Mamadou Diomande is a resident of Forest Park who has a unique perspective on the current national immigration conversation being discussed everywhere from Forest Park to Springfield to Washington D.C. and everywhere in between, it seems.

Born in 1984 in the Ivory Coast of western Africa, he grew up under the leadership of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who was the first president of that country, holding that office from 1960 to 1993.

“He was a smart guy,” said Mamadou, “because he allowed immigrants from all over Africa to enter the country and contribute their skills and knowledge. The economy was booming.”

But after Houphouet-Boigny died, the country descended into a violent turmoil, which began in 1998 and lasted until five or six years ago. 

“As a child, I witnessed a lot of shooting and killing,” he said. “It affected me a lot. Many people were leaving the country, and so were many companies because it wasn’t safe anymore. When I graduated from college, it was hard to get a job, so I immigrated to the United States while much of my family settled in France.”

He is now a U.S. citizen, has an MBA from DeVry University and is an independent associate manager at a company called LegalShield.

Naoto Hasegawa was born in the Nigata Prefecture of Japan in 1974. His father decided he needed to learn English in order to be more successful as an adult, so at 12 years old he was sent to a school in Hawaii. His father’s intention was to have his son return home after his schooling ended, but one thing led to another, he continued to get better job opportunities in the here than in Japan, got a Green Card, married a U.S. citizen and at 43 is a permanent resident of the U.S.

He works for a translation company during the day and at the Trader Joe’s on Harlem in Oak Park some evenings. 

Radana Shanahan was born in what is now called the Czech Republic and came to the U.S. in 1999 on a tourist visa. 

“I was young,” she said. “I wanted to try something new. I love to travel and I can live anywhere.”

She received a Green Card and applied for citizenship when she got married. Six years later in 2011 she became a naturalized U.S. citizen. You can see her most days in her La Maison de Bonbon candy shop which is in a corner of Shanahan’s Restaurant.

Pim and Anthony (last names omitted by request) met in 2011 at a museum in Southeast Asia where Pim was born. Anthony, who was working overseas at the time, was on vacation. They hit it off and corresponded by email for a year before deciding to get married.

They then began the process of obtaining a fiancé visa, and again had to live separately — with a few trans-Pacific visits — for a year until the visa was granted. They were married at the courthouse downtown the day after Pim arrived in Chicago. She now works as a caregiver for the elderly.

“I am a fourth generation U.S. American,” said Claudia Medina, “but I also lived in Colombia and am of Colombian decent, so I am considered an immigrant, even though I was born in the USA. My husband was born in Nicaragua, immigrated [here] after Med School and became a U.S. citizen.”

Claudia is heavily invested in the education of children, both as a teacher and as a member of the District 209 school board. Rosalio currently works as a surgical assistant until he completes the process to become certified as a physician in the U.S.

Adapting to American culture

On the one hand, Mamadou said, it was a relief to be in a country where his main concern isn’t just staying alive. 

“When you come from a country where there’s no security,” he explained, “where you see people dying every day, struggling to find food and water, it’s hard. And then you come here and it’s a blessing to be here; you don’t have to worry about your life.”

On the other hand, he said adapting was the “biggest challenge of my life.” 

“When I came here, the only non-African language I spoke was French,” he recalled. Unable to go to ESL classes, he had to learn English to pass the language proficiency test on his own, going to the library every day, listening to tapes and watching TV. Then, in graduate school at DeVry Tech, he had to study “five times harder than the other students to make the grade.”

“You don’t have a choice,” he observed. “If you want to better yourself in another culture, you have to learn. I don’t let myself be distracted. I know I’m doing the right thing for myself. I don’t get myself in trouble, and anything that’s beyond my control, I don’t worry about it.”

Pim likewise had mixed feelings about “assimilating.” She didn’t know English as well as she thought she did, but going to ESL classes for three years helped and, like Mamadou, she picked up a lot from watching television.

“At first,” she recalled, “I missed everything about home — my family, my friends, the food I was used to. I still miss my family a lot, and being away from them for so long is hard.”

Anthony said they go to Southeast Asia frequently, and that helps. So does finding a religious congregation which many of her countrymen attend and in which she can speak her primary language and eat familiar foods. 

Pim also appreciates the benefits of living in America. “There are so many things to do and see,” she said, “fresh air, clean water, beautiful parks, good work.”

Naoto said moving from Hawaii to Chicago was a harder transition for him than his transition from Japan to Honolulu. 

“Hawaii is so homogenously Asian,” he said, “that I felt right at home. The food is very Asian-focused.” When he moved to the continental U.S. to go to college, he used a rice cooker in his dorm room every day for some comfort food.

Working is one of the cultural differences he had to adjust to. 

“Trader Joe’s,” he said, “gives their employees a lot of power. If you feel it’s the right way to deal with an issue, just do it. Don’t ask permission.”

Instead of the meritocracy in America, where promotions are based on performance, Japan is more hierarchical and promotions are often based more on dedication to the company and years of service.

In some ways, said Naoto, Forest Park is home. He and his wife live here and America has been a land of opportunity for him. But, like Pim, the land where he grew up is still his “spiritual home,” even though he has lived here almost three times as long as he did in Japan.

That’s why he has chosen to remain a permanent resident with a Green Card instead of becoming a U.S. citizen. “I’m still Japanese,” he said. “When the plane lands in Japan on our yearly trip back home, I’m awash with nostalgia, with these memories from childhood. It’s kind of like a homecoming.”

Radana seems to have had the easiest time adapting to American culture. 

“I find that American culture is not that much different than where I come from,” she said. “It wasn’t difficult for me to assimilate. We have the same western values. This is a great country. Being a citizen here is a privilege and people should not take it for granted.”

A welcoming village?

The Medinas are truly a bi-cultural couple. Claudia was born here but has lived in Colombia. Rosalio is from Nicaragua. Both worked hard in the latest election for the Proviso Together candidates.

As Latinos, they feel the impact of President Trump’s rhetoric perhaps more than immigrants from other countries. Claudia said people from south of the border are a diverse group, so it’s wrong to lump them all together culturally, but “the only real generalization right now is that there is fear.”

“The struggle has become one of documentation,” she noted. “Latinos have become all balled into one term. And Latino/Mexican/criminal/drug dealer/rapist/illegal/immigrant are words being used interchangeably to describe all of us who speak Spanish or Portuguese. We are experiencing discrimination and questioning of our integrity by the way we look or speak, regardless of the level of education we may have obtained or our documented status.”

The cause of fear among Latinos seems to be the tactics used by ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) rather the immigrations laws themselves. 

“Since Donald Trump became president,” she explained, “immigration policies have been undertaken with little regard for human rights. Latinos fear their civil rights will not be upheld.

“Raids happen without search warrants. At a grocery store where there was a raid just a few weeks ago, 33 people were taken. People went to buy milk and pick up a few things, but they never came home. If you are caught in a raid, you are scooped up and your family just does not hear from you for an undetermined amount of time. Your children come home from school but you’re not there. The consequences are devastating for everyone who is left behind.”

Naoto said that he was once called a “gook.” Another time he was told to go back home and recently a negative comment about him was posted on Facebook, but overall “people in the Midwest tend to be accepting.” In fact, he and his Caucasian wife Kimberly were featured as an interracial couple on the 50th anniversary of the supreme court decision Loving v. Virginia.

He does sometimes feel like an outsider here in Forest Park. 

“It doesn’t mean that I’m not welcome here,” he explained. “It’s not hostile. It’s more like Cheers where I’m the guy who walks in for a beer and Sam and Norm and Frazier ask me where I’m from and are nice to me, but in the end I’m not part of the group. I’m just the guy who happened to walk in for a cold one.”

That’s one reason he joined the Forest Park Diversity Commission, to become more involved in the community and to share his perspective.

Visas, Green Cards and naturalization

Everyone interviewed agreed that the process of getting a visa to enter the U.S. for purposes other than coming as a tourist can be lengthy, time-consuming and rigorous, causing all of them to wonder why such a big deal is being made about tightening up the immigration process when it is already quite stringent.

“I was amazed at how rigorous the process was over the course of a year,” Anthony said. “I ended up hiring two different attorneys and spending $5,000. We had to provide reams of evidence that we were legitimately wanting to get married because some women will pay a U.S. citizen to marry them in order to get into the country and once they are here, they will get a quick divorce.”

“Once your fiancée arrives, you have 90 days to get married. Once married, the immigrating bride can get a more permanent married visa, but that has to be renewed a year or two later. Pim was able to do that and now has a Green Card.

Naoto had a fairly easy time going through a sequence of visas from student status to work to permanent residency. He said that one employer even took care of everything for him.

Radana said getting a visa has become much more difficult since 9/11 and rightfully so. She traveled before and after that event and says, “I know people get frustrated. It took me a long time, too, but I understand the need for increased security.

“I was in the Czech Republic and Vienna last summer and they’re having problems with Syrian refugees now. How do you do a background check on a Syrian refugee who had to leave home without any documentation? When I applied for a visa, I was able to provide a birth certificate, graduation diplomas and tax records. There are always two sides to the immigration issue.

“I think people are overblowing the immigration problem,” Radana added, arguing that immigration officials know what they are doing and do a good job screening people.”

On their minds

Naoto: “There are a lot of divisive remarks coming from politicians that don’t help much. To me if you have a conversation on a person-to-person level, I think a lot of preconceived notions and misconceptions would go away. I think a lot of this divisiveness comes from the fear of the unknown.”

Radana: “This country holds together by responsibility and by values like duty to country. You have to balance rights and duties.”

Mamadou: “You have to go for what you want in life. Nobody says it’s going to be easy. You are going to fail sometimes, but you have to keep moving forward in order to achieve your dreams.”

Claudia: “Latinos are your neighbors. We love our home and our neighbors. This is home, and we are part of this wonderful, diverse country. We bring joy, music, dance food and so many other qualities to our neighborhoods. We deserve the same protections of life and safety just for being human, as we all are.”