Local Commentary

Falls Church City School ‘Lifer’ Forced to Leave Her Country

THE VIEW OVER a neighborhood next to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. (Photo: Niharika Singhvi)

Junior Niharika Singhvi has attended Falls Church City Public Schools since 2006. In April of 2018, her parents’ work visas expired, and she was forced to return to India. Four months later, she arrived back at George Mason High School. Singhvi and her family’s experience is a result of recent developments in the increasingly hardline immigration policy. This article previously appeared in GMHS’s The Lasso.

By Niharika Singhvi

“Every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.”
— John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants

It’s a casual Monday afternoon in mid-September. I get off from the bus and begin the short walk to my home. My backpack weighs me down, signifying a busy evening ahead of me. But, I’m more than used to this. I’ve followed this same routine after school for over 11 years of my life and it’s now instinct. However, today is different.

When I get home, I’m not comforted by the usual sights of furniture nor of the family photos that decorate the wall. Instead, my view of the room is clogged by huge brown boxes containing our possessions and more importantly, memories that my family and I have collected over the past 12 years. These boxes can signify only one thing — moving.

Seeing these boxes makes me nauseous. It’s devastating to see my childhood home being packed away, one box after another, making me feel like a stranger in my own home.

For the past couple of months, a cloud of uncertainty and frustration has hovered above my family. It all boils down to one question: Will we get to stay here? I don’t think any conversation has passed without a trace of skepticism about the future.

When I talk about any upcoming plans, I want to believe that they will actually happen. But, deep inside, I worry if I will actually get to follow through with them. Will I actually be in the country to spend Homecoming with my friends? Will I even be at school when that assignment is due in a few weeks?

A while ago, my family applied for the renewal of our visas assuming only positive results, as we’d been doing this for as long as we’d been here. With our H1B visas, an employment-based visa given for high-skilled jobs, we’d applied for our Green Card in 2008. However, due to our general work category having low priority to give permanent residency, we wouldn’t get to file for the actual status for years to come.

Eventually, after months had passed with no sign of the status of our visas, we knew something was off.

In April of this year, the long-awaited result came and as we dreaded, it was negative. For the first time since 2006, our visas’ renewal had been rejected. While the justification said nothing about the current policy, I interpreted this as a direct result of the stricter requirements for visas that have been implemented recently.

As rightful residents, we immediately filed for an appeal of this decision in April. After all, America is the country of immigrants. It is a nation built on the minds and backs of immigrants from all over the world. In fact, only the Native Americans are purely from this nation, because everyone else immigrated here not even more than 300 years ago. So, don’t we deserve to be here as much as the next family?

For the past few days, I’ve had to deal with the difficult task of informing my teachers and peers about my move. The worst part is that when I’m questioned about when I will come back, I have no response, because I truthfully do not know. For now, all I can do is be patient and hope that I will get to spend at least some more time of my high school life in Falls Church, my hometown.

When my flight landed in India, I felt like my whole life had turned upside down. In a way, it had. We had no home in either country, there was no guarantee I would get admitted to school here, and above all, we had no idea when we’d be able to go back. It could be weeks, months, or years before the return. With these thoughts constantly swirling my mind, I spent the first three weeks in Delhi in despair. I developed a strong distaste for everything, from talking to my family to going out, to doing anything I would’ve loved before this change. When I went to visit an IB school I could possibly be attending, I had a sulky face and I snapped at the teachers multiple times. And, the worst part was, I didn’t care what they thought of me or if I even got accepted.

One day, I woke up to a confrontation from my parents. They convinced me that I was running away from the problem rather than facing it, and luckily, those words hit home. From that point, I decided that I didn’t want to look back at the experience knowing I’d succumbed to and not faced the harsh reality. So, I pushed myself to look past the negativity and conform myself to the situation rather than holding onto what once was.

Luckily, I was interviewed again by the IB school after I changed my outlook, so I was able to get in. My whole life, I had always feared change; I had been in the same city, in the same home, and in the same school district for 12 years, so change was a foreign concept. I never would have imagined being a new student in a new country, but life is beyond unpredictable. At school, I had to adjust to being with a new group of people in a school with few resemblances to Mason. We had uniforms, my IB class only had 27 students, and I had to adapt to an entirely new culture. With my shy attitude and lack of confidence, I didn’t think this would turn out to be a fruitful experience at all. However, it turned out that with some unbelievable support from the teachers and friends I made there, I was able to pull it off.

After two months of going to school, good news was sent our way. Our appeal had been approved, which meant the long wait was over. Or, so I thought. My parents explained that we were still in limbo, waiting for my dad’s work papers to come in. The anxiety of rekindling old friendships, making up the work I missed, and getting back into a routine was hard enough to manage without this added uncertainty.

But, like everything so far, this process required considerable patience and a long wait, and this time, I was ready for it. After another two months, the papers came, and within three weeks, we were on a flight back to home.

A week after coming back, I was able to return to school and the initially scary experience quickly became incredible. I chose to surprise everyone at school, and the expressions on my friends’ faces were priceless. The hallways that seemed so dull just a while ago now looked beautiful. Even the crowded classrooms and morning song-playing seemed refreshing.

As cheesy as it is, after being away for so long, I’ve renewed my appreciation for the little things in life. And, now, I am beyond ready to take on the challenges of junior year and life as it is.

Before I left, a friend told me that when I get back, I’m going to tear up since I’ll miss the people and experiences I left in India. Although I laughed this off back then, I eventually realized that this had a lot of truth behind it. I’m beyond happy to be here in Falls Church again, but I will forever cherish the friends, memories, experiences, the ups and downs, and everything about living in India. Even though the past five months felt like a bad dream more often than not, I would never have changed them for anything.

I would never wish my experience on anyone, even if I eventually overcame the challenges. The feeling of having to leave our home was beyond demeaning and incredibly painful. I still can’t comprehend how anyone can draw the line between legal and illegal immigrants if even documented immigrants have little security about their future in the United States.

And while I am grateful for the opportunities for growth I experienced throughout the process, I know that many are not lucky enough to have the vital support mechanisms and resources I had. The right to freedom of movement and a stable home is sacred, and no judge, no government, should have the power to take that away. Losing it can be a crushing blow that not everybody is equipped to recover from. Trust me — I learned from experience.