8 Immigrants Answer the Question ‘Why Are You Here?’

They’ve come from across the globe seeking a better life

All of the articles and photos from our special Immigration Issue are available in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

I came here to help support my family.


Tenagne Belachew

With the change in leadership in Ethiopia after President Mengistu Haile Mariam, my husband lost his government job. No one would hire him. I was a housewife with seven children. We won the lottery to immigrate to America in the late 1990s. But we couldn’t come at the same time because the plane tickets were too expensive. It took seven years before we were all here. The only work I could find was cooking in Ethiopian restaurants, which is how I came to know about the community along Fairfax. I love cooking better than anything. I wanted with my restaurant to take people on a journey to Ethiopia through food. Surprisingly, we get a lot of American customers who have been to Ethiopia. They even speak a little Amharic. They order authentic dishes like the raw meat with purified butter. People here are well traveled. Though the politics and job opportunities might not be good, Ethiopia is a wonderful country. I love Los Angeles. I am grateful for what I have accomplished here.

Tenagne Belachew opened her restaurant, Lalibela, at 1025 South Fairfax Avenue, in May.

RELATED: What Defines a Successful Immigrant? 

I came here to flee a homeland in conflict.

Arno_Yeretzian4907Arno Yeretzian 

I was born in Lebanon the year the civ
il war got really bad, 
in 1976, and our family fled the country. We settled in East Hollywood, in Little Armenia. Armenians were everywhere. They came from Iran, Lebanon, and the Soviet Union. But there weren’t any Armenian bookstores or magazines, and people had this thirst to read in their native language. My father started the first Armenian-language magazine in America; then he opened Abril Books. The place was like a cultural center, always filled with Armenians talking and arguing. In the ’90s, the neighborhood started to change. My dad got mugged, and he relocated to Glendale. All of his friends had already moved there. Since I’ve taken over, I’ve witnessed a shift. When the first Armenian encyclopedia set was published, people stood in line to order it. Now 30 years later people are leaving the books on our doorstep.

Arno Yeretzian inherited Abril Books, at 415 East Broadway in Glendale, from his father in 2010.

I came here to be part of a family legacy.

Joe_Hashimoto-3179Joe Hashimoto 

The oldest of my father’s seven brothers, Masahiko, was studying English in the U.S. He met Michiko, his wife, when she was studying English and art at UCLA. Masahiko brought over three of his brothers, and they opened a nursery in 1928 on Sawtelle Boulevard. In 1940, Masahiko and my father, Shichiro, returned to Japan. The two younger brothers stayed. They were sent to the Manzanar camp. They never talked about it.
 A friend kept the nursery going while they were gone. I was born in 1944 in Tokyo and came to the U.S. when I was 15. After studying art at Los Angeles City College, I worked at the nursery. I have two sons and a daughter, but none of them has talked about running the place. Not yet. I will be here at least until I’m 80. It’s in the mind, staying healthy.

Joe Hashimoto is co-owner, with sisters Nanayo Kuno and Chimie Hashimoto, of Hashimoto Nursery, at 1935 Sawtelle Boulevard.

I came here to seek a better life.

Amanda_Valle5044Amada Valle 

We moved here from Mexico. My grandmother told me, “You can improve your life in the U.S. and make a lot of money.” Ha, ha! For a while my entire family of four was sharing one room at my mother-in-law’s home. We found a roomier place at the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts and paid less.

After my 14-year-old son was given a cigarette laced with cocaine, I went to the Jordan Downs office and insisted that they do something. The kid who had given him the drugs was arrested. When his friends saw my son, they beat him up. I asked my son, “Where do the kids who jumped you live?” I invited them to my place to watch a movie. I made them hot dogs and popcorn. I wanted to show them that not only am I not afraid, I will invite them into my home.

I organized walks for our health and to communicate with our neighbors in Jordan Downs. Now kids see me pass by and yell, “I love you, Mama. I miss you.” Hugs are more powerful than a thousand words. If you could only see the way they hug back, as if trying to return the affection with equal fervor. Eventually the young people began to treat each other a little better. I became president of the Resident Advisory Council. My daughter is now involved with me. She’s 20. I go door-to-door talking to neighbors about available services, whether it’s job openings or school courses. I prefer speaking with everybody in person instead of by e-mail. I get their undivided attention that way. My husband is always complaining that I’m never home. I told him, “This is what I want. If you don’t like it, God bless.” I will not stop doing this.

Amada Valle is a member of the Watts Leadership Institute at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

I came here to be free of Communism.

Sue_Wong4889Sue Wong 

Our village was in the remote countryside of southern China. It was so primitive—no running water, no electricity. Life hadn’t changed much since the 1600s. During Mao’s revolution, my father escaped to America. When I turned five, he hatched a plan in which my mother’s wedding jewels were used to bribe a border guard, and we fled to then-British-controlled Hong Kong while we went through the immigration process to come to the United States and join him.

I thought America was paved with gold. Imagine my surprise when we arrived at my father’s job at an industrial laundry next to skid row in Los Angeles. There was a small Chinese settlement there with Chinese-owned grocery stores and restaurants. Our new home was around the corner; it was called Paradise Apartments, and they were anything but. It was a big brick tenement building with cockroaches and rats. The bathroom was shared by the entire floor.

When I was seven, someone gave me a box of crayons. I would go down the hall for toilet paper; it was the only paper I could find. Later on I was given a Katy Keene notebook. I would draw all kinds of fancy outfits for her because, being the daughter of struggling immigrants, I felt really deprived. Other girls wore pretty little dresses, and my mother hand-stitched mine, using fabric remnants from J.J. Newberry. But that deprivation and scarcity gave me the impetus to be creative. Being an immigrant really empowered me. I didn’t feel forced to follow old-world traditions. I rebelled.

Sue Wong, who owns Sue Wong Studio S, was earning $3 million a year as a clothing designer by the time she was 21.

I came here to escape brutality in my country.

Ben_Christopher3519Ben Christopher

I am a transgender man, but in Cameroon I lived as a lesbian. In 2012, I was invited to the party of a gay friend, and the neighbors called the police saying, “Oh, there’s a homosexual party going on.” The police came and brutally beat us. My cheekbone was broken. I was very lucky to escape because if I had been imprisoned, I would have lost my job as an engineer in Burkina Faso. At trials of homosexuals in Cameroon, they can accuse you of all kinds of things you haven’t done, and you end up in prison for five years. Torture. Rape. If you get sick, they won’t treat you. The general feeling in the country is you don’t deserve to live.

A year after the party, a friend was murdered, an LGBT activist, a journalist. In 2014, I got to the point where I could see two possibilities for myself. I’d leave and respond to how life was calling me, or I could stay and choose
 to die. That’s why I decided to abandon my country. I had my work, I had two apartments, but was I happy? No. I looked at the places where I could go, and I thought the U.S., and especially Los Angeles, would be favorable because I had been following the evolution of the LGBT community, with the gay pride parades. The community seemed out; it seemed very open. There are still challenges, but you can express yourself. From the time I was a child I knew I was different. I had a female body, but this body felt alien from my interior self. But you don’t talk about those things because no one is going to understand. They’re going to take you to a faith healer or an exorcist. They’re going to submit you to whatever it takes to cure you.

Ben Christopher has applied for asylum through the Program for Torture Victims and has been authorized to seek employment.

I came here to live openly as a gay man.

David_Francis4403David Francis

I grew up during the 1970s 
on a farm in rural Australia. The threat of violence against gay men hung in the air. In 1984, I traveled to Europe to explore my sexuality. Upon my return, a doctor felt my swollen lymph nodes, asked if I’d been “safe.” I had been, with one exception. In disgust, he advised that I was likely positive, but I was too afraid to be tested. HIV was a death sentence then.

In 1985, I left my Melbourne law firm and came to L.A. to lose myself in an anonymous city far from home, to die quietly. It felt safer here, being identified as a fashionable foreign minority. And being gay was becoming fashionable, too. I landed a job with a racy, mostly Jewish firm. In my Melbourne office, it would never have flown, being gay—it was noticed if you were Catholic, let alone Jewish. Virtually everyone was Church of England from posh private schools.

When my work visa expired, 
I had a choice: apply for a green card or return to Australia. I had to be tested, fashionable minority or not. I remember giving blood at a clinic downtown and then waiting for the envelope. I was negative. I’d spent seven years in unnecessary terror. With a new lease on life, I started writing fiction. My second novel, Stray Dog Winter, follows a young Australian artist into Soviet Moscow, where he’s sentenced to five years in a gulag for being a “blue.” The screenplay version is set in contemporary Moscow, where, under the cruelties of Putin, it’s still perilous to be gay. In 2005, I became an American citizen, glad to call L.A. home. Not Moscow or some podunk town in Australia.

David Francis’s latest novel, Wedding Bush Road, which takes place in L.A. and Australia, will be published in November.

I came here to advance my education.

Ghena_Alhanaee4858Ghena Alhanaee

As an undergraduate, I studied mechanical engineering in my hometown of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. I got my master’s in energy resources engineering at Stanford University, and I’m working toward a doctorate in civil engineering at USC. I want to be a key player
 in the petroleum industry in my country. Currently Emiratis with doctorates in science and engineering are lacking.

Many people don’t know where or what the UAE even 
is, but once I say “Dubai,” I get the “ohhh” recognition. I do feel some people have been surprised to see a Muslim girl in a hijab pursuing her studies and living in another country. There’s this misconception that Muslim girls basically have no life and aren’t allowed to do anything or go anywhere, which is far from the truth. I’m just like everyone else, but with an extra garment.

The mix of international students here is diverse, and it’s beautiful. I find Los Angeles to be a very international city with a lot of people from different backgrounds, not just at USC. Most of the people I meet on a day-to-day basis have roots elsewhere. I think international students contribute a lot. They bring new ideas and education styles, and they challenge the students around them. They bring awareness of other social atmospheres and an understanding of them. And yes, some of them think that there are better opportunities for them if they stay in the U.S., but others feel like there are much better opportunities at home.

Ghena Alhanaee was in the first group of women to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Petroleum Institute in the United Arab Emirates.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine.