Leaving behind a comfortable and familiar life for one of uncertainty takes courage, determination and sometimes a bit of luck. Three friends, women born on three different continents with three unique journeys that have converged in Carlisle, recently compared stories about how they arrived here, and some of the joys and bumps along the way.
Eloisa grew up in Monterrey, a city in northeastern Mexico that lies at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. Eloisa describes her journey here as a “more of a stop and go story of coming to the States.” She played tennis in Mexico as a teen, briefly turning pro. Eventually she decided to forego the professional circuit to pursue an engineering degree, so applied and received a scholarship to enroll at Western Michigan University in 1998.
After graduation, Eloisa had planned to stay in the US on a work visa. Her plans changed drastically when she received a call that her father had a stroke on the airplane while on his way home from her graduation ceremony. She faced a difficult choice after that call—remain in the US, or return to Mexico to grieve with her family.
“If you haven’t received your documentation and you leave the country, you lose your right to return,” Eloisa explained. “I had to make a personal decision, do I stay or do I go? For me, there was no decision to be made. It was more of, ‘when do I leave?’ When I left, I abandoned my stuff and my right to come back to the US.”
Eloisa stayed in Mexico for about 6 months until she was recruited by FedEx, then moved to Pittsburgh to begin work. She met her husband, Daniel, there, and they eventually moved to Newton. When they realized that “Newton wasn’t our place,” the couple began searching for a new home to raise their children. They compared towns by education rankings, and happily found Carlisle to be a “hidden gem.” “I am a city person and my husband grew up in the country, so for me it was a little bit of a transition, but I love it. It’s our little bit of heaven,” she said proudly. The couple has 3 children – Sofia, 5th grade; Daniel, 2nd grade; and Eloisa, who recently entered kindergarten.
Karin hails from a picturesque town named Wartberg ob der Aist located in northern Austria. A quick Google search yielded storybook images of rolling green hills dotted with red roofs. Karin said people often confuse Austria with Australia, so much so that you can purchase t-shirts in the airport to clear up any confusion: there are no kangaroos in Austria.
“All of my uncles, aunts, grandparents, great grandparents live in one small 3,000 person village,” Karin explained. When she told her family she was marrying an American, her family “could not fathom why I would marry anyone from so far away.”
Karin’s husband, Justin, is from Acton. “We met in Prague and dated for a while which, when you are in your late teens, that is very romantic,” Karin giggled. Justin moved to Austria for a time, and the couple got married there before moving to the US in 2008. They settled in Cambridge and Belmont before discovering Carlisle. “I grew up in a very rural area in Austria and I realized very quickly that I am not a suburb person,” explained Karin. “I absolutely needed space and a place for my kid to grow up.”
Karin’s son, Henry, is 7 years old and in second grade at Carlisle School. Karin, Eloisa and Mili all have second grade students, which is where the women met and became friends. It is a common story for Carlisle families to connect when their children enter school and remain friends long after those children graduate.
Mili Jacob grew up in Coimbatore, an ancient city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is on the banks of the Noyyal River and surrounded by mountains, with centuries-old temples to the north and south. Mili and her husband, Prem, were married in 2005, and soon after Prem came to the US for a 3-month work assignment.
“The year he came, I was finishing my Masters, and I kicked and screamed about not wanting to leave the country, leave my family, leave everyone to come here.” But Mili did join Prem in 2007, and two years later had her first child, Matthew, 11, followed by Arianna (9) and Samuel (7). As Matthew approached kindergarten age, Mili and her husband decided to search for a new home in a town with excellent schools.
“Education is so important in India,” explained Mili, and they, too, compared school rankings and eventually narrowed their search to Carlisle. “Everything seemed so nice and so safe and like a such a wonderful place to raise children.” The family moved to Carlisle in 2014.
Different paths to legal status
Each woman had a slightly different experience when emigrating to the US: Eloisa came here on a work visa, Mili on her husband’s work visa, and Karin on a green card since she was married to an American.
In 2003, FedEx contacted Eloisa while searching for an industrial engineer who spoke fluent Spanish and French. “I was that person,” Eloisa said. When they offered her the job, FedEx sponsored the work visa that allowed her to return to the US.
“My experience was completely different,” explained Mili. “My husband came here on an H-1 visa, but I had to come as his dependent. After having the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do in India, I came here and was stuck at home.’
Mili explained that India has a lottery system for work visas. Before she came to the US, “a company did apply for my visa, but there were so many applicants that I didn’t get it,” she recalled. “It took several years, and it was only after our green card was almost expired that I was even able to start working.”
Karin applied for a green card as the wife of an American citizen. Formerly managing director and board member at Carlisle & Co. (Karin appreciates the name coincidence), she recalled that “My company was very small, about 50 people, so they would never have been able to do what FedEx did for Eloisa. While they loved my resume, it was too time consuming and expensive to sponsor me,” she explained.
No marriages of convenience
In order to marry a foreigner, Karin and Justin had to prove to Austrian embassy officials that they were marrying legitimately. “We did all of these spousal interviews like you see in the movies where we thought we would have to prepare answers to questions like ‘what shampoo does the other person use?’” laughed Karin. “We didn’t know what to expect, and we heard so many horror stories.”
Karin said the interviewer asked them to bring pictures to prove they were in a loving relationship. “It was the time when you still had photo albums, and we brought a huge stack of albums,” she recalled with a chuckle. “We were very young.”
Eloisa married an American citizen in the US, so she and Daniel applied for her green card at the US immigration office. “I think we all prepared the same way, and showed up with all of the photo albums,” she chuckled. “I remember the agent just flipped through them and said, ‘OK, OK’” after seeing her pages of proof of wedded bliss.
When applying for her permanent visa, Eloisa had to go through the whole process again. “I had to explain again why I deserved citizenship—I had to prove that I had a life here and had real reasons to be a citizen.”
Mili said she and Prem also had to prove their marriage was genuine before she could get a dependent visa. “We, too, had to go to the embassy with our photo albums because, if you are not actually married, you can’t go as a dependent.” Mili added that, “for me it was a scary process because the person in front of me did not get their visa, so I was afraid I would be denied.”
After she emigrated to the US, Mili found traveling outside the country scary. “When you are on a visa, the fear is real. Are they going to send you back to India? Are you not going to have the one piece of paper they expect you to have? As a result, you carry a very full folder of papers every time you enter the country because you never know.”
The question of citizenship
Eloisa has acquired dual citizenship, but Mili and her husband chose to become US citizens. “India doesn’t allow dual citizenship so I had to renounce my citizenship. It was so hard,” Mili explained. Austria does not allow dual citizenship, either, so Karin remains in the US on perpetual green cards. “If you are very famous, you might get dual citizenship,” she quipped, and all three friends laughed that she might soon qualify after this feature in the Carlisle Mosquito.
Karin said, “Like Mili, the US was not a destination that I wanted to live. I love Austria and we usually spend a few months every year there. But I had a great job, Justin had a great job, then we had a kid. Life happens.”
Leaving family behind
Karin is an only child and comes from a very close-knit family. “I can count on one hand the number of people from my elementary and high school classes who have moved out of the greater town area,” she said.
Karin’s parents, who have never traveled very much, were disappointed and worried when Karin moved here. “The US is a scary place in Austrian newspapers, and crime statistics, gun violence, and those types of things are difficult for people there to understand,” she explained. Karin said her family argued that, “’there’s no unemployment here, the economy is booming, we have mountains, we have lakes, why would you leave? It’s a very difficult conversation to have.”
Karin also acknowledged that while her parents and grandparents are well, they are getting older. “We’ve always told them that we are just 8 hours away, but now with the pandemic, the borders are closed and it’s very hard.” Karin paused a bit. “It was hard when I had a baby, too. We have wonderful friends here, but it’s not the same as having my parents next door.”
Mili was grateful that her sister was already living in the US when she arrived. “It is nice to have my sister here, but everyone else is back in India. It’s hard because I see kids here with their grandparents and I hear of kids spending time with grandparents over the weekends and know that my children are not getting that same opportunity.”
Because of time zones and scheduling, just being able to talk to family these days is challenging. “I grew up knowing my first cousins, my second cousins, I know my third cousins. It’s hard being away from our families and not having my children grow up knowing their cousins.”
Eloisa had a different experience since she grew up in a city while the rest of her family lived far away. She rarely got to visit cousins or grandparents more than once a year. “I was not used to having family around so the experience that Mili and Karin are describing was different for me.”
That all changed when Eloisa married, since her husband is one of seven siblings with a very large extended family. “Christmas is a party of 50+, so I really gained a family,” she remarked. “Even though we live here, the rest of his family lives in New York and Pennsylvania, so we don’t feel that alone.”
“While I left my country behind, at the same time it was kind of an adventure that I was encouraged to take,” explained Eloisa. “Being by yourself makes you grow up. Being in a foreign country makes you figure out things like how you are supposed to interact with others. You do things differently. It is an adjustment when you go back home, at least for me…especially when you are driving,” she laughed.
Managing Societal Differences
Karin said her own only truly negative experience in emigrating to the US was speaking with TSA agents at the airport. Agents asked very pointed questions about why she here and why an American could not do her job. “They were the only Americans who were rude to me directly. The other differences are much more societal. I come from a place where everyone has health insurance, where college is free. I think sometimes it feels very unsettling to know that not everyone has the same advantages around us. It makes you raise your family differently.”
Eloisa also noticed societal differences after she came here, especially in the workplace. “In Mexico, you don’t speak up as much, especially as a woman, and your boss always has the final say. I was fortunate that I was working with a woman at FedEx who was highly respected, who pushed me to the point where I basically had to disagree with executives. I had to learn to say that my superior was wrong, and this is why, and that took a lot of adjustment.”
Eloisa added, “Growth opportunity is there, and if you are ready for it, you can take it. It may come with other hardships or challenges, but in Mexico it would have been much harder to make those transitions.”
Karin agreed. “As a young woman, opportunities for quick advancement would never have been the same in my home country. In Austria it is very bureaucratic and there are steps you must follow, so I have always appreciated the opportunity here.”
Mili, a speech pathologist, said her field is heavily female, so there are not the same issues with moving up the corporate ladder.” She added that, “You need to recognize that if someone is older than you, they have a little more life experience, and you need to respect them for their age. The culture in India Is one where any person who is one level above you at work is going to be addressed as sir or madam. You definitely see the difference here, and I welcome that I can go up to my boss and talk to her. It is a really nice thing to call her by name as well.”
Preserving culture at home
All three women agreed that trying to preserve cultural traditions is important for their families. Karin said, “We speak German at home. We celebrate all of the holidays. We speak to my parents every day. We read a lot of books. You learn a lot when you come to a new country, but you also bring a lot with you, so I think it’s really important that our son learns the values that are the same or might be a little different.”
Eloisa said speaking Spanish at home is a house rule. When the kids try to speak English, Eloisa reminds them that she already knows the language, and that “While you may not understand the gift we are giving you right now, you will in the future.”
Eloisa also recalled making some unexpected adjustments when assimilating to American culture. “Because I do look white, I lived the white privilege without realizing it. I learned that if I didn’t speak, I could get certain things because they couldn’t tell my accent.”
“I am proud to be Mexican, and even though I am an American now, l am still Mexican,” she said. “Thankfully here in Boston, especially in Carlisle, I feel like the diversity is appreciated. I tell everyone who will listen that I am Mexican. If I don’t say it, the stereotype will not change. We want to be valued for who we are and what we can provide to society.”
Mili maintains different house rules than Eloisa. “I don’t speak Malayalam all of the time to my children. They know a few key words, the important ones that we don’t want anyone else to hear us tell our children,” she giggled. “But they are starting to want to know more. When we go India, the family speaks Malayalam and I want them to be able to communicate.”
Mili explained that “I grew up in a Christian home, so we didn’t celebrate all of the festivals. But we live side by side with people of all different religions, and all different ideas, and all different ways of growing up. When you say ‘Happy Diwali’ to a Hindu person and they say it back to you, whether you celebrate or not, it’s awesome. It’s not a matter of thinking that if I accept this, I am rejecting something else. Bringing back part of the way we grew up to our home here and into the way we are raising our children is definitely something I want to continue.”
Carlisle Welcomes Different Cultures
Karin feels that Carlisle is very welcoming to other cultures. “My neighbors, the school, the library all have such a willingness to embrace different backgrounds. I don’t think it’s everyone’s experience when they move abroad. It definitely wasn’t my husband’s experience when he moved to Austria.”
Eloisa agreed, and enjoys how the Carlisle School celebrates multiculturalism as well. She mentioned an instance last spring when she overhead her daughter’s 4th grade Zoom class reading a story about a Mexican immigrant. Eloisa realized that her great grandmother had told her the same story many years before. When she mentioned this to the teacher, the teacher eagerly invited Eloisa to discuss the story and her Mexican heritage with the class.
Mili noted that her children do not think of themselves as different because they have been so accepted in Carlisle. “I hear of friends’ children who are similar ages who are being teased because they are brown, but I don’t see any of that happening here.” She continued, “My children do recognize that they are brown. Not too long ago is when they first started talking about that. It’s nice to see how much Carlisle accepts and embraces cultures. That is a huge thing that I feel here.”
Mili smiled and added, “Of course, a big part of our culture is the food.” Karin heartily agreed, “we all forgot to mention the food!” All three women laughed, and it was clear that there are many more stories yet to be told.