Des Moines Oral History Project
Interviewee: Ann Naffier
Interviewer: Laura Claydon
L: Okay, so I just have a few questions based off of our interview last time, and in addition to it. So I guess the first one would be, could you tell me more about your childhood?
A: My childhood?
A: So I was born in Maquoketa, Iowa. A little town in eastern Iowa. When I was three we moved to Dubuque and I lived there until I was 15. And then I like to say that my father had a midlife crisis. I don’t know if that’s really true. But he suddenly decided, not suddenly over a series of years, he decided he really wanted to work overseas and so he was a Lutheran pastor. And so he became a missionary. So when I was 15 we moved to South America. And I lived in Suriname, South America for three years. And then came back here. And went to college. So that’s pretty much my childhood.
L: Could you tell me more about what it was like to live in South America.
A: Yeah it was wonderful! I can’t remember if I told you this before but if we didn’t talk about it. So my father knew he really wanted to leave Dubuque and so we had this choice between going to South America or going to Minnesota. And I was totally rooting for South America because Minnesota just seemed so cold, I mean Minnesota is a lovely state but just like the chance to go overseas to me was really… at that time I really wanted to be a writer. And I looked at all my favorite writers like their life stories and they’d all done really interesting things in their childhood. And so I was like this is my chance. I have to do something interesting. So it was great. It was a Suriname, is just barely north of the equator, so it was very hot, tropical. I missed the winter. It was difficult. I mean definitely the culture shock and trying to get along and learn a new language. But it seemed like, like I remember having a lot of fun. Like I spent a lot of time feeling out of place. But it was natural to feel out of place because I was out of place so it wasn’t like in Dubuque I felt out of place a lot because I’m just sort of like a nerdy person. And there wasn’t a good explanation for that. Whereas in South America I could totally be out of place because look I’m not from here right? So that was… the weather, even though I loved the winter and I really missed the winter getting used to being in like 95 degrees all the time and there was no air conditioning, but you get used to it. And that was really interesting to me getting used to it, getting to know people from the country. I went to, I took school by correspondence. So I got together with a couple of other missionary kids and we, like four of us, and every day we would study in the morning together and then I would do the rest of my studies in the afternoon in my home or in the evening. But my dad’s church had a big vibrant youth group of Surinamers, they’re called Surinamers, so that was where I really tried to make friends and get to know people and the language and stuff. Yeah. It was just a really interesting experience and it was, it felt like it was the excitement that I wanted in my life.
Coworker comes in and gives Ann something. Ann shuffles through her papers to put money away.
A: Sorry! Nothing like losing money.
L: So you mentioned like culture shock. What do you think, is there like a certain thing that was most shocking to you or just stood out as being so very different?
A: That’s a long time ago…
L: Take your time!
A: Well, because now it’s all perfectly normal. So Suriname is a Caribbean culture. And okay so one of the first things I came from lily white Iowa right and everybody that we worked with were black because it’s a Caribbean country. Most of the people who were there were descended from slaves. So the first thing was being able to tell people apart because I had not seen a lot of black people in my life. And so like I kept, like at first I was talking, I know I was talking to a group of young people who later became my best friends. But at the time I was like oh are you brother and sister. And they were like “No!” because they didn’t look anything like. But in my eyes like I couldn’t tell yet. But also it’s a very lively culture. And I tend to be, like I told you I was an introvert I tend to be quieter. And so like they would joke all the time and they would joke with me. And at first of course I didn’t even understand what they were saying. And then like, oh so I remember early on we went to a youth camp and I was at the youth camp and we had, we were preparing snacks for everybody. And. It wasn’t like, the men prepared food as much as the women. But it was like it was at least one other woman and I, a young girl like a teenager and I. Probably a couple of them and we got together and we were peeling oranges. So the way they peel oranges is they take a knife and they just like spiral cut the whole peel off the orange and it leaves a lot of the white part of the orange so I don’t really like it anyway. I’m not sure why they do that, like maybe they thought it was germy or maybe that’s just what they’ve always done. I didn’t know how to do that. I’ve never done that in my life because we just always cut oranges in pieces right and we just suck it out of it peel like we never cut the peel off. So I was trying to do it and they made so much fun of me, I mean like not even friendly fun.It was like “oh my god you are the stupidest person in the world” and I could understand enough by then to know that that’s what they were saying. And like I was laughing and they were laughing, but they were like really insulting. So just stuff like that and that’s how they always were. And that was at first so I felt really bad. But like after, after long enough like that is what they’re like all the time like they’re always insulting and they’re always and they always say and they say nice things too. I mean I guess they’re like you know they see it as it, like if they think you’re stupid they’ll tell you. If they think you’re nice they’ll tell you. So I think that was hard at first. Like being able to tell those norms. And like is this okay? Do they hate me? Am I you know am I, I don’t know is there something wrong with me? So experiences like that.
L: That sounds very interesting. So when you moved back from South America, what was that experience like?
A: Reverse culture shock. So I came back to the University of Iowa. I came back to go to college and I did not know that they had a football team. Like I had…so in South America we had actually had, I was there for a couple of coups. Coups d’état, like when somebody takes over the government and on those days like we used to joke there, like in Iowa we used to have snow days in Suriname we would have coups days because whenever the government got taken over by someone else like we couldn’t go to school for a couple of days because the military would be out in the street and it would be dangerous to go out. So and when that would happen like there would be shooting in the street, like we were never in danger except for, one ridiculous stupid time that my dad walked out and actually wanted to go watch the battle going on. It was a really dumb to do. But otherwise like nobody ever shot at our house. So we would stay inside but there would be shooting and there would be gunfire and there would be. And there would be people, like mobs in the street, like again not dangerous, like I make it sound dangerous. It was dangerous for some people. It happened two times while we were there and each time probably about 15 or 20 people were killed. But it wasn’t like an all out battle. But I mean people did get killed. But anyway, so I got to university of Iowa and I was in my dorm room and the first Friday night before the first football game there were students like rioting in the streets like they were going in the streets and they were yelling. And maybe there were fireworks. I don’t know what it was. But I said to my roommates “oh my gosh what is going on”, like I thought there was a coup. Like that’s the only thing I could relate it to. And they were like “oh no it’s just a football game tomorrow” and I. Was like oh, I truly had, like I didn’t know people that went out, I didn’t know that people went out and drank a lot in college. Like I actually thought, like I had this very romantic image of college as being a place where people came and they studied and you know and they learned things. Which like I did and I found my friends eventually who did that too. But, and then my other story about that was like. So I was in my room, I was in a room with three the three of us, the other two.
People from small towns in Iowa. And very, you know not very aware of the world. They knew that I had been in South America. That’s the one thing I knew about me. Very quickly we realized we weren’t going to get along with each other very well. They were okay, they weren’t nasty to me or anything.But one morning on their radio which, they always played the radio and I hated it, but in the morning they played the radio, and I just didn’t like their station. And the announcer said that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. So Indira Gandhi was the President of India at the time. And I sat straight up in my bed because it was still in the morning and I was like “Oh my gosh you guys, did you hear that?” And they both looked at me really confused and they said “Oh is that near South America?”
Like the only reason that I could possibly care about somebody getting assassinated is it must have been near where I had been. And I was just like no [laughs]. But I think that was a good side too because like I told you in Dubuque I was always kind of nerdy and kind of not fitting in. When I got to Iowa City, I was still nerdy and not fitting in but, now I can say that I was from South America. And so again it was like oh that’s why she’s so different. Like that’s why she doesn’t know that TV show. That’s why she’s never heard that song. That’s why she wears such weird clothes. She’s from South America. I was like, yes I have an excuse now! So there was a good side to it.
L: That’s really interesting! I know you mentioned that you met Oscar when you were working at the Enunciation House, is that correct?
A: Yes, exactly.
L: Ok, could you tell me more about that?
A: About meeting Oscar, or?
A: Sure. So and Enunciation house is a safe house for undocumented immigrants. Sort of officially a homeless shelter. And. Oscar, so Oscar’s from Nicaragua. There was big civil war going on in Nicaragua at the time. And he was you know like by age 15, he and he had four older brothers, were probably going to get drafted into the army or there was also a guerrilla group and they would come and they would steal young boys and have them join them. So his mother was very worried about all of them. So she sent them all to Honduras. Oscar went when he was 14. He stayed there. He worked there for a couple of years. He couldn’t go to school in Honduras because he was an undocumented immigrant in Honduras but he could work in a factory, probably illegally. But I don’t know if he did that. Saved up a lot of money, kept wanting to go home. His mother kept telling him not to come home. So he finally, he of all his brothers and sisters, he was the first one who just said I’m not staying in Honduras anymore. So at like 16 he took all his savings and he headed up north. And he was going to come to the United States. So he was the first one to make it here. When he crossed the border by then he was 18 because it took a long time to get through Mexico. He was actually caught on the border and he was detained for about 11 months. In a detention center for immigrants in El Paso. And he finally at that time, so this is back in the 80s, and a lot of churches were taking a lot of interest in the problems that were going on in Central America and with Central American immigrants and Central American refugees. And so a church had come up with the money to pay the bond to bond somebody out of the jail, a Central, whatever Central American refugee. And they did bond somebody out, not Oscarbut that guy didn’t work out. Like he came and he lived at Enunciation House for a while that person, but like he wasn’t behaving or I don’t know what happened but in any case and Enunciation House basically said no we’re taking you, so they took him back to jail [laughs]. I don’t exactly know how that worked out, this is how Oscar tells me about it. So they have this bond money and so the head of Enunciation House at the time he was just like OK give me that one, and it was Oscar. So this church bonded Oscar out. And so he stayed at an Enunciation House for a while and then he did a lot of other things because that was back in like 1987 or 1988 maybe and then he traveled around. He lived other places but every so often he would always come back to Enunciation House. He kind of became the director’s favorite, like the director just loved him and so he would come back once he already had his papers. He would come back and he would volunteer at Enunciation House. So he’d done that several times. So then I got there and I’d been at Enunciation House as a volunteer for about a year and I ended up staying three years all together. So it was my second year there that Oscar back and volunteered for a while. So he wasn’t a guest, he wasn’t like one of our clients, like he was actually a volunteer. So that’s when we met and started dating. And then he left and so we ended up like having a long distance relationship for another year and a half before we finally got together again and got married.
L: That’s very interesting! I know you also mentioned that you’ve been back to Nicaragua with Oscar, and met his family. What was that like?
A: It was wonderful. Well because so I had been in Suriname and wanted to go overseas and I think I told you though that I knew that I wanted to live in the United States. But I always wanted to travel and especially once we had kids I really wanted them to have experiences.
So the first time we went back was Oscar’s first time back home in 15 years. And. That was really like reverse culture shock for him, that was really… Although mostly for him I think it was just really emotional. Like seeing all the places, because he had left when he was 14 and always wanted to go back and he’d been so sad that he had to leave. And so going back for him was like seeing all these places from an adult that he could only remember as a child and seeing people and stuff. So that was a really emotional experience. The first time we went back. And then after that we’ve probably gone four or five times now. So it’s gotten more and more normal. Now most recently his parents have passed away. In 2013 his dad passed away and we went his funeral there, which was the most beautiful thing ever. It was, he was, I mean I didn’t even no this, I visited several times before but clearly he was very popular in the community [laughs]. And he, and what they did. The house is maybe a mile away from the church. And there’s lots of other houses, that’s a town square and everything. So they actually had gotten a car, and a lot of people don’t have cars at all, it’s a small enough place that people can walk everywhere. But somebody had gotten a car to carry… so what they did is they did a vigil the night before so they had the coffin in the house and people came and they just stayed awake all night long. And it’s sort of like a big party, but it’s a low key party. It’s not like they were, they weren’t getting drunk or anything. There was alcohol but they weren’t having a fun time. And then the next day they close the coffin and we got this car that was going to take the coffin to the church so we could have a funeral. Except that there was a strike going on. Not a drivers strike, it was a teacher’s strike but they closed down all of the highways because the teachers were marching in the highways. So the car never came. So all these men…there were already like maybe 30 or 40 people at the house and all the men just picked up the coffin and carried it to the church. There were like eight or nine people, sort of like pallbearers except they’re carrying for a mile. And there must have been like maybe 200 people who gathered at the house, like it started with 40 but then lots of people gathered at the house, and this is the thing, the procession to the church. Like people expected to present to the church but we didn’t know that we wouldn’t have a car [laughs]. So we were just walking behind the coffin all the way to the church. And then we had the funeral. And then they took the coffin, they walked with the coffin all the way to the graveyard. Which was not that far, it was like maybe four blocks from the church but anyway it was just a really interesting experience.
And Seth was there and Seth was already, so in 2013 he would have been 13 years old. And it was just really interesting with Seth because clearly he could tell what was going on.You know usually he’s like up and around, and wild and running around. We dressed him up in clothes, new clothes like there were a black shirt, black pants which we didn’t know whether he would put up with new clothes. And he was fine with it. And he was quiet the whole time. He stayed awake and he was really respectful in the funeral. He walked really quietly with everyone down to the graveyard. From the house to the church, and the church to the graveyard. So the whole thing was just… and we have it all on video which Oscar still watches sometimes. And then last year his mother passed away. We didn’t go down for the funeral, Oscar went to the funeral, but we didn’t for that for a lot of reasons. But we haven’t been back since then. So it’ll be really interesting next time we go. We want to go this summer, this upcoming summer and see. But you know Mom and Dad aren’t there anymore. Nobody is even living in the house they were living in. So we’ll see how it is.
L: Yeah. That sounds like a beautiful ceremony.
A: It was a beautiful ceremony. It’s a really nice city. It’s not nearly as hot as Suriname was, its up in the mountains so there’s cool breezes. The sunsets and beautiful. It’s really quiet. The kids love it. There’s just something, even before cell phones and people being on their phones all the time, even before that the United States is a really tense, stressed out society. And going to Nicaragua it’s like, people just aren’t like that. I mean they have plenty of their own problems. But it’s just this much lower sense of, its just relaxed and you don’t feel that same sense of pressure, maybe for us of course we were on vacation. But it seems like the people around us like even the kids played with each other better. I don’t know if there was. It’s overall it’s just like a really nice place to be.
L: It sounds like it! Could you tell me a little bit more about yourself?
A: [laughs] Other than what I’ve already told you?
L: Yeah, just like who you are.
A: Who am I?
L: Yeah. Like how would you describe yourself I guess.
A: All right. So I would describe myself, I think I’ve already said, I’m pretty nerdy. I’m very natural, in the sense like I don’t wear make up and I don’t wear fancy clothes. I don’t perm my hair or dye my hair. I. Like to think that I’m smart. I like working with people but I am an introvert and I really like to be by myself. Like a perfect day for me is sitting in my house by myself reading a book. I really like other cultures. I really love music. Music is probably, like there are times, like mostly, like I’m not a depressed person at all and I never have been depressed, but there have been times that I’ve been sad. Or that I’ve been you know sort of lost, like what do I do with my life kind of thing. And there are times that I’ve thought you know if nothing else, life is worth living because there’s music. So I mean now I have my children so my children are more important than music but music is still really really super important to me. So that’s me.
L: I like that! I know you mentioned you went to law school, like you didn’t go straight after your undergrad, where did you go to law school?
A: I went to Drake.
L: Oh! Wow that’s awesome!
A: Yeah! I graduated from University of Iowa with my bachelor’s degree in 1988 and 20 years later in 2008 I went to law school at Drake. I was already living in the Drake neighborhood, I live just a couple blocks from here. And so I applied to several different law schools but we owned our own home and then Drake was nice enough to offer me a really good scholarship too so.
Coworker comes in to talk about work related things.
A: Anyway what was. I saying?
L: You were talking about you own your house, and Drake offered a scholarship…
A: Yes right. So it just made perfect sense to go to Drake. And it turned out to be a good place. And Bryn, who just stepped in, and she actually went to law school with me so we’ve been together for awhile.
L: That’s so interesting! That’s awesome.
A: I hope you can hear this recording through that horrible heater.
L: I’m sure it’ll be fine! Could you tell me a little bit more about your experience as an immigration lawyer currently?
A: Sure so currently, so I already told you how I got here right, so currently. So right now, I probably already said this to you, but it’s a very very stressful time for immigrants. A lot of Central Americans are here in a program called temporary protected status. And last week they just announced. that those who are from Nicaragua, these are certain Nicaraguans, not all Nicaraguans, but certain Nicaraguans their temporary protected status, which they have had for 20 years, has been terminated. So we’ve got Nicaraguans who, not many in Iowa but who have lived here for 20 years who now suddenly are not going to have status. Hondurans, also had it for, a certain group of Hondurans, also had it for 20 years and they have been told that there’s been no decision made about their case. So they’re extended right now for another six months. But they don’t know what’s going to happen after those six months. So they’re really up in the air again. They’ve been here for a long time, what are they going to do. Like seriously they’re going to pack up and sell their house and move back to Honduras right now? Probably not. And in a couple of months we’re going to find out about Salvadorans. who also have TPS [temporary protected status]. And that’s hard to say. I mean it’s like 200,000 Salvadorans all over the country. But many many of them here in Iowa. So it’s definitely a very high stress time for immigrants. I think I told you we’re doing some work just with our staff about secondary post-traumatic stress disorder just because I mean that’s what we’re dealing with every day is people who are very very concerned about their own future. And then we’re trying to do everything we can to help them. So it’s really really busy. On the other side we have, we still have new refugees coming in from, like right now we’re working with a lot of refugees from Burma from South Sudan from Somalia.They’re going to be able to stay here. But they’re going through all that initial culture shock right of like they don’t speak English and they don’t understand what’s going on and it’s hard for them to keep appointments because you know sometimes in other countries things don’t run by the clock. Like they don’t know what 3:00 is you know, like if they come in the afternoon they think they have come on time. So that’s I mean that’s a more hopeful side like you know at least you know these people are going to be here, they’re going to learn eventually. But so it’s a lot of stress all around. I mean it’s also wonderful. It’s also in a way like I almost feel like it’s a cheating job because it’s like if you are any other type of attorney you have people, like people work with you and they’re happy to work with you but, they’re not super grateful. Whereas immigrants are just always so grateful. Like that the end when, luckily you know we win their cases. But you know, I don’t know, they’re just always happy and they give us hugs and we feel like we’ve done a good job which other people do really good jobs too and they don’t get nearly as much the same level of gratitude as we do. So I like that part of this job.
L: I feel like that would be very rewarding. I think that’s all of my questions, like in addition, but I did want to ask you a couple of questions about framing the narrative that we’re going to be creating.
L: So how do you think you would like your story to be told?
A: With music [laughs]
L: I’ll make a note of that! If I can figure that out I will definitely try that.
A: What other options do I have?
L: I mean, anything, just what you would like. Is there any certain type of music?
A: I really like Latino music.
L: I will see what I can do with that! Are there certain main points that you would like people to take away from your story.
A: Like what they would learn from it?
A: That you can feel nerdy and out of place in society and still have a really good life.
L: Okay, I like that. Is there a certain way you would like the story to be introduced?
L: Okay. Do you have any overarching frame you might want for your story?
A: I don’t know. Sorry!
L: No, no it’s totally fine! I have started like reading through the first transcript of the first interview we did and something that I really liked was your explanation of bounce.
L: I really enjoyed that because I could see that working in to various aspects of your life like with the resilience of immigrants, Oscar, your experiences with Seth, so I don’t know if that sounds like something you might like…
A: Absolutely! I think about it all the time so that makes sense.
L: It just like that explanation just really resounded with me, like wow that is such a good way to describe experiences in life.
A: And it’s from a movie that was not that good but it was a great part of the movie [laughs]
L: Good to know! Do you have anything else you might want to add? Just in general, overall…
A: Well you had asked me last time about like what were some of the really bad time with knowing, and I don’t think I told you this story, but I thought of it afterwards and this is just explaining the bad times, so it’s a weird way to end the interview. But at the time that I came to the realization that there was something wrong with Seth, and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, and now I wouldn’t want to even say it’s something wrong, but something very different that we weren’t expecting, and at the time I would have said wrong. I used to go into my car, I don’t think I told you this, and I would be driving places. So one thing, I don’t know if I said this, that I would actually, no I’m not actually going to say that. I would listen, there was one particular song that I really liked that I would listen to and I would just cry and cry and as long as I was in the cry it was okay, I could cry as much as I wanted. And then one night, I just got up in the middle of the night and sat in the bathroom and just cried. And the weird thing about that night is, have you ever heard about like having a third eye?
A: Like it felt like I was in the bathroom sitting on the floor crying my eyes out. And there was part of me that felt like it was up in the corner that was looking at me. And saying…So this is the thing, Seth, like I was coming to the realization that there was a problem. Seth had not changed at all. Like two months earlier Seth was exactly the same kid as he was two months later.And so this like me up in the corner looking down at myself was like why are you crying? This is the exact same child that you’ve always had like nothing has changed with him. The only thing that’s changed is your realization of what you’re noticing. But he’s still the same. So that was one of those moments that like it was a really low moment but it was also a, like why is this a low moment. It’s like you can’t help your emotions. But also this thought of, it’s fine, or not it’s fine, but it’s the way it always has been. Anyway so that was one of those.
L: That sounds very profound. Kind of just realizing that its ok.
A: And that sort of bouncing thing too. Because even though at that moment I was like yeah he’s what he’s always has been like it happened over and over again like yeah like we go through all sorts of things and then it always comes back to me like, no he’s fine and he’s going to, this is how he’s going to be. But then I forget that and get worried about it again. And then it happens all over again.
L: Well thank you for sharing that with me.
A: Yeah, okay, so that’s all I have!