StoryCorps 508: No Barrier for the Love
[MUSIC: “Sunday Light” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Michael Garofalo (MG): Immigration—it’s a topic that has long been a flash-point here in the U.S. And over the past year, not a day has passed when you didn’t read about it in the news. From border walls to travel bans, immigrants have been one of the most talked about groups of people in the country.
In this episode, though, we’re not talking about them. Instead, we’ll let them do the talking and hear about what they think is important.
Like falling in love.
[TAPE: Tariq Sheikh and Tabinda Sheikh]
Tabinda Sheikh (TFS): I said, ‘Oh my God, this guy don’t even say ‘Hi.’ You’re just staring at me! [laughs]
Tariq Sheikh (TMS): Yea, because you was the girl who was in my dreams.
TFS: Yeah, but I didn’t have that dream!
MG: Feeling like you belong.
[TAPE: Francisco Ortega and Kaya Ortega]
Francisco Ortega (FO): This guy grabs my arm and he says to me, “I want to thank you for helping me, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
MG: And feeling like you don’t.
[TAPE: Dawn Sahr and Asma Jama]
Asma Jama (AJ): I have to prove myself every single day, and it makes me feel like I had to give up a lot of who I was.
MG: It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo, and we’ll be back after this short message. Stay with us.
[PROMO: NPR – What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito]
MG: Welcome back. In this episode, we’re listening to interviews with people who have immigrated to the U.S. And one of the things that they often talk about in these interviews is what they found when they arrived here.
And for this first couple, they found each other.
In 1989, Tabinda Peña took a job as a housekeeper in a New York City hotel.
She had recently come to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic.
And she caught the eye of Tariq Sheikh who worked at the hotel’s front desk.
He’s from Pakistan and, like Tabinda, was a recent immigrant himself.
[TAPE: Tariq Sheikh and Tabinda Sheikh]
Tariq Sheikh (TFS): Do you remember the first time you saw me?
Tariq Sheikh (TMS): You have a yellow gloves on and I could not say ‘hello,’ ‘hi,’ nothing.
TFS: Oh, I thought you was rude and mean. I said, ‘Oh my God, this guy don’t even say ‘Hi.’ You’re just staring at me! [laughs]
TMS: Yeah, because you was the girl who was in my dreams.
TFS: Yeah, but I didn’t have that dream!
TMS: You remember, I ask you ‘Do you wanna go with me for coffee?’ You gave me answer after two days!
TFS: Because I didn’t know how to speak English.
TMS: I remember you have a small dictionary in your pocket—a Spanish-to-English. And on the, like, paper,
TMS: Napkin. You write, ‘Ok, yes.’
TFS: Language is not a barrier for the love.
TMS: After that, I bought a yellow cab. I was a driver, you know? One day I say, ‘You know your address where you live? Let me drop you, your home.’ You say, ‘I live in New Jersey.’ Just ‘New Jersey.’
TMS: I say, ‘Oh my God, today I gonna have a long night!’ When I went there, it was YMCA. I say, ‘Why you don’t tell me you live in YMCA?’ You say, ‘I don’t know YMCA is like a famous thing.’ [laughs]
TFS: I didn’t have no family here. He didn’t have no family here. And when I call back home, and I say, ‘I am in love. I have a ‘gordito.’ They say, ‘gordito? Chubby man? You don’t like fat men!’
TMS: I was not that fat. Just chubby yes [laughs]
TFS: I know, sweetheart! But for us, this was fat.
TMS: Yup. So, I was working like 72 hours continuously. I was very tired. And I remember, there was a park over there nearby.
TMS: We went. There was a bench. I put my head on your legs and I slept.
TFS: I don’t even want to move. If I move, he’s going to wake up. It was beautiful. Looking the moon, the stars.
TMS: I woke up morning time. And you was still sitting there and I say, ‘What?!’ That was the moment I fell in love with you.
TFS: Love is a wonderful thing. This is my man! And we’re gonna be married 23 years now.
TMS: She’s telling me 23 years. For me, it’s like yesterday.
[MUSIC: “Monte” by Mermonte]
MG: That’s Tabinda Sheikh with her husband, Tariq Sheikh, in New York.
Next, we’ll hear from Yelitza Castro. She’s originally from Venezuela and today she works as a housekeeper in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But this story isn’t about her job. It’s about what she does on Saturday nights.
Twice a month, you’ll find her cooking dinners for homeless men and women in Charlotte.
Willie Davis has been the recipient of many of those meals.
They sat down together for this interview and Yelitza told Willie about how it all began.
[TAPE: Yelitza Castro and Willie Davis]
Yelitza Castro (YC): My kids and me, we was driving and it was raining and really cold. And we saw a guy with a sign asking for some help. And I just give him five dollars. And my daughters asked me, ”Mommy, why we don’t take him to dinner?” I say, “Okay, let’s make a U-turn.” But he was not there. And we were thinking we have to do something.
Willie, you remember the first dinner together?
Willie Davis (WD): Yes, I do.
YC: It was Christmas, 2010.
WD: The church van came and picked some of us guys up from the men’s shelter and I’m like, Why is this lady coming to the roughest place in Charlotte to do this for us. Something must be fishy about this. But I said I’m going to go. And when I got out of the van, I smelled the cooking and then I saw you. I saw a smile on your face that made everybody feel welcome and comfortable. And when you cooked, it was like what my moms used to cook. And I haven’t had that kind of feeling in a long time, and I really needed that.
YC: That night, I finished all the stuff in the kitchen and when I got to the buffet tables, you guys all together start singing the Feliz Navidad song. And I said, “Oh my gosh, you’re singing in Spanish.” And I just started crying. [Laughs]
WD: Everybody just gave you a standing ovation, pretty much. [Laughs]
WD: It’s just, you don’t make us feel homeless. You know us by names and faces. And we know you all care. Before I met you, Yelitza, I pretty much almost gave up. But that home-cooked meal, it just brought my self-esteem back up. And now I’ve got my own place and…
YC: It’s really amazing. And that gave me motivation because I’m here in the United States by myself with my kids. And I know that it’s hard. That Christmas dinner, it’s not just a meal; it’s try to make you guys feel like we are family.
WD: Every other Saturday feels like Christmas to me. That’s why I keep coming. I’m always going to keep coming.
[MUSIC: Blue Dot Sessions “Filing Away”]
MG: Willie Davis with his friend Yelitza Castro in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Many people us their StoryCorps interview to learn more about their parents’ lives. That’s what Kaya Ortega did. She’s 16 years old and from the suburbs of Orange County, California who had some questions for her dad, Francisco.
As a child, he lived in rural Tijuana, Mexico, just 100 miles south of where they live now.
But as Kaya learned during their conversation, they grew up worlds apart.
[TAPE: Kaya Ortega and Francisco Ortega]
Kaya Ortega (KO): Tell me about your childhood in Mexico.
Francisco Ortega (FO): We were so poor, but I used to say my mother kept the best dirt floors ever—
FO: —They were the cleanest dirt floors in the planet. My parents came here first working at horrible jobs just to send money to us. And they left us with an aunt. I didn’t see my parents for about three and a half years. And I was just such a, like a, wild little crazy kid. You know, literally they would have to chase me around to bathe me. And a lot of that is because I would sit at night crying for my mother.
KO: When she left you, did you know that she did that because she loved you more than she loved herself?
FO: I didn’t know that then, Kaya. I was just a kid who missed his mother.
KO: Yeah. So when you came to United States, what age were you?
FO: I was nine. I remember the night a car came for me. My auntie—I didn’t even fight her—but she gave me a beautiful, warm bath. She had a white, crisp shirt she ironed for me with a little clip-on tie, a black one. And when she said goodbye to me, she touched the window of the car, blew me a kiss, and she said, “Go change the world.”
KO: So, what was your proudest moment?
FO: One day at college, a professor of mine says, “Hey, I have these guys that are struggling.” So they gave me kids to tutor and this kid calls me to have a beer. He says, “Hey, I wanna meet you down at this bar.” So I go down. This guy grabs my arm and he says to me, “I want to thank you for helping me, I couldn’t have done it without you.” And as I’m walking away back to campus, I am flooded with this emotion. And I’m like “why am I feeling this way?” and I realize I came to this country as a poor non-English speaking immigrant kid, and I was teaching how to write. And for the first time in my life I felt like I belonged here.
KO: You know, I can’t relate a whole lot to you, I grew up having all these opportunities—and I don’t want to be closed off in a bubble my whole life and you’ve opened that bubble up for me. I want to thank you for that. I act like I’m too cool for you or whatever, but I’m so proud.
[MUSIC: “Lhasa” by Nic Bommarito]
MG: Kaya Ortega with her father, Francisco, in Los Angeles.
Today, Francisco works for the city to build relationships between the LAPD and the communities it serves.
Our final story comes from Minnesota. That state has the largest Somali population in the country and it’s thought to be the largest outside of East Africa.
And that’s where Asma Jama lives. One night in 2015, she was out to dinner with her family at an Applebee’s in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Asma, who is Muslim, was wearing a hijab and speaking Swahili, her native language, when a woman seated nearby demanded she speak English before smashing Asma in the face with a beer mug.
[TAPE: Asma Jama and Dawn Sahr]
Asma Jama (AS): “I could see it from the doctor’s face that it was really bad. I had lacerations across my chest, all over my hands. And 17 total stitches.”
MG: Asma’s attacker pleaded guilty to felony assault charges and served time in jail for the crime.
And after the trial, the attacker’s sister, Dawn Sahr, contacted Asma online. They struck up a correspondence, and what we’re about to hear now is the conversation they had the first time they met in person when they sat down for StoryCorps.
[TAPE: Asma Jama and Dawn Sahr]
Dawn Sahr (DS): I wanted to reach out to you so much. I just wanted to know that you were okay. That was my biggest concern.
AJ: That was my biggest concern too.
I used to be carefree. I used to go everywhere by myself. I would say “hi” to strangers. But after what happened to me, I felt like I had to look over my shoulder every time I go outside.
DS: I was so sorry you had to go through that.
AJ: Did you stop talking to her because of what she did to me?
DS: I did. Yeah.
AJ: Why can’t you forgive her?
DS: Because then it’s telling Jodie that it’s okay; and it’s not okay.
Do you feel like you can’t speak Swahili in public anymore?
AJ: Yes, because I realized I don’t belong. I have to prove myself every single day and it makes me feel like I had to give up a lot of who I was.
DS: I’m going to pray that you can eventually become that person you used to be.
AJ: I will get there. It’s going to take me a while. But for you to stand up for somebody you don’t know, and to say that what she did was unacceptable, that meant the world to me.
DS: I will support you in any possible way I can. You know, they say blood’s thicker than water and you stand behind your family no matter what. Well, you gotta draw the line somewhere. And you’re my line.
AJ: Thank you.
[MUSIC: “Timid Time” by Ketsa]
MG: That’s Asma Jama with Dawn Sahr the sister of the woman who assaulted her.
Today, Asma travels to churches and organizations around the Midwest. She says she wants to meet people who have never met a Muslim before so they can get to know a real person and not just what they see on TV.
That’s all for this episode. These stories were produced by Liyna Anwar, Anita Rao, Emily Martinez, and Jud Esty-Kendall.
The podcast is produced by me and Elisheba Ittoop.
Find out what music we used on our website, StoryCorps.org and don’t forget to review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you download the show.
As always you can leave a message for someone you hear on this podcast through our listener voicemail line. We’ll pass your message along, and maybe feature it on a future episode of the show. The number is 301-744-TALK. That’s 301-744-TALK.
Until next time, for the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.
[PROMO: NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour]