“Where Would I Be If I Never Left?”

Read this reflective narrative about having faith as a child of immigrant parents.

The following personal narrative is based on Grotto writer Mike Jordan Laskey’s interview with professor of social work and Palestinian immigrant Widian Nicola. Read on to learn Widian’s story of navigating the challenges of being an immigrant — and her faith and perseverance throughout.

I was born in 1981 in Galilee, Northern Israel. Our tiny village is called Mi’ilya. It’s about an hour’s drive from Nazareth, where Jesus was from, and it’s one of two remaining towns in that part of Israel that are 100% Melkite Catholic. 

The memories I have of growing up there are so fun. Each fall was the olive harvest, and we picked them from my grandparents’ plot of trees. There have been olive trees on that land for thousands of years. We would take the olives to these old presses, and a donkey pulling a millstone in a circle would crush the fruit. Whatever was produced would be shared with those who didn’t have their own plot. Everyone in Mi’ilya knows each other — our house was never empty. Neighbors would just drop by and say, “Oh, here, I made an extra meal.” 

My story — who I am, where I live, the faith I have, the work I do — is an extension of my parents’ story. My dad was raised with five siblings by a farmer and a stay-at-home mom. They lived in poverty. His mother was a refugee; her Palestinian village was destroyed in the 1940s when the nation of Israel was being established. But they never left the country — they stayed and moved to Northern Israel.

Both of my mother’s parents died when she was a young girl in Jerusalem, so she was raised in an orphanage run by a community of nuns called the Daughters of Charity. When she was 17, she left the orphanage and moved to Mi’ilya to marry my dad. Upon leaving, my mom wrote a letter to the sisters: “This is the most important day of my life. I want to get married with my family, and the only family I know is you.” So the sisters got on a bus, and they went from Jerusalem to my dad’s random little town, and they celebrated with her. It was unusual for them to go to a party like that.

Growing up, my mom would take me to that convent to visit and do service. We would spend time with the orphaned children, many of whom had developmental disabilities and had been left on the sisters’ doorstep. She wanted to make sure that we extended our heart to people who didn’t have as much as we did. Those visits were part of the reason that I eventually became a social worker.

Over time, my parents became desperate to leave Israel. They wanted my two brothers and me to have a better life somewhere. My uncle had lived here in the U.S. so my parents decided to move. I was eight years old.

My dad left first, and he got a job and an apartment in California. We followed him and arrived here on July 4, 1990 — Independence Day. Looking back, that’s ironic and beautiful at the same time. We had all the excitement of a new life, but what happened to our family in the following years was the antithesis of freedom.

We lived in California for a year, overstaying our visas, and then moved to Washington State, where I was raised. I didn’t speak any English when we got here, just the numbers 1–10. Through a combination of ESL classes and watching TV, my brothers and I became fluent in a few months. But assimilating into American culture goes beyond learning the language. I also had to learn a new way of life; people in the States are a little less connected than they are in Israel. My best friends were also children of immigrants — Filipino, Russian, Romanian. I think there was this strong connection because we were all trying to make sense of life in the same way, tackling our dual identities.

What made life traumatic was the sense of fear and secrecy I lived with about our undocumented status. Even though my parents hired attorneys and spent thousands of dollars, there’s no pathway to citizenship. I always knew we were undocumented, though I’m not sure why my parents told us that from such a young age. I wish I had been sheltered from the truth a little bit more.

But then it would’ve been an even bigger shock when my dad was deported when I was 12. He eventually came back, several months later, but it was such a painful time. Immigration authorities were not an abstract idea — they were an actual threat to my safety, comfort, and stability.

The only thing that was constant and consistent, where I always felt the same, was church. It didn’t matter if you were American or Arab — Catholicism is like the Starbucks of religion, it’s the same everywhere. These lovely neighbors of ours gave me my first Bible, and when I was scared, I would sleep hugging the Bible to my chest. I hoped God would rescue me from whatever fears I had.

I did well in school and enrolled in college, where I discovered that I really loved social work. I finished undergrad and then got my Master of Social Work. Over time, I felt a strong, intense desire to do something big and different — to leave Washington. I said to myself, “I’ve got to serve. I don’t care where it takes me, but I’ve got to do it.”

Right before finishing grad school, I stumbled on this program across the country in New Jersey called JusticeworX, which is a faith-based community service program for Catholic high school kids. I called the founder of the program, and he told me they didn’t have any kind of long-term service options for young adults, but that they had wanted to start something like that. So I flew out for a week in the summer, fell in love with the work with high schoolers, and they ultimately created a year-long program for me. I have lived on the east coast ever since.

Even during that life-changing time in my life, as I settled in my new state and made new friends, my family and I were still undocumented. That was always looming.

When the Obama administration announced the DACA program, which would give temporary legal status to someone like me who had been brought to the US as a child, I was both relieved and sad. Relieved because even though the protection was restricted, I didn’t have to be living in the shadows. I could apply for work or go back to school without having to lie about my status.

The bitter part of DACA was that it meant nothing for my parents. One of my brothers had been incarcerated then deported back to Israel at age 21, after he had lived here since he was two years old. My other brother had left for Canada after high school. It was just my parents and me here, and DACA couldn’t help them.

I did get DACA, and it changed my life. I went back to school and earned my doctorate in social work at Rutgers University. I teach social work at Seton Hall University, and I’m a psychotherapist for couples — and I feel so privileged that I get to be the one who supports them in their healing. I’ve been able to make a career caring for others and that is such a blessing.

But my parents still had no way to change their status. Under the Trump administration, there was an extreme amount of fear about what would happen to undocumented immigrants. So my mom and dad decided to leave, despite knowing that there would be a ten-year bar on returning to the US, and it was possible that they wouldn’t ever be able to come back.

The first time I got to leave the country, to finally go visit my parents in Israel after they had moved back, I had just passed the 30-year mark of being here undocumented. I went to this Christmas festival in our village, and there was this group of adults there. They were all my age, and I realized they were my classmates I had known since I was born. They all recognized me. One guy told me I even had the same teeth, which is a funny thing to remember about someone.

We went around the circle and everyone was talking about what they’re doing with their lives, and I had this insane out-of-body experience. I thought, “Where would I be if I never left?” There are so many paths we can take. Where would I be if I’d stayed in Washington and never moved to New Jersey? Or if our family had stayed in California? The struggle for freedom would have existed for me in Israel, too — there are a lot of restrictions for Christian Arabs there. 

And I realized that day that wherever I end up, the big question that I’m called to grapple with is what actual freedom means and what sort of agency we have — or don’t have — in life. I’m not sure how truly free we are, but I’ve learned to make what I call “the choice within the no-choice.” And the choice I try to make over and over, no matter my life circumstances, is to be of service to other people in whatever capacity I can.

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