Luis’s Immigration Story – Santiago, Chile to Morton, Mississippi


Luis grew up in one of Santiago’s old neighborhoods. His father was a carpenter who had a small shop that grew bigger as Luis grew older. Eventually, it turned into a full-size furniture factory that made wooden furniture for radios (standard in the 1950s). When plastic came onto the market, his father’s business collapsed. “Plastic changed everything.”

Luis went to the University of Chile to become an agricultural technician. He ended up staying in Santiago for five years working in and studying Fruticulture (Pomology) – the improvement of fruit growing.

Above: Luis holding a manual on Fruticulture that he wrote

Luis grew up Catholic, and as he got older, he started moving up in the church and even planned on becoming a priest.

“I was called by God. I almost entered the seminary to be a priest, but I fell in love with the woman who was going to be my wife. Wife or be a priest? I decided, wife.” (audio below)

United States

Luis wanted to further his studies, but this time in the Humanities. The only problem was that in 1973 when Luis was a student, the dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power. Pinochet thought that anyone studying the Humanities was against him, so the University of Chile made all Humanities students, like Luis, switch to History. 

Luis’s brother-in-law, a Chilean tennis champion, went on scholarship to Mississippi State. He returned to Chile with a degree in accounting and married Luis’s sister. She was the first to move to the US, then Luis’s parents moved too. Luis’ first time to Missississipi was to visit his sister in 1974. 

“Mississippi was unknown to me. I was living with the judgment that Mississippi equals slavery, prejudice, and a lot of bad things. I was scared at first.”

To Luis’s surprise that first visit to Mississippi was a positive experience. In 1983, Luis did not like the way Chile was going politically or economically and applied for a visa to join his sister in the US.

Poultry Company

In 1990, after seven years of waiting, Luis was the last member of his family to arrive in the US. Luis, his wife, their three daughters (and little doggy) moved to Mississippi.

His brother-in-law, the former tennis champion, was now the vice president at a poultry company. That’s where Luis started working in Mississippi – on the plant’s floor. The company needed workers, as the local population usually didn’t want those jobs. If they did work at the plant, they would only work a few months, then quit. The company needed people who would stay and work – and knew immigrants would do that. 

Soon Luis stopped working on the plant floor and became the coordinator for a new project, tasked with getting 300 new workers for the plant in less than a year. The company trained Luis on identifying proper documentation, and he would regularly go to Texas’s border to recruit. One major problem was they didn’t have anywhere for workers to live, and Luis had to find Morton’s empty houses to rent out for them. Luis worked on the project for more than a decade. He had hired almost five thousand workers by the time the poultry company was bought out by a massive conglomerate. When this happened, they laid-off Luis. 

Luis, however, fondly looks back on this experience and feels like he helped many people. 

I am well known by the old people here. There are still families from that time that are here in the area. I came to this country as a worker, and I finished in a company here as a manager!” 


After being laid off, Luis tried selling cars but didn’t like it, so he applied to be a janitor at the local school. He smiles, “They discovered that this janitor was educated!” 

The school’s administration encouraged Luis to become an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, and he has been teaching now for more than a decade. He is the only bilingual teacher and currently teaches at three different schools in the district. Luis loves helping the area’s growing body of Hispanic students. (audio below)


After living in Morton for a while, he became involved in the local Catholic Church and eventually became a minister. He also started writing Christian columns in the local newspaper, something he has been doing for almost two decades. The more Luis learned about the Bible, the more he started to question some of the things the Catholic Church was teaching. 

After his first wife passed away, he ended up falling in love with a woman from outside the Catholic faith. She would go to the Catholic Church with him, but they also started going to a Baptist Church. This experience began Luis’s search for the right church. He left the Catholic Church and joined the local Church of God. On Sunday’s Luis attends an “American church” with 200 in the mostly white congregation. On Saturday nights, Luis delivers his Spanish language sermon out of a small trailer – his very own church [see the above photo].

“It doesn’t matter that we are very few. For me, what is most important is the mission. They don’t pay me as a pastor, but I accomplish the mission.” (audio below)

Above: Luis leading the congregants in a song during the Saturday night service


Luis points out how in Mississippi, there are different churches for the region’s different racial groups. He wishes Sundays could be less divided. 

“I personally believe we have to destroy these walls.” 

He likes living in a rural place with a population of less than four-thousand, like Morton. It’s quiet, things are cheap, and there is no violence. Luis is happy Morton elected its first black mayor, Gerald Keeton Sr.

“I don’t see any difference – people are people. I don’t care if you are black, white, yellow, or green – we are friends.”

Luis doesn’t like big cities like Chicago, where his daughters live.

“The north is not as friendly as we are. The environment there is pretty, the lake is fantastic, but all the time I am in Chicago, I’m missing Mississippi.” (audio below)

Above: Chilean art in Luis’s home

The Chilean community in Morton is tiny – just Luis, his sister, brother-in-law, and a few other people. He misses the deep friendships he had in Chile that he hasn’t found in Mississippi. 

I am friends with my neighbor – we talk, but all the time we keep limits.”


Luis is not a fan of the current president and thinks he is a millionaire only concerned about other millionaires.

“In my opinion, Trump is destroying a lot of things in the United States. He is a negative, racist liar. He is the worst leader. I am not satisfied with everything that is happening now. I have problems even in my church because here, the people are saying, ‘oh, Trump is the hero because they are ignorant and don’t know what is going on. The people believed all the lies he was telling them.” (audio below)

Luis thinks the situation in America will likely worsen before it improves.

“If I didn’t have my daughters and grandchildren here, I would go back to my country. See you later, Trump! For me, as a Christian, he is not a Christian at all.” (audio below)

Armed Congregants

Luis is especially concerned about the prevalence of guns in the US and the power of the National Rifle Association. Luis prays that the youth will continue to push for change.

“You don’t need a military rifle unless you have in your mind to kill people. We believe we are in the Christian ‘Bible Belt’. What kind of ‘Bible Belt’ is this when people are just arming themselves?” 

In the church Luis attends, they now have two armed congregants – one was a police officer, and the other was in the army. These men carry concealed weapons under their jackets for every service. (audio below)


Luis, twice a widower, is now in his 70s. 

“I’ve been living alone for the last… I forget…12 years? It’s okay. I accept my reality.” (audio below)

He has been teaching for over a decade and a pastor for almost two decades. Luis believes that being a Christian is a 24/7 responsibility, not a few hours a week, and he tries to live that way.

“I’m worried about the future because I don’t see people committed to what Christ teaches us. That’s just a pastor’s opinion.”


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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Joel’s Immigration Story – Nuku’alofa, Tonga to Salt Lake City, Utah

Village Life

Joel grew up in a family of 12 children in a small village in Tonga – one of the smallest island countries in the world, with a population of a little over 100,000 people. In the entire village, there wasn’t a single car, so everyone got around by walking or horse and buggy. Joel would often fetch water from the village’s only well; there was usually a long line. He showered at the beach and washed off the salt using rainwater collected from the roof. Joel doesn’t remember wearing shoes until he left the island at age 15. 

“I only had one pair of shorts, and we had to wash them every few days. We didn’t have a washing machine. I was the washing machine!”

Above: Lorraine Morton Ashton, an American missionary of the Mormon Church, compiled thousands of photographs for her book “Pictures of Tonga, 1936-1958.” She took the only picture Joel has of himself as a child. Joel’s grandson is holding the book.


Joel’s mom stayed at home to care for her 12 children. It wasn’t easy to make sure everyone had something to eat. Despite his family’s lack of money, Joel had a lot of fun as a child and doesn’t remember having many worries. He had never been anywhere else, so he didn’t know that he had less materially than many other children outside of Tonga. In their home, Joel’s seven sisters got the beds, and the five boys all slept on the floor. The children had a lot of responsibility from a young age, which included farming and many chores. (audio below)


Joel and his siblings had a religious upbringing.

“The people on the island are very religious. Sunday is the day of rest. It’s the law of the land. In Tonga, religion was so important.”

Audio: The corn shell [see the photo above] is an ancient way of communicating in Tonga, from calling children in for dinner to a call for war.

Joel’s father taught band and choir at an American school connected to the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He made sure all 13 of his children could play an instrument. Joel learned the trumpet and has fond memories of the whole family caroling around the community at Christmas. Even though Joel’s father was a leader in the Mormon Church, he was often invited by the other denominations to come and compose music for their services. Joel has fond memories of riding on the back of his father’s horse to visit the other churches. 

“My dad was serving other churches but never getting paid with money, just by food. I always liked to go with him because they would feed us well.” (audio below)

Outside of the Island

Joel grew up hearing regularly of Tongans leaving for America. His father originally came to the United States because of a calling in the Mormon Church. 

“When he came back home, he was telling us about the freeways, lanes, and cars everywhere. He brought home all these second-hand jackets, and even though it is so hot, we were wearing them around and perspiring just because they came from America.” (audio below)

In Tonga at the time, high school was the highest level available, and Joel wanted a post-secondary education. He had a brother and sister already studying at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Hawaii, so he decided to join them there in 1970 to finish high school. Before arriving, Joel stopped in American Samoa to visit a sister. That was the first time in his life that he watched television.

“I was sitting right in front of that thing because I was amazed. All we had growing up was the radio, and most people didn’t even have a radio. Then when I went to Hawaii, I got to use a toilet and didn’t need to walk to an outhouse anymore. The luxury of life was nice.” (audio below)

United States

Joel used to play rugby while growing up in Tonga, so in Hawaii, he decided to give American football a try. It took him two years of playing on special teams to learn the game, but once he did, he was really talented. Joel became a respected outside linebacker and defensive end. After Joel finished high school in Hawaii, he moved to California to attend Santa Monica College and then Cal State on football scholarships. Football became an essential part of his life, but now he lives with regrets and pain.

“I just liked the physicality of football. It is the Polynesian mentality to like physical sports. Now looking back, if I could do it again, I would probably play golf. I had a knee replacement, and I have been having surgery on it. My shoulders, my ankles, I am always hurting, and it’s all from football and rugby. I just kind of live with it.” (audio below)

Joel attended college for five years, but he never graduated with a degree. His parents moved to California to join him, but when they couldn’t find work, Joel dropped out to help them care for his five youngest siblings. He and his father worked as landscapers, so his siblings could attend school.  

Meeting Cindy

Joel thinks it was around this time in his life that he started making some wrong choices and grew disconnected from the church he had grown up attending. Then he met Cindy.

Cindy was born in Utah and living in California when she met Joel. Her father was teaching at a local College’s institute of religion, and Cindy was very religious. She regularly attended her father’s institute, where they had events for young single adults to learn more about the gospel. Joel’s sister also went there.

“I used to go pick up my sister, then I saw Cindy, and I thought ‘she is so beautiful.’”

Cindy went to a friend’s wedding, and Joel happened to be there, but as the entertainment. When Joel wasn’t playing football, he fire-danced and walked on fire with a Polynesian performance group. They were properly introduced at the wedding, and Joel made sure to get her number before it was over.

“Cindy was something special because she got me to go back to the church. I got away from the teachings of the church, and then I met her.” (audio below)

Moving to Utah

By this time, his siblings were older and were able to help his parents. Joel moved to Utah to be with Cindy.

Joel didn’t have a college degree, so he tried to find any work he could get. He had experience working with cement in Hawaii and California, so he did that, and at nights, he cleaned carpets and toilets. 

“Coming from an island and a big family, everyone worked hard; I always knew how to work. Even though I had to work two or three jobs, I was able to handle it. My family just kept growing, and the more it grew, the more I had to work. We ended up having eight children. I had to work all the time.”

American Dream

Joel got his general contractor’s license and started his own business almost three decades ago. Joel likes working for himself because he gets to decide how much he works. It’s a small family business now, with most of his eight children working for him. 

“It is the ‘American dream.’ We struggled along the way, but now I have time for anything I want to do. I don’t have to answer to anybody. Life is good. We aren’t rich or anything, but we are doing fine.”

Tongans in Utah

Joel thinks Utah is a great place to live and considers it home. All of Joel and Cindy’s children, except their eldest daughter, were born in Utah.

Today, more Tongans are living outside of the island of Tonga than in the country. In the 1950s and 60s, a lot of Tongans moved to Utah because of the Mormon Church. He likes how the church is service-oriented.

“It brings back the island mentality of everyone taking care of each other. The church expects you to be like that if you want to claim yourself as a good member of the church.”

The Tongan community in Salt Lake City gets together regularly for church services, funerals, and weddings. There are enough Tongans that they have their own wards within the Mormon Church. Despite this, Joel and his wife attend a predominantly white ward. Still, Joel tries to go to the Tongan meetings sometimes where they sing Tongan hymns, which he loves.

“It takes me home to listen to singing in our language.” (audio below)

“When I count in my heart, I count in Tongan. My wife said that when I talk in my sleep, I talk in Tongan. She doesn’t understand Tongan and always says, ‘Dang, I wish I knew what you were saying!’” (audio below)


Cindy hopes she and Joel can retire and live the rest of their lives in good health, and able to enjoy time with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Cindy jokes how they have eight children, and she knows at least three of them will take care of them when they are older. (audio below)

Joel hopes his eight children and 23 grandchildren continue to not have to struggle the way he did. He also hopes they can all be strong in the LDS Church so it can bless their lives. 

“I want to see all my children sealed in the temple of the church for this life and the next life. If we can all be sealed, we can all be together in the next life.”

Joel has never served a full-time mission with the LDS Church and dreams of doing one someday with Cindy. 

Above: This is the Temple in Provo, Utah where Joel and Cindy were “sealed for time and all eternity”.


Joel likes the respect that Tongans have for one another. Whenever you see a Tongan, whether you know them or not, you greet them. The typical expression of greeting is Mālō e lelei! (Thank you for being good). Joel continues to try to be a good person for his family and community in Utah.

“Your attitude about things will take you where you want to be. I’ve always been positive and don’t like to be around people who are negative.” 


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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Abi’s Immigration Story – Mexico City, Mexico to New Albany, Mississippi


“I don’t have many memories of Mexico.”

Abi’s memories of life in Mexico are vague – it’s hard to tell what is a memory and what is from the stories her mom has told her. She knows they were poor, and eating from the street vendors was a luxury. This one lady would always come by on a bicycle selling tamales and hot chocolate. Abi would run out to her. The lady would have a huge smile and she never expected Abi to pay her anything – she could see that Abi was poor and hungry. That woman’s kindness, Abi has never forgotten, and it inspired her to want to do good for others too. (audio below)

Abi remembers how close-knit her family was in Mexico and has memories from the day they left. It had been almost two years since they last saw Abi’s father, who was already in the US. Leaving felt spontaneous – Abi had no idea her last day in Mexico, was her last day. She left wearing a black Bart Simpson backpack, with a cardigan, a coloring book, and crayons inside. (audio below)


She remembers how sad leaving Mexico was for her mom. Abi was put on a bus which took her close to the border, then she got in the van of her mom’s friend, and this woman brought Abi across the border, saying Abi was one of her daughters. (audio below)

Abi’s mom tried to cross on her own and got caught and sent back to Mexico by border patrol the first time. This meant that Abi, four years old, had to stay two weeks in a hotel room with this stranger who crossed her and her own three kids. Abi remembers the smell of cigarettes and combing the lice from the children’s hair. For these two weeks, her parents didn’t know where Abi was and they were “freaking out”. Then one day, the woman told Abi to get dressed and get in the van. That was the day Abi finally got to see her dad for the first time in almost two years. Three weeks later, her mom crossed the border without getting caught and met up with them.

They stayed in Colorado for a few months, where an aunt was living. Adjusting to the United States was hard for Abi’s mom, and job opportunities were scarce. An uncle had a construction business down in Mississippi, so they headed there to try it out. Abi’s dad was a welder in Mexico, but in America, he worked in construction and for a furniture business. Her mom, the daughter of a seamstress, had always worked office jobs in Mexico. She always said she would never sew like her mom did but a factory in Mississippi was hiring, and she has been sewing for them ever since. Both of Abi’s parents had to work night shifts. 

Abi’s mom, in particular, has endured a lot being away from her family.

“To be able to fight as hard as my mom has to raise my sister and me is incredible. We are family people, and she didn’t have support.”


It wasn’t easy for Abi to adapt to school in Mississippi. She started kindergarten in New Albany, and only three other Hispanic families had kids at that school. She always felt like she was bringing weird-smelling foods or weird-looking drinks to school.

“We don’t stop being Mexicans just because we moved to a different country. It was hard to find friends that wouldn’t look at you weird. It’s really close-minded here. The Hispanic community is large now, but back then, it was small, so we were ‘foreigners.’”

There also wasn’t an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at her school to help her.

“I remember for two years, all they did was stick us Hispanics in a room and let us draw on the board.”

But Abi will never forget one teacher, Ms. Tammy Hill, who would try her best to help despite the language barrier. It was because of Ms. Hill that she learned English in nine months. (audio below)

Abi always felt excluded due to religious differences. Most of the people in this part of Mississippi are Baptists, whereas her family is Catholic. She felt like people were always asking her questions about the bible, and she couldn’t believe they do “bible drills”. (audio below)


“I’ve always been a loner.”

Her mom thought Abi needed friends and signed her up for Girl Scouts. The leader, Miss Kareen, was the first white person Abi remembers truly accepting her and the other Hispanic kids. Her first friends, her age, were Miss Kareen’s daughter and niece.

“They were the first American family that accepted us for who we were. They didn’t question why we weren’t speaking English or why we couldn’t afford this or that. Girl Scouts will always hold a special place in my heart. It gave me the confidence I never had as a kid. We were all the weird kids, and we bonded over our weirdness.” (audio below)

Stokes is a general store off the highway that’s been around for many years. It’s where Abi’s parents would go to cash their work checks. They couldn’t cash them at most places without ID, but Mr. Stokes would cash them. He asked her family what they missed from home, and they said tortillas.

“There was nowhere here that you could find tortillas. Mr. Stokes said ‘give me a list,’ and he would order Mexican products to bring into the store. He was one of the few people who supported immigrants in this community. He always told me I could take one candy that I wanted when my parents cashed their checks.” (audio below)

Like Miss Kareen, Mr. Stokes, who passed away recently, treated Abi’s family with respect and kindness.


From an early age, Abi knew she wanted to be a medical surgeon. With her high school counselor’s help, she took all the classes she would need to get accepted, and made excellent grades by “working [her] butt off.” It was two months before she graduated high school in 2013, and many universities had sent her letters of acceptance (including her dream university, Stanford), when Abi came to realize that because she didn’t have a social insurance number, so she wouldn’t qualify for any scholarships. Abi wasn’t going to be able to afford university, which was one of the hardest realizations she has ever had.

“You spend your entire senior year planning out your life and I wanted to go to Stanford so bad. That’s all I ever talked about.”

She settled for community college, and because she was undocumented, she was paying out-of-state tuition. After the first semester, she dropped out.

“I couldn’t get it out of my mind the fact that I had failed myself.” (audio below)

Medical school wasn’t in the cards for Abi. She thought about studying criminal science, and then joining the police force – and then found out she couldn’t do that since she wasn’t a US citizen.

“I went into a depressed state. I always knew something was off about me but I used to be one of those people who said, ‘just think happy thoughts, and it will go away.’”

She didn’t know what to do with her life, felt very alone, and was hopping from job to job. Then she met her partner, he helped her a lot, and she started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


If there is one person who has inspired Abi the most, it would be her grandma. She was orphaned at a young age, married young to an abusive husband, and got divorced (which was highly unusual at the time).

“My grandma is the epitome of strength and resilience. She put all her kids through school as a single mother. She would find ways to have fun and never focus on the negative.(audio below)

When Abi left Mexico she thought she would never see her grandma again. Luckily, one decade after she arrived in the US, her grandma got a tourist visa to come to Mississippi and attend Abi’s graduation. Her grandma makes a green mole from scratch and snuck in some spices to make sure Abi got to eat her favorite dish.

“When I see her, it is like we haven’t missed a day. She’s just the light in my world. If I can be half the woman she is I’m doing something good. She forgets a lot of things because of her age, but she never forgets someone’s birthday.”

Although Abi couldn’t go to medical school, she still managed to find employment in the medical field. It started with a job in 2014 at the hospital doing newborn photography. Finding a passion and love for photography helped her get out of her depression. 

After the hospital, she started working at a dental office. Two Italian American dentist twins, Ronnie and Donnie, really believed in her.

“I didn’t know anything about being a dental assistant, and they hired me.”


Abi feels like she is at a bit of a fork in the road and isn’t exactly sure what she is going to do next. She’d like to go to dental school, ideally at Ole Miss.

Even though Abi’s been in Mississippi for almost two decades, the fact that she isn’t from there is something she is reminded of regularly.

“To me, this is my home. New Albany is the first place I made my memories in the US. It doesn’t matter how excluded they make me feel; this is always going to be my home.”

Still, Abi believes that her generation is changing a lot of things here and thinks the future is bright.

“Here in Mississippi, we need to learn how to accept immigrants. We came here because we wanted a better life. If Mississippian people were to open up their doors and listen to our stories, they could start to understand that we aren’t here to invade or take jobs. We are all just people, and we are trying to make life happen for us too. I hope and pray that everyone learns to respect others, who may not look alike, sound alike, or pray alike. We are in the “bible belt,” and if we really are Christians, then we need to act like it. Immigrants should be included.” (audio below)

Abi hopes more people like herself will share their stories.

“I don’t think my story is particularly special from anyone else that has come to the United States to try and make a new life.”

Abi also thinks too many people either try to forget that they came from somewhere else. She doesn’t want to forget her roots.

“Even though I was four years old when I came here, Mexico is still a part of who I am.”


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 Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are 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.

Sophia’s Immigration Story – Lahore, Pakistan to Little Rock, Arkansas


Sophia remembers a happy childhood in an upper-middle-class family in Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab. She was as privileged as could be – for a girl.

“Pakistan is still a very traditional patriarchal culture, and there is only so much a girl can do. My family allowed me a lot, but there were still very strict boundaries.”

Intellectual Pursuits

The men in Sophia’s family had a long tradition of coming to the United States for higher education, and Sophia wanted to study in America too.

“I could see there was a lot more equality and freedom for women in the United States, and they could pursue intellectual pursuits with fewer barriers than in Pakistan.”

Sophia completed her bachelor’s degree in Pakistan. She started looking at foreign universities, but she knew her father wouldn’t let her go if she didn’t get married first. She had an arranged marriage to a man who was already going to America to do a Ph.D. Together, in 1994, at age 20, Sophia and her husband went to Penn State. They then moved to Utah to continue studying. At the University of Utah, Sophia became the school’s first-ever female Muslim valedictorian.


Sophia had two children and became active at their school and in local organizations. She was a full-time professional volunteer and very happy.

“I was in awe of all the opportunities we had here. The ability to do whatever you wanted to do. If you really work hard and struggle, there are no barriers in America. I still believe that. You can achieve anything. The opportunity is there for everybody – it just depends how badly you want it.” (audio below)

Above: Sophia inside the Arkansas House of Prayer, an interfaith haven for silent contemplation.

September 11th

“My life really changed after 9/11.”

Sophia still remembers the way she felt when she heard on TV that Muslims were responsible for 9/11 – that Muslims hate American freedoms. She asked herself,

“Is my faith really out there to usurp others’ freedoms?”

After 9/11, some of her friends decided not to wear their hijabs when they traveled, out of fear of discrimination. Sophia used to teach Sunday School at the local mosque in Utah and would only wear a headscarf when she went there. She remembers her husband asking her not to wear it anymore.


Before 9/11, religion was a small part of Sophia’s life. After the tragedy, she found herself on a spiritual journey to learn about her faith. Everything she learned growing up in Pakistan had cultural elements of patriarchy, which she knew was not her faith. Sophia also knew that what they were saying on TV about Muslims wasn’t representative of her faith either.

In 2010 Sophia started wearing a headscarf every day despite her husband trying to convince her otherwise.

Little Rock

Sophia and her husband moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2011 so he could work at the university, and Sophia got into a master’s program. Sophia is an economist and strategic planner by profession. While working as a consultant in her field, she never stopped getting involved with passion projects on the side.

In Arkansas, Sophia found herself doing less and less consultant work and more and more interfaith work. She wanted to help those around her understand Muslims better.

Interfaith Center

In 2012, an Episcopal Church in Little Rock invited Sophia to help lead the Interfaith Center. It was perfect timing. The goal of the center is to help reduce fear about different world religions, promote cross-cultural learning, and create a more inclusive, harmonious, and pluralistic culture in Arkansas. 

“We want to move from diversity to pluralism. Diversity means people from different faith and race backgrounds live in the same community. It could be good, or it could be bad. However, if diverse communities do not engage with each other, it could be toxic. Pluralism is when diverse communities are actively engaging with each other with a commitment to the common good. They communicate and create an inclusive community where every voice is heard, and there are no ‘diverse slums’ in the community.” (audio below)

Internalized Oppression

One night, around the dinner table, Sophia’s daughter announced that classmates at school had called her brother a terrorist. Her son said,

“Mom, just ignore it – it’s no big deal. Everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists.”

Her daughter told Sophia she had taken care of the Hindu boy by insulting him back. Her daughter was proud, but Sophia was mortified. Sophia’s son was internalizing this oppression, and her daughter was turning into a bully! (audio below)


This incident at the dinner table inspired Sophia’s first initiative – an interfaith youth group. The idea is to encourage dialogue as the youth from different faith backgrounds complete service projects together. Both of Sophia’s children were members of the group.

“The goal is to give these youth the communication tools that my children lacked that night at the dinner table, and some of our politicians still lack.”

The Interfaith Center has also created an interfaith supper club called “Common Table,” where people of different faiths share a delicious meal. There’s also a weeklong Interfaith Summer Camp for elementary students, which is the first of its kind in the USA. The Center also hosts interfaith prayer services where people of all different faiths come and pray together in their own way.

“The whole idea is to create platforms where people can come engage with a purpose in mind and commit towards the common good. That could be making sure a neighborhood park is safe, or children are safe in school. People of different faiths need to come together for a common purpose.” (audio below)


Sophia is aware of how many people don’t expect her to be in the spaces she’s in. At work, when she was warming her lunch in the cafeteria, a new congregation member came in, saw Sophia, and seemed a little taken aback.

“He asked me, ‘Can I help you?’ I started laughing a bit and replied, ‘No, I’m fine – I’m right at home. May I help you?’ We have these mental barriers we have created about who belongs where, and they are becoming more distinct and harsh since this past election – where Muslims belong, where Christians belong. If we see a Christian in a mosque and we say what are you doing here – that needs to change in America. Our public spaces need to be more inclusive. That’s my hope, and I will continue working at it until the last day of my life.” (audio below)

Her Mosque

When Sophia’s family arrived in Little Rock in 2011, the town only had one mosque. She found it to be too “mainstream” and a “little conservative.” Sophia, a Sufi, dreamed of opening a more inclusive, open-minded, and progressive mosque in Little Rock. She wanted to create a welcoming and non-judgemental space for all types of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims.

They organized the building of Sophia’s mosque at her church For a year, the planning committee met there every single Sunday. The interfaith community has been key in helping her create this mosque.

In 2016 Sophia bought the property and embarked on this lifelong project. There is still lots of work to be done (like fixing the hole in the roof pictured above).

“God willed it to happen. There was a need for a mosque like this in Arkansas.”


Like 2001, the year 2016 had a profound impact on Sophia’s family. The night of the presidential election, Sophia’s son called and asked her not to go out wearing her headscarf.  (audio below)

“Fear is a very real part of Muslims’ lives. They do not feel safe when their wives, mothers or daughters wear scarves and go out in public spaces.”

“The founders of America came here for refuge from religious persecution, so facing religious persecution in America is against basic American ideals. I think I have a responsibility to protect the freedoms I have enjoyed – and protect them for my children.”


A lot has happened to the Muslim community since she moved to Arkansas. Sophia will never forget the truck that pulled up outside the other mosque in Little Rock, displaying pictures of a bleeding Jesus on the cross. The people in the vehicle were yelling at them to “Go home!”.

“Safety is a big concern for Muslims. We are at a major intersection here. My congregation asks me if we can put a US flag outside, and can you make sure there is security here because people don’t feel safe? Can you put a fence around here? No, I am never going to put a fence around here and tell the neighbors that we are different from you and need to protect ourselves from you. We are going to remain open. The doors will be open, but yes, we will put a flag out there, so people know we are Americans.”

Sophia never expected this to be her path – becoming an interfaith leader. She would never have dreamt of opening a mosque, emphasizing how Women don’t lead mosques in Islam!” 

“I think by nature I was always a rebellious person. It was in my nature to always challenge. I was not happy to see gender-differentials in my society.

Today, Sophia’s children are attending university, and she starts her days working at the church and then finishes them working at the mosque she built.

Welcome in America

The director of an independent film about a young Syrian girl who goes to Little Rock Central High School asked Sophia to play the mayor of Little Rock in her movie. Sophia rejected the offer at first saying,

“You can never have a scarf-wearing mayor in Arkansas!”

In the end, she took the role of the mayor in the film.

Sophia continues her work of promoting pluralism, trying to help create a future where everyone is not only welcome in her mosque, but also welcome in America.


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.