Ky. Voices: An immigrant's story of thanksgiving

November 22, 2012 

I have a Thanksgiving story to tell.

I am a naturalized citizen who migrated to this country on Nov. 18, 2000. When I boarded the airplane from Manila to New York City. I brought only clothes and some childhood photos that I could fit into a suitcase.

Fortunately, I was able to bring along valuables that I didn't have to fit into the suitcase: my education, my values and my faith.

I traveled alone. My family had immigrated 13 years before without me, one of the unintended consequences of a very complex and confusing immigration process. As I looked out of a window of the airplane, I began my series of conversations with God. I asked, "Lord, are you taking me to the promised land?"

While my plane circled John F. Kennedy airport before landing, I saw Lady Liberty and Ellis Island, icons of the New York skyline that many immigrants have seen upon arriving in this country. I thanked God that my journey to the United States was uneventful, unlike the journeys of others who have come by boat or on foot.

Fortunately, I got employment relatively quickly in the legal department of Viaco, right on Times Square. At that point, I thought, "Have I been brought to the end of my journey?"

After I settled in, I reconnected with American friends I had known previously through my work as a lawyer and a clerk for the Philippines Supreme Court. They included Max, who was to become my husband.

Max is a seventh-generation Kentuckian. His ancestors include Lutheran ministers who settled in Pennsylvania before heading down the Ohio River to life in Kentucky. He introduced me to his part of the country and to what is "country." That included bluegrass music, cornbread, biscuits and how to say "y'all."

He also showed me Harrodsburg, Kentucky's oldest city, whose fathers and sons of a couple of generations ago fought and died side by side with Filipinos. They were there as part of a National Guard unit when the Philippines was invaded and occupied by the Japanese army during World War II.

My conversations with God about my immigrant destination resumed in 2001 when I witnessed from my 52nd floor office the towers of the World Trade Center engulfed in billowing fiery black smoke on that fateful day of Sept. 11. I remember running to the east side of town because a thick cloud of debris was moving to the upper west side. It looked like a scene from Armaggeddon, only I was in it and it was real.

I asked God, "Am I in a war zone? Again?"

When I was growing up, the Philippines was under a dictator, who was strongly and violently opposed. Bombings were a constant threat to civilians because soldiers, communist rebels and Muslim extremists took their differences to the streets.

Ordinary citizens were only collateral damage in their ideological war. I am thankful that my mother, sister and I survived — but some trauma remains.

After I married Max, he became my teacher and life coach. Then, we had our daughter, Vivien. Like many mothers, I came to terms with placing my ambitions after my daughter's welfare.

My parents and friends, who have lived on the East Coast all their immigrant lives, warned me about moving to Kentucky because of prejudices in the South and the interior of the United States. After all, the odds were stacked against me: I was female, approaching 40, Asian, married, with a child.

So, leaving New York was more painful than leaving Manila had been three years earlier. But, I constantly reminded myself, "Sheilah, you came to this country with hardly anything. Follow where God takes you. Act against logic."

In late October 2003, I arrived in Lexington. Weather was milder, traffic was kinder, open spaces were gorgeous and abundant in Bluegrass country.

As I learned more about the state, as I made friends, as I became part of my husband's extended family, as we benefited from Frankfort First United Methodist Church's radical hospitality, I counted my blessings.

I have three final thoughts:

• For me, God delivers on his promises. My 25,000-mile trek so far serves as a testament.

• I did not have to reach the promised land to see God's face. God manifested himself to me many times in my husband's wisdom, my daughter's unconditional love, in others' hospitality.

• My immigrant journey has been and will be my most liberating experience. By letting go of my attachment to possessions and status and of my preconceptions of the South, I am gaining the ability and capacity to become much more than I have been.

I wish everyone as meaningful a Thanksgiving as I am blessed to have.

Sheilah Galvez Kurtz is a Lexington attorney. A version of this column appeared in Frankfort First United Methodist Church's newsletter.

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