Elke’s Immigration Story – Vellberg, Germany to Mineral Bluff, Georgia


Elke grew up on a farm outside the town of Vellberg, Germany, where she remembers working hard as a child. Every day after school, she would come home and help feed the animals. While her father always wanted a boy, he ended up with four girls. From an early age, Elke dreamed of finding a husband and having children. (audio below)

Elke says, like most Germans, she traveled a lot. She explains how, in the US, someone may go from Alabama to Florida, while in Germany within a similar distance, you would go to France or Austria. Whenever she had extra money, she would travel through Europe by train. 

Costa Rica

In 1989, Elke decided to take her biggest trip yet –  a three-month solo adventure to Costa Rica. After a month, she was on the bus when she met an American named Tom, who was living in Costa Rica. He owned horses, and Elke wanted to buy one.

When Tom went to Costa Rica, he didn’t plan on returning to the USA. To make a living, Tom first improvised by making fresh orange juice and selling it to tourists. This business didn’t last long as he was picked up by the authorities and taken to jail. While he was in prison, he was befriended by one of the officers, who would later become the head of immigration and eventually helped Elke and Tom escape from Costa Rica.

Above: Tom with one of his horses in Costa Rica.


After being released from detention, Tom bought horses and started his own business – an off the grid tourist resort of sorts. Elke rented a horse from Tom a few times, and then they went on a “real date.” Tom reflects:

“We walked down to the next town, Cabuya, to eat at a little bitty restaurant with just two or three tables – and had a great meal. This was after swimming in a beautiful little river there with Rio Lajas coming out of Cabo Blanco – we made out for the first time, then we had that great meal. On the way back, we stopped along the road. Do you know that Beatles song ‘Do it in the road’? Well, we did ‘it’ in the road!” (audio below)

Above: Tom describes this photo of Elke riding her horse as his “favorite picture.”

When Elke went back to Germany, it only took her one month to pack all her things and return to Costa Rica, and Tom. He was surprised when she came back, justifying it by saying [while laughing] “Elke came back for the horse. (audio below)

They spent almost three years living together in Costa Rica before they had to leave. 

“Living in Costa Rica was wild – like living in a movie. It was a constant struggle for survival, but you were living.”

They had the ocean and were meeting people from all over the world at the tourist resort they were running. They had little palm houses people could stay in and 40 horses.


“We did a lot of drugs in Costa Rica. It was very cheap, and we abused it. I believe that if I had stayed away from drugs down there, I would still be there.” 

The neighbors reported Elke and Tom to the Costa Rican authorities for being cocaine dealers [they were users, not dealers]. Tom remembers when two truckloads of men with machine guns showed up and shot up the farm.  

They had brought in a partner to help them manage the business, and he took advantage of the situation – without paying them for it, he essentially took control of the farm. They lost the property, and Tom was thrown in jail. Tom blames his drug use for his inability to stand up to this partner and maintain the business.

 “I think it is just right that when you are doing that much drugs, you end up losing everything. When you screw up, life will punish you”. (audio below)

“My passport shows that I’m still in Costa Rica. I got out of the country and never looked back.”

United States

With Elke being seven months pregnant, they escaped Costa Rica. With the help of the head of immigration who Tom knew from his previous detention, and made their way to Orlando, Florida. Destitute, without money or clothes, friends let them sleep on their couches. Over time they managed to move into a microbus, then to an apartment and finally a small house in Samford, Florida, which they purchased. They enrolled in college and, when finished, moved to Georgia, where their second child was born. 

Trout Shipping

In 2004, a man they met offered them his trout shipping business. They bought this business and continue to operate it while living in the Appalachian mountains. It is routine business, and they also ship apples now. Once they receive an order, they pick up the shipment and deliver it. Elke says all they need is a truck, which doubles as her office, and a cell phone.

Helping Strangers

Tom has a strong sense of empathy towards those in need, which can be attributed to his experience of hitting rock bottom while in Costa Rica. He remembers the people who helped them when they were in need and wants to do the same for others. 

Elke and Tom have hosted more than 800 people in their house over the years. It is usual for Tom when he is making his trout shipments to Atlanta, to invite people who are facing hardships up to their home in the Appalachian mountains. They host kids that were living on the street, couch surfers, hitchhikers, and they hosted a big group from the Occupy Movement. One older man brought scabies into their house, but they still love him. Tom says,

“I can see a little bit of me in every single person that comes here.”

They have hosted people who have committed all sorts of crime from armed robbery to murder – helping them all get on their feet after being in jail. Usually, they don’t have any problems, but on the rare occasion, they do. One guy pulled a knife [see the above photo] on Elke, which she confiscated.

One young man they had taken in after he got out of jail told Tom he wanted to shoot, so Tom set a bottle up as a target off the deck. The youth shot a whole magazine at the bottle and didn’t hit it. Tom fired one shot, hit the bottle dead on, then turned to this young man, looked him directly in the eyes and said:

“If you pull a gun on someone in Atlanta, and they are someone like me, you will die. Get out of this life of crime.” (audio below)


One person who has been with them longer than most is Dana [see the photo below] – someone they say “fell through the cracks.” Dana has many health problems, no real family, and had lived on the streets while battling alcoholism. When they first took Dana in, they weaned him off alcohol, but he started having seizures. With Tom and Elke’s help, Dana was able to secure disability insurance. Dana couldn’t stay away from alcohol – and it was common for him to be arrested and then returned to Tom and Elke. For a while, Dana tried living with his brother but ended up getting kicked out, and once again, Tom found him living on the streets in Atlanta, and “just wanted to get him home.”

They have developed a real connection to Dana, and he has a permanent home in their basement. Elke gives him “two to three beers every day and a bottle of moonshine for his birthday, and he is as happy as a clam”. 

“Wherever we go, we take Dana. He’s family.”

Elke and Tom love having dogs, especially Great Danes. At one point, they had ten dogs, and seven of them were Great Danes. Now they only have two, Lluvia and Luna.

“We love big dogs. Every day with them is a blessing.”


Elke stays connected to Germany by reading German authors such as Herman Hesse, who is her favorite. Hesse was born ten miles from her hometown. Elke also keeps in touch with her German family over WhatsApp. She misses her mom’s cooking, especially the potato salad and the German beer, small towns, and little festivals. 

Elke regrets not teaching her children how to speak German. She felt like she was too busy learning English to teach them, German. When Elke met Tom, she had five years of English language education from Germany. Despite this, Elke says she could barely speak the language.

Elke doesn’t have any German friends in the US, but some of her friends from Germany have visited. One time she had friends from Germany visiting, which resulted in a bullet hole through their kitchen window [see the above photo].

“We had a great time here together. My friend, her husband, and I were upstairs printing off a ticket. Tom was sitting on the computer dry firing. For some reason, there was a bullet in the gun. It went boom – Tom fired off a shot. It was quite an event! ”

Tom jokes:

“I’m famous in Germany now! We haven’t had any Germans come back.” (audio below)

Elke and Tom love living in Georgia – although Elke believes that it doesn’t matter where you live in the US, you can meet friendly people.

 “Georgia is beautiful. We have a really good life here.”

Living Well

Despite no longer partying the way they did in Costa Rica, Elke and Tom are still extraordinarily social and love entertaining. They had 150 people over to their cabin to watch the eclipse and even hired a mariachi band for the occasion. They’ve been married for more than a quarter-century, and according to Tom, he does whatever she tells him to do. (audio below)

Within the next decade, they plan to sell their trout business and build tiny homes to house tourists on their property. They see this enterprise as a way to continue hosting and interacting with diverse people while living up in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Yolfer’s Immigration Story – Caracas, Venezuela to Jersey City, New Jersey


Yolfer’s parents are from Colombia; however, he was born in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, where his parents owned a shoe factory. He lived there until he was six years old when his parents decided to move themselves and their three children to Columbia.

Yolfer moved back to Caracas at 17 years of age, living with his aunt and working at McDonald’s. In this arrangement, he had disposable income, lots of friends, and parties. Life was good.

“Venezuela is wonderful – the beaches and mountains: it has everything in one country. I love it.”

Yolfer decided to attend culinary school with dreams of having his own bakery or restaurant one day.


Yolfer grew up going to church, and he tries to stay connected to God.

“Because of things that happen in my life, that’s why I chose to find God. I’m not crazy about religions; I just like to believe in God so I read the bible every single day. I like to always be in contact with God. He makes me feel comfortable and relaxed. He is always with me.” (audio below)

After graduating from culinary school, Yolfer started working in a famous French-Jewish bakery in Caracas. His sister was living in New York, and he wanted to visit her. In 2010 he applied for a tourist visa – he remembers being nervous about the interview.

“I was the kind of person who nobody is going to give a visa to because I was young, and they thought this guy is going to try to stay over there.”

Yolfer was surprised and happy that they approved his application.

United States

In 2010, Yolfer at 25 years of age, spent one week in New York visiting his sister. While there, he started having pains in his chest, shakes at night, and he stopped eating and drinking. He was losing weight and figured it must be the change of weather.


When he woke up in the hospital, Yolfer had no idea how he got there. The doctor told him he had diabetes. After he returned to Venezuela, his health kept getting worse. He figured he would get better treatment in the US, and so with time still on his six-month visa, Yolfer returned to the States. He was relieved that the border official never asked him for details about why he had left the US and then returned so quickly.

“That’s why I believe a lot in God.” (audio below)


Yolfer’s first job in New Jersey was at a cake factory. The following year, in 2012, he got a job at CHOC·O·PAIN Bakery & Café and has been working there ever since. He has learned how to do all of the beautiful and complicated pastries on the job. 

Five days a week he goes to the bakery at seven in the morning. Yolfer enjoys baking alongside his co-workers. He always encourages them to think about their future and realize how they shouldn’t always have to work for somebody else.

His boss Clemence [see the above photo] is from Paris and considers herself a “big gourmand.” She opened this business after noticing that there was a lack of good bread in New Jersey. The quality of what they make at CHOC·O·PAIN is “far from wonder bread.” 

Yolfer was one of her first employees.

Yolfer is a great employee who is very focused on quality. He has a lot of integrity when it comes to work. He doesn’t waste time because he has a busy life between his business and working with us and everything. It’s good because everybody follows him with that speed yet with a high focus on quality.” (audio below)

Pabade Bakery

Since Yolfer arrived in the US, he has dreamed of starting his own business. 

Aside from working at the French bakery, three days a week, he rents space at Hot Bread Kitchen incubator (a shared licensed kitchen space for food production). From this space, Yolfer runs his own company Pabade Bakery, which stands for PAstry, BAkery, and DEssert. This incubator also provided Yolfer with business classes and a professional kitchen where he makes his products. He specializes in pound cakes, scones, muffins, cookies, and brownies, which he sells to five different coffee shops in the city. His dream is to get his products into a big grocery chain.

Yolfer likes to experiment and be creative with traditional recipes. For example, he takes conventional muffin recipes and makes them vegan. (audio below)

While juggling these two jobs, Yolfer is also studying business administration in college.

“My life is a little crazy, but I make it work. I don’t have time for things that are not important to me. People invite me out to go for a drink or to the nightclub, and I don’t go. That’s not me. At 10 pm I’m sleeping. I cannot waste my time. Every day I wake up at 5 am. No days off because I’m building the business, and I cannot rest.”

Missing Time

Yolfer says he fell in love with the United States from the beginning. He loves how calm and quiet New Jersey is. He lives with roommates [see the photo above] from El Salvador who he met in an English class and has an eclectic group of friends from Mexico, El Salvador, and Ecuador. Usually, they come over to his house to hang out since Yolfer doesn’t have time to go out.

“I don’t go out because I am doing homework or working on recipes. I miss having more time to enjoy life – that’s what I miss. Here we don’t have enough time. You just have to work to pay the rent and everything is about money. In my country, I used to have time for family and friends, but not here.” (audio below)

Yolfer has now had diabetes for a decade, and it’s the main reason he doesn’t want to return to Venezuela. He is still in treatment.

“It’s a little crazy because I make sweet things, and I have diabetes!”


Yolfer’s immediate goal for the future is to get a car. He says it is hard to live without one in New Jersey, especially since he is running a business. Every time he gets an order for his baked goods, he has to either borrow a car [see photo below] or make the delivery by public transportation. 

Yolfer’s next goal is to open a bakery and café with his siblings.

“I’m not going to be working for somebody else my whole life.”

*Update: Since the interview, Yolfer and his siblings have opened their own Pabade Bakery and Café in East Harlem.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.