The American Dream

“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”

-James Truslow Adams’s definition of the American Dream

For the past month and a half, I have been working at an internship with an NGO that helps African immigrants in Chicago.  Refugees and asylum seekers are given help with attaining legal status, improving their level of English, understanding the American social service system, and with the task of restarting their lives, safe from whatever may have threatened them in their countries of origin.  Many are given the chance to live what is considered the American Dream; to start with nothing but a green card, and then to work their way toward financial stability and a comfortable home for themselves, their families, and their children.  As I mentioned in my last post, the process of feeling at home in a new place takes a long time, and it certainly must take longer for those who had no choice but to leave home.  After dreaming for years of a better life in America, the life here for immigrants is not all spacious green lawns, smiling kids, and sleek cars.  Usually, it involves living in small apartments, making frequent trips on public transportation to wait in lines for social services, and to struggle to find city schools that offer quality education.
One of my projects at work has been to research where in Chicago the majority of African immigrants live.  The North side is often thought of as the immigrant neighborhood, and has many African, Arab, and South Asian restaurants that are well-known throughout the city.  However, I found that only a fraction of Africans live in this area.  The majority actually live much further south, in the African-American neighborhoods that are rarely (if ever) seen by tourists and even by most Chicago residents.  These neighborhoods are known for their empty lots, lack of fresh food, gangs, and high crime rates.  Africans are supposedly the most educated immigrant group in the U.S., yet in Chicago, they often live in neighborhoods where they fit in based on skin color, but not at all by education level or by culture.
Living on the South side of Chicago is probably better than living somewhere where one could be killed just for his or her religious or political beliefs.  But is really the American Dream?   Can life really be richer and fuller for immigrants who become implicated in the worst of America’s social problems?
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The Land of Opportunities

When I was about to land in Chicago, the TV screens on the airplane showed a video welcoming passengers to the U.S.  It showed green lawns, kids chasing golden retrievers, and people of every skin color.  Despite having lived the majority of my life in America and already knowing exactly what it looks like, the video made me pretty excited about arriving in the land of opportunity.

The photos in this post are of bread I've made.  This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

The photos in this post are of bread I’ve made. This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

America isn’t really as perfect as it looks on that video, although that’s not much of a surprise.  However, after being away for a year, there are several things that have surprised me.  First would be the no guns allowed sign all over Chicago (thanks to the conceal and carry law being passed), which is on a lot of public buildings; it’s odd to think that people need to be told that weapons do not belong in public buildings.  Not that I wanted to take a gun into the library, anyway.  Men wearing their pants so low that their butts hang out is not new, but it is still kind of surprising to see after not seeing it for so long (maybe some of them could use a djellaba).  Occasionally getting catcalls when I’m walking to my internship on the South Side is also not new, but is pretty disappointing – I thought I was going to have a break from that!  It is much easier to go for runs or walks here without worrying about what I’m wearing, but it’s not as different from Morocco as I was imagining it to be all of last year.

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Oatmeal bread

Another surprise came to me at Walmart.  I made my first ever trip to the all-American store last weekend, and only now do I really understand the purpose of giving up sugar.  Walmart is full of packaged foods, nearly all of which have sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup.  It’s in cereals, peanut butter, bread, yogurt, and pre-prepared meals.  Someone shopping only at Walmart would truly be challenged to totally give up sugar.  And what’s more, the food doesn’t taste the same here, even if bought at fancier stores than Walmart.  The carrots aren’t as sweet, the eggs aren’t as rich, the olive oil doesn’t taste like olives, and the Philadelphia cream cheese has ten ingredients instead of the four in Morocco’s (or Spain’s) version of the exact same brand.  These were difficult discoveries for me when I arrived; I love cooking and baking so much, so I want the ingredients to taste good!

Challah (egg bread)

Challah (egg bread)

I know from working with refugees that new immigrants (and even those who have been abroad for quite a while) have trouble adjusting, unfavorably comparing everything to equivalents in their home country.  It takes a long time to get used to little differences and to both appreciate what is better in the new country and to stop comparing it to the old.  It’s oddly not that much easier when the new country is also where you are from.  I guess I’ve got six more weeks to work on it.  Well, at least my bread loaves are pretty!

This isn't bread!  It's South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

This isn’t bread! It’s South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.