Respect the principles and laws of the USA — one of the things that makes America a great country is that most people respect the rights of others, follow the law, and have a strong sense of civic responsibility. No matter how things functioned in your country of birth, by respecting and upholding the laws and value system of the USA, it makes a country in which all people are equal and enjoy equal rights as citizens. When I visit my birth country I am always so disappointed at the fact that bribery is a way of life and those who have money are able to sidestep the law of the land.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elisheba Haqq.
Elisheba Haqq was born in Chandigarh, India, but was brought up in Minnesota, USA. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches writing at Rutgers University. Her debut memoir, Mamaji was published in October 2020 by Serving House Books. Her work has also appeared in A Letter for my Mother, Gateways, She.knows.com and NJ Monthly. An RN by profession, she has been published in Creative Nursing and Journal of Nursing Education and Practice. She enjoys unplanned travel, black tea, and printed books. Elisheba lives in New Jersey with her family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
My parents met at a religious meeting when they were undergraduate college students. They corresponded with each other and then decided to marry. A few months after their marriage they experienced the violence and displacement that came about after the Indian/Pakistan Partition. They decided to settle in Chandigarh, India which is in the northern state of Punjab, where I was born. My parents traveled to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. They loved their time in the U.S but longed to return to India where a large, extended family waited and a comfortable life had already been established. My life in India was rather idyllic, surrounded by family and close friends.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
My father was asked to travel to Minneapolis for two years to learn more about the USA-based organization he had just joined. My mother loved her life in India close to her family but agreed to live in America for only two years. Subsequently, my parents moved their family of seven children to Minnesota.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
My father, mother, and siblings arrived in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport on a cold, snowy Thanksgiving Day in 1963. My family was unprepared for the frigid weather and shivered in their inadequate clothing. We moved to a rental home and later that year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and tragically our family lost her in 1965. At that time my father was told by Minnesota Child Protective Services that he could either get married again or his three youngest children; my brother, my sister, and I, would be removed and adopted by a two-parent family. Feeling unsure as a new immigrant and wanting to keep his family together, my father chose to quickly remarry one year after the death of my mother.
My stepmother was a cruel and unfeeling woman. While she enjoyed being a wife, she disliked me and my siblings and did not fall easily into the role of a mother. We lived in a very small farming community about 25 miles south of the city of Minneapolis and were the only non-white family living in the town. My family experienced acts of racism and ignorance from the community. For example, our electric and heating lines were sabotaged in the middle of January; teachers were misinformed and ignorant about our country of origin; our peers bullied and called us degrading names; my brothers were randomly searched by police and in general, we lived a culturally isolated life. I faced a strange and at times an unfriendly public life and at the same time a hostile, cold and abusive stepmother. But as I grew older and met more people, I encountered many who were open-minded and kind and I made many friends.
My lifelong desire to be a writer was met by derision from my father who felt that writing would not lead to a steady and stable job. Instead, he felt nursing was a better choice, and as I was unable to pay for college my method to achieve an education was attained through a series of “baby steps.” At that time the Vocational Technical School was free and I obtained my Licensed Practical Nurse qualification in one year. I did not own a car and I began working in a nursing home using public transportation. After working for a year, I saved enough money to enroll in the Associate of Science Registered Nurse program in the community college, while working part-time. The cost was about four dollars a day. After graduation, I started working at Minneapolis Memorial Children’s Hospital and began what was to be a 36-year career as a pediatric registered nurse.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
There isn’t a single person, but instead, I would say I am grateful to my siblings who really helped me find the strength, grit, and fortitude to survive my difficult home life. They also were amazing role models because despite their own personal and financial challenges, they achieved happy home lives and satisfying careers.
So how are things going today?
After I married, I was able to be a full-time mom and still contribute to the household by working nights. I decided to take my writing much more seriously, as it had always been my aspiration to one day publish a book. But I lacked the confidence to submit my work. Eighteen years after I became an RN and once my income was not as critical, I enrolled at Rutgers University to pursue the area of study I had always dreamed of — English and History. While at Rutgers I finally had the courage to actually read some of my writing out loud during a creative writing course. I was astounded that my work was well received! I felt as though I had been given something back that had been lost long ago. I continued to hone my craft and after graduating from Rutgers with my BA, I earned my Master of Fine Arts in Writing and then began teaching writing at Rutgers University. I continued to write and submit my work because I wanted people to hear my perspective; the “not so perfect” immigrant life — one that was filled with ups and downs, sadness, injustice, joy, love, and triumph. Many publishers rejected my work, but I persevered for more than ten years. In October of 2020, I finally achieved one of my dreams. My book Mamaji; the story of my life as an immigrant and the loss of my mother — was published. I am finally an author!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Some of my greatest moments of joy come when I am able to help others achieve their goals. One particular story stands out in my mind. One was a young teenage mother. I knew her very well as she was a part of the program for teen mothers that I was leading. She had come from a very difficult past and was all alone with her young daughter. We became close friends and I advised and spent time encouraging her in her roles as mother, student, and wage earner. I eventually moved to another state, but we stayed in touch. Ten years later she told me she had graduated from community college, was married, and that her daughter was thriving. She had broken the cycle of abuse and unhealthy family dynamics and I was so encouraged to have been a part of her life.
I have used my skills to help teens, teenage mothers, and underprivileged adults to achieve their goals. I also have advocated for children in crisis and belong to the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Wealth or lack of wealth should not be a factor for obtaining a visa. For instance, many who apply for a visa use a lawyer which allows them to “jump the line”. Those who are unable to afford legal assistance must wait. This allows wealthy individuals with financial means to obtain visas quicker than others who might be much more deserving. Individuals with a low bank balance — for instance, a farmer, are immediately disqualified from even applying for a visa. In addition, celebrities and politicians are given visas without having to go through the interview process. Everyone should be equal. The USA immigration system should not reward those who have more money.
The status of the visa does not get updated on a regular basis. It’s difficult to find out how the process is moving since there is very little information shared with the applicant. Most of the time, there are no notifications sent when there is a change in the status of the visa.
The process is simply much too tedious. From the long lines outside the consulate to high filing fees, to the multiple, repeated paperwork submission — the process should be streamlined and should be much more transparent.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Define what success is to you — don’t allow the wants or needs of others to decide what you want to achieve. Your definition of success may not be money, power, or fame. For me, being successful means that I live in a country that allows me to work and enjoy what I value the most. I have been able to work in healthcare to support my family and life and at the same time have enough to pursue what I define as success — a loving family, loyal friends, and sharing my writing.
2. Find a mentor — who is doing what you want to do? There are people who have already successfully navigated what you want to do. It’s important to talk to someone who has achieved success in your area of interest and then listen to their story. Learn what they did to reach their goals; examine their thinking on what was right or what would be done differently. Overall, try and grasp what motivates your mentor; don’t listen to people who have failed at what you want, only talk to those who have succeeded. I have a number of writers who mentor me. I seek advice, encouragement, and support from them. But I also read the stories of writers whose work I admire, and their journey of failures and eventual success inspires me as well.
3. Respect the principles and laws of the USA — one of the things that makes America a great country is that most people respect the rights of others, follow the law, and have a strong sense of civic responsibility. No matter how things functioned in your country of birth, by respecting and upholding the laws and value system of the USA, it makes a country in which all people are equal and enjoy equal rights as citizens. When I visit my birth country I am always so disappointed at the fact that bribery is a way of life and those who have money are able to sidestep the law of the land.
4. There is no shortcut to success — to be successful; you will have to work hard. Each and every experience no matter how meaningless or menial it may seem is one that can be helpful to you — if you choose to learn from it. No one gets to start from the top; everyone must pay their dues and learn from the bottom up. I have been writing and submitting my work to small journals and magazines for more than 17 years and I received enough rejection slips from agents and publishers to paper the walls in my home. Eventually, I accomplished my dream of becoming a published author, and my memoir Mamaji, which details my immigrant experience, was published by Serving House Books.
5. Capitalize on exceptional educational opportunities in the USA — students come from all over the world for an opportunity to study in America. There are scholarships, grants, and many ways to learn a skill or earn a degree. Since I am part of this education process as an instructor at Rutgers University, I am so proud of the fact that my students are taught not to memorize what others have already learned, but to think for themselves and discover their own creative solutions. They are instructed to use ideas to think and to construct their own informed opinions; not to just summarize what someone else has already said.This concept is what makes the education process in America so amazing.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. The USA has been number one on the World Giving Index for the past ten years. Americans really care about the well-being of not just our own citizens, but of people all over the globe. At times this may seem less evident, but on the whole, this is very true.
2. No matter how much disagreement and dissension there is between political candidates and their supporters, it is so reassuring to see the orderly transfer of power from the president all the way to the mayors of the smallest townships.
3. The students I meet in my classes that shine — because they dream big and are willing to work hard to achieve. It inspires me to speak to them, watch their eyes light up and then listen to their desires and plans to reach their goals.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to speak with Anne Tyler. I read her books over and over again to treat myself. I admire her as a writer, a woman, a mother, and a wife. I know she is a very private person, and a chance to meet her would fulfill one of my ultimate wishes!
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
My book Mamaji is available on B&N and Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Mamaji-Memoir-Elisheba-Haqq/dp/1947175246/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
I’m on Instagram @elishebahaqq, Facebook @elishebahaqq, and Twitter @elishebahaqq
I can be found online at www.elishebahaqq.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!