Meet the young men who are fighting for their American Dream

“Going back is a death sentence.”

So says Adonias Arevalo, a 26-year old undocumented immigrant who, like 800,000 others, may face deportation. Though he’s paid his taxes, grown up in Houston for more than half of his life, gone to an American college, in the eyes of this country, he’s still not legally here.

Earlier this week on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would be rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It’s an act that President Barack Obama instated in 2012 as a way to protect young undocumented immigrants, who call themselves DREAMers after the DREAM Act of 2001. The act was a legislative proposal that would help undocumented young people find their way into permanent residency.

“We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law,” Sessions said Tuesday. Opponents of DACA, like Sessions, have said for years that the act takes away jobs from American citizens and provides benefits to those who unlawfully entered the country.

“There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. The compassionate thing is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws, and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our Founders in a way that advances the interest of the nation.”

For Adonias, who’s worked to support his family since he was 14, this could mean being forced back to El Salvador, a country with the most homicides per capita in the world. It’s the same place where gang members once killed his father. It’s also a place that is virtually inhabitable for queer people like Adonias. With LGBTQ individuals targeted, it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world to be queer.

(Graph courtesy NBC News)

“This has always been real for me and the thought does scare me,” he tells Very Good Light.
The entire erasure of DACA, President Obama’s policy from 2012, would mean he’d go back to a country that does not want him. Under DACA, Adonias was able to graduate from the University of Texas, Houston as well as become a productive member of society. Today, he’s an organizer at the Arizona Dream Act Coalition in Phoenix, where he fights for other immigrants’ rights.
To be eligible, applicants like Adonias had to have arrived in the U.S. before they were 16, lived since June 15, 2007 and could not have been older than 30 in 2012.
DACA allows immigrants like Adonias to become productive members of American society just like the rest of us. They’re given a valid driver’s license, the ability to go to American colleges and gain jobs while also paying taxes. It does not though, give them an easier path to citizenship.

While President Trump recently tweeted all was safe for the next six months he also announced he would terminate DACA completely on March 5, 2018. That means congress has six months to find a solution or to deport all 800,000 completely.

The thought of DACA being overturned makes Adonias and the hundreds of thousands of others feel uneasy. Very Good Light reached out to three young men across the country whose lives would be completely changed with the overturn of DACA. Though they’re from different backgrounds and professions their stories are all the same: they’re fighting for the American Dream. Below, their stories as told by them.*

For more information on DACA visit the government’s own website here.

Adonias Arevalo, 26, Phoenix

(Photo courtesy United We Dream Action)

I left El Salvador when I was 11. There’s a lot of crime there, it’s the murder capital of the world. Your chances of getting killed it huge. Gangs rule the country and they go through cities demanding what they call ‘rent.’ You have to pay them to live there and when they asked my dad one day, he refused. That’s when they shot him. They don’t play no games.

My mom was really afraid to continue living there as she received threats of death on her and my family. That’s when she went to Mexico and crossed the border [into the U.S.]. At that time, I went to live in Mexico as well as it was safer than El Salvador where pastors and churches offered to help me. As an undocumented person, it’s $7,000-$10,000 to have a guide cross you into the United States. My mom saved up money and waited for me in Houston for years to get me across.

I remember that day. She came down to get me as she didn’t want me to cross by myself. There are countless stories of abandoned children at the border. We were with our guide who find times throughout the day where the border isn’t as secure. You cross the river and start swimming and hiding so you aren’t caught. There are many guards who shoot and kill those crossing over. We were lucky when we crossed. It was around 6 a.m. and the border wasn’t secured.

I think that the American Dream is about challenging the system.

I came to Houston and life for the first year and a half was a struggle. I was bullied for many reasons. I also saw how my mom had three jobs and struggled so much to put food on the table. She was also saving to get my sister, still in El Salvador, across the same way.

When I was 14 my mom had an accident with the company she was working with. It was a factory where she was making tortillas. They decided to close and never paid with her and left her with $20,000 in debt. That’s when I started working. I pretended I was 16 and started washing dishes. I worked throughout high school and eventually went to college at the University of Texas, Houston. I graduated with a political science degree.

I think that the American Dream is about challenging the system. It’s about overcoming the struggles and that. I think that’s done through determination and knowing that we live in a broken system and trying to change that. I think that people are against people like me because they haven’t had a conversation to understand what it’s like. People like me don’t leave their countries because the heck of it. There’s no other choice.

DACA makes me feel closer to what I’ve been dreading all of my life. I’m a couple steps towards deportation. I don’t want to be deported to a country is a death sentence. It makes me feel angry as well that we’re living in a moment of white supremacy but it gives me hope that people of color have always been resistant through that.

When you deport LGBTQ folks back it’s a death sentence. Trans women and queer people being killed every day. Countries like mine have made being me a crime. You can be jailed. Our countries don’t have a model system to work with for people who are queer to be protected. When you are deporting people like me, you are condemning them to a death sentence. It’s real for me and it’s always been real.

But I’m hopeful. I have to be. I will continue fighting for justice and educating others on what it’s like as an immigrant.

Kevin**, 26, NYC

My family and I immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in the early 1990s and have been assimilating to the American culture ever since. One of the biggest hurdles my family and I faced was the language barrier and adapting to the new environment and space around us. I came to the U.S. when I was 4-years old so I can’t say much in regards to South Korea but my first few memories in the States revolved around going to Micky D’s often and being overwhelmed by the diversity in NYC.

After living in the shadows for so long, you sort of want to just get out and feel the sun.

I identify myself as a Korean American and probably always will. I was fortunate to have known my grandparents and so they made sure that I didn’t forget my heritage and my cultural roots. But to answer your question, I felt most “American” when I got myself involved in the movement to fight for comprehensive immigration reform in the early 2000s. I think being able to fight for yourself and the people you care is such an empowering experience.

It’s been 5 years since DACA has been announced by President Obama and it really changed my life. Yes, it allowed me to work legally, get a driver’s license, and other simple things but most importantly, it made me feel “normal” even if it was only temporary. After living in the shadows for so long, you sort of want to just get out and feel the sun. However, besides the benefits I received through DACA, I think it’s very important to highlight the FACT that DACA didn’t just happen because President Obama was being nice one day. DACA was won and earned by people who fought for their rights. 

I am very fortunate that my family has legal status but their immigrant story and pursuit for the American dream is no different from other immigrants who came before us. They taught and installed in me the value of hard-work, resilience, and heart of giving back.

When I heard the announcement two days ago, I wasn’t really surprised. This is something that President Trump promised and he simply doesn’t represent the American value. Regardless, I did feel a lot of bitterness and disappointment from his cruel decision. 

My family is worried for me and my fellow Dreamers but I am staying strong and positive. Myself and the bigger immigrant rights movement is past the stage of feeling fear or feeling apologetic. We are under attack and we will not back down. 

Personally, I never faced an experience where someone told me directly to go back or that I’m not an “American.” However, this is sort of like the situation where if you attack one of us then you attack all of us. So in that sense I feel very sorry for the folks who say those nasty comments because they aren’t the brightest people. So instead of feeling angry towards them I have an urge to educate them. I want to let them know that we came here in no fault of our own and that to the majority of us this is our home. 

What President Trump did was out-of-line and  waged war on the immigrant community. Now more than ever we need to come together and fight for our justice. This is a typical scenario of the big kids picking on the little guys. My advice to anyone who wishes to join the fight then start joining your local community based organizations and contact your local elected officials. Kind words are nice but what we really need is for folks to join us on the streets and be vocal about it. In the end, I am hopeful and I still believe in our government that they will do the right thing. 

Nestor Ruiz, 24, Washington D.C.

I came here in 1998 when I was 5-years old. My family moved to Plant City, Florida where my dad had come on a worker’s visa and started a construction company. My mom was a surgical nurse in Mexico but when she got here, she started cleaning houses and businesses for a living.

I adapted pretty well. To me, everything was great. I was going to school everything was normal. We had the American life. In 2006 on a very early morning I was woken up with my mom screaming from the living room not to get up. I saw flashlights running through house and the lights going to my parents bedrooms. There were two ICE agents taking my dad away from us. It got real for us. My mom was afraid they were coming back for us. We moved and stayed with friends and family members. After a month or so we found out my dad was deported.

After that, I pretty much I can’t say I went through a depression per se, but it was really hard. When I lost my father to deportation I also lost my mom. She had to take more than 3 jobs at a time from cleaning clinics to houses. The only thing I could do was to do well in school. I graduated high school and needed to work so I couldn’t go to college. It was hard not to go to college. I had long conversations with my mother. She wanted me to go to school but I couldn’t not help.

I vividly remember the day when DACA was announced. I can’t even describe the feeling. When I found out about it my friend was watching President Obama in Spanish and there were bullet points that went up with what requirements you’d need. I knew I qualified and thought my life was about to change. But it was an interesting feeling. I was really excited. I was really scared. I knew I qualified but I knew others that didn’t qualify. It was really bittersweet.

The moment when I was turning in my application we were going to a free DACA clinic in my hometown after dinner. I was nervous to sign a paper that could change my life. So I practiced my signature on a napkin over and over again. Signing an application and giving it to my mom was the best feeling in my life. There’s a picture my mom signing that application. My mom got a sense of relief that at least he was not going to get deported.

I haven’t seen my dad in years. We always had communication throughout those years but I could not travel back to Mexico. We talk together on Google Hangouts and through technology. But it doesn’t replace the fact that my life was forever affected. We were all uprooted once he was deported. We lost our house, his business went down. This f***ing sucks, right? But in a way, if that moment didn’t happen I wouldn’t be such an activist and helping with this movement of finding rights for people like me.

When I first heard about the announcement from Trump I was like oh s*** how am I going to tell my mom? But what makes me hopeful is seeing the 100 of thousands of people marching, the 159 events nationwide, seeing all of those photos and taking action support of immigrant community gives me hope. I would like to tell these people they are not alone. They will not stop fighting. There are a ton of resources that will help them out. is one place and there’s going to be a ton of resources there.

But let me just say this: with or without DACA, our community is here to stay. We are here fighting until our undocumented reality is reversed. That day will come.

Why do you fear me?

Ziad Ahmed, a 17-year old from New Jersey, considers himself religious. But he chooses not to pray, at least not in public.

It’s safer that way.

He’s an American Muslim and understands that when he’s out in the real world, away from his family and friends, the comfort of being who he wants to be, he needs to downplay his identity. So when he rides public transportation, he’ll turn his backpack with a #MyMuslimVote button around. At the airport with his grandmother who wears a Hijab, he’ll hold his breath, anxiety-filled, dodging glances from disapproving passersby who stop and stare, hoping they don’t act upon their prejudices. When he hears of a terrorist attack, his heart stops and he can’t help but mutter: “I hope they aren’t Muslim, please let them not be Muslim …” As an American Muslim young person, anxiety never seems to end.

As an American Muslim young person, anxiety never seems to end.

“It’s exhausting,” he admits. “It’s exhausting to always be on the ready. It hurts more than anything else. Hurts that people hate people like me.”

(Ziad, shown here, is a teen activist who hopes that one day he and Muslims everywhere, will find peace. ASOS coat)

It’s hard to feel like he is progressing into a better future, one where he could be seen as equal, human. Especially when he’s always playing defense. “When people are attacking us 24/7 how can you score when you’re always defending?”

Such is the realities for him and countless other American Muslim teenagers, among a population of 3.3. million across the country. Now, with anti-Muslim and hate-fueled rhetoric by President-elect Donald Trump occurring across the country, there’s been a spike of hate crimes towards disenfranchised groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which looks into white supremacy among racist actions, reported 400 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation since the election. This, of course, isn’t indicative of the total number of men and women who are attacked. Most incidences, after all, go unreported. There have been countless news stories that are too close for comfort from Trump supporters who’ve physically assaulted women in Hijabs, verbally harassed  Muslim men by calling them “sandn*****s.”

“This represents a big increase in what we’ve seen since the campaign, and these incidents are far and wide: we’re seeing them in schools, we’re seeing them in places of business, we’re seeing them in museums and gas stations,” Richard Cohen, the SPLC’s president said in a statement. “White supremacists are celebrating, and it’s their time, the way they see it.”

It doesn’t stop there. A new study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that Anti-Muslim assaults in the past year, reached 9/11 levels. While there were 93 aggravated assaults in 2001, there were 91 in the past year, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. In 2015, the FBI found 257 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes, a spike of 67% more than the previous year.

Ziad and RJ Khalaf take a moment to talk about their identities as American Muslims. (Coat by ASOS; Trench by Salvatore Ferragamo; Jacket by Gucci; Shirt by Giorgio Armani; Turtleneck by Uniqlo)

So it’s to no surprise that Ziad and countless teens across the world feel as if there isn’t respite in sight. But for Ziad and many American Muslim youth, cowering away is no longer a choice. To survive in this country, he and others, are fighting back in a positive way. For one, Ziad has become a human rights activist for his community. Though only a teenager, he is mighty; he regularly goes to White House for talks, has taken photos with Hillary Clinton, and is outspoken about being who he is on campus at his high school to social media. For him, the more he educates others, the brighter the future is.

“My entire life is to ensure that I don’t feel helpless,” he says. “I don’t look at anything as a limitation. I work much harder so that I can be seen as human. I’m not just Muslim, Bangladeshi, an activist, a non-conformist. I’m so many things. To reduce me to one thing is to erase my identity.”

On a rainy Saturday morning not too long ago, Ziad, along with three other American Muslim young men came together to talk about their own unique experiences. It was an original photo and video shoot for Very Good Light, aimed at presenting a positive message and light onto American Muslim youth. Like Ziad, these young men are activists fighting for positive change. More so, the story aims to change the dialogue when it comes to Muslims living in America starting with this question: “Why do you fear me, what’s there to fear?”

Inspiring and empowering, these teens are speaking out for the first time and proving that their voices matter. Here, they talk about the realities of their lives …

RJ Khalaf, 20

Jacket by Gucci; Shirt by Giorgio Armani; Turtleneck by Uniqlo

One of the emotions that I am dealing with right now is fear. Not necessarily for myself, but for my Muslim brothers and sisters. There have literally been hundreds of incidents since Wednesday against minority groups. Muslim women’s hijabs are being torn off and they are being told they should tie those scarfs around their necks to hang themselves. Many hateful and dangerous individuals are empowered by Trump’s rhetoric and now his upcoming Presidency. I worry that my community will continue to face threats.

I have personally not experienced any backlash. In fact, many of my friends have reached out to me to offer support. They have told me that they are by my side and have offered their support. I am inspired by their friendship and support through this hard time. This moment reminds me of the Mexican proverb, “They tried to bury us but they didn’t know that we are seeds.”
I worry that my community will continue to face threats.
I feel empowered. I feel motivated. I am ready to grind. The fact that Donald Trump won the election inspires me to only be better and to do better. It reminds me that I cannot slack off a single day. I have to constantly strive to be better. There is so much on the line, where so many lives will be changed by the result of this election. I must use every ounce of my privilege to help my fellow brothers and sisters in humanity. It reminds me of the quote, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The future looks uncertain, but I am confident that we can bounce back. We have to stick together, and we have to fight. I pray to God that people will be protected by his dangerous proposals. I am especially concerned for those who are undocumented in this country. They are hard-working people who do not deserve to be torn apart from their families. I pray that mercy finds its way into the heart of Donald Trump so that he may be a President that represents every single American, no matter their religion, race, or creed.

Akhil Mohammed, 16

With Trump now as President-elect, I feel more worried about the Muslims in America and whether they will be safe or not. Many hate crimes towards Muslims have sparked up after Trump’s victory, which has given many of his supporters the impression that America now belongs to them. I, for one, have received deportation jokes from many people in school. They aren’t part of an oppressed community. But I’ve had many people of all backgrounds reaching out to me, promising that they have my back. Trump’s win is allowing me to become closer with people of different cultures, backgrounds and faiths. I’m thankful for all this support.

Thinking about the future is definitely a frightening thought.

There’s definitely a lot of work to be done, as Trump won fair and square under the law, which is scary. Many of his supporters came from states in the Midwest and in general, rural areas with working-class people who viewed him as a man that will change the system. There are, of course, always exceptions as many living in an urban environment have also voted for him. But the first step is to definitely raise awareness in these rural areas and change the way they view certain groups.
However, regardless of the outcome of the election, I guarantee that Trump is only causing us to be united more than ever. More voices are being heard against the bigotry that exists in our country and I’m thankful for that. We will fight for our rights along with every other community Trump has discriminated against and show that our America is the real one, not Trump’s.
Thinking about the future is definitely a frightening thought. But like I said once again, I believe we can raise our voices together as many communities are supporting their neighbors more than ever now with one goal in mind: Show that Trump cannot divide us.

Mohammed Attiyeh, 19

Coat by En Noir; Shirt by Converse; Pants by Ports 1961.

As a Muslim American, I fear for all Americans. Personally, I am a disappointed American. Disappointed we let our country allow a completely inexperienced and prejudiced man become the leader I fear for my friends and family all over this country because this President-elect might essentially put this country in a downward spiral because of his economic, foreign, and political policies.

I go to Rutgers University in New Jersey. It’s one of the most diverse campuses in the entire world but even we have received backlash. Trump supporters are writing very disrespectful and prejudiced comments everywhere slandering us with their hate. They’re telling minorities to leave and completely blowing up the idea of “building a wall.” It’s scary.

The University called these notions “a freedom of speech,” but we all know that it’s bulls***. It’s unfortunate because these kinds of hateful Americans should be exposed and taught a lesson. By lesson, I mean someone needs to seriously talk to them and debunk all of their misguided and misdirected hate.

That being said, I do see a light in all of this. Many of us, including myself have received more support from fellow friend, the same way people were coming to my support when I was being called a terrorist growing up.

Trump supporters are writing very disrespectful and prejudiced comments everywhere slandering us with their hate.

Now despite Donald Trump and Mike Pence being elected into office, I have hope for this country. Because hope is currently our strongest ally against whatever may come our way. Hope as a nation has gotten us this far, and it will get us further.

Ziad Ahmed, 17

(Coat by Bespoken)

Since Trump has won, I’ve been truly devastated. I didn’t go to school Wednesday, and I bawled my eyes out. The reality of his presidency is only now starting to set in, and I keep on going over all the things that are at stake in my head, and it breaks my heart, but I know this is not the end of the world.

I bawled my eyes out

It still hurts to know that so many people either are racist, sexist and hateful or decided that racism, sexism and hate were not deal-breakers. But I recognize that the only way forward is continuing to advocate even louder for the progressive values that I believe in and to dialogue with those that I do not yet understand.
In Trump’s America as an American Muslim, I feel devastated the country elected for a leader that fueled his campaign on hateful rhetoric against the American Muslim community and nearly every minority community. But I also feel determined to use my voice even further to advocate for justice in a time that needs it more than ever.
Even as the election was occurring, I got so many messages of support/understanding from people in my life. At school though, I have definitely received backlash by those asserting that I must “move on” and that it is “no big deal.” To those people I say this: There is too much at stake to be silent. To those people I say: There is no bright side when you are in the dark and Trump’s presidency was created for the purpose of leaving so many of us in a starkly dark state.

I feel scared for a future under a Trump administration. The increase in hate crimes, the cabinet short list and the policy outlines terrify me. But I am not defeated. I will continue to campaign for progressive candidates at all levels of government and I will never just “let it go” because not critiquing Trump is hate unchallenged.

If you’re a victim of a hate crime or harassment, call 9-1-1 or report this to your local chapter of the ACLU. 

How to protect yourself:

Here are other ways to protect yourself, as suggested by Hussain Turk, a gay Muslim activist and JD at the LA HIV Law and Policy Project. Hussain gives a few practical tips to put into practice should you find yourself in a compromising situation.
  1. Get to safety. “The first thing is to get to safety,” he suggests. “At risk of being attacked, get to safety, whatever that means.” For many, this means going into a business or an establishment with a crowd of people.
  2. Speak out. Hussain says that silence is deadly. “Speaking out on social media and letting it be known that this is our reality is very impactful,” he says. “We can’t bury our heads any more.” This means shedding light onto others on what it means to be an American Muslim and how others can be allies.
  3. Talk to the ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union is a national organization that defends individuals and their rights. Call your local branch by finding them here.
  4. Be an advocate. “Reach out to different communities, not just the Muslim community and build a momentum that way,” Hussain says. “Muslim are are privileged in a lot of ways in the way that there’s a lot of diversity in our community. You need to use that to help others and expand the education of others.”
  5. Walk in groups. Find friends and allies who will walk with you in groups to and from public locations. “Everyone should create safety plans,” Hussain says. “We’ve been talking about reaching out to our community and everyone should have a plan of action. This means finding who will be around to walk along with you wherever you go.”
  6. Inform others of your location. This means telling loved ones or close friends approximately where you will be and at what time. “It helps to keep accountable at all times,” Hussain says.
  7. Take around your ID. “Unfortunately, carrying ID with you at all times has become our reality as a community,” he says. “You need to do this to protect yourself especially as we don’t know what will happen in Donald Trump’s future with his terrifying rhetoric. I’ve even heard that some have their passports ready and on hand. Sounds extreme but that’s now life.”

Photographer: Justin Bridges; Assistant: David Zheng; Stylist: Justin Min; Groomer: Sierra Min; Producer: Sarah Springer; Editor: Maya Tanaka; Graphics: Sam Stringer-Hye