I am an immigrant ~ Peta

In the light of the current radical shift in immigration policy in the U.S. under the new administration, it has made me think about my own history as an immigrant myself.

Leaving South Africa’s apartheid behind…

I left my family, my home and my home country South Africa, at age 20. I headed into the unknown, to spend a year in America.

My parents sold my cello which had gained value over the years of sitting in a closet, to pay for my ticket.

I was leaving apartheid behind, which due to my skin being white, had not oppressed me, but I had witnessed oppression and racial hatred. I no longer wanted to live in a country where racism was official policy. I did not want to continue to bear the weight of being witness to the pain I  could feel and see in people’s eyes.

I was the first of any of my friends or acquaintances to “escape” apartheid. Years later, a decade later, whites left in fear. I did not leave in fear, I left in pain. I took apartheid very personally from a young age. I never understood it. As a young child I watched it, helpless, shocked and deeply impacted.  I was sure there must be another way. I desperately wanted to live in a place where people were treated equally. Where skin color made no difference. I was not proud of my country. i was horrified.

The murder of black activist Stephen Biko was earth shattering to me. I had already made my plans, booked my ticket, but this was the era and the environment I left behind in South Africa.

Biko: first liberate the mind

I had a vision of living and working in many different countries. Of being global. Of being independent and adventurous. I was angry that as a South African I could not use my passport to visit other countries in Africa. I did not particularly want to go to America. After all, this was not a country we studied in school (not that I was a good student, I was not…) but history lessons were focused around South African and European history (with South Africa’s history as a British Colony.) Nor was it a country that had in those days, much cultural following in South Africa.


A family of Jewish immigrants

My grandfather left his family, home and country Lithunania (before 1915 approx.) at age 16. He boarded a ship to South Africa, land of gold and diamonds, in search of a better life.  And that is how he came to be an immigrant in South Africa, from Eastern Europe. There was a small population of Jews in South Africa, and most of them had come from Eastern Europe ~ they had got on different boats from the Jews avoiding persecution who got on boats to America. But the timing and the reasons for leaving, were mostly the same.

My maternal grandmother was born in Palestine, which later in 1948 became Israel. She immigrated to South Africa, which is where she met my grandfather.

Coming to America

When my boyfriend got a scholarship to study in America, I wanted to go with him.

“He needs to state his intentions” my parents told me. “State his intentions”? What did that mean?. “If you want to go, then you need to get engaged.” I am not sure why I did not argue this point, being rather inherently irreverent by nature, but I think it was because I didn’t really care what it took… As long as I could leave. And so, we got engaged and he became my fiance (and later my husband and father of my sons.) And I got to leave ~ on a one way ticket.

I was a rather naive and passionate 20 year old. I did not choose America, but on the other hand the country had a “one man one vote” democracy and this was the kind of underlying political philosophy that seemed to be so different to apartheid in South Africa. I understood what it meant to not be able to vote. I wanted to live in a country where people were equal. And that was my starting assumption upon moving to the United States.

I arrived on a tourist visa.

I was in for quite a shock on several different levels.

Most people in our Miami neighborhood did not speak English, they spoke Spanish. We had a postage stamp size studio apartment in little Cuba in Miami Florida, which was cheap housing. It was near Florida International University, (FIU) where we both attended and graduated from.

Soon after my arrival in Miami, extreme racial tension led  to the Miami race riots.  Violence erupted and chaos ensued after a former marine black officer was beaten to death by white policemen. 500 national guard troops were sent to Miami in an attempt to quell the violence, rioting and chaos which broke out when the cops were acquitted.

I thought I had come to a land of democracy and equal rights. I was in shock! I thought I had left this kind of hatred and racial atrocity behind me in South Africa.

I had a lot of questions. I had a lot to learn.


I hit the library and spent hours reading American History.

How exactly was the U.S. history of slavery and the enduring racism and differential treatment of whites and blacks in America, different from South Africa’s situation? The brutality of treatment by the white police of its black population certainly found a direct parallel with recent history of police treatment of blacks under apartheid in South Africa.

Of course one large difference was that the oppressive rule by the white governing body in South Africa, served to protect the interests of a white minority that represented only 10% of the population. Yes, America had one man one vote, but the oppressive and vile tragic history of slavery and the ensuing blatant racism that I was learning about, was definitely a huge eye opener for me.

Getting a green card ~ the ultimate “prize”

We lived in a building that had about 30 international students other than ourselves, all of them were from Holland. FIU had one of the best Hotel schools in the country apparently. The Dutch students were the only people I could really relate to in those early days. Americans were just way too different . They often did not understand my “Queen’s English” and I was not enthused with the American way of speaking English either. As “outsiders” it was not easy to make friends. But there were the “Dutch guys” thankfully.

The Dutch guys, were obsessed with one thing. Getting their green cards!

When I bought my ticket, the “plan” was “a year in America.” But then the green card fever took over and I started to wonder if I could get one of those. Long story short, none of the Dutch guys got a green card, not one. I however, did manage to get a green card for myself and therefore for my husband as well. We could now stay indefinitely in the United States.

Years later, I applied for the same status for my parents and they got green cards and American passports. (Years later, they applied for my sister and she got hers. And her daughter as well). And as my children were born in the U.S. they too got American passports. I had single-handedly impacted 9 family members becoming American citizens.

Of course I was not a refugee, nor seeking amnesty as so many did then and are still today. It was still no easy task to get a green card and American citizenship. 30 Dutch guys were plenty jealous.

How did I get my green card?: During my days at FIU a professor in the department of Education took a shining to me. Professor Reichbach was instrumental in my getting a green card. He took me “under his wing”.. I think the fact that I was Jewish, as he was, and that he was an unusually caring and kind human being. He helped find me a job as a pre school teacher. (I had graduated from teacher training college in South Africa). And it was this job at  a Jewish day school, which was my key to a green card.

The school needed a Hebrew teacher. There was one way to get a green card (amongst others) and that was, if you could fill a need that an American could not, job wise, then you had the ability to apply for a green card.

I had lived in Israel as a child and as such was somewhat bilingual, enough to theoretically be able to teach Hebrew. The school put out an ad seeking a bilingual Hebrew teacher, ie someone with good English skills. Typically their Hebrew teachers were Israeli and had limited English. No one answered the advert. After months and months of lawyer appointments and papers and lines and waiting… after over a year, I eventually got my green card. And years later, I got my American passport.

I have an American passport but I still have a South African accent,  drink more tea than coffee, think of myself as South African. and root for South Africa in the World Cup.

I am an immigrant to America. As I read the sad news about stranded refugees suddenly stopped in their tracks by the new administration’s Muslim ban, the stories of broken dreams and upended lives resonate strongly with me. There seems to be pushback from U.S. courts forcing the administration to re cast its poorly planned and horribly executed order. But the general stench of racism that is behind  Americas evolving policy vis a vis immigration should make any immigrant and child of immigrants shudder.







35 thoughts on “I am an immigrant ~ Peta

  1. Liesbet

    I can only imagine the feelings that go through the illegal immigrants in this country these days and even through the legal immigrants. I have a Bulgarian friend with an American passport, who is planning to visit her family in Bulgaria, with her kids, this summer, and even she is worried!

    I am an immigrant in this country as well, but I truly don’t think I want to live in a climate like this. The intention is to stay long enough with my green card to become a citizen. Once having a passport, I theoretically should be able to come and go as I please, which has been an issue for me for many years. My parents don’t really want to visit because of all the political unrest and I hope that I can come back if I decide to visit them in Belgium this spring…

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Liesbet, thanks so much for sharing your personal immigration story. So many immigrants, so many unique stories.

      It seems these are going to be rather trying days where travel to America is now tinged with uncertainty for all.


  2. Joanne Sisco

    Thanks for sharing your story, Peta. It was very interesting and provides a great perspective on you, as a person … mind you, the South African accent has thrown me a bit. I had always pictured you with a US northern state kind of accent 😉

    We’re virtually all immigrants here in North America. It’s just a question of how far back. Wrapping a racist policy in the guise of ‘security’ is shameful and demonstrates how little we’ve progressed as a “civilized” species.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thank you Joanne. I am glad you found my personal story interesting and am still chuckling at the accent comment. It is true that after living in the States for so many years and then in other countries as well, one would think that by now I would have lost my accent. Perhaps it is because I do not have a great ear… Ha ha 🙂

      Exactly. Given that we are all immigrants, (except Native Americans) it is a strange feeling to hear someone dividing us by color and religion. And particularly so, from the son of an immigrant and one who is married thrice to immigrants all three times.

      If it were security that was the real issue, then gun access would be restricted as we all know that there are 33,000 deaths per year as a result of gun violence in the U.S. In contrast terrorism has accounted for a minuscule segment of this gun violence. It really seems to boil down to the desire to appeal to a frustrated racist white base that needs to be appeased.


  3. Lexklein

    Peta, I’ve picked just one of your and Ben’s three posts today to comment on very briefly (this is unfortunate because all three posts floored me and moved me, but I’m in the midst of a 4000-mile 3-abode move at the moment!). I want to copy both of your posts and spread them far and wide. I KNOW people who support this lunacy here in the U.S.; I wish it were all strangers who held these unfathomable views, but it is our neighbors, our co-workers, our (we thought) friends, and worst of all, sometimes our relatives. HOW can we make them see the light? Your posts may be a start. I wish I had more time to tell you how perfect your words are, but this will have to suffice for today. I know you know this, but please remember that there are lots of us reasonable, thoughtful, open-minded people in the U.S. right now!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Lex, thanks so much for these very thoughtful words. We are quite fortunate in that both our immediate friends and family are all appalled and unhappy at what is going on. Making them see the light is a quaint concept, but alas, they have mostly forsaken the primary tools required to do this, namely reason, data, logic, observation, expertise, extrapolation etc. So I fear that is a futile enterprise. More meaningful perhaps is to invest attention and effort in ensuring that the remaining democratic institutions continue to function, per the system of checks and balance. They will fall of their own weight, as long as the press, the courts, and the Congress play their oversight and counter balancing roles. (Ben)

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Peggy it really is heartbreaking to see that the new president’s outlook and behavior is trickling down into all aspects of bullying. Thank you for reading my story and for leaving a comment.

  4. Shari Pratt

    The general stench of American racism should make all of us retch – and think seriously about what it means to be a country with a constitution that declares equality for all, when it is little practiced. The fear of immigrants that’s being accelerated here is deplorable, awful when you consider that ALL of us benefit by past and newer immigrants to this country.

    Our younger son works in the Silicon Valley (physicist) The tech companies can’t get enough qualified, educated people to fill positions. America, are you paying attention, your own young people don’t work hard enough to qualify? Sad for countries like Afghanistan and India and so many other places that the best and most educated of their young are coming to the US where employment opportunities entice them. Good for us, and though they are all generally very welcome in the Silicon Valley, they often face much prejudice in other places.

    Thank you for your story, Peta. I can feel your passion and rage at the absurd injustice. Every day here seems worse than the day before with this bizarre government. I am now cautious to tell people I’m Jewish, and though there was always a nasty stigma (I live in Orange County, home of the John Birch Society when we moved here in early 1960s) I’d never before hesitated.

    We are all immigrants here, we are citizens of the world.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Shari thanks so much for your substantive and on point comments.

      I completely agree that each day gets worse. But we have to brace ourselves as I fear there is much more coming down the pipeline. After all, we have only been under 45 for one month! Republicans have all “sold their souls”, except for a handful of national security hawks.

      You mentioned the impact in Silicon Valley from cracking down on immigrants. Even more critical is the agricultural sector. Farmers in California growing our fruits and vegetables all rely on immigrant labour. Without them, there will be dramatic food shortages in the entire U.S.



      1. Shari Pratt

        You are absolutely right, Peta. Do you remember a 2004 movie called A Day Without a Mexican? It really brought home how dependent upon immigrant population, even if they were brought here illegally.

        Thanks to you and Ben for providing an intelligent forum for discussion. Your backgrounds give a unique perspective.

        1. Peta kaplan

          Yes Shari we saw that. The whole food industry will collapse without Mexican workers, ( bulk of restaurant staff) as well as many other industries.

          Thank you Shari for partcipating so passionately in the discussion.


    1. Peta kaplan

      I have stayed in touch, well actually reconnected years ago with the 3 Dutch guys I was most friendly with. They all still live in Holland. One opened a beautiful restaurant in the countryside.

  5. Gili Rosenberg

    I enjoyed reading your story, some of which I had never heard. There’s one point on which I had heard a different version, and that is about your granny Sylvia: “She immigrated to South Africa, which is where she met my grandfather.” The story I heard claims that Mullie travelled to Palestine with the intention of finding a Jewish bride and bringing her back to South Africa, perhaps that’s how it happened.

    1. Peta kaplan

      Thanks Gili.

      I got my “info” from the genealogical family record keeper ~ i.e. your mom.:) I will check into it and see which version seems accurate. The plot thickens.

      Apparently my granny S. was 26 at the time she left her home country, and was considered a spinster, an old maid at the tender age of 26.


      1. Peta Kaplan

        Okay Gili, I have the definitive word on the history on your great grandparents. My granny S left Palestine to go to South Africa to join her two brothers who were already there. She met and got married to my grandfather in South Africa. Case closed 🙂


  6. Dave Ply

    Hi Peta. It was a longish read but well worth it – thank you.

    My wife is also an immigrant. Even though she’s been here for 30 years and is now a citizen she’s still nervous about the attitudes we’re seeing now. As for me, born American, I’m embarrassed – probably as you were about South Africa.

  7. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    Thanks for sharing your story Peta. I’ve actually drafted a couple of comments and just can’t seem to come up with the best way to express how moved I was by your post.

    Not until November 8th, 2016 have I ever been so completely disillusioned by the US and those who voted for DT and the things he represents.

    As a US citizen, I grew up with the myth of “American Exceptionalism.” However, as a traveler who’s lived outside the US for almost 5 years, I’ve learned over and over again that people are so much more alike than different no matter where you go in the world. The closing of US borders and the closing of (some) US minds to those who seek refuge, equality, justice and happiness fills me with a profound sorrow.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Anita, thank you. That is such a wonderful compliment. The best I could hope for in writing a personal account such as this one, is to “move the reader”. After sorrow, comes rebellion and survival.


  8. Sue Slaght

    Peta I am left with goose bumps reading your post.

    For you and Ben you have so much life experience that truly puts in a position ot understand how people now caught in the chaos may be feeling.As I mentioned in my comment on Ben’s post I am left thinking it is all a bad dream. Perhaps it is the coincidence of timing that our Syrian refugee family celebrated their one year in Canada as the ban was decreed in the US. To see them so successful and now contributing to the Canadian economy is one example of what is possible when humans lend a helping hand to each other rather than slapping it. May the months ahead bring showers of reason and acceptance across the land.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Sue thank you so much for your warm comments. I am sure it has been a very enriching experience for you as a “host” family to a Syrian refugee family in Canada. What great role modeling. If only the U.S. could match Canada’s open arms policy vis a vis refugees. I think it is really sad to see so much of President Obama’s progress and accomplishment being dismantled with so little thought.


  9. Nicole Melancon

    Peta, I read this post with eager anticipation. What a thought provoking story on so many levels. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    It is more important now than ever to share these stories as what is going on here is ridiculous. We are all immigrants to America. My heritage came from Sweden, Germany and Russia while my husbands family (last name Melancon) were Arcadian French who came through Nova Scotia to Louisiana years ago.

    As for racism, it is alive and stronger than ever before. The only thing that gives me hope is seeing how my children just don’t view differences as different. The younger generations are becoming much more accepting and tolerable. I doubt many would have voted for a tyrant like Trump!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Nicole for reading and providing feedback on my story.

      If your children are accepting and tolerant then I think it is credit to the way you are raising them. The apple does not fall far from the tree. Our children too are very inclusive of others, but two out of four of them are apolitical. One though is highly passionate and even went out canvassing for Obama, when he was still in high school.


  10. Caroline Helbig

    Peta, what a treat to read your beautiful story. Thank you for sharing this. You have a lovely writing style.

    It’s our first day back in Canada after our trip to Laos/Cambodia (much to come eventually). When we arrived at Vancouver airport last night we waited in a long customs line for Canadian passport holders. We couldn’t help but notice the huge mix of ethnicities and languages. I helped a new Canadian (a man from Vietnam) fill out his form. It occurred to me that my mother might have needed to rely on a stranger back in the 60s when she immigrated from Germany and spoke very little English. We are all immigrants. I love this about Canada, and am thankful that I live in a relatively tolerant and progressive country (though far from perfect). So sad what is happening in the US, and elsewhere.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Caroline thank you. That is a terrific compliment!

      Look forward to reading about your trip to Laos/Cambodia.

      Love the anecdote of your helping the “new Canadian” Vietnamese man at the airport. What a contrast with the chilling visuals of the entry of Muslims into U.S. airports and their being arbitrarily detained. We read about some problems happening even on domestic flights now in the U.S. It is the small acts of random kindness that often are what make a difference in an immigrant’s new life.


  11. Frank

    Great story, enjoyed reading this.

    No place is perfect. But I’ve always been incredulous of the hypocrisy in which the American government has scolded other governments on their human rights records over the years. Now maybe it is honest in how it presents itself.

    I was shocked by the sad story of the Indians shot in the bar in Kansas City. Trump has basically legitamized racism and it’s open season for anyone fostering hatred. It’s an ugly time.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Frank, your comments really “hit the nail on the head”.

      Your observation about the hypocrisy of the American government is astute. Never again will the U.S. be able to “lecture” on the merits of democracy, criticality of independence of the press and so on.

      I fear that things in the U.S. will only get way worse especially when you consider how many people have guns and have had an underlying disdain for “anyone of color”. The real threat to Americans is not terrorism but gun toting citizens which every year kill over 33,000 people! Ironically the whole logic of amendment 2 people is that the populous needs to have the means to defend itself against a dictatorial U.S. government. I wonder if the new administration’s dictatorial accesses will be checked by this gun owning population. I doubt it.

      Tragic times.


  12. LuAnn

    Thank you so much for sharing your story Peta.

    I too have been having a difficult time deciding how to respond. In fact, I have been feeling such despair at times that I have not been blogging as the thought of what is happening in the United States has consumed me. My energies lately have been on trying to play a role where I can to try to derail this train that is heading towards an authoritarian government. Immigrants are at the heart of everything good in this country. I am in disbelief that I now live in a country where the leaders are trying to close our borders. I know I will move beyond this malaise but some days it is difficult to see the way forwards.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks LuAnn. We were both, like many, depressed for weeks after hearing the news. And sadly our fears were and are justified. We have to be hopeful that perhaps something will derail this negative force that has taken over. I sooo miss President Obama!


  13. Jeff Bell

    Wow, Peta, what a story. I can only imagine how much of a shock it must have been to come to the USA and see the same sort of racial oppression you left behind. I bet it was also strange to be in a Spanish speaking neighborhood.

    I like how you say your green card impacted 9 family members. Immigration often has a ripple effect.

    One thing I’ve heard many Trump supporters say is that Muslims already in America don’t have to worry, but they are not understanding that they have families who may want to immigrate or visit.

    I was born in rural Oklahoma and I really don’t like the politics or attitudes of the people there, but being such a huge country I have been able to move around and live in more progressive areas. That is not something everyone can do, but each region is quite a bit different.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Jeff, yes, it was a huge shock to discover that racial oppression was “alive and well” in America. I assumed that with a “one man, one vote” that would equate to equality!

      It WAS strange to be in a Spanish neighborhood. Funny too, because we assumed we were going to a country where we could understand the language and be understood. In addition to the prevalence of Spanish, my South African accent made it tricky for many to understand me.In retrospect, I wish I had taken advantage of that time period to learn Spanish!

      How easy for non Muslims to tell Muslims not to worry. And what about when Muslims living in America want to travel and or visit family? How can they NOT be scared?

      It is amazing how divided and different America is, region to region.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Jeff.


  14. Patti

    Peta ~

    Your post/story resonated with me on several levels. My husband, Abi, came to the US from Iran in the late 1970’s to attend the university in San Francisco. Long story short, we met, married, he applied for and was granted his green card, he studied and became a US citizen. Together, we raised our son to be open minded and accepting of all.

    I was born/raised in the US and I’m sure I benefited from white privilege before I even became aware of such a thing.

    The almighty dollar reigns supreme in the US. The lobbyists rule the country, it’s why the gun violence in the US is so out of control. Each person has a vote but we are not a democracy. There are far too many manipulations of voting registrars and boundaries, manipulated by those in power. And, I fear this trend will dramatically increase under the watch of this administration. The majority of voters chose a president who is not in the White House. There are millions of us who are struggling deeply with with this rapid decline of human decency in this country. American citizens are being detained at US borders. This is not a democracy.

    It is sad to say that racism, hatred, bigotry (pick one) has always been woven in to the moral fabric of this country, and it didn’t change on November 8. But what did change was the empowerment of the haters who now feel more emboldened than ever under their “leader.” It is now okay to be openly racist. They were always there in the shadows, now they’re brazened beyond words.

    I just hope that the world recognizes the majority of us are outraged, sickened and we are resisting.

    Thanks for sharing your story and for letting me share a bit as well.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts. You have indeed a unique perspective given your marriage with Abi. I do think the rest of the world recognizes that there is a population, evidently the majority of Americans, who are sickened by what’s happening. Nonetheless… the “system” did result in Trump being anointed, and whether it is 48 or 46%, that’s a whole lot of Americans who seem to have no angst about the xenophobic narrative spewed by the party in power. There is no avoiding this reality. The reality that the clusters of “liberal” populations are amassed on the East and West Coast, with another cluster in Illinois, only serves to highlight that in the rest of the country, we are, obviously, not looking at 48%, but a clear majority who have no problems with the racist narrative. That is truly scary.

      I don’t believe secession of California or New York is a viable path, and no matter what happens with the Kremlin Administration (and I do hope it will come to a head in the next 18 months and Trumpism will implode), it still doesn’t change the sad facts about racism in the red states. No way to sugar coat this reality.

      Of course, this is nothing new to African Americans, who for decades have tried to articulate and fight against this insidious racism. But now the racism is expanding to all “browns”.

      How do we put this genie back in its bottle? I fear that is simply not possible.

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