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portraits of americans

American Stories

To mend the fabric, let’s start by listening to immigrants.

John Noltner

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Frustrated with the world’s focus on what separates us, I set out to use my photography and journalism to explore the common humanity that connects us. Over three years, I drove forty thousand miles across the United States, asking people, “What does peace mean to you?”

It’s a simple question, but one that quickly gets to the core of who we are as human beings and what we value as a society. It opens the door to conversations about our greatest hopes and deepest fears. It leads to dialog about race, gender, faith, justice, conflict resolution, civic responsibility, and social change.

Cesar, an undocumented immigrant, photographed by John Noltner.

César, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, crossed the border on foot at age sixteen. Listen to the interview.

In each case, we sat down for an hour-long recorded interview, and then I took the person’s portrait. The results are shared in a book, A Peace of My Mind: American Stories, in a podcast, and in a traveling exhibit. I interviewed people from many backgrounds and walks of life, but in the following pages I’d like to introduce you to a few of the first-generation immigrants I met, who have each made this nation of immigrants a better place.

Certainly there are problems in the world that could put us at odds and turn us into enemies. But what if we shifted that focus? What if we emphasized the beauty and good in one another? What if we celebrated examples of positive change? What if we simply took the time to listen to one another?

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Talat Hamdani

Talat Hamdani immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in 1979. On September 11, 2001, her son Salman, an NYPD cadet and an EMT, didn’t come home. Talat searched the hospitals and morgues, but found no trace of her son. Because of his Muslim faith, some surmised that he was complicit in the terror attacks. Six months later, Salman’s remains were found at Ground Zero with an EMT bag by his side. He had given his life trying to save others.

portrait of Talat Hamdani

In fourth grade, Salman came home from Catholic school and said, “I don’t want to go to school anymore, Mama. Other kids say, ‘You’re not a Catholic. Why are you coming here?’”

How is our pain different? How is your pain superior to my pain?

I went to the principal and she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” A couple of days later he came home and said, “I need a copy of the Qu’ran to bring to school. Our social studies teacher told the whole class to bring in their book of faith.” That is what this country needs: education about other faiths and tolerance and diversity.

My objective is to show the American people – especially non-Muslims – the face of a Muslim who died that day, show them that his family suffers the same pain as anyone else. Just because we are of a different faith doesn’t mean that the pain is less, or that we don’t miss our child, or that we are insensitive or cruel. No, you cut, we bleed.

Yanina Calderone

Yanina Calderone was born in Guatemala City. She moved to New York City at age fourteen to live with her father. Yanina was raped at age fifteen and became pregnant. She decided to keep her child. Rather than let a violent act ruin her life, she chose to funnel all of her love toward her child. When Yanina left an abusive husband, she made ends meet by selling drugs, got addicted to heroin, and joined a street gang. Today she participates in Alternatives to Violence Project, a program that teaches nonviolent conflict resolution.

portrait of Yanina Calderone

There was this lady who was going through domestic violence. I knew it, but I didn’t ever say anything until that day I saw her crying. I talked to her. I said, “Are you afraid of him? Don’t be. That’s how they get you.” She asked for help.

I let go all of the hurt and decided to do something for others instead of me.

I’m like, “I helped somebody. I can do this more often.” I have so many experiences in my life: addict, victim of domestic violence, rape victim. I can talk about it now. For seventeen, eighteen years, I never told nobody that I was raped. I never told no one that I had a son from rape.

I don’t regret what I have done in life because it allows me to help others. If I can stop you, I stop you.

Listen to the interview.

Penina Bowman

Penina Bowman was seventeen years old when soldiers showed up at her home in Hungary and told her family they had twenty minutes to pack their bags. They were told they were being sent away to work, but the train brought them to Auschwitz. Penina lost her parents and forty-two other ­relatives to the Holocaust, but she and her siblings survived.

portrait of Penina Bowman

My two sisters and I stuck together and that’s what helped us survive. When one of us was down, we would encourage each other. We prayed. Psychologically, I think prayer helps. I didn’t lose my faith and I didn’t lose my sanity. Having something to believe in helped us survive.

I don’t hate anybody. Hate is a very powerful thing. It destroys you instead of other people.

When I first came to the United States, I saw so many of my fellow Holocaust survivors who were destroying themselves because of their hate. They couldn’t enjoy life, they couldn’t go on with their lives, and I said, “This is not going to happen to me.”

I would not wish war on anybody. People don’t realize what it means to live with guns and soldiers and the fear that you’re going to be killed any minute. And the worst part is that people don’t appreciate what they have. Because of what I went through, I learned to appreciate everything and not make a big deal out of little things. I let them be.

Chris Okere Odundo

Chris Okere Odundo grew up in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Seeing a lack of fundamental sanitation, Chris started a nonprofit organization called Power of Hope Kibera to address basic health and hygiene issues. He met his wife when she visited the slum working on similar issues for a US-based nonprofit. They now run Power of Hope Kibera together out of Boulder, Colorado.

portrait of Chris Okere Odundo

I can say that in Kibera people love each other and there is peace and joy. What sometimes does take away my peace is people who stay here in America and think there is no hope for them. They don’t come and talk to the people.

If you want to make peace in a place it takes time.

I try to bring youth together because they say that youth can do anything to make peace happen or not happen in a place – they are very flexible to do anything. I try to come up with meetings and talk to them: “We need to come together, love each other, and work together so that we have peace, because if we have peace we will go far.” Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t.

In Kibera you find dogs barking everywhere. If you try to stop the dogs barking, you can’t reach your destination. So I’ll leave alone the dogs that are barking without any benefit and go forward, and I’ll make it to my destination instead of focusing on the dogs that are just making noise.

Julissa Arce

Julissa Arce came to the United States when she was eleven and became undocumented three years later when her visa expired. She paid for college by operating a funnel cake stand and graduated with a degree in finance. Using false papers, she landed an internship at Goldman Sachs, was offered a full-time job, and eventually became a vice president. Today she is an American citizen and an advocate for immigration reform.

portrait of Julissa Arce

If my English isn’t very good and I’m working as a waitress or a dishwasher at a restaurant, people are going to question me. But because I was working at Goldman Sachs and graduated cum laude from a top business school, no one was ever going to think twice about me or question my credentials.

We should be thinking of the eleven million people affected by the inaction of our country.

It’s easy to place the blame on a group of people who don’t have a voice, who don’t have representation. That’s what is happening. How is it possible that we can blame eleven million people [undocumented immigrants] for all of our problems?

Eleven million people currently cannot live as full human beings. Eleven million people are scared every day of being separated from their families. If they’re driving down the street and get pulled over, they will be deported. I know what it’s like to live with that fear. That should be at the center of the conversation, because it’s a human rights issue.

Hassan Ikhzaan Saleem

Hassan Ikhzaan Saleem was born in the Maldives. Raised in a family that encouraged reading western classic literature, he fell in love with the American West and the idea of working with horses. He attended college in New Mexico and lived with a family that owned a ranch. There he learned to ride horses and to train them in the Vaquero style, with a focus on patience.

portrait of Hassan Ikhzaan Saleem

I work with this red horse, Caspian. We work and we get things done and I’m so proud of myself. I come back next morning and he’s forgotten everything or I’ve forgotten everything, and it doesn’t work. It’s hard to be calm at that moment. I get frustrated. I get mad. But tomorrow is a new day. All is forgiven.

If humans were like horses, there’d be more peace on earth.

I’m not Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. My parents said to me, “You might never change the world and you might never see the change you want to see, but at least you tried.” So that’s why I try. Even with horses. People say, “Aw, you’ve been working with this horse for six months, he still sucks.” And I say, “Well, I’ll keep trying, and one day that horse will be great and I’ll ride him in the biggest rodeo. I’m going to take him up in the high country and pull a steer, and it’ll be the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Watch the interview, or listen to a podcast of it.


Photographs courtesy of John Noltner.

Contributed By photo of John Noltner John Noltner

John Noltner, a Minnesota-based freelance photographer for national magazines and Fortune 500 companies, founded A Peace of My Mind in 2009. Visit apomm.net to learn more.

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