Unlearning a Language

The American Dream was out of reach for my immigrant family

Adeline Hocine
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readMay 28, 2019


Illustration: Asli Yazan

“W“What are you doing, habibti?” she asked, confusion growing into concern. I had been humming a quiet tune to myself and paused without looking up.

“I’m breaking the dolls’ heads,” I replied.

My mother tried to force a laugh, but her voice betrayed her. “Why?”

Still, I didn’t look up from my dolls, answering her even more decisively than I had before. “Because. I’m going to put them in the oven like they’re doing to the mommies and the babies in the village,” I said and continued to play.

II was three years old when my parents left me and my younger brother in the care of my grandparents. The Algerian Civil War had been taking place for six years already and would continue for another five. I would not be there to see its end.

My parents traveled overseas, where they hoped to find not success but survival.

Back home, my mother had been a beacon of hope for the women in our village—proof that our voices carried more weight than we were led to believe. But here, in America, she was suddenly rendered mute: Every word, every phrase passed through her lips only to be spoken by another’s. She quickly learned that while words can be translated, feelings rarely could.

The American Dream, for us, had not been free or cheap.

As my mother struggled to secure green cards for my brother and me, it became clear the very people she had hired to help her were those she should fear; they saw her circumstances not as a vulnerability, but as a weakness.

She decided to take matters into her own hands. Once her English had improved enough, she wrote a letter to the state—each word containing every feeling she had not been able to communicate. Two years after my parents left Algeria, my grandparents traveled with my brother and me to America, reuniting us with our parents.

The American Dream, for us, had not been free or cheap.

TThe American Dream—an idea so ubiquitously understood across generations of immigrants—was not immediately realized upon our arrival in the United States. I don’t know what…