Personal Spotlights

A Conversation with Israt and Jenny

We are Israt and Jenny, two core members of RAISE (Revolutionizing Asian Immigrant Stories on the East Coast). Both of us wanted to share the work of writing a blogpost for the BRAVE Study, so decided to transcribe a conversation we had together as if interviewing one another.

What is RAISE?

J:  RAISE started in 2012 after the announcement of DACA by President Obama. At first, we started off as a safe space for undocumented, pan-Asian migrants because we didn’t know where to find other people like us, or that there was a group that we could attend.

Since then we’ve kind of evolved into more of a grassroots organization that takes on projects to advocate for ourselves and others. We also do workshops to educate our communities, but overall we just want to push for humane policies and abolish detention and prisons in the US.

I: So the membership of RAISE is composed of, like you said, pan-Asian folks.

J: We say pan-Asian to recognize all communities from the Asian diaspora. We really wanted to move away from saying “Asian American” because it’s not like we really have anything in common just because we’re Asian.

I: Right. Asia’s too large for that.

J: It’s a diverse continent. We don’t all share cultures, religion, language, etc. [By saying we’re a pan-Asian organization we’re saying that] we’re actually bonding over our common values, and not just because we’re all Asian American.

I: Our membership also consists of queer folks, and we are mostly women-led [so we are trying to focus on all of the intersectionalities that exist within our identities].

I: One of my main concerns was not only being able to do advocacy work, but also finding a community with shared backgrounds, you know? And RAISE has, obviously, definitely been that for me, but I’m also glad that we’re doing the work that we’re doing, aside from base building.

J: That totally makes sense, and it goes together; we couldn’t do that work that we’re doing if we didn’t have a space for all of us to feel comfortable.

What’s our herstory as undocumented women?

I: Ok, talk a little bit about how long you’ve been in the US and then your experience.

J: I’ve been in the US since 1996, so 20 years.

I: Wow. Two decades. I’m assuming that you didn’t know you were undocumented until much later, right?

J: Yeah, much later. Actually, when I found out it was during freshman year of high school. It was January and ICE came knocking at our door basically to detain my dad. I had no idea what was going on. I went out to try to comfort my mom, and it was little by little, trying to understand what was going on.

It was really hard at the time because even though I told my friends, they didn’t really understand — sure, I can tell them “I’m trying to deal with being undocumented.” But they didn’t really know what that entailed, or what it meant…

I: After that, you have to… did you also deal with legal repercussions?

J: We got a lot of support from the Korean community because my dad was writing letters from the detention center all the time. He encouraged us to reach out to different newspapers because he thought [the situation] was so unjust — even though this happens so often — because we had a lawyer who was a fraud.

I wrote to the Washington Post, and other newspapers, but the only one that picked up was a local Korean newspaper. The day after it went out, a group came up to pray with my mom, we got checks, donations, people brought us food, and we got pro-bono help from a lawyer who offered.

I: Being undocumented is both a blessing and a curse. For example, you were able to find your community that you know will back you up when you go through stuff like that.

For me, it was kind of similar, but different, too. We came here in April of 2001, because of political reasons back home. It wasn’t until much later that we found out we had, what the lawyer called, “a perfect story” that would have helped us get out papers. But like you, we had a few fraud lawyers that never filed our papers.

J: Yeah, it wasn’t just one. It was a few.

I: I think what hurt in that was that they were all Bengali-American lawyers.

J: From our own community. Us, too.

I: Being undocumented for me meant dealing with a lot of the legal aspects of it because my parents could speak English but they didn’t feel comfortable. They would listen, but not speak.

So from the age of ten I was the one communicating, filling out legal paperwork, etc. I think that still frustrates me because I don’t think a ten year old should have to deal with those things.

J: It’s not age appropriate.

I: Yeah, it’s not. It’s burdens like that that we have to take up as undocumented kids. We have to learn how to deal with it quickly, and I think it makes us grow up faster than we should, or have to. So that was my undocumented experience growing up.

I don’t remember a lot of good things from my childhood in America—it was a lot of legalities and fear. Living in constant fear… I think that really messes with a child’s psychology; and I think, still to this day, I deal with a lot of those consequences.

J: Yeah, it’s trauma.

I: We met someone over the weekend who was previously undocumented. What was interesting to me was that he still felt very much a part of this community because the impact of being undocumented was so large and lasting. I think that the trauma that we go through now, is going to have, or already has, a very lasting impression.

What projects are we working on within RAISE?

I: So do you want to talk a little bit about the work that RAISE is doing?

J: I’ll start with what I’m most excited about right now, which is the zine project. We received funding from the Asian Women’s Giving Circle (AWGC) last summer to start the zine where we collect submissions from undocumented Asian women and publish their art — whether that’s poetry, prose, drawing, photography, etc. We’ve been working really hard on that. It’s really great to be able to give a platform for those people.

I: I think that’s so important. One of the things that I’ve always liked doing is promoting storytelling.

Storytelling is so important, it’s such a vital part of every movement; you can’t really have a movement without telling the stories that create a need for that movement. We see a lot of that through youth groups, but our parents, our grandparents, and our other family members don’t really get the chance to share their stories. That might be because of age gaps or language barriers, or what have you; but having this zine, where they can share their art and have it accessible to other people, while also being compensated for it, is really nice. It’s really important, what we’re doing.

On that note, if folks who are reading this blog are interested in submitting their work as undocumented Asian women, we will have the information at the end of this post so you can submit your work.

The AMPLIFYHER Zine team

The AMPLIFYHER Zine team

What is RAISE doing around mental health?

I: As we’ve seen through this conversation, there’s a lot of emotional and physical baggage that comes with being an undocumented person, but there are things that you can do to deal with these issues.

One of the things that RAISE is working on is a series of mental health workshops where we can come together as an undocumented community and talk about the issues that we are facing and deal with them in positive ways—whether it be by providing resources to go get professional help, base building, or finding other people and being able to talk about it. Do you want to talk a little bit about last summer’s mental health series?

J: Last summer, we had three workshops/open mics where we invited people from our community to share their experiences, how they feel, and also give them the open mic space where they can express their creative side. It was really great. I saw a lot of faces that I hadn’t seen before.

I: People expressed how they didn’t really expect the good that came out of it, because they didn’t realize they needed it. This summer we’re looking to continue that series, but a bigger goal of this series is to not only to talk about the emotional baggage that comes with being undocumented, but also to tie it into the political background of the issues that we are facing.

J: In psychiatry and talk about mental health, there’s a tendency to say, “This person is suffering from mental illness,” or “Their brain has problems.” But you know, it’s not just from our heads. We’re living within these structures that are making our lives really hard and it makes sense for us to react like that.

I: Our reactions are a direct response to the systems of oppression that we’re living in, which contributes to our mental health. It’s not just that we were born this way, it’s not just the chemicals, and it’s not just that we need to be treated. It’s more than that. So we look forward to doing that.

J: Thanks so much to everyone for reading this. We’re really excited to see where the BRAVE study goes and we really hope that you’ll be able to support our work, so please follow us on social media!

Thank you May Sudhinaraset for offering us this space, and everyone else on the BRAVE Study for doing this work!

Guidelines to submit to the Zine can be found here:

Follow RAISE on fb/instagram/tumblr: @raisenyc