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Our Favorite As-Told-To Stories of 2021

As told to December 29, 2021January 5th, 2022As Told To, Staff pick

From organizers to artists, Borderless Magazine worked with immigrants in 2021 to tell their stories, their way.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine
Emma Lozano in Lincoln United Methodist Church, where she is a pastor, on Saturday Nov. 20, 2021 in Chicago, Ill. The mural behind her depicts Chicago mayor Harold Washington and Lozano’s brother, Rudy Lozano, who was a well known community organizer in Chicago.
As told to December 29, 2021January 5th, 2022As Told To, Staff pick

From organizers to artists, Borderless Magazine worked with immigrants in 2021 to tell their stories, their way.

As-told-tos, or stories that are told from the personal perspectives of immigrants, are an important part of our work as a human-centered publication. From the initial reach-out to the fact-checking process, our reporters work collaboratively with interviewees to make sure they understand the method and feel comfortable with the publication process.

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We believe this helps to create a scaffolding of care that centers immigrants’ voices to better represent their experiences. More broadly, the method aims to counter — and perhaps begin to heal — decades of harmful and racist media coverage of immigrant communities. When immigrants share their stories in their own words, they become more than soundbites, and critically, more than reductive or stereotypical narratives of heartbreak, trauma, resilience and resistance.

Borderless Magazine reports with immigrants using our unique “as told to” method.Illustration by Danbee Kim

Below are some of our favorite as-told-to stories of the year.

Vida Opoku near her home on the North Side of Chicago. Davon Clark for Borderless Magazine/CatchLight Local Chicago

As told to Diane Bou Khalil

After fleeing domestic violence in Ghana, Vida Opoku found life and light when she immigrated to Chicago.

“Adapting to America and the pandemic has not been easy,” said Opoku. “I am seen as a stranger here. But I can say I always get support from the people that I have gotten to know.”

Thomas Kong, owner of Kim’s Corner Food, at 1371 W. Estes Ave., at his convenience store on Aug. 7, 2021 in Chicago, Ill. Photo by Camilla Forte/Borderless Magazine

As told to Claire Voon

North Korea-born Thomas Kong immigrated to the U.S. for opportunity. Now, he has a distinct profession: convenience store owner and artist.

“One idea I had was to put the words ‘Be happy’ on every piece of work to give people a different feeling,” said Kong. “You’ve got to be happy. It applies to everybody, to their heart.”

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Emma Lozano in Lincoln United Methodist Church, where she is a pastor, on Saturday Nov. 20, 2021 in Chicago, Ill. The mural behind her depicts Chicago mayor Harold Washington and Lozano’s brother, Rudy Lozano, who was a well known community organizer in Chicago. Photo by Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

As told to Michelle Kanaar

Chicago Pastor Emma Lozano discusses the movement to keep undocumented immigrants with their families and a related MCA exhibit.

“I always tell the Mariposas, our pastoras [female pastors] that they’re like acupuncturists,” Lozano said. “The movement is sometimes sleepy, sometimes it’s a little sick, and you’ve just got to go over there and prick it in the right place, and then it’ll wake up again.”

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Gema Lowe attends an action at the state capitol in Lansing, Mich. on Sept. 16, 2020. Cosecha members occupied the space with singers, and elementary students performed a play as part of organizers’ efforts to push for the Drivers Licenses for All campaign in Michigan.Photo by Daniel Oropeza courtesy of Gema Lowe

As told to Emma Glassman-Hughes

Gema Lowe, who migrated from Mexico to America 30 years ago, describes her journey as an advocate for undocumented immigrant in Grand Rapids

“[Movimiento] Cosecha has taught me all about people power — the power of taking our liberation into our own hands,” Lowe said. “And that’s what we need now.”

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Elvira* and Mari Posa* and Pura* of Femme Defensa, and Pura’s daughter work on structuring garden beds on a plot of land in Little Village on April 9, 2021 in Chicago. Ill. This farm will be known as The Ruda Farm, named for a plant with healing capabilities. The farm is created as a sustainable way to provide fresh food. Femme Defensa will use the fresh produce grown at this farm to supply their Free Store in Pilsen. April Alonso for Borderless Magazine/CatchLight Local

As told to April Alonso

Formed by three Latinx femmes, Femme Defensa is addressing a lack of government aid in the Chicago neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village through direct community care.

“We ask people, ‘What do you need?’, not necessarily tell people that this is the only thing we can do for you,” Pura said. “I think that’s where the difference is between how the government operates and how we operate to meet the needs in our community.”

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Samer Owaida outside his home in Edgewater on Dec. 10, 2020 in Chicago, Ill. Owaida is Palestinian and a longtime organizer. “The difference between activism and community organizing is trying to build that structure where you aren’t alone in the work you do,” said Owaida. Photo by Michelle Kanaar

As told to Ata Younan

Queer organizer Samer Owaida on how to link global struggles against oppression to local movements for change.

“I can never be happy in this life as long as I know that there are people who are experiencing unjust oppression somewhere because I know what it feels like to be unseen,” Owaida said. “I was also unseen, historically and politically, as a Palestinian. I don’t want anyone to ever experience that.”

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Illustration by Brian Herrera for Borderless Magazine/CatchLight Local

As told to Brian Herrera

What it’s like to be a queer, undocumented chef in Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic

“That is a very common thing in the queer community — having a family that raised you but also having a chosen family that will support and won’t judge you,” said Arturo Barbosa. “I think it’s very important to have people that will care for you and will always be there even in the darkest times.”

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Russian Tea Time’s co-owners Altyn Mantyyeva and Enesh Mantyyeva on July 20, 2021 in the Loop neighborhood of Chicago, Ill. The sisters purchased the restaurant from its previous owners in 2018. Photo by Camilla Forte/Borderless Magazine

As told to Rita Oceguera

A Chicago mother explains how her husband’s 15-year-old conviction led to three deportations and a family torn apart.

“The police stopped [my husband] and handcuffed him,” said Elena. “Our two youngest daughters, 4 and 2 years old, were in the car and saw the whole incident. Now, whenever they see police sirens, they panic.”

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Russian Tea Time’s co-owners Altyn Mantyyeva and Enesh Mantyyeva on July 20, 2021 in the Loop neighborhood of Chicago, Ill. The sisters purchased the restaurant from its previous owners in 2018. Photo by Camilla Forte/Borderless Magazine

As told to Mark Dovich

For Altyn and Enesh Mantyyeva, co-owners of the iconic Chicago restaurant Russian Tea Time, serving the dishes of their childhood isn’t just business — it’s a personal responsibility.

“It’s food. It’s a completely different language that unites people,” said Enesh Mantyyeva. “If you eat borscht and I eat borscht, that’s something that we have in common.”

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Tigist Reda, center, and from left, her younger brother Mearg G. Reda, her father Rev. Gebremendin Reda, her sister Almaz G. Reda, her sister Mahlet G. Reda, her brother Henok G. Reda and her uncle Asbeha Reda during Tigist’s visit to Ethiopia in the early 2000s.Photo courtesy of Tigist Reda

As told to Sarah Luyengi

As human rights abuses continue in Ethiopia, Chicago chef Tigist Reda is among the many Ethiopians in the U.S. who are left with more questions than answers.

“We’ve been closer than ever, but also much of the non-Tigrayan population in this country has remained silent,” Reda said. “Ask any average person here in Chicago, and they have no idea what’s going on.”

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