Celebrating Immigrant Families: Sang’s Story

By Sang Hoon Lee on March 29, 2018

Categories: First Person Perspective, Real Stories


My parents were on the immigration waitlist for four and a half years. Newly married, they sought to follow in the footsteps of thousands of other young Koreans trying to maneuver the best lives for themselves in the U.S. As they waited, my parents started a family, but didn’t lay deep roots in what was then a very underdeveloped South Korea. By the time they received approval to immigrate, my older brother and I had been born and we had 60 days to arrive in the U.S.

It’s tough for me to imagine the emotions my parents must have felt. My mom was seven months pregnant with my younger brother when she embraced her parents one final time. There were plenty of obstacles standing in their way to thrive in their new home. They didn’t speak English well and they had only $700 to start anew. I don’t recall it ever being less than a constant struggle for my parents to make it in the U.S. And while they made enormous sacrifices in these past decades, they did so deeply rooted in the faith that the America Dream was real and attainable for their three sons and future generations.

My parents pushed and toiled for my life to be better. My dad drove us to the library every Saturday during my entire childhood to keep us focused on our education and away from the street life. My mom worked in a sweatshop in North Philly until they saved enough for a little deli which they ran for 20 years.

Eventually, they’d see their commitment pay off when they watched my older brother from the front row of St. Peter & Paul’s Basilica give his high school valedictorian speech to a standing ovation. I went off to receive a full scholarship at a prestigious university, and my younger brother had his choice of top schools and professions as well. My education, my careers, my security and my healthy children are the results of my parents’ lifelong efforts.

My son Junoh, named after my dad, is the same age as I was when we immigrated. Like all parents, I want the best for him and his sister Rhoda, and they are the primary source of joy and hope for me. I also know from my personal experience that Junoh and Rhoda are starting at a very different place in life than my brothers and I had. I have a stable career, own a home, and am minutes away from both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

This is often not the case for most immigrant families. Not only are there economic and career challenges, but sometimes our closest family members are thousands of miles away. It’s tough enough being a parent in itself. Doing so in near isolation can cause incredible strain for even the strongest people. This is why I so deeply believe in the robust social support LIFT provides struggling families, in addition to financial and career interventions. I can’t imagine how anyone could be their best selves for their children without the help of others.

Later this year, my dad turns 70, and we’ll be celebrating 35 years as Americans. We’ll gather as a family, and I’m sure we’ll revisit some of his most joyful and trying memories. And like all family gatherings, we’ll also rehash current events, what’s happening in Korea, the immigration policy debate, the economy and all the rest. But what was true decades ago for us will still be true today for immigrant families, regardless of policy or public perception. We are hardworking, loving people. We appreciate the U.S. and contribute meaningfully. And we want for our children what all parents do – a chance for future generations to live the American Dream.


For the month of March 2018, LIFT published a series of stories that highlighted the power of parents, specifically those of immigrant families, as change agents. We asked our staff:

  • As a parent, how do you hope to change your children’s life for the better? How does that compare to aspirations of immigrant parents?
  • How did your parent change your life for the better? What if they hadn’t been there for you – where would you be? How does that compare to the risks that immigrant parents and children face now?
  • Share a story of a parent who inspires you and is changing lives for the better

Read the complete series:

Brian’s StoryAraceli’s StoryFrank’s StorySang’s Story

About the Author

Sang Hoon Lee

Sang Hoon Lee is Chief Development Officer of LIFT, a national nonprofit that empowers families to break the cycle of poverty. As CDO, Sang leads the people, strategy and operations driving the organization’s revenue across multiple business units and teams. Sang provides extensive experience building high-performing teams, managing governing and advisory boards, cultivating major individual Read More