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.

Taichi’s Immigration Story – Yamashina-Ku, Japan to Seattle, Washington


Taichi was born in the 1970s and grew up in Yamashina-Ku, Japan. His hometown is now known as a bedroom community for commuters to Kyoto. Taichi remembers when it was mostly farms and rice paddies. Near his parents’ house, there was a small brook where he used to catch freshwater crabs, tadpoles, and any other creature he could find. When Taichi goes back to visit, he laments the changes to this environment.

Grandma Emiko

Taichi was close to his Grandma Emiko, growing up. She was a well-known tailor in the neighborhood, who with her heavy-duty cast iron sewing machine, created clothes that lasted.

“She’s one of those ladies that had a hard life but was never bitter about it. Instead, she has a sense of humor.”

Japanese cafés

Taichi’s father, Jiro [serving coffee in the above photo], has always been a very ambitious man. A famous Japanese café called Inoda Coffee hired Jiro at only 15 years of age. Japan’s movie stars and wealthy business people would eat toast and drink coffee there: a real status symbol at that time. Jiro became the manager in his early twenties and met Taichi’s mother, Misa, who was working there as a server. At the age of 25, Jiro opened his own café, and then eventually another. Today, Taichi’s younger brother runs one of their cafés, and his father still runs the other.

Connecticut Chocolate Cake

The family’s cafés were “western-style.” Taichi’s brother roasted the beans, and his mother baked. She was famous for her thick, rich flan cake and her “Connecticut chocolate cake.” Taichi has no idea why it was named “Connecticut.” Since he can remember, his summer job was at the café washing the dishes and delivering coffee, rain or shine, on an old beat-up bicycle.

“I never got paid, but I was fed good!” (audio below)

United States

It was a family trip to Disneyland when he was in tenth grade, which made Taichi seriously want to learn English. He remembers the frustration of seeing crowds of people with which he couldn’t communicate. He also wanted to see North America, so in 1990 he signed up for a summer homestay program in Seattle through the English conversational school he attended.

“I always loved the image of the Northwest – mountains, water, and clean air. Everything Kyoto didn’t have. Oh, I wanted to go to Canada. I wanted to go to Vancouver. I looked at the pamphlet and saw Seattle was cheaper and a 3-hour drive from Vancouver.” (audio below)

Fitting in

After his homestay, Taichi decided he wanted to spend his senior year of high school in the United States. Trying to fit in wasn’t easy, but Taichi imagines this is the case for most teenagers.

“For the first few months, in the lunchroom, it was always, ‘Who am I going to eat lunch with?’ Trying to learn Shakespeare in English as a Japanese kid was hard, but I absorbed everything like a sponge.” 

Being a good swimmer and joining the relay team helped Taichi make friends. Working as an assistant in the Japanese class and marking exams also helped, since other students “had to be nice” to him.

While in the United States, Taichi stayed with many different families: one Mexican-American, one Mormon, one vegan and liberal, and one conservative Christian. He says religion played an essential part in his first years in America.

“This country needs religious disciplines. In Japan, you don’t need to be religious, but there are all kinds of rules and customs. You are supposed to do things a certain way, and you have no idea why you are doing it. In the USA, I found religion plays an important role in providing guidance.” 

He remembers going to church with the Mormon family, and one time they all went on a church-hosted camping excursion.

“In the middle of the evening, they pulled down a screen and put on a movie about Joseph Smith [the founder of Mormonism]. It was educational. They did create many opportunities for me to talk to missionaries, but they never tried to force me into their religion.” (audio below)

After living with the Mormon family, he moved in with a conservative Christian family. Taichi remembers them telling him he would go to hell if he doesn’t convert, yet still, Taichi says they were friendly, and he appreciates that they were trying their best to “save” him.


After high school, Taichi studied International Studies at Seattle University. On the first day of class, a lady approached him and asked if he would like a job at a Japanese restaurant. He felt a little guilty that his parents were paying for everything, and he wanted a new fishing rod, so he said yes. Before he knew it, he had a full-time job.

“I was working 40 hours a week, and at the same time, I was going to college. In my college years, I do not remember much about my campus life; I remember working in a Japanese kitchen.” (audio below)

Taichi wonders how he managed to graduate from college. He became a skilled chef, but regrets having never done “all those fun college things.”

“I don’t know how I did it working that much. I have to look at my diploma to believe it.”

Sushi God

Midway through college, Taichi started working under Shiro [pointed at in above photo], who Taichi regards as Seattle’s “Sushi God.” He started out working in Shiro’s canteen but longed to work alongside Shiro.

“Shiro is the happiest man I know, and he was making a lot of people happy at his sushi bar. He is introducing the beautiful food culture of Japan and people respect him. I was like, ‘I want to be happy like that guy.’ The day I graduated, I asked Shiro to train me as a sushi chef.”  (audio below)

Sushi Kappo Tamura

After two years working alongside Shiro as a sushi chef, Taichi moved to another restaurant. A couple of years later, he received his green card [permanent resident card] and felt ready to open his own restaurant. It was 2001, the restaurant opened, and the city was experiencing an economic boom. Then 9/11 happened, and that boom stopped. Still, his restaurant survived, and they built a loyal customer base. Taichi believes this challenge made him grow as an owner and manager. The business environment eventually started to improve in Seattle, and Taichi bought his current restaurant, Sushi Kappo Tamura, in 2010.

Taichi finds being a sushi chef to be a very intimate experience where you get to know your customers very well. 

“They were single, they get married, have children, and now they come in with their children. One of the joys you have as a sushi chef is you are growing together with the community that you are serving. It is love. I’m someone they can always count on seeing and sharing their stories.”


Taichi considers himself a chef who is driven primarily by the ingredients themselves.

“If I see a beautiful fish, I want to serve sashimi or sushi with that. I don’t like fancy sauces or spices. I want to showcase the original flavor of the beautiful ingredients this area has to offer. To me, it is a crime to mask any of that.” (audio below)

Meeting Kaoru

Taichi met his wife Kaoru, who is from Osaka, during the construction of his first restaurant in 2001. In 2012, their daughter was born in Seattle. They are creating opportunities for their daughter to connect with their Japanese culture while being raised in the United States. The public school she goes to has half-day Japanese immersion.

“Another beauty of American culture is how you can be as Japanese as you want, and that makes you American. You can feed her Japanese food three times a day, make her wear a kimono, and pound mochi for the New Year. It’s available because the Japanese community in Seattle does a good job.” 

“The exposure to multiculturalism is great and something hard to find in Japan. Every kid has a different cultural background something I did not have when I was her age. One day she is going to say, ‘I come from a Japanese background,’ and it is up to her how much she is going to embrace that.” 

Being a Father

Taichi finds being a father to be both challenging and rewarding. 

“I look at my daughter, and she looks exactly like me, which is unfortunate [laughing]! I want her to become an individual who can think and deal with real-life situations, so I tend to be hard on her.” (audio below)

Fly Fishing

Taichi feels happiest when he is fly fishing – a necessity for his sanity.

“My favorite form of solitude is fishing the clear mountain streams for trout. If I can do that, I can balance my life – I am happy. When I fish, I just think about fishing. How can I get this fish to take my fly? You wake up early, drive to the river, get to a particular spot where you think there is fish, cast your fly in a perfect presentation, and if the trout takes the fly, that’s one of the happiest moments. After fishing, I feel re-energized and can go back to work with a smile on my face and make my customers happy. To me, that’s the American dream come true.” (audio below)


Taichi misses the professionalism and pride that people have in Japan. He explains how a garbage collector in Japan would take pride in how they collect it, and this pride results in greater happiness. He also misses the respect people have for elders in Japan and a healthcare system that takes care of them. 

“I love America, but I haven’t given up my Japanese citizenship because if I become sick and am not able to physically work and lose health insurance, I don’t know what I would do. If I go back to Japan and I need senior care, the quality is nice and affordable. Here if you want nice elderly care, it is unbelievably expensive. I know because we had to look for that for my in-laws. I do miss that sense of security. What if I get hit by a car, and I don’t have insurance? What if my child becomes seriously ill?” (audio below)


Taichi is also disturbed by America’s gun culture. 

“It’s about people having guns in a critical situation. The idea that if he feels threatened, he might pull out his gun and shoot me, so I better shoot him first. That psyche is in nobody’s head in Japan because people don’t have guns. If I’m walking around Seattle, there is always a chance someone is going to pull out a gun and take my wallet. Someone might try to take my wallet in Japan, but they aren’t going to pull a gun on me.”


Taichi loves Seattle, seeing it as a place where urban and outdoor life can be balanced. He says it is exciting times, to be in this growing city. He dreams of establishing a cuisine that you can only eat in Seattle.

If Japanese people visit the city, and they eat this Japanese cuisine, it will be unique to Seattle.I want to make Seattle pride – American pride. Beautiful American food that is only available here.” 


Taichi hopes more people will take the time to consider the story of the food they eat, especially wild seafood like he serves at his restaurant. A “miracle” has to happen for that piece of sashimi to arrive on your plate. Taichi thinks food tastes better if you think about how lucky you are to have it. (audio below)


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.