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Every Immigrant Has a Story

Photography and text by Epic Magazine

America 4

A New New Colossus: Excerpts from Little America

In America, there is much talk of the noble immigrant—the bootstrapping, huddled masses; the tired, poor, and yearning; the wretched refuse who everyday wash upon the nation’s teeming shore. In fact, nearly everyone in America came from somewhere else. This is a fundamental part of the American idea—an identity and place open to everyone. People from all points distant, speaking a thousand languages, carrying every culture, each with their own reason for uprooting themselves to try something new.

Little America is an intimate look at a sampling of the stories behind those lives. From Mexico, to Nigeria, to Syria, and beyond, the team at Epic compiled these narratives and framed them alongside captivating portraits of the people who lived them.

These are stories that accent the importance of collective power, reveal the depth of human resilience, and remind us of how we’re all connected. These are the stories of immigrants in America, which inspired the hit Apple Original Series of the same name–this is Little America, dedicated to everyone who came here from somewhere else.



Reyna Pacheco

The first time I played, I was thirteen and undocumented. There were thirty of us packed onto a court. My school rented squash courts at a private club in Mira Mesa, San Diego, and divided them up with a big makeshift wall. On one side tutors helped with homework; against the other, we hit balls and watched them bounce high and hang in the air. I’d felt like I was barely surviving school that year—I’d been fighting other kids and had my mind set on leaving. I couldn’t understand the point of college. My brother had dropped out of high school, my mom spent hours cleaning others’ homes. But here was one thing I could focus on, swing at.

I wasn’t great that first time. To be honest, I was the last kid to hold a racquet properly. But something about it appealed to me. I started bringing a racquet home—using it to pick up t-shirts and oranges. It became like an extension of my hand and made me feel kind of powerful. My brother kept asking me why I practiced this thing from the rich part of town and all I could say was, “It’s different.”

And it’s true. Squash isn’t accessible like soccer. There’s no pick-up in neighborhood parks. It’s played in a white cube. I could only go to the courts when paying members weren’t using them. A lot of kids in America play squash to get into college. Their parents belong to private clubs, invest in lessons, and dream of the Ivy League. My mom didn’t even feel comfortable watching me play. She’d say, “Reyna, look, my shirt isn’t even clean enough for me to walk in there.”

The courts I had to use were eighteen miles from my home; a thirty-minute drive if you have a car. My mom and stepdad needed their car for work, or sometimes didn’t have enough money for gasoline. So I would take a three-hour bus ride at 4:00 a.m., hit balls from 7:00 to 8:00, take another bus to school, go back to the courts at around 5:00 p.m., and then head home. Sometimes if I ran late I’d have to race the bus from one stop to the next, or pound on doors until they opened, or even sprint into the middle of the street and demand the driver let me in.

I was surprised at how quickly I improved. I learned to volley on the side walls and came away from matches with scraped knees from battle. I couldn’t take private lessons, but my coach, Renato Paiva, was a former Brazilian squash champion whose practices were academic quizzes and endless runs. With him I was always thinking, I must do more, more and more. This is why he made me team captain, even after I lost my very, very first match. That day I dove, I fell, and Renato said, “You have fighting spirit.” And so I started planning my comeback.

Outside of practice, this game was a foreign world. Most tournaments are at East Coast boarding schools. I’d take five-hour plane rides with my racquet and sleep on the hotel room couches of my competitors. They’d be in their own made-up beds, and if they were nice enough to let me, I would sleep on the floor near the coffee table. And when we went to warm up, they’d be dressed in beautiful polyester shirts with red and white stripes. These are the jerseys you get when representing the U.S. in squash internationally. People I played with had tons of them—they’d hang out of bags and sit neatly in lockers. But I couldn’t wear them, even when I was winning enough titles to become top fifteen. I was still undocumented. And that meant that I couldn’t play in sanctioned events. I couldn’t even travel the world. I could tell that these parents buying $300 hotel rooms and kids with laundered jerseys weren’t able to understand what brought me to the court, why I stayed.

It wasn’t because this sport was different. It didn’t feel that way to me anymore. During tournaments, I’d hit the ball, and it’d always come back. This return always had something unexpected—spin, bounce, the direction of my opponent’s feet. I had to be aware, constantly pushing and perfecting and ready for my next shot. This immediacy fit how I was living—at school where I didn’t know if I’d be in the country for our next exam, and at home where we turned boxes into chairs and wondered when the next check would come in. I had to take it all day by day. Squash had a rhythm that matched my life.

There was a game that my friend’s father, Dickon Pownall-Gray, played with his wife: They would sit at bars, look at people, and guess: “That woman in velvet is a fashion editor,” “The person reading O Globo is a translator.” One day, they saw a guy sitting surrounded by books, looking studious. “An academic.” “A Wall Street man.” They had to ask. He turned out to be an immigration lawyer at one of New York City’s biggest law firms. Mr. Pownall-Gray wanted me to have the same opportunities as his own daughter; he told this lawyer about my case. I don’t know what he said. What I know is that the lawyer took me on pro bono and I agreed to trust him, though I was nervous. My family had tried to apply once before and a lawyer told us, “Don’t try again, you’re going to get kicked out of this country.” But with this lawyer, I filled out a lengthy application, got fingerprinted, and went in for my interview. Just as all my classmates were beginning to apply to college, I got an envelope. A totally standard one; USPS Priority. My green card had arrived, but it still felt like an impossibility.

Now, I’m able to travel the world. I’m asked questions about the election, about walls, about growing up in a place that had crime and drugs. And it’s odd because I’m the American—but I’m also Mexican. Residency doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about my identity. It doesn’t make me feel like I definitely belong. I’m always adjusting to new places and people, and that’s part of life and training and squash. Things are never guaranteed. All I know is that on the court I feel safe to push boundaries, to set goals. On July 8, 2016, I played in my first U.S. Federation event. I wore a shirt with a red, white, and blue logo. Before putting it on, I held it in my hands and cried.

Story by: Alexa Daugherty / Photos by: Mark Hartman Reyna-2 California


Nigeria —> Oklahoma

Igwe Udeh

I remember the first time I saw a cowboy. It was a surprise—because I didn’t think cowboys existed anymore. I’d only seen them in movies. It was the fall of 1980 in Norman, Oklahoma. I was sitting in a classroom at the University of Oklahoma, where I was getting my master’s degree in economics. A slim, tall man strolled in. His heels clicked as he walked. He wore a red-checkered shirt, thick denim jeans, brown leather boots, and a wide-brimmed hat that obscured his face. He took off his hat and set it down. The hat took up its own seat, and nobody dared to sit there. I stared at him, in awe of his confidence. In Nigeria there were nomads who raised cattle and wandered from place to place, but they had no style. This man was the first American cowboy I’d seen in real life, and I was amazed.

I’m from a small town in Nigeria called Abiriba. I’m a member of the Igbo tribe. Growing up, I watched all the American Westerns—the John Wayne movies, Clint Eastwood movies. I know all the lines from A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—both of which I must have watched fifty times. There were peddlers who’d come to our village, show American movies on a projector, and sell us American products. So I’d always had a vision of the cowboy in the back of my head. Cowboys were a myth, a symbol to us, but when I came to America my professors were cowboys, my classmates were cowboys. Oklahoma was full of them.

When I left Nigeria, the country had just emerged from a very brutal civil war. The country was devastated, so if you could afford it, you left for better opportunities. I was the only black man in my university program, and one of the few in town. I quickly learned that there was no barbershop in Norman that could cut black hair. I let my Afro grow. My accent was thick; to Oklahomans, unintelligible. Sometimes they’d pretend like they couldn’t understand what I was saying. Some were rude, and I thought their attitude was . . . unpolished—let me put it that way. I’d go to churches where I was the only black person, and sometimes I’d be wearing traditional Nigerian garb like a dashiki or isiagu and no one would talk to me. They’d look at me like, “Why are you dressed like that?” I’d sit down and people would get up one by one from the pews and move somewhere else. I’d leave feeling rejected and alienated. I didn’t become an American on the spot. I wanted people to know that I’m still African. They were proud of their culture, and I was proud of mine, too.

But I could also see the Igbo spirit in cowboy culture. The Igbo spirit is tenacious, and we are deeply connected to our land, which is rich and full of oil. I could see how much cowboys loved their land—they’d stay here forever, they would never leave it. Cowboys are unapologetic, too. Blunt. They do not care what other people think. I could imagine them a hundred years ago, when Oklahoma was still known for its quarries. They had to tough it out themselves. They could not depend on the government, they could not depend on anyone else. Coming from Nigeria, where the government was never on my side, I could identify with that.

It was easy to dress like a cowboy because that’s what all the thrift stores sold—so eventually, I began to dress like one. I bought flannels and checkered shirts with silver glass buttons, second-hand jeans, brown leather boots that went up to my calf and made me taller. I couldn’t afford the custom-stitched ones that other cowboys had. I tied a red bandanna around my neck because it reminded me of the white neckerchief my dad wore back in Nigeria. I even bought a Kawasaki motorcycle—the biggest one I could afford, even though I already had a car. It was my iron horse, and I rode it without a helmet because my Afro was too big. Everything about being a cowboy appealed to me, except chewing tobacco. I tried, but it always felt too disgusting. Back then, the floor of the university bathroom was covered in tobacco spit, and it made me cringe.

At first, people were confused about my new clothes. They’d never seen a foreigner with so thick an accent dressed up this way. They were tickled. The first time I walked into a classroom in my new cowboy getup, someone said, “Look at that! Igwe wants to be a cowboy.” I smiled and replied, “Yes, I do.”

I used to think about returning home and buying land in Nigeria—I thought that was where my kids were going to grow up. But that has changed. If I’m ever rich enough, I’d like to own a cattle ranch here. Maybe I’ll go West, where there are a lot of trees and no swamp. I was invited to a classmate’s cattle ranch once, and I was in awe. We played horseshoes and went skeet shooting. At the end of the day we ate very nice steak together. There was a lot of it. You could eat meat until it dropped out of your nose. Igwe-2 Story by: Natalie So / Photos by: William Widmer Oklahoma


Syria -> Idaho

Shadi Ismail

It was Friday night, and my best friend Sam said: “I want to show you something.” We ride bicycles two miles across Boise, Idaho. We come to a place called The Balcony. It is a gay bar in Boise. I don’t know this. I am just new here. I don’t know gay bars. There is nothing like this in Syria. We went late, around 11:00 p.m. But there is a man at the door who wants to see ID. “I don’t have,” I said. I wasn’t speaking much English then. I look at Sam. He translates for me. Sam says to me, “How about your papers?” He means my refugee status papers. I don’t have anything to prove who I am but my paperwork from Homeland Security. A 901 paper, or 109 or something. I was just coming to the United States, and this is all I have. But the bar does not know this document. So they don’t want to accept it. The man says, “No, this is no good.”

I was nervous. Because before, in my experience, people can be dangerous. They will kill you if they have the chance. I don’t trust people. Because of what happened in Syria. I lived in a small town, called Qardha. I had to leave my house after my father walked into the living room and found me kissing a man. He burned my arm and cut my hair, and said that if he ever caught me with a man again, he would kill me.

The second time, I did not let my dad cut me. I just run away. He walked in on me with another man one day. I was on the third floor of our house. But I just ran away. I escaped through the window and jumped onto the roof of my grandfather’s house and then into the woods. I slept there the first night, in the woods. Then I go to Damascus, to stay with my mother. My parents divorced when I was three and I know my father doesn’t speak to my mother. I spent a year with her there. I knew my father’s family must be looking for me, but in Damascus I had no problems at first. I was normal, having my life, working and everything.

I got a job at a restaurant. It was American-style place, and the owner knew I was gay and he was very supportive. Working there it was really just me and another guy, an Iraqi named Sam. I know Sam is gay the first time I saw him, but at first we hate each other. He was acting pushy, and he is a very tiny guy, being pushy. But then we became best friends. We were together twenty-four hours every day. At work, they help me rent an apartment, and Sam lived with me. Not boyfriend, just friends. Everyone always ask us how we have so much to talk about. We talk so much about the future—where to go, what we want to do. He talked about America, and being in LGBT community, making house, all kinds of stuff. It was fun to talk to Sam, because he was extremely wise.

Then one night Sam called me and told me to not come to work again. I was scared. But I went to work to see what was going on. I saw his face was pink and his neck looked cut up. “What happened to you?” I said. He told me, “Your brother was here. They know where you work, you need to leave.” They had hurt him. Sam had fought with them. He did not tell them anything. He was a hero for me. “Where am I gonna go?” I said. “I have no place to go.” Sam is smart, very smart. He had already run away from Iraq because same things happened to him there. Sam told me, “Go to Jordan.”

The next day we went to the government, we got passports, and I went to Jordan. I took a taxi there, to the border. I knew I could make a case with the U.N. office in Jordan for refugee status. The U.N. can’t protect you in your own country, only another country. Sam knew a lot about the process. He taught me. Because he had already applied, when coming from Iraq. At the U.S. Embassy in Syria, I heard that ninety percent or maybe ninety-eight percent of people don’t get approved, but the chance is better in Jordan. I was in Amman for three years waiting for my application. I worked at a shawarma place and an ice cream shop. I had my first real boyfriend there. I worked as a bartender. I walked four miles to work because I had no car. And then my application was finally approved. When I applied for asylum, they ask you to put three options. I wrote America, Canada, and America. I arrived in the United States on May 12, 2012.

I go to Boise. Sam had been approved in 2011 and went to Boise. He was there already. The caseworker asked if I know anyone here, and I say, “Yes sir—I know Sam, and here is his address.” They say it helps to go somewhere you know someone. I knew nothing about Boise but I didn’t care. I was just so happy to be anywhere but Syria.

When I got to Boise, I had to go to an English-language school. I had the address downtown. I rode my bike. I followed the bus downtown, but then got lost and couldn’t find address. I spoke no English, but I saw a woman, and I said “Hi,” and the lady looked at the address and grabbed my hand and walked with me across the road and showed me the door and told me good luck. This was my first impression of Boise. People are nice. And when somebody does make fun of me or make joke about being Arabic, other people stand up and say how wrong it is. A lot of people stand up for that.

Pretty soon after came that night at The Balcony. I remember I was wearing shorts. What do you call military colors? Camouflage. Dark camouflage shorts. And the bouncer was just shaking his head at my paperwork. I got the paperwork at the airport, in Jordan. It was in a bag and was sealed. They told me, “Keep it with you.” The bag says U.N. on the side. But the bouncer still looks at the refugee papers. I think we cannot go in. Luckily, we have an American with us, and he knows people there. So the supervisor from The Balcony comes over, and he read the papers, and he’s like, “Yeah, he’s fine. It’s okay. He can come inside.”

It was overwhelming. I walked in and then cannot believe what I see. The bartenders were shirtless, and music loud, and people dancing. Guys kissing guys. And a guy and a girl. It was all mixed. Crazy night. It was too much to process in my head. First time I see club like that. Let’s say, my mouth was open all the way. I was shocked, like, wow. We don’t have this in Syria. Sam bought me drink, and I just start watching people. Here they are having fun, and who cares? I did not dance that night, I just try to enjoy everything. People start talking to us. Sam translates. People are friendly. This was my first night at The Balcony. Later I meet my boyfriend Ian there. Now we are engaged. We will buy a house and want a kid one day. Ian makes fun of me because I like birds. My favorite morning thing is to make coffee and watch the birds. And listen to my special music, by Fairuz, a famous singer. She sings songs about me—about a boy named Shadi—but it’s sad songs. It’s a story of a kid who is lost, and then she finds him, and then she lose him again. Twenty years she’s still waiting for him. It’s sad, but people make it as fun, because my name is Shadi. In the song it says, “Where is Shadi?” And people say to me, “We find Shadi. We find him right here.” Shadi-2 Story by: Jen Percy / Photos by: Kathryn Harrison Idaho


Little America book cover

Little America

MCD × FSG, 2020

The True Stories That Inspired the Apple Original Series

Nearly everyone in America came from somewhere else. This is a fundamental part of the American idea—an identity and place open to everyone. People arrive from all points distant, speaking a thousand languages, carrying every culture, each with their own reason for uprooting themselves to try something new. Everyone has their own unique story. Little America is a collection of those stories, told by the people who lived them. Together,...

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