Coming to America
Photo by Martika Gartman, Martika Photography
by Ben Scott
Dr. Paul Cherian landed at O’Hare airport in the dead of winter, Jan. 4, 1970 at 1am with $8 in his pocket. He had never seen snow before. And his luggage was lost. He was on his way to Mt. Sinai Hospital to take a position as a resident psychiatrist, but he did not even have enough money for the taxi fare.
Today, Dr. Cherian calls Darien home. He works at Hines, VA Hospital as a psychiatrist helping veterans and he and his wife Elizabeth enjoy an active social life in the Darien community. But, early in life, Cherian didn’t know he was destined to become a United States citizen. His journey to this country, like that of many immigrants, was set in motion by life circumstances and opportunity.
Cherian was born along the west coast of India near Sri Lanka in a small village called Ernakulan. He grew up in a big house where his father worked in an attached office as a district judge for the State Supreme Court. Cherian attended Kasturva Medical School, one of the top five medical schools in India. When he was 23 he married Elizabeth.
Then, in 1959 when Cherian was 25, his father died of a heart attack. Cherian had just finished medical school. His family had no income, so it was financially impossible to maintain the house and expenses. Struggling through personal setbacks, Cherian landed a job at a Catholic hospital. He developed a large clientele, and for a while life was good.
Unfortunately, an experience with one patient changed everything. Cherian admitted a classmate who had a mental illness. Two months at the hospital quickly turned in six and then eight, and Cherian’s classmate began to worry that his family was not coming for him. Cherian gave his classmate a job and room and board, doing whatever he could to help him.
“He seemed to be doing fine,” Cherian says.
One day, however, an attendant came to Dr. Cherian to tell him that his classmate had killed himself.
“I didn’t know how I missed the signs,” Cherian says. “I blamed myself. I wanted to go back to school and get more training and decided the best place was the United States.”
Before emigrating, Cherian passed his U.S. medical boards in India and found a job at Mt. Sinai Hospital where he would work while continuing his studies. When he left, Pakistan and India were at war, so Cherian was unable to secure a visa for Elizabeth. He planned to go back to India to rejoin his family after finishing his training.
When Cherian arrived at the airport in 1970, he was stranded and alone. Luckily, the man Cherian sat next to on his flight asked if he could help. As it turned out, the gentleman had a private chauffeur. He drove Dr. Cherian to Mt. Sinai, bought him food along the way, and amazingly gave Cherian his credit card to use any way he wanted. Cherian never did use the credit card, but this initial act of goodwill from a stranger left a lasting impression and a lifelong friendship.
Like Cherian, many new immigrants to the United States arrive without any contacts and with few possessions. Psychologist Lorri Craig talks about the hardships immigrants endure in an article titled “Migrants: The Psychological Impact of Immigration.”
“One of the first stressful steps in the experience is packing and selling up,” Craig writes. “Deciding what to take, send, sell, give away, or throw out can be a slow and painful task. Shipping is expensive, so many people choose to leave things behind and repurchase in the new country. However, budgets can restrict purchases at the other end, meaning that new migrants often have far fewer possessions than they had at home.” (lorricraig.com)
Craig also recognizes the psychological burden immigrants have to bear when they leave loved ones behind.
“Often the hardest thing for new migrants to cope with is the loss of family and friends. This can cause an empty longing that is hard to relieve and that can lead to depression.” (lorricraig.com)
What can immigrants do to ease the transition of moving to a new country? Craig says immigrants should learn the language as quickly as possible while immersing themselves in the culture of their new country. She also advises immigrants try not to focus on what they miss about their old culture, but instead focus on the new things they are able to experience.
For Geneva resident Fatima Figueiredo, the process of acculturation took some time. Figueiredo and her family emigrated from Rio de Janeiro to the United States in 1999 when her husband’s company relocated. Having grown up in Brazil, Figueiredo had some trouble initially adapting to American culture. She found herself missing the slower pace of life in Brazil, among other things.
“In Brazil life is more laid back. It’s not fast paced like it is here. In Brazil, everybody sits at the table for a meal, which is something I miss. I feel like here, one person eats at one time, another person at another time; one eats in front of the T.V. while another one is in front of the computer.”
She also says time is more malleable in Brazil than in the U.S.
“In Brazil if someone says ‘come to dinner at 6’ that means ‘don’t come at 6,’ so that was something I had to adjust to. I remember I was always late taking my boys to soccer practice and they were mad at me, so I had to adjust to be on time.”
Similarly, when Dr. Cherian first came to America he says he thought he was coming to heaven, but life was much more difficult than he anticipated. And though he didn’t intend to make America his permanent home, his plans changed when he was offered the position of Chief of Psychology at Mt. Sinai. Fortunately, at this point his wife and daughter were able to join him in the United States.
47 years later, Cherian and his family have adapted well to life in the U.S. For the last 19 years they’ve called Darien home, having moved from Oakbrook in 1998.
“We enjoy the whole community,” Cherian says. “The neighbors all watch out for each other. We can even leave the doors unlocked and not worry about it. And with six Catholic churches in the area, we have plenty of options. Shopping is good—we have everything we need close by. We are very happy here.”
Cherian says he and Elizabeth enjoy going out to eat at Carrabba’s and take part in community events like Darienfest. The couple also makes use of the Darien Sportsplex; Elizabeth goes there every day to walk and the 80 Darien Indian families rent out the venue for their events.
Everything considered, Cherian’s life in the U.S. has been a happy and productive one. He’s met many wonderful people, established a lifelong career at Hines, VA and his four children Limo, Mary, Veronica and Paril, enjoy successful careers of their own in law and medicine. In the end, the hard work and perseverance which formed the foundation of the life Dr. Cherian built for himself in this country paid off.
Regarding the history of hard work and determination of immigrants in America, Steven M. Rothstein, executive director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, speaks to the immeasurable positive impact immigrants like Dr. Cherian have had in supporting and shaping the American way of life.
“The contributions of immigrants to American excellence, whether in public service or business, arts or sciences, are too numerous to count. Today, our tradition of welcoming new citizens remains not only an act of humanity and principle, but also an act of self-interest.” (Rothstein, dotnews.com)