P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans

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Celebrating Immigrant Moms

Behind every Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow is some combination of mentors, professors, teachers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, dads and moms--these are the people that so often have traveled the greatest distance or sacrificed inmeasurably to allow their children the opportunity to succeed. In honor of Mother's Day we asked a few of the 2017 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows to write notes to their own mothers. Here is what they had to say.
To all the mother's out there, Happy Mother's Day!

Amin Aalipour

Raised in Southern California, Amin is the son of Iranian Muslim immigrants who came to the United States in pursuit of higher education. Fueled by his mother’s emphasis on mathematical problem solving and his father’s demos with electrical circuits, Amin developed an obsession with the how and why of science. Amin is currently an MD/PhD student at the Stanford University School of Medicine and is working to develop early cancer detection technologies and immunotherapies.
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Maman Jan:
One of my favorite stories is of you taking your last undergraduate final exam so pregnant that you couldn’t even use the folding desk on your classroom chair. Soon after you were a first generation college graduate and newly minted Civil Engineer, but decided instead to selflessly set your eyes on a different kind of engineering: raising my brothers and me. Inspired by your own experiences as an immigrant, you instilled in us a fearless pursuit of knowledge with an equal emphasis on high moral character, warmth, and respect.
Thank you for foregoing your own comforts so we could follow our dreams; any modicum of success we’ve enjoyed is a testament to your many sacrifices. You are an inspiration to anyone fortunate enough to share your company, the living embodiment of generosity, compassion, and devotion. May I have the strength to provide my children even a fraction of what you have provided for us. Indeed, Heaven lies beneath your feet.


Photo: Fall 1998 at Maryland Avenue Elementary School in La Mesa, CA.

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Mayesha Alam

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Mayesha always looked up to her father, an engineer, and her mother, who was among the first generation of women in the Bangladesh civil service. When Mayesha was a child, her family moved to Jakarta, where they lived under the Suharto regime. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received a master's degree from Georgetown University. Her 2014 book, Women and Transitional Justice: Progress and Persistent Challenges in Retributive and Restorative Processes, was inspired by her work at the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya and by her parents’ experiences surviving the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Mayesha is now pursuing a PhD in political science at Yale University.


My mother is strong but sensitive,

Principled yet pragmatic,

And, above all, selfless.

Beautifully imperfect,

She is love.

- Mayesha Alam

Photo: My mother playing with my little brother and me in Jakarta in 1994.


Caleb Gayle 

Born in New York to Jamaican immigrants, Caleb remembers a childhood that was defined by his grandfather, a strict but loving reverend who cherished the pursuit of the American Dream and believed there was no excuse for anyone who fell short. It wasn’t until Caleb’s family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, that he began to grapple with systemic racial and economic injustice, an experience that led to his interest in nonprofits and government. After completing an MBA/MPP at Harvard, Caleb eventually hopes to return to philanthropy and emerge as a political leader.

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As kids, we'd come home from school with every intention to play outside, watch television, or play video games. Instead, Mom had college textbooks with a litany of assignments ready for us. Our summer breaks were filled with workbooks, problem sets, and essays. But accompanying the rigorous expectations was and still is Mom's smile--a token demonstration of her sincere commitment to my success. When my mom made her harrowing journey to school, our family's expectations remained steadfastly high and smiles smoothed her transition to the classroom. Our smiles, just like hers, are the imminent expression of our love.
- Caleb Gayle

Photo: This is my mom's citizenship ceremony in Tulsa, OK last June. My mom is from Jamaica. Hobbies: gardening, writing, and watching Columbo and Monk reruns. 

Ellora Israni 

Though Ellora was born and raised in the Bay Area, she often returned to Poona, India, where her grandparents lived. Her parents, both Indian immigrants, were themselves the children of immigrants—Hindu refugees to India. They instilled in Ellora a commitment to help build a world that offers more equal opportunities. Now a JD candidate at Harvard , Ellora hopes to leverage the intersection of technology and law to change the way we define and deliver justice in the United States.

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Dear Mom,

I was raised to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I don't think I realized how remarkable that was until recently. You grew up in a culture that was constantly telling you what you couldn't be - professional, career-driven, independent - and what you could - a daughter, a wife, a mother. Even when you came to the US, where many more doors were open to you, you made sacrifices so your daughters could have opportunities of which you never dared to dream. We grew up believing, even expecting, that we would study whatever we wanted to study, work in whatever field we wanted to work, and live wherever we wanted to live. What a privilege that is. Thank you for giving us the world.

- Ellora Israni

Photo: This photo was taken in January 2016 at my cousin's wedding in my mom's hometown: Poona, India.

Joseph Guimaraes 

Joseph was born in Recife, Brazil, and immigrated to the United States in 1998, when he was in fifth grade. Joseph remembers the day he learned his family would be moving to the US. It happened with very little warning or discussion. Joseph is currently a master’s student at the Yale School of Music and an active advocate of music education and its positive impact on the human condition. He hopes to reform the current status quo of music education. 

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What can I say about my mom? Words don’t adequately express what she means to me. She is the glue that holds our family together, she is the most selfless person I know, she is a visionary, she is a mentor, she is a friend, she is my mom.  As I grow older, our relationship continues to evolve, I find myself calling her just to say “hi”, instead of calling in for that mandatory 8 pm check-in.  I don’t think I would be the person I am today if not for her countless sacrifices. Thank you, mom, I love you.
- Joseph Guimaraes 
Photo: This is baby me, my sister Mariana Santelli and my mom, Yolanda Guimaraes. This picture was taken in our apartment in Recife, Brazil (where my mother was born), in 1989.

Kaveh Danesh 

Born in Bellevue, Washington, Kaveh is the son of Iranian immigrants. His parents had a rough start in the United States but they persevered in hopes that the American Dream would come true for their children. Now at the University of California, Berkeley, Kaveh is working on a PhD in economics while taking journalism courses. Indebted to his parents’ perseverance, he plans to document the obstacles facing society’s most vulnerable people—the poor, sick, uneducated, incarcerated, or otherwise disenfranchised—through applied economics and narrative writing.                

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Dear Mom: You always say how proud you are of my sister and me. Today I want to let you know how proud we are of you.

Your life has not been easy. Growing up in Iran, you lost your father at an early age; you lost a sense of freedom when nearly sent to prison for wearing fishnet tights under a manteau; you lost a sense of pride when denied your first-choice college major by clerics who decided too many women would become business leaders. Then you moved to a country you had only seen in movies.  You had dreams to chase, but soon you gave birth and started raising two children to have dreams of their own.

You have made all these sacrifices throughout your life. Yet somehow you keep on giving more and more of yourself to the people around you. We are so proud of the amazing person you are, and just as lucky to call you our mother.

Love, Kaveh 

Photo: Sept 4, 2015 at Chinook Middle School in Bellevue, Washington, where my mom was working at the time. This was a surprise visit where I tried to do her job for a minute and failed miserably. Born in Tehran, Iran, my mom loves hiking, cats, and Costco. She makes the best home-cooked food a kid could ask for.

Matthew Nguyen

Matt's parents fled Vietnam as child refugees at the height of the Vietnam War. Arriving in the United States with minimal English and only pennies to their name, they bounced between resettlement camps before making California their home. Matt currently attends Yale Law School, the only Vietnamese American student in his graduating class. Grateful for his parents’ sacrifices, Matt remains committed to paying it forward through a career in public service. 
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Your long journey from Vietnamese child refugee to fierce Asian American tiger mom turned political activist today epitomizes the New American journey. In the process, and against all odds as a single working mother, you’ve raised two dedicated, successful—yet totally goofy—sons. Since Day 1, you’ve believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. I would not be the person I am today (much less born!) without your endless love and support. Thank you so much for everything and Happy Mother’s Day!

- Matthew Nguyen

Photo: My mother, Anh, and I by the Huntington Beach pier, during a first-ever photo shoot with our extended family that she spent months planning. June 2016.

Mariana Olaizola 

Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Mariana was surrounded by a culturally homogenous world. It was largely Hispanic, Catholic, and conservative. That all changed when she enrolled in public school in the suburbs of Washington, DC. As a legal director of the International Refugee Assistance Project chapter at Yale Law School, Mariana coordinates outreach and manages students' legal work in support of refugees. She also conducts research on potential legal reforms to ensure a human right to citizenship in the context of mass cross-border migrations.

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Don't worry, mami, I am by your side.

It was our first week after landing in the United States from Venezuela, and you were driving me back from my first dance class at the Washington Ballet. The road was pitch-dark, an autumn fog clouded the windshield, and we were struggling to find the way to our new home in the suburbs of D.C. All at once, I realized the magnitude of your sacrifice in leaving everything behind for my and my brother's sake, and I felt an overpowering sense of indebtedness. You later told me that my words of reassurance provided comfort as we were passing through the labyrinthine suburban roads. I want you to know that this voice will always be by your side, even when at times we find ourselves living thousands of miles apart. 

 - Mariana Olaizola

Photo: Taken in Venezuela when I was 10 years old


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Peter Hong

A child of South Korean immigrants, Peter was born in Colorado and raised in Michigan. Growing up, Peter attended school during the day, and then came home to a rigorous curriculum in Korean culture and language, which was developed and taught by his parents. Peter is currently pursuing an MBA at Harvard Business School, not to fundamentally shift, but to supplement, his motivation to build software contributing to society and public policy.

엄마, I am in awe of the foresight and thought in each of your gifts. One gift you gave me was lifetime music appreciation. Without your tireless effort and encouragement, I would instead have regret for succumbing to childhood resistance to practice. Your gift of daily lessons in Korean language, culture, and food allowed me to share your experience by visiting locations and eating food foundational to your childhood. I treasure most the gift of your love, the lifeblood for my aspirations and my confidence amidst doubt. Happy Mother’s Day!

And peanut brittle will never simply be a snack.

- Peter Hong 

Photo: Mid-90s, celebrating my mom's graduation with her master's degree. 

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Sanjay Kishore

Born and raised in rural Virginia, Sanjay is the youngest child of parents who emigrated from Hyderabad, India. Both of his grandfathers were Gandhian-era civil servants in the state of Andhra Pradesh who supported socialist land reform and helped operate medical clinics for the most vulnerable. Now a second-year medical student at Harvard, Sanjay aspires to use his clinical training to serve not just as an advocate for individual patients, but as the foundation for a career organizing for a more just society.  

"Service to mankind is service to god, bangaru." Mom, I remember listening to you repeat this mantra to me over and over to me as a child. At that time, I didn't quite understand why you kept telling me this; now, in my twenties, I'm eternally grateful that you did.  

Taking care of others has always given you joy.  You overcame the odds, as one of the first foreign women to train as a doctor at the University of Arkansas. You devoted your life to those in need, caring for those too sick and too lonely in rural Virginia. And, throughout this whole time, you were the most amazing mother who provided Ana and I with more love than we could have ever deserved. 

Mom, you are my hero and inspiration. You gave me my values. You taught me, through your words and your actions, that the purpose of life is to serve. You are my moral compass. I love you so much, and can't thank you enough for all you have taught me.
 - Sanju 

Photo: Approximately 1996 in Radford, Virginia.

Sanjena Sathian 

The daughter of Indian immigrants who raised her in Bible Belt Georgia, Sanjena connected with her twin cultures through the page. The granddaughter and great-granddaughter of respected South Indian translators, she always hoped to become a writer. Sanjena is thrilled to begin study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the same institution that educated O’Connor. Sanjena’s work engages Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, technology, diaspora, and gender.

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My mama: She's an MD, a polyglot, a gardener, world traveler, and exercise fiend.

I'm awed by what it took to raise us while you pushed your way through residency and fellowships in a new country, what it took to leave India, and what it took to build us such a strong home in Atlanta. As I get older, I keep seeing you in me, whether in a photograph in which I suddenly seem to resemble you or in my habits -- and most importantly, in what I know about how to love and give. Thank you for taking the bold steps you did to give us this life. Love you!

- Sanjena Sathian

Photo: Taken in 2009 at my senior prom.

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Shivani Radhakrishnan

Shivani was born in Middletown, New York, to Indian parents from Bangalore and Baroda who met while working together in the Catskills. Growing up around Gujarati and Tamil, and studying Russian and Latin, Shivani became interested in linguistic and social identity. Shivani is now a PhD candidate at Columbia University, where she is studying philosophy’s role in social transformation.

My mother has her own relationships to everyone. Jon and Ashley, friends from high school, drive forty minutes to have masala tea with her when I’m away. My roommate Jess asks to speak with her on the phone. The local credit union has changed names at least four times in the last decade, my mom points out, but the staff has remained the same, she says, going through a litany of saints: Carmen, Linda, Theresa. Growing up in the 90s and in school in the early 2000s, I remember hearing the phrase “Word to Your Mother” everywhere. One day, I remember arguing with my mom, who had her own take on the expression: “Word from your Mother.” My mother moved to New York forty-one years ago with a single suitcase and began to look for humanity in an alien world, fashioning it to be a bit more humane after she encounters it. I’m forever grateful.

- Shivani Radhakrishnan

Photo: It was a 1990s birthday party with my parents in New York. My mother is Gujurati and was born in India, growing up in Bombay. She loves her masala tea, dancing to Afro-Latin music, and often laughs so hard that she cries.

Lorenzo Sewanan 

Lorenzo was born in Paramaribo, Suriname, to Indo-Caribbean parents who migrated there in the 1970s from Guyana. Lorenzo spent his first sixteen years in the former Dutch colony, exploring his neighborhood, reading books of places real and fantastic, and working at his family’s store. Now at the Yale School of Medicine, Lorenzo is pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering and an MD. In the future, he aims to practice cardiology as a dedicated, compassionate patient advocate, and to investigate human disease as a rigorous, imaginative scientist.

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Mother, you are the kindest and most generous person I have ever met. Your empathy and warmth towards others has always inspired me and inspires me. No matter your own personal problems and struggles, you always look first to the happiness and kindness of your children, your family, and your friends. I thank you for all the sacrifices you’ve made to ensure we would never want for anything. You are the foundation of our family and along with father have given us everything we wanted and needed in a home. I thank you very much, and I love you. 

-Lorenzo Sewanan

Photo: Taken around 1990-1991, in Paramaribo, Suriname; I was probably 1 year old; she is from Berbice, Guyana, and she is an amazing cook, singer, businesswoman, and homemaker.

We were both very fashionably dressed at the time!


Jinyan Zang 

At the age of seven, Jinyan immigrated to the United States from China with his parents, who came for better work opportunities in Rochester, Minnesota, and, later, Boston. Growing up in a household of medical researchers, he gained an early appreciation for the power of science and how to establish new facts through scientific experiments. As a PhD candidate in government at Harvard, Jinyan is excited to continue working on integrating American values into new technologies by identifying conflicts between technology and the nation’s laws and traditions and looking for solutions in policy and design that ensure technological progress supports all Americans.

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I was just 5 years-old when I ran around your lecture hall at Wannan Medical College yelling that I'm a mini Dr. Zang. I was 7 when I woke up the whole floor of your PhD dorm by singing in the morning. You've put up with all of that and more, Mom.
You are my inspiration to strive and my support when I fall. It was through your talent and drive that I was able to grow up in the US. I know there were countless sacrifices and challenges that you faced that I will never be able to repay.
Most of all, my deepest debt to you is that you were the one who first kindled my curiosity and taught me a deep appreciation for knowledge. It's because of that gift that I'm pursuing a PhD at Harvard today researching the impact of technology on society.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was a kid running around your PhD graduation ceremony from Peking Union Medical College, and I look forward to a few years from now when you will be attending mine.
I love you and I thank you. Happy Mother's Day!
Photo: Top - taken in Summer 1998 in Beijing, China after my mom graduated with her PhD in Pharmacology from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences & Peking Union Medical College. Bottom - taken in May 2013 during my Harvard Commencement from undergrad. My mom is from Anqing, China and she loves her work doing medical research on new treatments for diabetes and obesity.  
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