Melis Sönmez is the founder and director of Bright Side, an online magazine dedicated to telling the stories of creative immigrants living in the United States. With her small team, composed of herself, a writing volunteer, a social media volunteer, and a design partner, she hopes to empower immigrants and educate American citizens about the obstacles that they must overcome to live in this country. She’s starting at the grassroots level with her newest project, titled “From Immigrants,” a series of cards featuring vibrant artwork and brief anecdotes from immigrants that Sönmez will leave in various public spaces across Chicago. She wants the people who pick up the cards to think of them as love letters from immigrants to the United States. Last month, Sönmez launched the “From Immigrants” project on Kickstarter to help spread the love letters beyond Chicago.
The stories that Sönmez, 28, shares on Bright Side are those of immigrants who do some type of creative work and are having a positive impact on society. About a year after the magazine’s inception, she says that she has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, but she wants to be careful that she is not preaching to the choir. She hopes to reach those who may not have a true understanding of immigrants’ plight in this country.
“These people are not here to steal jobs,” Sönmez says. “Almost every person that I’ve interviewed so far, they’re here because they want to get some sort of different experience. Not everyone is here because they hate their [home] countries.”
Sönmez, a Turkish immigrant, came up with the idea to create Bright Side after her own struggles with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. She moved to the United States in 2014 on an internship visa, which expires after a year. The company that she was interning for offered her full-time employment, prompting her to apply for an H-1B visa, which allows for foreign workers in specialty occupations to work for U.S. companies. The H-1B visa is given out by way of a lottery and, unfortunately, Sönmez was not chosen in the lottery that year.
While the United States was the sixth country she’s lived in, she was ready to settle down in Chicago and build a life here. The company she worked for encouraged her to speak to an attorney, who suggested that she apply for a different visa, the extraordinary ability visa or EB-1A visa. Sönmez, a design reseacher by trade, applied and waited.
“I thought that I didn’t have a chance, and I was eventually getting ready to leave the country, but for some reason they gave me that visa,” she says.
However, she lived in limbo for nine months, unsure of her status and whether she would have to pack up and move back to Turkey. Since she couldn’t work legally and didn’t have much money, she spent most of her time at home and felt useless.
“I thought that I was the only person to go through those difficulties,” Sönmez says. “But then I realized that a lot of people overcome the same problems. So I was like, OK, this is interesting, I think [immigrants] need a platform where we can share these struggles but in a positive way.”
Being positive is important to Sönmez, and she wanted this to be reflected in Bright Side. It is a large part of the reason she chose Pilar Torcal, an artist from Spain who now lives in New York City, to be her design partner.
Torcal created the images for both the website and the “From Immigrants” project. Torcal’s style is very colorful and striking, which Sönmez loved and felt would fit well with her mission. Torcal also being an immigrant made her a perfect fit for Bright Side.
Sönmez is leaving the love letters in places like coffee shops, grocery stores, and mailboxes across the city so that everyday people have access to them. She hopes that the Kickstarter will help her afford to print 100,000 of the “From Immigrants” love letters to distribute in not only Chicago, but also New York and Miami. (She’s starting in those cities because she already has volunteers there.) Eventually she wants to translate the cards into various languages, and she hopes to see the project implemented in elementary schools, grow nationwide, and ultimately go global.
As the debates about immigration reform grow more heated—especially since the Trump administration issued its zero tolerance policy—this labor can be difficult at times, but Sönmez says, “The only thing that gives me peace of mind is that I’m not doing anything wrong here. It’s all positivity, and it’s not a lie. These are the things that people are going through, these are facts. I cannot live in fear.”
She is cautious about jeopardizing her visa, though. So while she recognizes that the plight of illegal immigrants is equally important, she only publishes stories of legal immigrants.
Her ultimate dream, she says, laughing, is “as Trump says, a big, fat, beautiful wall. [But] for immigrants.” The wall will feature a compilation of the images that Torcal has created for the “From Immigrants” love letters.