Family: My Immigration Story

This past week has been mind-blowing given the recent headlines related to  terminating DACA. And then there were the headlines related to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and how multiple communities, volunteers, individuals came together to provide a helping hand to complete strangers in need. These two actions, unsympathetic dismissal and compassionate giving are such stark differences of how a nation can build community. And I often asked myself, “why?”

I think about the 800,000 dreamers who live in constant fear of being deported and being torn apart from their families. I tried to explain this fear and pain to my kids and they were just as confused as I was and asked… “Why? How? Wait, what?” They all spoke at once in a desperate attempt for their questions to be heard as they searched to understand. And I stumbled to answer all their questions.

Most of my kids don’t even know what immigration is. They don’t really understand that their own mother is an immigrant. I quickly came to the realization that I needed to start by sharing my immigration story with them because my story is part of their story too. They are a part of a bigger story; a story that is much bigger than just themselves.

tess & lanelle_01I was born in the Philippines and my parents separated when I was about 2 years old. It was challenging for my mom as a single mom and the future didn’t look very promising.

When I was about 4 years old, my mom made the decision to leave the Philippines in hopes for a better life for her and I.  This decision meant she had to leave me with my aunt indefinitely while she traveled half way across the world to take her first step of her immigration journey. I vaguely remember her leaving but I do remember missing her and longing to be with her. I was told she would come back for me, but I didn’t know when. My mom had a dream and she wanted something better for me, for her, for us. But it meant making many sacrifices including leaving me for an unknown amount of time. I can’t even imagine what that would have felt like for my mom, but I know that prayer and hope kept her going.

My mom’s sister was a young nurse living in Canada and she sponsored my mom through one of the Canadian immigration programs. My mom was blessed with loved ones who mobilized to ensure that the endless paperwork and requirements were completed with precision. And while all this was going on, I continued on with life and school without skipping a beat. Little did I know that a new beginning was about to unfold.

After a little over a year, I began to hear rumors that my mom was planning to come back. Nobody wanted to get my hopes up. There was still a lot to be done and my paperwork needed to be cleared. I remember there was a lot of fuss about my doctor’s appointments, blood tests and constant lice checks. I simply did what I was told because I was 6 and there was really no reason to protest. All these tests were needed to complete the medical examination requirement for my immigration status and it was critical that I passed everything and fortunately, I did. My mom was due to come back and get me and everyone wanted to make sure I was ready.

This is a picture of my mom and I reunited after she was gone for a year. My uncle took this photo and I remember him asking me to look at the camera, but I was either too tired or too shy to oblige. I remember this photo like it was yesterday. It felt so incredible to be in my mom’s arms and I was grateful that we were together again. I had no idea where she had gone for a year and it didn’t matter because she came back for me.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and many more from the neighborhood came to bid us good-bye. I remember family and friends making requests to send them apples, toys and radios once I arrived to the promised land. I assured them that I could make that happen… I’ve got this! I guess as a 6-year-old, you can believe whatever you want especially when you have no idea what was really happening. All I knew was my mom came back and this time I was going on the plane with her and with my coveted pink dress that was a few sizes too small for me.


Once we arrived, there were more uphill battles and sacrifices. In order to make ends meet, my mom took whatever job she could get… cleaning at fast food restaurants, sewing at department stores, and working at a variety of other jobs while taking college classes to supplement her chemical engineering degree. She graduated at the top of her class, but that didn’t guarantee her a job in her chosen field of expertise. It wasn’t after a few years later that she was able to land a position as a lab technician at Esso Imperial Oil where she worked for over 30 years and retired.

Looking back I remember so many people who surrounded my mom and I like guardian angels. Family and friends who gave us a home to live in, food to eat and warm clothes for the winter months. There were countless loved ones who invited us into their homes for birthday parties, baptisms and other family celebrations and filled our lives with love and laughter. I’m especially grateful for my aunt, the young nurse, who was a second mom to me. She took my mom and I under her wing and made us one family unit. I grew up with two faithful, strong and incredible women who helped me be the woman I am today.

And fast forward to now, I am living in the heart of Silicon Valley with my husband and 4 kids (3girlsandaboy). I will continue to share my story and my mother’s story and my grandparents’ stories with my kids because it is a part of their story too. And I hope and pray that as we share our immigration stories with our children, their hearts will grow with compassion and empathy and be quick to give a helping hand.

My mom continues to live in Canada with her husband of 23 years. They still live in Sarnia, the town that I called home when I was 6 years old. And today, she continues to help countless family and friends immigrate to Canada just as so many people helped her during her immigration journey.

I know we all have our stories.  They need to be shared and need to be heard, now as much as ever. I would love to one day hear about your story.

xo lanelle



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