Photo by Nayuki

By Eun Joo Angela Ryo

During my English teaching years, I learned that there’s so much power in redeeming your pain and wounds instead of hiding or running away from them. Our family immigrated to the United States from Korea on a business visa which expired shortly after we arrived. All my childhood, adolescent and young adult years, I lived in fear and hopelessness of being undocumented. It was a dark secret that only our family knew — I didn’t even share it with my closest friends in fear that they would report me to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if they ever got mad at me. So naturally, while my friends dreamt of going to prom or college, all I could dream of was to become a citizen one day.

I thought that once I became a citizen of this country that had only wanted to kick me out most of my life, all my problems would disappear and I would live in complete joy and peace for the rest of my life. Strangely, though, when I was finally granted legal immigration status in my late twenties, I felt numb. My level of happiness did not hit the roof. I couldn’t quite figure out why I wasn’t feeling elated about the change.

It wasn’t until I became a high school English teacher that I was able to figure out why. One day, I received an email from a guidance counselor of an undocumented student named Igor Kozak, a boy from our school who was about to go off to major in Engineering at University of Illinois.  Obviously, he was a model student with a bright future ahead. The email said that ICE was threatening to deport Igor and his family to Ukraine within 24 hours although he had been in the States since he was two and their court case was still pending.  The email urged the teachers to call the local authorities to fight for Igor and his family, in hopes that if enough came to Igor’s defense, he and his family would not be deported immediately but would have a fighting chance.

Without really thinking, I picked up the phone and called the local office. In a trembling voice, I left a message on behalf of Igor, explaining why he and his family shouldn’t be deported.  After I hung up the phone, I put my head down on my desk and sobbed for a long time.  I realized that they were tears of empowerment and healing. I finally felt free and light as if years of burden had been lifted off me.

When I embraced Igor as my brother and took action on his behalf, I was really healing my own wounds of being undocumented for so long. Being granted immigration status was still something that was done to me; what I did for Igor, albeit a tiny step forward, was an action I took on my own to stand up against the injustice of the system I had grown up with — something I had felt powerless to do all my life. Who would have known that such a small act would set me in the path towards healing and wholeness?

Eun Joo Angela Ryo immigrated to America from Korea when she was nine. Having graduated with an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, she was ordained as a Teacher Elder in the PCUSA this past July and now serves as the Assistant Pastor for Christian Formation at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bloomfield Hills, MI.


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