November 15, 2018

UMass Medical School professors illustrate immigrant journeys

Photo/Grant Welker
Matilde Castiel, left, a UMass Medical School associate professor of medicine and the Worcester commissioner of health and human services, and Naheed Usmani, a professor of pediatrics. The two told their stories of coming to the United States as immigrants.

Matilde Castiel was just 6 when she came to the United States, alone without her parents, who remained in Cuba.

Castiel was one of more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children brought to the U.S. in what as known as Operation Peter Pan, an effort to spare children from the fledgling reign of Fidel Castro, who came to power a year before Castiel left.

"I was too young to know how it really affected me until I got older," said Castiel, who is now the commissioner of health and human services for Worcester and an associate professor of medicine at UMass Medical School.

Castiel arrived without speaking any English and was initially placed into foster care. But she was safe in the U.S. and joined four months later in Los Angeles by her parents. Though she avoided indoctrination into Castro's communist government, challenges still lay ahead, including forging a path for herself that was often as odds with what her Jewish parents, who were born in Istanbul, had for her.

"We were supposed to be dating and getting married and having kids, and I wasn't doing any of that," said Castiel, who went to University of California San Francisco for her medical degree and to St. Louis for her residency before joining UMass.

Finding their place

Castiel shared her story Wednesday in the first of what UMass Medical School plans to be a series in which immigrants at the school tell their histories. Around 15 percent of the school's 6,000 total employees and students are foreign-born.

Naheed Usmani didn't come under trying circumstances as Castiel did, with her story more similar to those who get a better education. Usmani came to the United States after graduating in 1980 from medical school in Pakistan, where she grew up. She had a fellowship at New York's prestigious Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and joined UMass in 1999.

"It was the warmest, most inviting place I've ever worked," Usmani said of UMass.

Usmani followed her mother, Amina, a primary care physician, into medicine, and told a story of a girl who was rebellious from a young age, just like her mother.

"My mom was a feminist before there were feminists," said Usmani, one of six children. "She raised her daughters to be independent."

Photo/Grant Welker
UMass Medical School and the UMass Memorial Medical Center's University Campus. Around 15 percent of the medical school's students, faculty and staff are foreign-born.

When Usmani landed in New York, she said she found the United States to be exactly as she wanted it. She was finally free from objectification of women back at home and able to pursue what she felt was anything she wanted. Her father gave her permission to marry the Harvard student she met only if she first took a qualifying exam for medical school in the U.S.

"If someone says I can't do something, I have to do it," she said.

Castiel was similarly determined, even if it meant pushing away from her more traditionally minded parents. In Los Angeles, her father took up a job taking paint off of furniture and her mother folded towels in a factory. At medical school, she knew she was getting ahead in part because she was a minority student, a Jewish Cuban woman.

"You went to school always knowing that you're one of 'those people,'" she said.

Giving back

Castiel and Usmani speak most passionately about those facing the challenges they passed through.

For Usmani, she founded the New England chapter of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America. There are an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 such doctors in the United States, Usmani said, and she will lead them as the president-elect of the national group.

Usmani has traveled back to Pakistan on a few occasions to help medical students like her. Those trips could be a reminder of what she left behind, with a bomb blast hitting her hospital once and killing one of her patients. She said much of her drive professionally comes from wanting to prove herself and her fellow Pakistanis in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, when they could be looked at more suspiciously.

"I needed to establish a professional identity in this country," she said.

Castiel established Cafe Reyes in 2015 on Worcester's Shrewsbury Street, a Cuban eatery staffed by Latino men who are in drug recovery. She called it her proudest achievement.

Castiel choked up as she talked about her own journey and those similar to it taking place today.

"When people come to this country, they come for a better life," she said. "We may not have all the background, but they come here and they work and they do some amazing things."

Castiel disputed arguments immigrants who come are too dependent on the government, saying they often come to flee persecution or other challenges back home.

"We're hard-working people who give a lot back to society," she said.

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