Making It in America When You Don’t Speak the Language
How an undocumented, non-English speaking street food vendor from Egypt makes it in America.
“Hi, how are you?” “What can I get you today?” “Chicken and rice?”
These are the few questions Mohamed Saad* needs in order to run his business, a halal food cart that was parked on a corner in Midtown. Conversations with customers are kept short, especially when longer lines form around lunchtime. There’s no catching up, asking about kids, family, work, or what his customers are doing for the weekend. If a customer tries to engage with him as he prepares their chicken and rice combos, Saad ends the dialogue quickly and politely with a smile. Sometimes he nods along until they stop talking. It’s not that Saad doesn’t want to talk. In fact, he is yearning to converse with his customers. But Saad doesn’t speak English.
“I know the names of everything I am selling. And that’s just about as much as I need to know—a few basic questions—in order to make money,” Saad explains.
Saad, who is in his thirties, is from Egypt. He is also undocumented. Liverpool and Chelsea are his soccer clubs, and when we speak, he wears a black and white Adidas tracksuit. He has a sharp, close-cropped haircut with a fade, an athletic build, and his hands are decorated with a few rings. Saad listens to Egyptian hip hop like Abyusif and Wegz.
Saad’s preferred pandemic activities include exercising and cooking at home, especially seafood. And when he does go out, he likes to explore new cuisines. Currently, he’s enjoying Yemeni food, particularly Yemen Café in Bay Ridge. He would like to travel to Egypt to visit his family that he misses so much, but due to the pandemic, he remains Stateside and his halal park sits in a garage rather than on the busy street corner that he loves.
Saad entered the United States from Egypt in 2014 on a visitor visa. Other Egyptians have entered through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, he shares. Like many, he came to the United States looking for economic opportunities; there just weren’t enough jobs in his home country, and Saad didn’t want help from his family. He has no family in the U.S. They still live in Egypt, where Saad has one sister who lives with his parents, and his father has a butcher shop where the entire family works.
But Saad wanted to build his own business, so he turned to street vending.
Street vending can be an appealing option for those who are new to the U.S. or have limited to no English language skills. Just a little understanding of the language and the business is needed—at the very least, you can get by on body language and context clues, as Saad does. Street vending also doesn’t require citizenship or immigration status, so an undocumented worker can apply for a food vending license. If an undocumented person wants to work at a supermarket or store, they will be asked for their Social Security number.
Whenever customers try to talk with Saad, he curtails the conversation. Customers never get frustrated with him, but he gets frustrated with himself.
“I understand what they are saying, but I cannot express myself,” he tells me. “And I feel embarrassed.”
“Not being a native English speaker has been really challenging,” Saad continues. “While there was no opportunity in Egypt, the options for employment here are really limited.”
Undocumented immigrants who don’t speak English will struggle more than their bilingual counterparts: finding work is more difficult, as well as securing the resources needed to live in a foreign country. It can also create frustration and even hostility with English speakers who attempt to interact with them, generational language divisions within families, and barriers between the English and non-English speaking communities. Hearing a different language itself is a signal and can spark fear in others. According to the Pew Research Center, language is a significant sign of group and national identity and a means to quickly recognize strangers.
According to the U.S. Census, 8.3% of the U.S. population five years and older speaks English “less than very well.” Non-English speakers tend to be isolated in their new communities and resented by their neighbors of the native population.
Saad tried attending an English grammar class, but grew bored. The courses were general English courses, not specifically for Arabic speakers. And he was always so tired from long days spent vending.
On a typical day, Saad wakes up at 6 a.m. and has to be at his halal cart by 7:30 a.m. to begin setting up for the morning coffee and breakfast rushes as workers hurry on their way to their offices. It’s a two-hour process to get the cart prepared. And then he works non-stop on his feet until 7 p.m. when he starts cleaning and closing up for the day. Saad takes his cart to the garage to wash it in preparation for the next day. He then heads home by 9 p.m., usually falling asleep by 11 p.m.
The English courses took place over an entire day each Sunday, his only day off. Saad also had to pay $100 per class, which is substantial for a street vendor’s salary. Pre-pandemic, his daily sales were $300 to $500, with a total profit of only $100 to $200.
Immigrants make up 31% of workers in the state of New York. Even though immigrants are an increasing part of New York—and the U.S.—workforce that contributes to the economic growth, state and federal funding for English as a second language programs, such as ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) or ESL (English as a Second Language), do not keep up. The number of state-funded ESOL seats has declined by 32% over the last nine years, from approximately 86,000 seats in 2005 to 59,000 in 2013. These programs offer speaking, writing, reading and listening skills to learn English or improve English language skills. They also help develop conversational and regional speaking skills, such as colloquialisms, slang and idioms.
Saad speaks English to people as much as he can; he understands it very well, but he cannot phrase his intended sentences as he would like.
“I am always scared of messing up. I am comfortable being in the Egyptian community. But generally speaking, I am not so comfortable when I have to speak English,” Saad says.
Navigating his new country and city when there is an extra added layer of difficulty—a language barrier—is complicated by those who would try to take advantage of Saad.
Outside of himself, his greatest frustration lies with the New York Police Department. He has received many tickets while working in various locations throughout Midtown. Saad’s lack of English make it difficult to defend himself from minor violations—or violations that are not warranted at all. Usually the conversation edges toward disrespect, says Saad. “The police do not respect the vendors.”
“Xenophobia is a form of racism that has been embedded in our laws,” says Professor Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.
This prejudice is something Saad deals with as an immigrant street vendor, as do many vendors like him. According to the Justice Department, immigrants or non-citizens make up 64% of all federal arrests—but mostly for immigration violation related issues, not violent crimes. U.S. citizens actually accounted for the vast majority of non-immigration arrests in figures from 2018—91% for violent crimes, 93% for public order violations, and 96% of all arrests on weapons charges.
“Dealing with the police is very risky, especially not knowing how the situation might end,” says Saad. “Getting tickets has been the worst part as the fines are so high to pay.”
Saad has never been arrested, but always worries that it could happen. The last time he interacted with the NYPD, he received a ticket for having an empty box outside his cart.
“There is something known as ‘Code 21’ amongst the police force, which means 20 tickets and one arrest monthly,” explains Mohamed Attia, Managing Director of the Street Vendor Project. The Street Vendor Project is an organization under the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit that provides legal representation and advocacy to various marginalized groups of New Yorkers. Specifically, SVP is a group of over 1,800 street vendor members advocating for change and justice in the current legal system that unfairly targets vendors. Attia himself was a former street vendor for nearly 10 years, selling everything from hot dogs to smoothies. He explains, “Vendors are an easy target to meet that quota given their immigration status and limited English skills.”
When Saad receives a violation, there are no translators or interpreters called to the scene. According to him, the police usually take advantage of the situation—the officers don’t explain what they are doing and use the language barrier to their advantage.
Throughout the pandemic, Saad has been home, not working. But when it is over, he would like to study English again.
He doesn’t necessarily want to get a different job, especially since he is undocumented. But even within street vending, having more language proficiency would open a lot of doors to build more relationships with customers, he explains. And perhaps a door to another side job due to loss of work caused by the pandemic.
He feels his world is now a bit smaller and “tight.”
“I always want to speak; I want to share my opinion,” he tells me. “I don’t like to be quiet.”
*Interview conducted via translator.