While the holidays are a time to unite, enjoy traditions and make memories, they pass for many immigrants accompanied by loneliness, isolation and the pain of separation from loved ones. The buzz of the season can feel overwhelming and depressing to those unable to celebrate togetherness.
“I never grew up celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas but I feel jealous when I see people decorating their houses and getting ready for celebrations with their families,” said “Bal” an Indian immigrant who did not wish to use her real name. She has lived in Seattle for 10 years. “I want so much to feel that excitement.”
Seattle’s winters are already full of painful reminders for Bal. She feels the lack of family support when her daughters must walk home from school in the dark. “I worry for them and wish their grandparents were here to greet them when they get home. This is not how I grew up but this is something I have to accept about living in America.”
The holidays remind Bal of the pressure to be a whole extended family for her children. “My husband and I have to be the parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles for our girls,” she said. “They have no one else here.”
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, I am thankful for coming to America. We made a choice to come here so now I try to adjust and I even make a special meal for my family on Thanksgiving,” she said. The traditional Thanksgiving meal is not an option for Bal’s vegetarian family, but they enjoy the Indian food she substitutes, even though, as a restaurant worker, she usually works and does not join them. “I’m still working, but I try to make sure the children don’t feel left out.”
A lack of health insurance means Bal is unlikely to seek a medical consultation for depression or stress. She feels helpless that nothing can change her circumstances. “Moving back to India is not an option and they cannot come here,” she said.
“Any life event is more stressful for an immigrant,” said Blanca Westrich, community advocate coordinator at International Community Health Services (ICHS), which provides health services to many refugees and immigrants. “Adapting to a different culture, new language, job insecurity, separation from family and friends are stressors that take a toll. The process of transition and its impact can last for years.”
Bal shares memories of Diwali, a Hindu celebration that is India’s biggest festival. Her eyes widen and her face animates with a smile. “We would feel excited for weeks before Diwali,” she said. “My mother would start cooking Indian sweets and we would clean our home till it was spotless.”
Bal feels her children are robbed of the excitement for both Diwali and American holidays. “We have gained a lot by coming to America but we have lost something too. Celebrations and holidays are a big part of being Indian,” she said. “I feel they are never really excited for Diwali as it’s not a day off school and it’s just our family here. No uncles and aunties come over to give sweets and gifts. When you don’t do something fully it can feel like you are not doing anything at all.”
She points out that though social media is a good way to keep connected with family, it’s still not the real feeling. “You can’t smell the food through the phone,” she said.
Westrich has seen this many times. “Everyone is looking for a connection. People are away from families and communities and that’s hard to replace,” she said. “We encourage people to come to ICHS’ Eastside community kitchen, which promotes healthy eating in a social venue. They often share stories of what they like to cook and eat. It nearly always goes back to something they grew up doing. It’s like they are nostalgic for the past and they feel closer to home to connect and share stories with others going through the same thing. It’s good for them!”
“It is my dream for the whole family to go to India together over Diwali, so my girls can see what it’s really like. Be with my family and friends and watch fireworks together,” said Bal. “I don’t know if and when it will ever happen, but it’s something I pray for every year.”
“If you know someone who is feeling depressed and low please support them,” said Westrich. “ICHS doctors and therapists are here to help. They serve children, teens and adults, and will recognize your unique cultural practices to work with you to come up with the best possible treatment plan.”
For more information about culturally respectful and affordable health care, and ICHS’ behavioral health services and community programs, call (206) 788-3700.