Bridges From Borders features local restaurant during The Anne Frank Project presentation

Angela Caico, Staff Writer

The owners of Elmwood eatery Taste of Siam were featured in a first-ever immigration story-telling project for Bridges From Borders, as part of The Anne Frank Project on Thursday at SUNY Buffalo State College.

Bridges From Borders is a non-profit organization that provides advocacy, education and counseling services to help with cultural transitions for refugees, immigrants, international students and overseas employees.

Taste of Siam co-owners and siblings Mimi and Bobby Sysomboune were the subjects of #MyStory, one of the winning ideas of a contest sponsored by Bridges From Borders’ 2020 Mental Health Ambassadors Program. It is a narrative and photography project that aims to encourage unity through the telling of personal immigration stories.

A presentation was organized by high school students Sunya Afrasiabi, Shir Paz and Venera Kalinina, their mentor Vithaya Kanhalangsy, UB student Shiyue Cui and an exhibit by photographer Michael Mandolfo.

Mimi Sysomboune told the story of how she and her brother were brought to the US as refugees when they were toddlers.

Although they arrived as permanent residents with their parents through a sponsorship, they were originally separated from the rest of their family at a refugee camp.

“Our sponsor found the rest of our family and helped bring us to them. We were able to find our whole family,” she said.

She recalled being taken from the camp for an hour each day to a class called ESL to learn how to speak and write English. She credits their present-day success in the restaurant business to her father’s culinary talents, and recipes handed down in their family from eight generations. They even brought a tasting-size portion of their vegan pad thai for guests attending the event.

“We were very fortunate that our father knew how to cook,” she said. “That’s what made us successful.”

Angela Caico

#MyStory aims to connect younger generation immigrants with senior immigrants by allowing students to conduct the interviews for the stories. One of the reasons people immigrate, Sunya says, is the hope for a better life.

“What does a better life entail? Does it include extreme poverty, discrimination, mental and physical health issues – I don’t think so,” she said. “But somehow that seems to be the reality for immigrants.”

Shir, the second student to present, says her family was fortunate that her father was able to find a job and a place for them to live right away, but the citizenship process is lengthy and invasive for all immigrants.

“Immigrants are asked things like, ‘was anyone drunk at your wedding reception, what do you and your spouse argue about,’ and even, ‘where do you keep spare toilet paper,’” she said to the audience. “Now which of these would make you uncomfortable to answer?”

Bridges From Borders plans to continue and grow the #MyStory project in the upcoming year.

“Now more than ever, people need to be united,” said Yan Liu, Bridges From Borders founder and president. “We have only one story for now, but we will have another ten stories in the new school year.”

@michaelmandolfophotography From left: Mimi Sysomboune-Robinson, Vithaya Kanhalangsy, Bobby Sysomboune, Sunya Afrasiabi, Yan Liu, Shir Paz, Shiyue Cui (Michael Mandolfo)