Leana Wen: an immigrant's story

In December of 1990, just before my eighth birthday, I left China for the United States. My father was a political dissident, and after he was released from prison, we joined my mother in a little town in the mountains of Utah. It was quite a change from my hometown of Shanghai, a city of 25 million people.

Like millions of other immigrants, my parents did everything they could to make a new life for us, saving every penny and working multiple jobs. My mother cleaned hotel rooms and worked in a video store. My father delivered newspapers and washed dishes in restaurants.

It was a different life than the one I knew. We had no connection with our family in China, including my grandparents who raised me. We struggled to make rent every month, and twice in one year, we were evicted. The first time, we stayed in a shelter. The second time, a stranger offered us her home. She was a single mother struggling to raise six children by herself. She didn’t even know our names.

We looked different from everyone else, we spoke a different language, and we had a different religion. But the woman told us that it was her duty to help those who needed help. This is America, she said, my home is your home. Other neighbors invited us for meals. Members of the church lent us coats and blankets in the harsh winters. Life was hard, but every day, we were so grateful to be alive and to have the opportunity to pursue a better future.

My mother would go on to attend night school and community college. Until her death from cancer several years ago, she taught elementary school in Compton and East L.A. in California, where we moved when I was 10. My father would become active in our church, helping other refugee families the way so many had helped us. My little sister, who was born in the U.S., is now a teacher herself after two years serving in the Peace Corps. And I’m so proud to be here, as an American, as a doctor, to serve Baltimore and our residents.

In some ways, my story is unique, but it’s also the story of generations of immigrants who landed in America and now call this country our own. This is the story of multitudes of students and professionals who come to improve their skills and contribute their experiences. This is the story of millions of families escaping terrorism and trauma who seek refuge on our shores.

This, too, is the story of the 800,000 children who were brought to this country by their parents, who are American in every way but now face deportation from the country that they call home.

It is the story of Gladys, a 24-year old who came with her mother from Mexico when she was 3 years old. She is among the 65,000 Dreamers who graduate from high school and 10,000 Dreamers who complete college every year. I met her when she sought my advice about a career in medicine. She has a near 4.0 GPA and volunteers every weekend in a clinic for the underserved. Having seen so many suffer because they lack access to care, she has long aimed to become a doctor to care for the most vulnerable. Gladys will be a superb and dedicated doctor, but as she prepares her application for medical school, she tells me that she is terrified. Will she be allowed to pursue her dream — the dream for which she and her family have worked so hard? How can she plan for the future when there is the daily fear of being deported and losing everything?

I know that feeling, that helplessness and that fear. My parents and I entered the U.S. legally, but when it was time for our visa extension, we were turned down. Returning to China meant imprisonment for my father and persecution for my family. We were days from being forced to live here illegally when we were granted political asylum. Other families are not so lucky. Every day, I think, by the grace of God, I’m here, blessed to be a U.S. citizen, but I could have just as easily been a Dreamer too.

There are many legal and fiscal reasons to support DACA, which allows for law-abiding young people to contribute to their adopted country by paying $2 billion of taxes and adding an estimated $280 billion in economic growth. There is also a broader reason that calls to our common humanity. All of us have the privileges of the lives we lead because of the sacrifices of those before us, and they have the privilege because they were allowed to choose America as their home. Our country is defined by our core values of inclusion, diversity and generosity of spirit that truly make us great.

More than a quarter century ago, my parents and I were grateful recipients of the caring and compassion of strangers who showed us that this is America, my home is your home. Today, I have made my home in Baltimore, with my husband (himself an immigrant from South Africa) and our newborn baby. As I think about the future that I want our son to grow up in, I reflect on the words from President Barack Obama: “This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people — and who we want to be."

Dr. Leana S. Wen is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner. Her email is health.commissioner@baltimorecity.gov. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.

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