Community//

Dr. Sylvie Heyman: “Be grateful to be in America”

For me, the American dream is to walk on the street without being afraid that a police officer takes me away. It is saying what is on my mind without fearing repercussions. It is wearing my Star of David, or any other Jewish symbol, outside my garments for everyone to see if I so desire. […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

For me, the American dream is to walk on the street without being afraid that a police officer takes me away. It is saying what is on my mind without fearing repercussions. It is wearing my Star of David, or any other Jewish symbol, outside my garments for everyone to see if I so desire. It is disagreeing about a government policy without being afraid of being rounded up and punished. It is about pursuing my highest potentials.

To achieve the American dream, we must first be grateful to be in America and not take it for granted. With gratitude comes a sense of obligation, respect, and pride in one’s country and the willingness to work hard to make America the best it can be.


As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sylvie Heyman.

Sylvie Heyman was two years old when, together with her family, she escaped Belgium during the Nazi invasion in May 1940. The family spent the next 6 months in the Vichy dominated South of France, settling in Marseilles until they obtained their visas to leave Europe and immigrate to Brazil. Four years later, Sylvie and her parents immigrated to Argentina where she was placed in a convent for two years. At age 14, Sylvie and her parents immigrated to the United States of America.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in a state of fear. At first, I was too young to understand that we were running away from a war that persecuted Jews. My earliest recollections take place when we lived in Brazil, and I started to manifest fears and behavioral issues that my parents attributed to our experiences during our escape from the Nazis. We were smuggled into Argentina and soon after we arrived, I was placed in a convent until my parents were settled. I returned to live with my parents two years later when they had moved to an apartment and my father had a job. I started public school when I was 8 years old and life became somewhat more “normal” for us. But through all the years we lived in Buenos Aires we kept applying for a visa to the United States and as long as we were in Argentina, my parents, especially my father, lived in fear that the government would someday turn against us.

Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?

My mother had been abruptly separated from her siblings during the war but there was never a question in her mind that she would not be reunited with them at some time. In addition, my father was becoming increasingly more suspicious of the dictatorship policies of Argentina and feared that Jews would, once again, be persecuted. We kept contacting the American embassy for visas and finally, 12 years later, we were approved to immigrate to the United States with and an affidavit from one of my mother’s brothers. The day that we received our visas I was ecstatic but also fearful to leave the only country I felt a part of.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?

My parents always wanted to immigrate to the United States with the rest of the family when we left Europe but because my father was a German Citizen the quota for German immigrants was fraught with more stringent policies and we could not get a visa to the United States. I was always reminded that “one day” we will live in the United States and when that day arrived, 12 years later, I was the happiest gal in the world. My reaction to our ship approaching the New York harbor and upon seeing the Statue of Liberty is detailed in chapter 4 of my book: Beyond the Holocaust: An Immigrant’s Search for Identity.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

First, I am grateful to the two ambassadors who provided visas for us to leave Europe. Ambassador Luis Martins de Souza Dantas provided us with an exit visa to leave Europe to Brazil and Ambassador Aristides de Sousa Mendes provided us with the visa to enter Portugal from where we could finally leave Europe. Without their immense courage and humanitarian efforts, I probably would never have been able to tell my story. I am also grateful to my uncle who provided us with an affidavit to live in the United States. Without this document, we would not have been able to settle in the United States.

So how are things going today?

I live a life of gratitude and I am eager to share my story to help give another perspective of the immigrant experience.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world ?

Even before Elie Wiesel uttered these famous words: “If I survived, it must be for some reason, I must do something with my life…” I was driven to do something in my life, to “pay it back.” But I did not know-how. I chose professions in the healing arts and although I was very gratified helping my patients lead healthier and happier lives, it was not enough. So, I wrote a book: Make it a HABIT! Creating Health and Happiness for your Body, Mind, and Spirit to help more people free themselves from habits that prevented them from leading happy and fulfilled lives. But that still was not enough. As I grew older and time was running out, I felt a greater need to give voice to the plight of the immigrant and share my experiences as a refugee and an immigrant teen. I felt guided by a greater force and when my son and my granddaughter urged me to write my story, I knew I had to do it. Now, as I hear and read the comments on my book, how it has inspired people, how it has given them a glimpse of the life of a refugee and later an immigrant, how it has opened their eyes to what it means to be an adolescent in a new culture, not knowing the language, the customs, now I am more fulfilled and I feel confident that I have brought some good to the world.

You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?

The Immigration system and its laws have undergone numerous changes and addendums from 1952, when I immigrated to the U.S., to the present time. These changes are confusing and continue to be an open wound in the United States. But I am not an immigration lawyer nor am I a professor of Immigration law. I am not even a student of the immigration system, but I am a product of it and as such, I am way too close to the issues to be objective. What I do know is that life would have been easier if I had had teachers who were trained to teach ESL (English as a second language.) And although there are some programs and books about the “immigrant experience,” in my opinion, more can be done to disseminate this information to the public, to cities that are heavily diversified as well as the other parts of the country that are more homogeneous.

Immigrants need to integrate into their new societies and be able to assimilate into their new community. Native citizens need to know their foreign neighbors better so that everyone co-exists together in harmony. The more we know about the culture and mores of the immigrant and they learn the culture of America, the better we can live together in peace.

A place where “the other” is not understood and included in the fabric of the country faces the danger of living in ignorance and fear. This fear can induce suspicions of others and misunderstanding that can lead to inner turmoil and even anarchy.

I believe that the country as a whole would benefit in a myriad of ways — politically, socially, and educationally — if it makes the effort to improve relationships among all people, including immigrants.

So, I am talking about courses in school, even elementary schools, that teach and give practical opportunities for kids to experience different cultures. Colleges/Universities have adopted new opportunities for students to learn about other counties by adding trips to foreign countries into their curricula. Not enough. Those courses should be on-going when they return home.

I would like to see more public programs about the “immigrant experience” in forum for discussions, in libraries, seminars and webinars, the performing arts, literature, and educational and religious institutions, wherever life-long learning is discussed. I became acutely aware of this void when I read the numerous responses to my book: Beyond the Holocaust: An Immigrant’s Search for Identity. Even people who knew me personally commented on how much they wished they had known more about my struggles as an immigrant.

I would like to see greater public involvement in refugee-oriented organizations such as HIAS and IRC. I would encourage greater contribution from young people and offer college credit or life experience credits for their direct work with immigrants.

I would emulate the “adopt a highway” campaign and suggest “adopt an immigrant,” not legally or associated with economic assistance, but socially, more as a mentorship for the express purpose of getting to know the “Other” and vice-versa. Educators and religious leaders play a strong role in guiding people in this direction as opposed to politicians who may have their own agenda.

I believe that everyone needs to understand the complexities of the Immigration system from a bi-partisan viewpoint because immigration affects everyone, citizens and those seeking citizenship.

Can you share 5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

For me, the American dream is to walk on the street without being afraid that a police officer takes me away. It is saying what is on my mind without fearing repercussions. It is wearing my Star of David, or any other Jewish symbol, outside my garments for everyone to see if I so desire. It is disagreeing about a government policy without being afraid of being rounded up and punished. It is about pursuing my highest potentials.

In my book: Beyond the Holocaust: An Immigrant’s Search for Identity, I relate an incident that took place in my high school when I overheard students discuss the pros and cons of the Korean War. I was so shocked that they could so easily verbalize their opinion that I dropped my tray filled with food and ran away from the cafeteria.

To achieve the American dream, we must first be grateful to be in America and not take it for granted. With gratitude comes a sense of obligation, respect, and pride in one’s country and the willingness to work hard to make America the best it can be.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the USs future?

As long as the United States remains a free democratic country its future will be bright. I am encouraged by the actions of those who are beginning to voice their patriotic agenda in a more peaceful manner. I am encouraged by the dedication of the first responders and the appreciation of the pubic during the COVID-19 pandemic — it brought people together. There is hope.

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. 🙂

I would love to lunch with Oprah because of her incredible life, her accomplishments, and her deep sense of spirituality.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Find me

Twitter: @heymanSylvie

Instagram: @heydrsylvie

Linkedin: drsylvieheyman

Facebook: Drsylvieheyman

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

AN INSIGHTFUL INTERVIEW WITH A MULTIFACETED PERSONALITY DR.NIKHIL CHANDWANI

by Dr.Shakila
Community//

“Always ask questions.”, With Dr. William Seeds & Sylvie Beljanski

by Dr. William Seeds
Community//

Want To Feel Happy? Empty…Yourself!

by Navi Radjou

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.