Leaving your home country comes with a lot of obstacles — to say the least. Some of our families have decided intentionally to leave home and make a new one in the U.S. in search of the “American Dream.” Though we came from different parts of the globe at different times and for different reasons, I am learning that something we immigrants seem to have in common is our ability to use hardship as motivation to aspire to dream big for our future and feel “American.” Sometimes, this isn’t a choice. Either way, we face the surreal reality of a completely new life in a foreign country.
This is a story of two teenage immigrant girls, with different backgrounds, coming to the U.S. for different reasons, at different times, but facing the same obstacles and sharing similar hopes for the future.
One Refugee’s Story
My name is Moza Yena, and I am originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is located in central Africa. My family moved from Congo back in 2006 into a country called Tanzania, which is located in west Africa. We went there into a refugee camp. In … [the] refugee camp … we didn’t have a lot of opportunities, especially the education opportunities. At that time, I was little so I don’t remember much. The only thing that I do remember is when I left Tanzania to come to the United States.
Back in 2010, my family got a chance to come and resettle in the United States of America. … When I first left my home country, there was a lot of chaos going on. That was one of the main reasons I had to leave.
Leaving from Tanzania to the United States was a little different, because I didn’t really know anything about America. When I first heard people talking about America, they always talk about how it snows or it’s very cold, so every time that I thought about it I was like “oh my gosh, I’m not used to cold! I’m the type of person who doesn’t like cold, so what happens if I come here? Am I going to survive?” and things of that nature.
The experiences when I first came to the United States was a little hard for me because I didn’t speak the language, which is English, as well as the culture was very different. When I first arrived here, one thing that actually surprised me is that people stay inside the house. You go to school, you’re in a car, you come from school, you go into a building, sometimes people do not get a chance to go outside. That was one thing that kind of shocked me, so I was like, “How am I going to meet people? How am I going to know who’s my neighbor or who’s who?” ‘How does that work, like how do people live here if the only thing that you do is just stay inside or in your car?
There were a lot things that puzzled me. As I spent time here, I got use to it, and now it makes sense to me, I guess. I went to a school called International Student Center, where I learned English, and actually back in 2015 for the sum of my junior year I got a chance to intern there. As a refugee, I shared my experiences with the students there and gave them courage of how it feels like if you are coming from another country.
[I would tell them:] Coming to this country, don’t let yourself down because there is a lot of opportunities here, and do not just let the opportunities go, just because you cannot speak English does not mean that you cannot do what you’re supposed to do, that does not mean you cannot accomplish your goals. At that time I went to Clarkson High School, and it’s mainly for a lot of people from different places it’s very diverse. At that school, I got involved with a lot of things: I was a part of the Beta Club, I was a part of National Honors Society and throughout those clubs I was able to learn a lot of stuff and was able to reveal myself and try to find what I want to do with my life. I wound up making a decision that I want to go into the medical field, because I feel like that is the best way I will be able to help and give back to my community.
As I get older, I realize that one thing you have to make sure is that you give back to the community … I want to make sure that I use the education opportunities I receive to help my community out. Without our community, there is no way we get to where we need to be, ‘cause in order to be successful there is someone that actually plays a big role in our life … When we become successful [we can] encourage everybody else to make sure that they give out to the community in some type of way, in some type of charity, that would be beneficial and make sure that people would be actually appreciating what you have done for them.
So, overall just do not get discouraged when you come to a new country and you don’t know english or you coming to a country where you are not use to anybody or anything, everything is new. Go out there and find out: People are out there to help you out. There are organizations there to help you. Make sure you take that advantage, and you use those organizations as a key to lead you to where you want to be. Since I came here not knowing a lot, as time went on I taught myself stuff that I didn’t know of, I met new people, I made new friends, and all that. It’s just working out for me.
Moza, 20, is a junior at Georgia State University, studying nursing.
One Immigrant’s Story
For me, coming to the United States from India for the first time at the age of 5 was something beyond stepping out of my comfort zone and entering a realm of unworldliness in which I was left feeling incompetent. My world turned upside down. I remember stepping off of that airplane and looking around at a place filled with diversity that showed through everything from food to people. I was so used to being surrounded by people who looked like me and spoke like me — all these unfamiliar faces made me feel different for once. That was a scary, yet comforting feeling as it gave me the power to identify myself as per my own standards.
Granted, at that young age I was far too innocent to fully grasp the entirety of the situation and its impact on my life, but I did know that a lot of things would not be the same. I knew my friends would no longer be a block away, and that coming home from school my grandma’s dinner wouldn’t be sitting on the dinner table ready for me relish.
Instead, I was raised with the issue of not knowing when the people who meant the most to me would be more than a voice on the phone once in awhile. You have to watch those close bonds slowly fade as distance separates you — we were all literally two worlds apart. As culturally shocked and out of place as I felt, I was fortunate enough to have parents who sought out my future and made the decision of leaving their families for a country where they were not familiar with anyone. It was a huge initial adjustment for the three of us, but luckily we had each other.
I never learned to read, write or even speak English before arriving in the U.S. I remember my first day of preschool, where everything was a challenge — from making friends to understanding what goes on in the classroom as the teacher spoke gibberish. Luckily, I went to a preschool that valued diversity so much that at our graduation ceremony Indian flags hung from the ceiling to commemorate my home country. I felt appreciated. I was never overwhelmed, even with everything that went on around me; rather, every obstacle I faced, whether it was learning to speak or meet new people, pushed me to work harder.
The first time I went to my elementary school to register for kindergarten was a tough and confusing process. Although I did not know how to fully communicate in English, I was a grade level ahead in math, a universal language. My principal saw my strong potential in math and in angst suggested I skip to the second grade. With the help of my father and a lot of dedication, I was able to learn basic reading and writing skills so I could skip a grade. I carry that type of dedication into my life to this day.
Growing up being influenced by two very different cultures has taught me a lot about adjustment. I go to school, and I’m one person. I’m speaking English, and I have my American friends. When I come home, I speak Hindi, and my family interacts more with our Indian friends. When I am on the phone with my parents, my friends say my accent changes; I sound completely Indian. My brain has automated itself to fit into two different settings — fitting in two different cultures — at home and at school.
My bicultural identity has defined how I interact with those around me and has helped me embrace my culture and be more versatile. I have learned to take advantage of the ample opportunities that have been closer to me than ever since my move. Given access to all of this has helped me learn more about myself every day and made it more important for me to give back to my community.
Getting to the U.S. was just the start of a never-ending journey that will continue for my a lifetime. Being fortunate enough to receive the opportunity of coming to a country some people can only dream of sets up a lot of pressure to succeed so I can make my parents and family proud. It is up to me to work hard toward my dreams, not only for my family and myself, but also for the millions of people who fight to come to this “land of endless opportunities.”
Teens: Please join the VOX Investigates team and our community partners for a teen-led dialogue on Immigration on Dec. 9 at the Loudermilk Center. RSVP at bit.ly/VOXDEC9