I was standing in London Luton Airport, waiting in line to board a plane to Berlin. I unlocked my phone to pull up the PDF of my boarding pass and noticed a barrage of texts from my older sister.
“Her brother died.
She’s hysterical I’m hysterical.
Call the house when you can.”
“She” is none other than Maya *, my second mother, biggest confidante, closest friend. I’ve referred her as my “babysitter” for the last twenty years, but as I’ve grown older I’ve realized how much more she is to me, and how heavily I rely on her. She taught me how to tie my shoelaces, the power of kindness and to always stay true to my values. I speak to her every day.
Maya left her home country of Bermuda* over two decades ago, in search of work and a better life for her family in the United States. She joined my family in 1996 and left hers behind, and she’s sent every penny of her earnings to her daughters back home ever since. She lives in Queens* and is an active member of her church and community, choosing to spend her days off cooking meals for those in need. She gives and gives, never taking anything for herself.
Growing up with Maya by my side was undoubtedly one of the best parts of my childhood. But it was also a constant reminder of the tragedy that is our nation’s arbitrary and fragmented immigration process. I used to sit perched on Maya’s knee in front of the kitchen window as we waited for the bus to drop my sister off from school. From the age of four, I would ask why she couldn’t go home to see her family, or why they could never visit for more than a few days, or come more often. I used to cry when my family had to leave her behind if we flew to another state or country for a vacation, confused why she could drive places with us but never board a plane.
Maya is happy here. But she hasn’t been home in over twenty years. Her young daughters are now adult women. They’ve attended prestigious universities overseas and secured graduate and post-graduate degrees, thanks to her sacrifices. They’ve gotten married without their mom by their side to help them choose a beautiful white dress, without her hand to clutch as they walked down the aisle.
I’ll never forget the moment I pressed “accept” to a Skype invitation from her daughter Aliyah*, tilting the screen of my 2010 MacBook to get Maya’s face in frame. Mother and daughter laid eyes on each other for the first time in years. They erupted into joyful tears. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve as I witnessed the exchange. When I had to take back my computer to complete that night’s homework, Maya seemed happy, but the sadness in her eyes made her smile fall flat. The video chat was just another reminder of all that she has missed, and all that she will continue to miss.
As soon as I dialed home and heard her quiet voice, the devastating consequences of this election finally crashed over me. As an “illegal immigrant,” Maya has been politically vigilant ever since she stepped foot onto American soil. Every time I’ve called her since I left for my semester abroad in London, however, I could sense the heightened anxiety in her voice. “This election is getting crazy,” she once told me as I walked home from class. I, like much of America, reassured her there was no way this discriminatory bigot could become the President of the United States. We spoke of our mutual admiration of Hillary and of our excitement about the positive changes she’d bring to our country.
Maya’s brother had been in the hospital in Bermuda for some time. I was the only member of my family she told. As soon as she spoke those sad words, my mind flashed back to when her father passed away a few years ago from a stroke—her whimpers and tear-stained face made it much more devastating because of her inability to go home and attend his funeral. She couldn’t run her fingers along his casket and hug her family members. She could not properly mourn.
Well, it’s happened again. Maya’s dear brother has passed away, and she is stuck here. Health care isn’t great in Bermuda—I knew this was coming. But that was in a different time, a world that’s changed entirely overnight. The ruler of the free world is now a racist, xenophobic bully, someone whose reign poses a very real threat to Maya’s daily life. Although it hasn’t worked in the past, I’ve grown up knowing that one day Maya could secure a green card, perhaps citizenship—she simply must. She needs to be there with me on my wedding day, she needs to be just a quick drive away when I need a warm meal served with her words of wisdom, she needs to teach me how to change my children’s diapers and how to raise them the way she raised me. Now that Donald Trump is in power, who knows if she’ll be able to get that green card, let alone stay in the country she poses absolutely no threat to?
For what seems like forever, I hunched over my tray-table, sobbing for Maya, crying for the world, praying for this nightmare to stop getting worse. But by the time the flight attendant announced that it was time to land, my eyes were dry.
We can’t let this election paralyze us. Like so many have urged, we need to take action. I know it seems daunting. I know it’s easy to feel insignificant. But change starts small, and we need to take advantage of the privileged positions we inhabit. I’m enrolling in some poli sci classes this spring so I can learn more about our government and how to at least put a Band-Aid over its gaping wounds. And I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to do everything I can to get Maya a green card. I need to give back to her all she’s given me. And if this election has taught me anything, it’s that I need to start now.
*Names and locations have been changed for purposes of safety and confidentiality.