she said. “We usually cooked at home because the culture of going to restaurants was kind of for rich people. For breakfast, we always had arepas and sweet coffee made with honey. For lunch, my favorite was bandeja paisa—beans with rice and plantains—and maybe a little arepa. Another of my favorite snacks was mazamorra, which vendors sold on the street.”

Piedrahita’s school in Colombia started at 6 a.m., so she ate breakfast at 5 a.m. at either her house or her grandparents’ house a few blocks away. “I loved eating arepas at my grandma’s house. She would sew clothes, so on the first floor of her house there were clothes everywhere,” she explained. 

“There are a lot of parts of Colombia that are really safe, but in the part where I used to live, there are a lot of criminals and it was starting to be more unsafe,” Piedrahita added. “My parents decided to move our family to the U.S. because they wanted a better future for us.”

Raneem Almahasneh

Senior Raneem Almahasneh moved to the U.S. from Jordan in September, 2021, and is currently in M-A’s English Language Development (ELD) III class. 

“When I moved here, it was my first time on an airplane,” she remembered. “Sometimes, I felt scared to ride the plane, but there were no problems. We traveled from Jordan to Turkey, and then from Turkey to California.”

“One thing I noticed when I first got here was the green,” Almahasneh continued. “In Jordan, there are a lot of deserts and not a lot of green, but here, when you walk around, you can see trees and plants.”

Almahasneh grew up in Amman, Jordan’s capital city. “We lived in an apartment building there,” she remembered. “My grandfather owned the building, so he lived on the first floor, and we were on the second floor. It was sometimes difficult to live in Jordan because we were very close together in the apartments.”

“During the pandemic in Jordan, the army guarded the streets to make sure people had space between each other,” Almahasneh remembered. “If you got caught outside after 6 p.m., you would go to jail for a month.”

“Most of my family on my mom’s side lives in Redwood City, and my dad’s side lives in Jordan,” she continued. “It was difficult to leave them behind. I haven’t been back to visit since I have been here, so I miss a lot of my family.”

When she first arrived, Almahasneh lived in Piedmont. A few months later, she moved to Redwood City and attended Sequoia High School for a month, and then moved to Menlo Park and started at M-A. 

Almahasneh’s family owns a thrift store in Redwood City, where her mother works. “We sell shoes, kitchen stools, and clothes,” she explained. “My dad works as a driver, and sometimes helps out in the store too.”

“I love books and reading,” she said. “I like action and mystery books, and sometimes comedy. I’ve read a few books in English. One was Disappeared by Francisco Stork, and it was very cool. It’s about an investigation. I also read a novel in Arabic about a family. It was based on how, in Iraqi culture, if someone accidentally kills someone else, the family of the victim can take one wife—a girl from the other family—and do anything they want to her. I liked the book because of how the main characters fall in love with each other.”

“I also like to watch Chinese television shows,” she continued. “I think they’re cool. I watch them with Arabic subtitles. Legend of Fuyao is one of my favorite shows.”

“I love to sleep. I love to work. I also like geometry and math,” Almahasneh added. “I want to travel to Turkey and China when I am older. I have three brothers, and we would always fight when we were young. I like visiting my cousins in Redwood City and watching Netflix and reading novels.”

“I studied English in my old school in Jordan, so I knew a little bit when I came here,” she said. “The school is very different from here. There was a boys-only school and a girls-only school, and we didn’t move classes. We’d sit in the same class all day and the teachers would change rooms.”

“School here feels easier,” Almahasneh continued. “Maybe because my level was higher in Jordan, so I already know the information. In Jordan, twelfth grade is very, very hard. You need to study hard, because you take exams after you finish school. Here, it’s very easy. I just do my homework, and I don’t really study. But, it’s also hard here because I am still learning English.”

Lana Izazaga

Lana Izazaga, a sophomore at M-A, moved to the U.S. from Mexico her freshman year and is currently in ELD III. “I knew a little bit of English when I moved here because I studied it in school, but not much,” she said.

“When I was a little kid in Mexico, my parents had to work—my dad worked in a bank and my mom worked at a company—so they couldn’t take me to school,” she remembered. “They used to drop me off at my grandmother’s house in the morning, and then I would walk about an hour each way to my school with her.”

“My school was small, and near a highway, so we heard the sounds of cars driving by,” Izazaga added. “It was a fun school. I learned how to divide in math, and how to knit.”

Reflecting on the differences between Mexico and the U.S., Izazaga said, “In the U.S. there are a lot of stop signs and traffic rules. Not in Mexico. Over there, if you want to cross the road or whatever, you just run. Sometimes people would drive anyways even when the traffic light was red.”

“Also, there were not a lot of big buildings where I lived,” she added. “The buildings were a lot smaller.”

David Castro

David Castro, a freshman at M-A, was born in Canton Santa Lucía, El Salvador. He moved to the U.S. five years ago and is currently in ELDIII at M-A.

“In El Salvador, I lived in a small town. There were a lot of stray dogs there and kids playing in the street,” he remembered. “I used to play too, but my mom didn’t let me go outside that much.”

“I used to live in a big space with a lot of land around it.” he continued. “There were a lot of trees and fruit around us—lots of mango trees. I had six dogs—two pitbulls and four others. 

To pick the mangoes off the trees, Castro attached empty milk cartons to long poles, which he calls baras. “We’d stick the baras up into the trees, and then the mangoes fell down. They were delicious,” he said.

In his free time, Castro enjoys playing soccer. “I like everything about soccer,” he explained. “I’ve played my whole life. There used to be three empty fields near my house, so I played pick up games there a lot. I have never paid to be on a team—I just play for fun.”

In 2018, Castro moved to the U.S., starting 6th grade at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School. “My first two years in the U.S., I didn’t learn anything,” he said. “In 6th grade, I spoke Spanish the whole year. In 7th grade, I didn’t go to school because of the pandemic. In 8th grade—last year—I started to learn English. I also know a little bit because my brother speaks English.”

On the differences between the U.S. and El Salvador, Castro said, “The food is a lot worse here. In El Salvador, my favorite food was pan con pollo.”

“When I came here, I didn’t want to go to school,” he said. “I was telling my mom that I wanted to go back to El Salvador. I didn’t want to be here because it felt weird. Now, it’s better because I’ve got a lot of friends at M-A.”

Malika Vahobova

Malika Vahobova, a senior at M-A, was born in Fergana, Uzbekistan. She lived in Uzbekistan until she was six, then moved to the U.S. for six years, then returned to Uzbekistan for three years, and then moved back to the U.S. at the beginning of 9th grade.

“My parents left Uzbekistan when I was three,” Vahobova explained. “My dad had studied law in England before I was born, but he returned to Uzbekistan to get married and have kids. His friend was registering for a green card to move to the U.S., and he decided to as well, but I couldn’t get my documents yet so I had to stay in Uzbekistan with my grandparents.” 

Vahobova lived on her grandparents’ rural farm in Uzbekistan without her parents from ages three to six. “The countryside there is beautiful—it’s mostly organized fields, prairies, cows, and a lot of farmland,” she remembered.

At age six, Vahobova got her documentation and joined her parents in the U.S. “When I first came to America, I literally knew the ‘One, Two, Tie Your Shoes Song’ in English, and that was it,” she said. “My first language is Russian, and my second language is Uzbek. When I arrived in the U.S., I had to repeat kindergarten to learn English. They put me into an English school and basically told me to just figure it out.”

Vahobova attended Sherman Elementary School in San Francisco for six years. At the end of fifth grade, she moved back to Uzbekistan to attend middle school. “In middle school, my parents stayed in the U.S. and I lived with my aunt and cousins on my mom’s side—which was weird because it’s part of the culture there to live with relatives on your dad’s side.”

Vahobova attended a small private school in Uzbekistan for sixth through ninth grades, where her peers spoke many different languages—Russian, Uzbek, Arabic, Polish, French, German, and Farsi, among others. “People would speak in a different language depending on who they were talking to,” she explained. “There are a lot of inside jokes at that school, a mix of all the jokes from different languages.”

“Learning new languages to me is more than just learning the grammar and vocabulary. I think there’s a story of a culture, a person, and a whole history behind each language, and even each dialect within it,” Vahobova continued. “Growing up around people who spoke so many different languages allowed me to make the connection between culture and language.”

“Going to school in Uzbekistan was definitely an adjustment at first,” Vahobova said. The majority of the population of her school was Muslim and observed Ramadan. “During Ramadan, most people fast during the day,” she explained. “At school, they don’t want people to be drinking water or eating in front of people fasting because that’s technically sinning, so they remove the water fountains from the hallways and provide different hangout spaces to go for lunch instead of the cafeteria.”

“We’d eat foods like O’zbek naan, dates, dried fruit, and watermelon—foods to give strength—before sunrise, fast during the day, and then feast again after sunset. At school, kids’ energy would fade over the course of the day since they weren’t eating or drinking, so the school restructured their schedule so that harder classes were earlier in the morning. Girls are usually expected to help prepare the feast, so after school, I’d help my grandma and the other women in the family prepare,” she continued.

In 2019, Vahobova returned to the U.S. to begin high school. “I forgot a lot of English while I was in middle school in Uzbekistan, so I had to do some relearning,” she said.

Vahobova added, “I think where you grow up really influences your worldview and for me, spending my childhood in two vastly different countries has allowed me to see what shapes people into who they are, and see the value in conversing and interacting with people of different backgrounds.”

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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