REMEMBERING OUR ROOTS
Before the story of the "discovery" of America that we learn in school, this land we call Phoenix was inhabited by Native nations, including the O'odham Jewed, Akimel O'odham (Upper Pima), and Hohokam, for centuries. We make this land acknowledgment because the systems of oppression that dispossessed Native populations then continue today, oppressing the Native groups that continue to live here as well as other black and brown communities.
We also recognize that on this stolen land, all but those who are Native and descendants of enslaved peoples are immigrants whether we arrived days, years, or decades ago. To remind us of our foreign origins, we are starting this series to highlight PLAN's immigrant roots - it will feature the immigration histories of staff, community members and partners, and board members. This month, we are sharing our Board President, Erin Scharff's, immigration story.
Board President, Erin Scharff
In Her Words
My commitment to social justice and to immigrant rights is deeply rooted in my own family's stories.
My mother's father came to the United States just before country quotas shut the door to the large wave of eastern and southern Europeans fleeing poverty and persecution. He came with his mother and three siblings, joining his father and oldest brother in western Louisiana. The pair of them had immigrated earlier, and it took them years of savings to raise enough money to send for the rest of the family. They fled the violence of the Russian Revolution and anti-Semitism. As a child, my mom often reminded me that when my grandfather arrived in Louisiana, he spoke no English and though he was much older, the public school made him start at the beginning, with the younger children. If learning was important enough that he could suffer that humiliation, I could do my homework.
His wife, my maternal grandmother, was born in the United States shortly after her parents settled in western Louisiana with their two older children. She was the only one of my grandparents who spoke with a southern drawl. Even her Yiddish had a southern accent.
The United States offered my grandparents a refuge and through effort, luck, and a fearlessness born of loss, my grandparents built businesses and grew families. But too often our country has turned people like them away. Immigrants and refugees who might bring their talents here are instead blocked from building their own stories of immigrant success.
I have often wondered how my grandparents would react to the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. I don't think they would be surprised. Their own experiences taught them how easy it is for people to dehumanize those who are different. However, I am confident they would be proud of my involvement in PLAN and my own commitment to improving the lives of immigrants.
My father's parents were Holocaust survivors who met in a Displaced Persons camp after the war. They were both Polish Jews who were the sole survivors of their large families. My grandmother was a teenager when the Nazis put her in a cattle car for deportation. It wasn't locked, and she jumped alone. Fearing that she might be the only surviving Jew in Europe, she kept a cutout Star of David hidden on her to confirm her identity while in hiding. In her memory, I wear my own Star of David to this day.
Rekha's Immigration Story
My father, like most immigrants, came to the United States looking for a better future for himself and his family. In the 1970s, he moved from a small village in Kerala, India's tropical backwaters to the University of Minnesota's snowy campus. He spent his first Christmas in the U.S. with his mentor's family and bought his mentor the only useful gift he could afford - a pair of socks. In 1977, he and my mother had an arranged marriage and she immigrated to the United States. A few years later, they had the good fortune of being sponsored for a green card (legal residence) by my father's company. In 1987, they became U.S. citizens - sworn in by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Along the way, they had three kids and made Mesa, AZ our permanent home.
As a daughter of immigrants, I grew up on the "hyphen": speaking a mix of Malayalam (the language of Kerala, India) and English, eating both American and Indian food, and celebrating a combination of Indian and American traditions. In Mesa, I got a great education, but often felt isolated and out of place as one of the few non-white, non-Christian,
non-"American" kids. Because of these childhood experiences of being the other, it took me many years to find pride, comfort, and confidence in my hyphenated Indian American, daughter of immigrants identity. And if I am honest, some days I am still not truly comfortable in my own skin, but I know I am better for having lived between these two worlds (fellow desi and poet Rupi Kaur puts it best). It is what inspired me to go to law school to become an advocate for black and brown people who are othered and marginalized by our legal system and what motivates me today to continue to stand with my Phoenix community and fight to ensure we are all seen, loved, and valued in America.