(NEW YORK) — Ten years ago, Kayzel Sangalang was living in the Philippines and wondering where her next meal would come from.
“I remember not having food in my house,” she said.
Her parents had left for the U.S. years earlier, leaving behind their children as they tried to build a better life.
“They came [to New York] when I was 7. It was hard for my siblings. They were only like 2 and 1 at the time,” she said.
Then, one day, the call came: Sangalang and her siblings would be reuniting with their parents in New York City.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was Dec. 12, 2007,” she recalled. “We came here. It was cold — we never experienced cold — and two days later, we experienced snow. It was like the most amazing thing ever!”
But the transition wasn’t easy. Sangalang was a high school student at the time and did not speak English.
“I had to learn by like watching TV,” said Sangalang, who’s now pursuing a marketing degree. “I’m thankful every day that I’m here in America.”
This Thanksgiving season, few people have adopted holiday traditions more proudly — and have more to be thankful for — than immigrant communities.
In the diverse borough of Queens, New York, 48 percent of residents were born in another country and many of them are starting the journey to citizenship.
Several times a year, City University of New York goes into neighborhoods and puts out a call to neighbors: If you’re eligible for citizenship, today’s the day. The program is called CUNY Citizenship Now.
“We actually give them an appointment so they know what to bring,” said CUNY Now’s Monique Francis. “If they come prepared with a green card, a passport, the basic documents, we can actually take them in.”
The New York Historical Society is one of several groups partnering with CUNY Citizenship Now to help immigrants navigate the road ahead. There are language tutors, lawyers and volunteers who are mostly immigrants themselves.
“Doing these events, it’s amazing, like you just don’t expect to hear the stories that you do, some of them really sad, some of them very hopeful,” Francis said.
Mary Louise Charles of Dominica said she’d been in the U.S. for five years, the minimum required to be eligible.
“As the oldest and the person who’s here and doing much better than my people [back] home, it is my priority to look back and pull up the rest,” she said. “A lot of my people are without homes, without food, without clothing. … Life in Dominica was very hard.”
During Hurricane Maria, entire neighborhoods in Dominica were wiped off the map. The island’s agriculture sector was destroyed. Even the prime minister had to bunk with friends after the roof of his home was torn off during the storm.
Charles, whose next step is taking the citizenship test, said she looked forward to celebrating Thanksgiving.
“The amount of food and family and friends, just the whole experience of it, I loved it,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite holidays right now.”
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