My Existential Journey: Kamini's Story
By Bilha Fish
Kamini and I met on a summer afternoon washed with sun and a pleasant breeze. I was enjoying a cold margarita at friend’s BBQ in Connecticut when my gaze migrated to the food display. There she was, behind the table serving the guests.
Her gentle and quiet demeanor invited an introduction. Captivated by the sadness in her expressive brown eyes and her fleeting smiles, I found myself engaged in a conversation that became a friendship of twelve years. Kamini became my housekeeper and I became her confidante.
I watched her interest grow as I shared some of the life stories of the women I interviewed for my book, Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants. Hearing about the women who contribute to our lives in the United States had a remarkable effect on Kamini. She realized that she shared similar grim beginnings and that the personal stories in the book represent positive possibilities the future holds for her.
Kamini told me about her journey that began in Guyana and brought her to the United States, an illegal immigrant under threat of deportation. I imagined her like a beautiful bird with her wings tied back—disadvantaged, paving the road to a better life for her parents and children.
Now that feeling of captivity has ended for Kamini. After 23 years of unsuccessful attempts to get her green card, I was able to help her achieve her goal. Sadness has been replaced by joy and the hope to live a dignified life. She can soar to the heights that freedom provides.
Here is Kamini’s story.
I am Indo-Guyanese born to parents who are descendants of indentured slaves.
In 1834 the British Empire abolished slavery as a result of increasing riots in the colonies, religious enlightenment, and economic threats. The profits from sugar importation was threatened due to the lack of slave labor in the sugar plantations. This was the background for which the British invented indentured slavery.
My grandparents told me that their parents, like many other poor Indians, were uneducated, docile, reliable, and amenable to discipline. They made the perfect “prey” to be deceived by British recruiters who were hired specifically for this purpose. The recruiters took advantage of their vulnerable status and had them sign with a thumb print documents they did not know how to read. They found themselves on a boat to the West Indies to Guyana. The false promises under which they agreed to step on the boat very quickly translated to a grim reality in which they found themselves deprived of physical and occupational mobility.
My great-grandparents who were poor but free in India, were now poorer, laboring under a harsh climate, intimidation and in forced detention. My father grew up as an indentured slave working in the plantation, always being watched by the European owners while they drank tea in their magnificent white villas on the hill. Abuse and beatings were common.
In 1966, when I was 3, Guyana gained its independence. My father had a small farm and my mother was a seamstress. Social discrimination by the newly freed African slaves in British Guyana forced the Indo-Guyanese to form their own communities. Hostility and poverty were suffocating. Reminiscent of my mother growing up, I found myself at the age of 9 taking care my three younger sisters and my brother. I left school to take care of the farm so that my siblings could complete their high school education and my father could work in construction.
When my parents and my younger sister were sponsored by my uncle and were blessed to legally enter the USA, my story took a different path. At that time, my siblings in Guyana were all married. As a single woman, I lacked protection and my life was threatened. That first night that I moved to live with my grandmother if not for the Guyana big dog who protected our lives, we would have been subject to robbery and violence. Having relatives in America who send money made one a potential robbery victim.
While my parents started the procedure to sponsor me, I lived alone in Guyana in fear and despair. Waiting to be able to come to America meant to wait for a long time, a luxury I could not afford. In my mind, coming to America was the road to a “wonder land’, where happiness is waiting around the corner, where I hoped to reunite with my family and build one of my own. Where doing hard and honest work yields respect and prosperity.
Young and anxious to walk into the future I made a false passport and found myself detained in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when I landed.
“DETENTION “! was not going to sign a document that would put me on the plane back to Guyana. I thought it was within my rights to ask for a lawyer and to call my parents, but none of these requests was answered. Detention must be better than going back, I thought, or was it?
DETENTION. This word sounds familiar. My great-grandparents the indentured slaves were in detention when they arrived in Guyana. Would my fate be as theirs? I cried and prayed every day for the next four months as I listened to the stories of desperate abused women who killed their husbands or the ones who stole so they could feed their children. We all were stuffed into one group no matter where we came from, no matter the crime we committed. What we had in common was the uniform we wore—the sadness, the longing, and the remorse we felt.
Finally released, I met my friend at the airport. She did not recognize me because of my weight loss and because the sparkle in my eyes and the smile that comforted so many were gone.
There is no greater joy for a mother to reunite with her daughter and seeing my parents was a moment I will never forget. I came home!
My parents, influenced by the evangelistic missionaries, became Christians. They consented for me to marry out of our faith to a Muslim, an American immigrant from Algeria who was a good man.
Now we live in the Bronx, in a poor neighborhood populated with other Indians. I am an official caretaker of my ailing parents and I clean homes. My husband works at the airport. We have two children who are top students in their public high school and college. They are all American citizens except me.
For 23 years I have tried to get a magical green card to no avail. I retained an immigration lawyer who took every penny I made. He he prolonged the process for his gain while I lived in fear of deportation, panicking every time there was a knock on the door. Would this be the last time I would see my kids?
Until one day, a friend introduced me to a new lawyer who re-started the process. I will never forget the day I was called to the immigration office for an appointment. The night before—I call it “the last supper”—we went for dinner and cried a lot in anticipation of what I saw as the real possibility of rejection and deportation. I walked in with my ailing father and I got my green card! It was the happiest day in my life. I left the office free of shame and stigma, I walked out tall and proud, on my way to becoming American.
Not long after I got my green card, the pandemic arrived. And while the existence of COVID-19 has demoralized the country and most people I see are frowning, I have regained my smile and the twinkle in my eyes because I am an American citizen fighting a common enemy. After 23 years in the United States, I have found peace.