Sunday, May 3, 2020

Q&A with Bilha Chesner Fish

Bilha Chesner Fish is the author of the new book Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants. She is a physician. Born in Israel, she is based in New York.

Q: You note, "Conflicting forces drove me to write this book." What were those forces?

A: I was encouraged by our women’s movement, the universal bonds of sisterhood, and the growing voices of #MeToo when writing the book.

Equally strong was my need to tell powerful stories to refute the policies that stuffs certain immigrants into one faceless group. No matter where they come from, how hard they work, or how American they are, we constantly hear that “they” do not belong here.

The indiscriminate targeting of immigrants from certain countries, plus the uncertainty and lack of protection facing the Dreamers resonated with me. The escalation has continued with the removal of children from their families crossing the U.S. southern border.

While I continue to grapple with the unfairness of the present situation, I understand the times in which we live.

We must protect ourselves from terrorists. We must make the United States a safe country. That means being vigilant and aggressive about who can enter. This requires responsible and thoughtful policies, education, and practices.

Listening to these stories, as I watched the tears fall and waited for the deep cleansing breaths to pass, I imagined the added fear that immigrants now face.

This reality prompted me to begin the journey of my book. As I met and spoke to these women and dug out their inspiring life stories of struggle and survival, I identified with them because parts of my life mirrored theirs. My resolve to write and celebrate their contributions to the world was strengthened daily.

Q: How did you choose the women you write about in the book, and what were their reactions when you asked them to be part of it?

A: I reached out to many sources that I knew to find the most incredible and accomplished women immigrants. Some of these women I have met throughout my own life journey and others I found reading about in The New York Times, or through introductions by friends.

From The New York Times I learned about Argine Safari, an Armenian-American who was chosen as the New Jersey teacher of the year. Also, Graciela Chichilnisky, an Argentinian-American professor of economics at Columbia University and a climate change expert.

I was familiar with books written by Isabel Allende and Chitra Divakaruni, whose books were made into movies that I enjoyed.

Some of these women crossed my life through my practice in Long Island. Through my community outreach center that I created, I met exceptional immigrant women such as Rwandan refugee Jaqueline Murekatete, whose family was slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide.

As a painter myself and lover of art, I became acquainted with the exceptional Chinese-American painter Hung Liu. One of her art pieces hangs on a wall in my home.

As a physician, I have read about specialists such as Dr. Waafa El Sadr, an Egyptian-American infectious disease specialist, and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a Serbian-American biomedical engineer and medical researcher in the field of tissue engineering.

My love of opera led me to explore young talents in this field, like Monika Yunis, a Bangladesh-American whose voice has filled the Metropolitan Opera. Also, Han Feng, a Chinese-American costume designer known for her exquisite designs for Madame Butterfly and others.

Q: How did your own experiences as an immigrant align with the experiences of the women you interviewed for the book?

A: My life story mirrors the life of the women in my book in many ways. I am an Israeli-American immigrant. When I arrived in the United States my English was far from perfect.

Plus, my medical education obtained in Italy at the University Bologna did not prepare me for the methods practiced in the U.S. I had to take all of the exams over to be able to obtain a medical internship in the States. I had sleepless nights while being on call. There was a language barrier, but I was determined.

It took guts to open my own practice, the Manhasset Long Island Multidisciplinary Radiology practice. I had to put my house up as collateral and it was a tremendous risk, but I took it to fulfill my dream.

After building this large and successful practice, I wanted to give back to the community that supported me, so I built a women’s center, called Pathways Women’s Health. It consisted of programs that educate women from 25 surrounding villages to be proactive about their health.

My foundation was known for other programs given to adolescents and provided group therapy for women afflicted with cancer.

If a person has a vision and is willing to work hard, take risks and have passion. The sky's the limit in America. I know my dream could not be achieved anywhere else but in America. Being thankful to America is one of the sentiments that the heroes in my book all share.

Also, every one of these women have given back to their community. As noted by Graciella Chichilinsky, an Argentinian-American climate change influencer, “The only genuine source of happiness in life is the feeling of being useful for others.”

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: The book is meant to encourage all women, but especially women immigrants who want to reach their dreams in this country. The “invincible” women in my book came to the United States as immigrants or as refugees, and albeit gender and race discrimination, they succeeded.

Most of these women had similar obstacles as the young immigrant women face today, such as language barrier and poverty. In today’s political climate, immigrant women need encouragement. I’m hopeful that my book inspires potential greatness in our young women.

I hope you develop admiration and empathy for the women in this book as you step into their shoes. And I hope you begin to see how grateful we immigrants are to America for the opportunities we have received—and for the chance to share our own talents and passions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My goal is to keep the voices of the women in my book alive through interviews, lectures and social media.

Right now the importance of immigrants is directly affecting our lives. As we isolate ourselves to survive this pandemic, some of these immigrants deliver our food and mail, work in hospitals and assisted living where they take care of the sick, and by doing so, they are risking their lives for us and for America.

I will keep telling their stories, hoping they will gain the respect that they deserve, and that they will no longer be considered “the others.”

It’s important to realize that a hard-working legal or undocumented person had the courage to risk his or her life in order to pave the road for us. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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