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Field of Flags byJones Memorial Hospital

Column: An immigration story


Dr. Zahi Kassas came to the United States in 1994

Often, many of my observant patients ask me about my accent. Where are you from Dr Kassas? I usually enthusiastically answer the truth: “Lebanon”. I sometime end up watching blank looks as many youths have not heard of that country and as my attempts to explain the crowded geopolitics of the Mediterranean basin usually complicates things even more, I always settle for the phrase: This is the land of Jesus’ first miracle (the village of Qana).

Now that it is all over the news that New York State is planning to relocate many refugees to Upstate NY, my memory took me back to that young man who had finally accomplished his dream and left his birthplace on a KLM Dutch Airlines on his way to New York City for a better life.

The year was 1994.  I had just graduated from medical school and coming to America was not an easy task.  First, one had to submit proof of mastering the English language by passing the “Test of English as A Foreign Language (TOEFL)”.  As a Lebanese who spent his childhood speaking the Lebanese language and schooling and matriculating in French, learning English was not easy.

There were times I thought I would never learn English.  A language with no rules, many words that have different meanings depending on where they fall in the sentence, letters vocalized differently in different words, slang, and a multitude of prepositions that when placed after verbs would give them completely different meaning.  One could:


turn up (show up),

turn up (the volume),

turn down (the volume),

turn down (an offer),

turn over (a page)

turn out (happen to be),

turn on (the light),

turn on (excite),

turn off (the light), don’t be a turn off

turn back,

wait your turn

Take a turn

Turn around

How can anyone pass a test of such a language?!  Going to medical school was much easier.

I strung along, went to a private school run by a British lady (Mrs. Noon) who only taught us tools how to pass the TOEFL test. She did not teach us to read or speak. I developed a photographic memory that helped me answer the multiple choice questions. Luckily, the people who put the TOEFL questions were not too creative, and the same questions repeated themselves over the years. I went through many sample tests that when I finally sat for the real test, the questions seemed familiar, I answered them like Mrs. Noon had instructed and there, I passed.  I became certified as an English speaker without speaking a single English sentence.

The next step was applying for a visa. One could not enter the US without a valid visa stamped on his/her passport. The Visa necessitated several pre-requisites. I needed proof of a round trip flight, a certified statement from a bank stating my family had a minimum of 10 thousand US dollars deposited in a Savings account (not a checking account), and worse of it all, an interview to be conducted in person at the United States Consulate. IN ENGLISH.

The day of the interview, I prayed. My mom prayed; the whole town prayed. There were 2 consuls. A lady who asked lots of questions and expected lengthy answers, and a gentleman who was probably not challenged enough in that position and was more likely to stamp the visa on your passport. All the prayers were meant to wish my luck would land me with the gentleman.

The day of the interview, I woke up at 4 am, went to the US consulate and waited outside in line. I was probably the 50th in line. I remember it to be a freezing cold morning, I needed that Visa badly and no cold morning was going to stand in my way. At 9 am, the consulate doors opened and the applicants in front of me started trickling in slowly. As the candidates walked out, they looked pale and grim. “Guys, they are not giving visas today. Don’t waste your time. Only the mean lady is working today!” one applicant shouted the terrifying news to us as he walked out disappointed. Finally, I got to step inside the consulate and finally could feel some warmth in my hands and feet and step by step, there I was finally in the hallway. There she was: the lady consul spending as little time with the applicants and ushering away telling them not to waste her time.

My turn came in and it was the first time I was face to face with another person through a plexiglass barrier separating us. I had to pass my papers (invitations for interviews to the different residency programs in the US) through a slit opening at the bottom of that barrier. My hands were trembling, and I could barely pass the papers through that tiny slit opening. The consul saw my demeanor and in an ever-motherly voice asked me if I was a doctor. I bent over, put my face facing the slit opening and said, “yes mam” with a shivering voice. I did not notice that there was a microphone just straight ahead. She then gave me a piercing gaze that entered my soul and studied my psyche for long 10 seconds, looked down then said: ” come back at 1 pm and pick up your passport”. The guy waiting in line behind me turned back and joyfully screamed to the people waiting in line behind him: “they are giving visas today”. Of the few hundred people who had waited in line that morning, only 3 of us returned at 1 pm to pick up our visas. “Yes mam” 2 words that brought me to the US. That was my lengthy interview! I thanked God my voice did not fail me, or I had not answered by just a “yes”. Who knows? maybe a simple “yes” would have been interpreted as a rude answer.

The visa in hand, I proudly took that Dutch airlines plane and on to New York. As we landed in JFK airport, I was shocked and amazed at the long queues and how no one tried to skip the line. I zigzagged for a long time until my turn came in front of that same plexiglass barrier. The immigration officer asked me about the purpose of my visit then asked me how long I was staying in the US. I replied “4 weeks”, but then stupid me, I corrected myself and said “ 1 month”.

The officer: “4 weeks or 1 month?”

Me: “it’s just the same, no?”

The officer stayed cool, folded my passport then pointed to a place behind my shoulders and said:” see that room there? It has a big letter A by it?” I looked back and I saw room A. He then said:” meet me there”

Stupid me, I thought everyone went to room A. I proudly walked there until I entered. The smell hit me. Some 200 people sitting in that big room, shoes off, babies crying, people of all nationalities sitting there waiting for that judge-like person sitting in the front to review their cases.

Hours passed in room A, people pleading their cases and swearing at their bad fortunes in all tongues and languages. I missed my connecting TWA flight to Syracuse, I felt an immense hunger, then remembered a Hot Dog sandwich that my mom prepared for me before my flight. We never ate Hot Dogs as kids. My mom gave me that sandwich proudly and told me, “you’re going to America now, you better get used to it”. Only if my mom would see the misery I was in then.

My turn finally came in, an African American lady officer called my name (mispronouncing it) and asked me to stand in front of the officer judge. He looked sternly and asked me why I gave the officer a hard time outside. I had no clue what I did wrong. I told the judge; I did not give him a hard time at all. I could see in the corner of my eyes, that officer next to me shaking and covering her head disapproving of what I said. The  judged started becoming impatient with me and loudly said:” if you don’t tell me truth, I will send you back on that same plane. Are you staying in the US for 4 weeks or 1 month?” I teared up and started stuttering, not finding the correct English words. The black officer to my left came close and whispered in my ears “tell him you were sorry”. That was exactly what I did. I said I was sorry. The judge asked me “are you a doctor”. I said “yes mam” I could see the black lady officer to my left covering her face again. Till this day, I have no idea what made that judge forgive me. He handed me back my passport with a stay for 28 days. That lady officer save me that day.

I went out to pick up my luggage and finally located it, placed it on a cart and walked out of terminal 4 only to realize I had no clue where to go. I saw a police officer outside. After rehearsing the question in my mind several times, I mustered enough courage and asked him: “how can I get to the TWA terminal?”

The officer, did not acknowledged me well, but said something along:” wghlsdlsdlfgjslh”

Me: “no, I mean the TWA terminal”

The officer:” wghlsdlsdlfgjslh”

I started thinking to myself if it was a good idea coming to the US after all. I had no clue what that officer was saying. I then heard people shouting and cars screeching. As I turned to see what the fuss was about, I saw my luggage cart crossing the road and yellow cabs trying to avoid it. I had placed it on a disabled ramp (that I never knew they even existed) and never paid attention to it. I ran to the road, grabbed my cart, and brought it back with me inside the terminal then I started crying… I cried and cried. I was scared, alone, helpless and clueless about the language, and unable to communicate. My first day in America, a big loser!

Many days later, as I reflected on what the officer was telling me, going over the music and trying to decipher the blended words, I think he was telling me:” watch your cart”.

Many years later, my English language solidified, and I could manage better. I finished my residency in Pediatrics and my first job landed me in Wellsville. After so many years of legal fees, interviews, physical exams, vaccines and fingerprinting, Rayana and I finally became proud US citizens.

The years went by, that crying hotdog-eating kid in Room A at JFK became a distant memory and life had its way at making you forget.  One day a drug company representative visited me at the office in Wellsville and the following conversation ensued:

Drug representative: “Dr Kassas. I thought of you the other day while on vacation in Miami”

Dr Kassas: “Wow, you’re so devoted to your work that you were thinking about your customers while on family vacation”

Drug representative: “no no, it wasn’t what you thought. I was sunbathing enjoying the sun on my honeymoon, when a boat full of Cuban refugees, landed just by our beach. They sprouted out of the boat and started running in every direction, but all fell to the ground exhausted. We rushed to them and helped them as much as we could. They looked dehydrated and hungry We gave them water and food…”

I cut him off and said: “I did not sprout out of boat!”

Often, I think of people coming on boats or climbing walls in search of a better life. As sympathetic, I cannot but reflect about that little kid, who spent his war-torn and underprivileged childhood’s savings preparing for the TOEFL at Mrs. Noon and going through all the years and agony, just to do it “by the book”.  How much simpler it could have been if he just climbed over a wall!

Now that it is all over the news that New York State is planning to relocate many refugees to Upstate colleges, and as the immigration dialogue continues nationally, and until we realize as a nation that the rule of law matters, and after going over some of the readers comments on social media,  I only hope, no matter what the legal status of the migrants are, and regardless of the unfairness we feel, that we keep the humanity in our hearts and treat all migrants with dignity and compassion.  Trust me. They do cry.

Zahi Kassas

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