This story was written by Kelsey Blake, a recent intern with Long Island Wins. She interviewed her aunt, Kemiesha Bruce, on her immigration from Jamaica and her road to becoming a U.S. citizen.
My aunt, Kemiesha Bruce is a fine example of a young woman who was privileged with the opportunity to come to this country from the developing nation of Jamaica to secure a better future for herself. Her experiences provide a more honest, first-hand story of an immigrant coming to America.
“I moved here when I was 15 years old. I was very excited at first, I had high expectations of what America is supposed to be like,” my aunt said as she began her story.
I expected her to relate these expectations she’d have upon arriving, as most immigrants did. She told me she came to the U.S. for a better life for herself and her family. She also said she came here to receive a better education. In her village in Jamaica, there was only one high school with minimal technology and resources. Most villagers were lucky to simply graduate high school, and never got the opportunity to attend college, university, or trade school.
“It was December 17, 2004, and it was winter and it was very, very cold. Yes, I was not expecting that, I didn’t even have a jacket when I moved here,” she remembered.
She arrived on a morning flight and was picked up by her uncle, my grandfather, from John F. Kennedy International Airport. She stayed with her him and her aunt in their house in Uniondale.
Kemiesha had a unique growing experience because she lived part of her childhood both in Jamaica and in the U.S. She actually attended high school here because she was 15 when she immigrated. She went to Uniondale High School with her cousin, Makini.
When I asked if people were receptive towards her when she first arrived, she answered that some were very receptive while others were not. When she first arrived, Kemiesha was shy and quiet. The first friend she made was a girl named Erin, who has become like a sister to her over the years. Looking back when she first arrived in New York, she described herself as “really weird and skinny” which made her feel a bit left out. She felt others perceived her as awkward because of her small size and accent which made her timid at first. She even shared that some people at school went as far as assuming she was anorexic.
Overall, my aunt did not have too much difficulty adjusting to life here because she “went with the flow” and had her sisters to guide her along the way. Despite her ease with the transition to the American way of life, she did notice major cultural differences between her life back in Jamaica and the U.S.
“In Jamaica, you’re very respectful of your elders, and over here, they’re not really respectful I would say in a sense… we’re used to saying ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’, ‘good evening’ when you walk past somebody. Over here, you just mind your own business so I had to adjust.”
My aunt also missed her native country, remembering her family, friends, and “the freedom of being at home.” Most wouldn’t quite understand what she means by that, but I’ve spent enough time in Jamaica myself to understand that there is a different kind of freedom on the island that the U.S. doesn’t quite capture.
In Jamaica, the sun and tropical climate makes the outdoors the place to be. Villagers, young and old, can be found enjoying one another’s company and the lush land they share, whether they play dominos, enjoy a cool beer, or skip rope.
In the countryside, there are acres of land filled with fruit trees, flowers, and butterflies that can be safely explored, even at a young age; in the U.S. open land is usually forbidden for children without adult supervision for fear something awful might happen to them.
These fears, along with the threat of kidnapping, and other such crimes not seen much back home, raise the anxiety of Jamaican immigrants living in the U.S. In the countryside, life is relaxed, but unfortunately, there are few opportunities to achieve more. However, the contentment of a simple life full of nature’s pleasures becomes a sweet, romanticized memory in the minds of those who leave for something more.
When I asked my aunt about the process to obtaining her citizenship, she told me it took her a while to earn it.
“I would say it was really important to get it, but I always had something coming up so I always used the money to do something else,” she said.
Her green card expired, which she needed to get a new job, so instead of renewing it, she decided to finally get her citizenship.
“The process took about eight months for me. I would say it was fairly easy because I am single, I don’t have any prior records,” she said.
She prepared her application by completing the N-40 naturalization form; sending in the $680 money order going toward the application fee; and getting her passport photo taken.
Once she received confirmation from the immigration office, they invited her to go take fingerprints and do a background check. Shortly after, she was sent an invitation to do an interview and they give her a packet of about 100 questions on American history, civil questions, and the U.S. government system.
“The interview process is pretty nerve-racking because you are only asked 10 questions out of the 100 question packet you’re given. For me it was fairly easy because I went to school here so I pretty much know American history. I spent four years here in high school, so it wasn’t bad. I wasn’t really nervous because I prepared myself for it, but I can only imagine what it would be like for someone without the prior knowledge I had,” she said.
After this, Kemiesha went on to explain that she passed the interview, as expected, and was then invited to the three-hour oath ceremony. She told me that after everyone was sworn in there were staff members to help get new citizens registered to vote. The recipients all also received passport forms so they could travel freely in and out of the U.S. I was curious to know what my aunt’s goals were now that she had become a citizen with all the associated freedoms.
“I would say right now one of my main goals is to get my family from Jamaica here so they could have a better life… just getting my family green cards to come here is a major goal of mine.”
I asked Kemiesha about her family back home. She told me that she talks to them often and they’re all doing well. Her father owns a bar and works as a carpenter while her mother cares for her elderly aunt. Kemiesha’s siblings hold many different occupations such as managing a hardware store, working at the Jamaican Observer, and delivering mail. Her youngest brother is still in high school.
Kemiesha is currently working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the Upper East Side of Manhattan as a Physician Office Assistant. She lives in an apartment in Cambria Heights, Queens, and loves the area. She says the neighborhood is reminiscent of Jamaica because of the fruit stands and Caribbean stores all around town.
She said she misses her family back in Jamaica very much, and that, along with her ambition, push her to be the best she can be.