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10 Lessons I've Learned from My Immigrant Father

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On March 5, 1965, a twenty-eight-year-old Armenian physician, boarded a plane in Tehran, Iran, headed to John F. Kenedy airport in New York. He embarked on a journey that forever changed the trajectory of his life and generations to come. This young physician, was my dad, Dr. Arnauld Nicogossian.

As a first generation daughter of an immigrant, my father's life is veiled and mysterious. I am grateful to be learning more about his early life over the past several years, a delicate balance of wanting to know his history and being respectful with the pacing of traumatic and tender memories. Regardless of his experiences, the father I know has been an example of incredible work ethic, love, and dedication to his family.

My father's side of the family originally from Armenia, were composers, physicians, journalists, writers and politicians. His father, my grandfather, died when my father was eighteen months. The trauma of losing a father and husband propelled his family into an enormous amount of stress and at times, poverty. My grandmother Claudia became the sole provider, and his sister, my aunt Lala, thirteen years older than my dad, stepped into the role of caring for my dad when my grandmother worked.

As a mother now, I can only imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother, widowed, with two children, dealing with trauma and living through uncertain times. I also think of my aunt taking on the responsibility of caring for my father, putting her academics on hold to help her family. If there is one thing I am deeply grateful for, I come from a long lineage of strong, brave women, on both sides of my family.

When I reflect on my dad, I naturally think about the accomplishments and contributions to medicine and the space program, NASA. But what stays in my heart and grows with love and appreciation is what I have witnessed and learned from my father, over four decades, being his daughter.

Here are 10 Lessons I have learned from my Immigrant Father:

1. Family First. Always. My father was the first person in his family to come to the United States. Over a period of time, through his help and coordination, his sister, mother, brother-in-law, and nephew joined my father. His family unit, strong, with a deep sense of loyalty to one another, as they made a decision to migrate to a new country. Throughout my life, I observed this in actions, words, and connection with his family. Family comes first, always. And for my mom, sisters and I, nothing was more important than the six of us. Whatever may have been happening in his life or the lives of his family members, my father always showed up, connecting and giving support.

2. Education, Education, Education. My parents have always emphasized the importance of education. For my father, advanced education, college and beyond, is not an option, it is a requirement. My grandmother Claudia shared this trait, directing my father to enroll in dental school, pausing my father's passion for studying astronomy. Ultimately he had the final say, compromising to study medicine when he transferred from dental school to med-school to become a physician. Years later, once in the US, he pursued a degree in Aerospace Medicine where he established a long tenure with NASA and the space program. Thankfully for my sisters and I, we were given more choices to pursue our interests in our careers. But the premise is strong: education and career ensure stability, opportunity and the opportunity to contribute and share your gifts and abilities.

3. Less About Self More About Legacy and Contributions. My father is the most humble person I have ever known. He had more than his share of professional accomplishments and achievements through his work as a physician, scientist and thought leader with NASA. But he is reluctant to share his accomplishments. Our family joke is this: if you want to learn about his accomplishments, don’t ask him, because he won’t talk about it. So to learn about his achievements we google him to find out! My fathers sense of humility with his accomplishments have been a core pillar in influencing how I show up in the world professionally. My fathers work may have been about a goal or mission, but it was never focused on him. The highlight of achievements was through the broader lens of sharing his gifts, abilities, intellect and the betterment of the community, research or world.

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4. Stability for Children and Next Generations. When I think back to my father's decisions in career and home, every choice came down to the stability, opportunity, and security of his family and future generations. I believe this goes back to the early impact of migrating from one country to the next, enduring hardship and loss within his family and the challenges of adapting to a new country. and the connection of family to care for and help one another through difficult times. He is a doting grandfather to nine grandchildren, and he is interested, involved and loving to each of them. Some of my most cherished moments have been at a family dinner when all of us are together, and I hear my dad say to my mom, "Look around, can you believe fifty years ago, it was just the two of us, so much love, what a family we have built."

5. Selflessness. Sometimes to a fault, my dad often does not put his own interests high on the priority list. For example, he drove a used car for most of his life, purchasing his first new car when he was 63 years old. My fathers' focus was on work or family, seldom if at all, taking care of himself in the way he cared for us or encouraged us to care for ourselves. I am grateful over the past several years, he is finally taking steps in the direction to care for himself as he does for others.

6. Perseverance over Obstacles. Throughout my life, like many, there have been many obstacles. Whenever obstacles present, small or large, my father is there to cheer me on, offer advice, encouraging resolve and creative problem-solving. Through his example, I have learned to be focused, determined, pause and regroup when there is a failure or an obstacle, but ultimately, if you want something, you find a way. My father's life is a living example of this gift.

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7. Connection and Longing for One’s Homeland, Culture, Traditions. Throughout my life, wherever we have lived or traveled, my father loves to pop into bookstores, grocery stores and prepares food reminding him of his culture. I can see the comfort and connection he feels bringing parts of early life into his everyday world. And I feel so fortunate to now be sharing these traditions and cultural experiences with my daughters. Through my father's experience, I see the importance of retaining culture and traditions as they are inextricably woven into every part of who he is, which brings him connection and comfort.

8. Kindness When Judged. My father speaks with an accent. As a child, his accent, was part of him, just like my mom, who grew up in New York, who had an accent of a different kind. I never knew anything different, until one day a clerk in a grocery store became irate with my father over his accent.

I was around the age of six, and shopping with my dad. At checkout, there was an option to write a check to receive cash back in addition to the cost of the groceries. My dad said he wanted money back and would write the amount he needed over the total balance. The clerk was confused, irritable and kept raising his voice saying, "I don't understand what you are saying." He repeated this over and over, escalating to yelling at my father.

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My father in turn, respectfully, paid and skipped getting cash back. I remember the conversation between my dad and I afterward. I asked him why did that man speak to you like you did something wrong? My dad, shrugged it off, gave him the out that he was a new employee and we went on our way.

I wish I could say that was the only time I witnessed my father being treated differently for how he looked or sounded, but it was not. Over the four decades of my life, I have seen upsetting, cruel and judgmental reactions to my father for how he looks or how he sounds. One of the most heartbreaking times was when we were on a beach vacation when I was in my late teens, and my father had one of the encounters about his accent. Afterward, as we walked on the beach, he said, “Sometimes I wonder if I should learn to remove my accent.”

Twenty-some years later writing this now, tears fill in my eyes as they did when he shared this with me. And of late, over the past several years, I have been at celebrations and gatherings where in this politically charged time with immigration, my dad has heard horrible comments of about immigrants. As always, he responds with kindness, dignity, grace, compassion and a constant reminder about his journey as an immigrant. My father has genuinely helped me to see, those who judge others reveal more about their inner worlds and selves than the person they are judging.

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9. Don’t Get Focused on Small Dramas or Issues. I believe when a person has life experiences that threaten one’s safety, security or livelihood, it can have a lifelong impact on how one shows up in life. This is very true with my father. I will never know the depth of what he, my aunt, grandmother Claudia experienced when my grandfather died resulting in immigration to a new country and then yet another. As my father and I move across this journey of life, there have been lovely, treasured gems, where he has shared with me some of those early, painful and traumatic memories. And for me, hearing them now as a mother to four daughters, I can only imagine what this must have been like, and at times its heartbreaking. But what I am left with is this, a more in-depth understanding of why my father doesn't really dwell on small dramas or issues, he is more of a big picture and perspective kind of a person. I think when you go through so much at an early age, for years, the experiences changes you in a way, opening up a bit of perspective taking to understand genuinely where you want to put your energy.

10. Women Can Do Anything. My father was raised by strong women, married a strong woman, and raised four strong daughters. My father has been surrounded by and nurtured by a lot of female energy! And most importantly, he and my mom encouraged my sisters and me to know that anything is possible, indeed anything! In 1972, my father began working for NASA, and he became an advocate for women to be in space, science, and research. When I was in middle school, I remember the excitement my dad shared with us as Sally Ride, became the first female astronaut to fly in space. He always advocated for Women in Space, and in his heart, I could see the women he encouraged and mentored had a special place in his heart with all he gave to NASA.

As I was writing this, I chatted with my dad, sharing I would be posting this piece. Of course, true to his core, he made sure to mention that in all of the words I share about him, to remember he couldn't have had the career or the family, without the love, hard work and support of my mom. And that is the person my dad is, giving credit where credit is due, understanding how connected we all are to each other on our journey.

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