To talk to “Asha” is to understand the blind instinct that drives people to willingly give up everything they know for much they don’t, in pursuit of something they are convinced must be better.
It’s the hope for a better life. It’s the universal story of the immigrant. It’s also the backstory for more than 98% percent of all Americans.
Asha is a sweet-spoken and engaging 33-year-old Eastside wife and mother. She is originally from a small town in India. She dreams of gaining U.S. asylum with her husband and 19-month-old child, and being granted a work permit so she can continue her career as a nurse. It’s clear that this is what will make what has been much sacrifice, as well as precarious hand-to-mouth survival, worth it.
“It’s for our child,” said Asha. When prompted, she explains, “We’re not going back. Ever.”
It’s been a long journey for Asha and her family.
“We met and married in a country outside of India and the United States but we couldn’t settle there,” she said. A brief return to India when she was pregnant only served to cement her resolve to leave what she describes as “a prison.”
“My baby was born in India. After five months, I came here,” she said.
Unable to legally work in the United States, afraid of any misstep that might jeopardize their hopes of immigration, Asha’s family straddles a narrow precipice. On one side beckons a new life and work opportunities unknown in India. On the other is a yawning maw of debt and uncertainty. Further upsetting the family’s equilibrium is the stress of learning the ropes, alone in a new country and without the support of family.
“We’ll be fine once we can get a job. Right now, I’m feeling the stress. Especially with a child, it’s not just you, you have a family. When we were trying to find a place, for nearly a month I could not sleep. Where could I go? I can’t go back to India,” said Asha.
With the guarantees of a work visa, Social Security number and the trappings of residency, Asha and her young family will finally gain access to many entitlements currently closed to them. For the moment however, they can only wait. And hope.
“It’s stressful without working, without help,” said Asha. Then she corrects, “Well, we have lots of help coming into our life now.”
The help has come from Miran Hothi, an Indian American community outreach worker with International Community Health Services (ICHS). Tireless and indefatigable, she’s been a surrogate big sister, cheerleader and guide, helping Asha navigate a path between her past and the underpinnings of a future. Miran has become a source of salvation—locating and putting the family in touch with resources to help with food costs, medical care and bills.
Miran and Asha’s connection is an outgrowth of ICHS outreach efforts that bring Miran directly in touch with the community via her “mobile office”—a pamphlet-packed table parked two times a week outside the Bellevue City Hall annex at Crossroads Mall. She is familiar to regulars and local business owners, who know her as the go-to person for questions on health care, insurance and other social services. Fluent in Spanish, Russian and Punjabi, she and her colleagues offer a tremendous resource for new immigrants and refugees.
“ICHS’ team and program are unique. No one offers in-language help similar to us,” she said. “We are meeting people at genuine points of struggle. Taking away part of their stress is the most important service I can provide.”
About half of the people Miran encounter lead to more in-depth relationships and assists.
Asha describes Miran’s intervention to ensure their child was covered by health insurance, something the adults in the house have decided is a luxury they cannot yet afford for themselves. “She told me that children under 18 qualify for Medicaid. But my husband and I, we are waiting for our immigration. Thank God I have been fine for the past year,” she said.
Asha’s husband has not been so lucky. He recently had health problems that threatened to knock the fragile family off their feet. At first, he tried to ignore problems with his stomach.
“I saw how he was struggling. He was taking over-the-counter medication but it didn’t work. He brought medication from India and tried that,” she said.
Asha’s husband was in pain for six months before finally going to the emergency room for treatment. He and Asha didn’t anticipate how much everything would cost. Their pending request for asylum cast a long shadow—the couple was afraid of making any decision or accepting any financial aid that might risk their immigration status.
“We got a $6,700 final bill,” she said. “I approached Miran and she said we could apply for charity care. We were scared but she said to check with our immigration lawyer.”
Knowing they could accept help without penalty removed the weight of debt and gave Asha a new confidence. She has moved from feeling in need of advice to feeling she has insight that is of value to others.
“Stress won’t give you anything. Don’t be scared and be strong with your decision. That’s the only thing to do,” she said. “Get rid of your ego—if you don’t ask for help you won’t have it.”
Asha can see the life she wants to build for her family, and in particular, for her child.
“I want to see our baby grow up and get a good education,” said Asha “To be a family person who cares about others and respects others.”