Editor's note: Jasmine Fernandez is on The Collegian staff.
“At the age of 13, something happened to me that has affected all of my life.”
That something is a part of a larger narrative that Dr. Harold Fernandez said he shared with so many others. That something was when Fernandez and his brother left their home in Medellín, Colombia, to illegally come to the United States.
“In reality, it’s not just my story,” Fernandez said to a room full of University of Richmond students and staff members on Tuesday, Oct. 30. “This is the story of 12 [million] to 15 million immigrants right now that have no documents.”
From Colombia, Fernandez and his brother were taken to the Bahamas, where they left on a boat after two weeks of waiting out rough seas. The small boat traversed the waves of the Atlantic for seven hours before they arrived at Miami.
“Everyone in the boat was sick. Everyone was crying. Everyone was praying,” Fernandez said. “The only thing that was going through my mind in those minutes and hours was asking God for one more second so that I could see my mother again.”
The last time Fernandez had seen his mother had been over two years before that day, when his parents had left Colombia to begin a new life in the United States.
“My mother and my father were in America looking for opportunity, looking for dignity, looking for a better way for us to be as a family,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez and his brother did reunite with their parents upon arriving in Newark, New Jersey, after their flight from Miami. But his story does not end there. Rather, it stretches further back to his time in Colombia under the care of his beloved grandmothers, and further forward to his schooling, struggles and success in America.
In Colombia, Fernandez’s childhood was filled with happy memories, such as playing soccer in the streets until dark, but also with less lighthearted ones, given the danger present in his town, where drug violence was commonplace.
“In the same streets where we used to play soccer, I saw some of my friends lose their lives,” Fernandez said.
After the event, Fernandez said that growing up in Colombia had changed everything in his life, all the way down to his ability to interact with others.
“The influences of growing up in a different place were very powerful in my life,” Fernandez said. “Everything to the way I relate to people, the way I treat people, the way I treat my patients. I feel that those lessons that I’ve learned really allow me to be just more personal and make a more personal connection with people.”
When he came to New Jersey, Fernandez adapted to a lifestyle that was safer, but still full of complexities and struggles. Fernandez returned from school every day without being sure whether his parents would still be there, given their lack of documentation. In middle school, Fernandez fought other kids who called him a refugee and almost got suspended. It was at this point, when his mother was on the verge of tears, that Fernandez decided he would propel his life in a new direction.
He worked hard in school and in his extracurricular activities. He got a job as a newspaper delivery boy and was determined to be “the best newspaper delivery boy in America.”
“The same energy, the same mindset, the same enthusiasm, the same grit that I used to deliver papers is what I used to become valedictorian of my high school,” Fernandez said. “I became a fanatic about my education.”
Once he began believing in himself, Fernandez kept striving to achieve more. He used a forged green card and fake social security card to apply to Princeton University to study molecular biology. Upon his acceptance, his time at Princeton was full of academic accomplishment and emotional hardship. As a routine check-up for students with green cards, the dean of foreign students asked to see his green card in a letter. Fernandez feared his dreams of being a doctor were crushed in the folds on the dean’s envelope.
“I didn’t even belong at Princeton because I didn’t have documents,” Fernandez said.
But Fernandez had people on his side. When he shared his story with a close professor of his, Fernandez immediately gained an advocate. The professor spoke with the university’s president, who assured Fernandez that the school would take care of him. Eventually, Fernandez’s whole family received documentation with support from faculty members and even U.S. politicians such as then-President Ronald Reagan.
Fast-forward to today and Fernandez is a top cardiac surgeon in the New York metropolitan area with a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He also has published his autobiography, “Undocumented,” and been the subject of a documentary and multiple newspaper articles, including “An Undocumented Princetonian” by The New York Times. He also has a wife and two children – one of which is senior Jasmine Fernandez.
When asked about what it meant to have her father share his story with members of her school, she was almost speechless.
“It was really just special to me to have him here because other than him, I’m the second person in my family to go to college,” she said. “To have my dad come speak at my college, to my professors and to my classmates is just a feeling I can’t describe.”
Fernandez, following his event, also commented on the significance of this Tuesday afternoon for him.
“It’s one of those moments that I really try to enjoy,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez and his daughter both shared the sentiment that this event was not only important for them, but also important for the community at large in the current political climate toward immigration. Fernandez was optimistic about the state of America, but asserted that listening to stories of immigration can really help the country.
“I still feel America is the greatest country in the world,” Fernandez said. “America is still the most compassionate country in the world.”
For Jasmine, it is important to share stories such as her father’s because they reveal a different side to immigration that many overlook – the tearing apart of families. This is especially felt by Jasmine because she knows her father never got to say goodbye to one of his grandmothers before she passed away in Colombia.
“I think that’s one of the most dehumanizing aspects of immigration that people don’t quite think about when they’re enforcing a border or a border wall,” Jasmine said. “They’re not thinking that there are millions of people who will never see their family members again – and not by choice.”
Fernandez left his audience with much to consider about the issue of immigration, but also concluded his speech on a much lighter note that included three life lessons he learned from his grandmothers: Education is adaptability and helps people see different perspectives; a smile is the way to someone’s heart; and showing people that you care should always be a priority.
Junior Fatema Al Darii sat in the audience of Tuesday’s event and quietly considered the importance of caring and how it has affected her life as an international student from Oman.
“There has been so many people who have been really, really kind to me and have gone above and beyond,” Al Darii said. “Having that support and the care coming from them anyways is what really made my experience so great in the U.S. so far, so I think it is important to share the credit of people who’ve helped you along the way.”
Contact co-features editor Abby Seaberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.