Glee star Naya Rivera makes her directorial debut with this awesome video in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month #WelcomeUS
In the year 1970, Naglaa Gaafar was born in Alexandria, Egypt. After devoting her early years to family and receiving her Bachelor’s Degree in English Language and Literature, as well as a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics from Alexandria University, Naglaa reached a pivotal point in her life. A yearning for something more and an undeniable sense of courage led Naglaa to travel 5,324 miles across the Atlantic to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, at the age of 28.
“I think there comes a point…when you feel that whatever you’re looking for does not exist where you are, and you have to take a risk and explore somewhere else. And I took a very big one.”
Naglaa’s journey began with an opportunity and desire to further her education. She received a scholarship for her master’s degree and attained a teaching assistantship for the professional writing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her life progressed rapidly, as she married her husband and moved to Rhode Island six months after her arrival.
A continuous sense of feeling welcomed in Rhode Island and interacting with good natured people paved the path that transformed Naglaa from an Egyptian woman into an Egyptian American woman. Encouraging professors, supportive in-laws, and community oriented neighbors pushed Naglaa and her husband along as they built their life together. The couple took root in a small apartment, with one car, while both husband and wife worked multiple jobs and attended school. About a year and a half into their marriage their responsibilities grew with the addition of a third family member, their daughter. Life was hectic and busy, but Naglaa loved everything about it.
Naglaa has been working in higher education for 21 years, beginning when she still lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Her first full time job in the United States was at Cornell University. She worked her way through multiple positions, from faculty to administration. Currently she works at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) as the Director of the Center for Excellence and College Readiness. Naglaa’s passion for teaching, however, remains the same. She has always kept one leg in teaching and describes its importance in this way: “Now I teach part time, it’s my passion.” While teaching does serve some self-interest, Naglaa is also doing some systematic bridge building between administrators and professors, two groups that sometimes struggle to understand each other.
The troubles caused by misunderstanding are not unique to Naglaa’s chosen profession in education. She frequently witnesses a misinterpretation of immigrants and their intentions by US-born citizens. Naglaa wants immigrants to be viewed as people who bring their rich cultures and add to what already exists in America, not take away from it.
“I want to contribute. We are not here to take anything away from anybody. We are here because we took a chance on ourselves. We put life in a bag and said goodbye to every dear person to our hearts. It was gut ripping, but we said we were going to plant roots here.”
Naglaa has lived in the United States for 16 years, yet she has remained connected to her Egyptian family and Egyptian roots. She travels to Egypt once a year, however, the sense of coming home isn’t felt on the journey there; it is felt on the journey back. Naglaa is who she is because of the experiences she has had as an immigrant living in the United States. She identifies this country, the place where she established her own family, as home and finds value in the individualistic culture of the United States.
“What I would say about my experience here is, what happened to me coming through my journey is I was able to shed a skin that was given to me and find my own spirit…If you’re here to know more about yourself, this is the perfect environment because you are on your own.”
Naglaa’s confidence, charisma, and enthusiasm for life are contagious. These qualities are evident through her story and the way in which she encourages growth in students at the Community College of Rhode Island:
“Everywhere you go there will be people who think that they are better and people who are going to think that you are less, and that doesn’t matter. It only matters what you think of yourself. If you treat yourself with respect, and as an equal, the world tends to respond to that.”
Written and compiled by Colleen Andersen and Claire O’Connor
Sandra Cano was born September 9, 1983 in Medellín, Colombia where she attended Catholic school and enjoyed swimming. Her father was a manager of an airline company in Colombia. During the 90’s rebels were kidnapping business-owners to hold for ransom. Unfortunately, Sandra’s father was on this list. He was kidnapped and ready to be killed, when miraculously, a former employee, who Sandra’s father had helped years ago, let him go saying, “He’s not on the list. Take him back home. He doesn’t have any money, he is just a man working for the company.”
After two weeks of being separated from his family, he was advised by his boss to seek political asylum in the United States. He traveled to Rhode Island to be with his son who was studying in an exchange program at Brown University. Upon Sandra’s father’s arrival to the US, he was advised by the government to bring the rest of his family with him, so that they would be protected as well.At age 17, Sandra was a student at the University in Colombia and had dreams of being a journalist or news reporter, but had to sacrifice her education in Colombia to move to the United States to find safety. She arrived to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in September 2000, where she and her family reunited with her father.
Sandra, reluctant to leave because she was already enrolled in the University, promised her father to live in the United States for six months to learn English. She was unprepared for the setbacks she faced, especially because she had already gradated high school in Colombia after 11th grade, but was placed back in high school to complete 12th grade in the United States. This was most frustrating since she had to attend the same English as a Second Language (ESL) class with her younger thirteen year old brother, who constantly teased her.
Despite this frustration, Sandra continued her life in the United States. She received her Associates degree from the Community College of Rhode Island. Sandra then transferred to Rhode Island College, and completed her bachelor’s degree at Bryant where she was able to obtain a scholarship. Most recently, Sandra obtained her Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Rhode Island.
Sandra is now the Assistant Vice President of Business and Community Development for Navigant Credit Union in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She never gave up her journalism dreams; she volunteers at a Latino Public Radio station where she hosts her own public radio show. In addition, to her professional career, Sandra serves her community in Pawtucket, Rhode Island as the first Latina to be elected to the School Committee.
Serving in a public office as a young, female immigrant, Sandra feels that her leadership capacity is sometimes questioned. Some members of the community consider her accent a weakness, and assume she is uneducated. As a young Latina she still struggles to have her ideas heard and taken seriously. Sandra hopes to combat negative stereotypes and push forward a positive vision that immigrants and refugees are not looking to take advantage of, but to help make the Unites States a better and stronger country. She explains,
“There are a lot of negative perceptions about immigrants and refugees, and people don’t know their stories… I want you to understand that I’m coming here to contribute to this country; I’m not coming here to take away from this country. And, we all together could be a community. I mean, everybody is an immigrant, other than Native Americans.”
Despite facing some adversity, Sandra felt encouraged by all who believed in her. She continues to take a stand on issues important to her community.
“Every time somebody would shut the door on me… somebody else would give me that encouragement to continue…In Pawtucket we have a lot of work to do…it is still very divided. So, [we have] the Latinos here and the Cape Verdeans on this side of the city, and the white, Irish, and French Canadians on this side of the city….and they’re not really integrating. So, I would like to work together, or do something to try to help.”
Sandra still misses the family reunions and traditions of playing soccer at her grandparents’ home back in Colombia but it looking forward to starting a family of her own in Rhode Island. Sandra’s desire to have a happy and healthy family comes from her dad, admiring how selfless he was in doing everything he could to help his children create successful lives in the United States.
Sandra envisions a bright future ahead for the ocean state.
“I want equal access opportunities for my [future] kids in terms of education [and] job opportunities. I want a Rhode Island that has a positive economy…And I am positive for the future of Rhode Island. I think that more than ever we have had our struggles, and this time communities and people are getting together…to put our vision forward; a positive vision forward.”
Written and compiled by Colleen Dusel and Katy Foley
Andrew Mangeni was born in the nation of Uganda, in East Africa. As a young boy he started his schooling in Uganda, and later on in England. With the urging of his uncle who was a medical professor at Brown University, Andrew came to the United States in 1990 to pursue his higher education.
He received an associate in fine arts degree from the Community College of Rhode Island, and later went on to complete his bachelor of science in music education (cum laude) at Rhode Island College. Andrew then began teaching music in the Smithfield Schools while continuing his education at the University of Connecticut, where he obtained a master’s degree in music education. In the fall of 2002, he began to teach as an adjunct professor at Rhode Island College, while maintaining his job in Smithfield. Currently, he is attending Boston University to receive his doctoral degree in music education and continues working at both Rhode Island College and the Smithfield Schools.
When Andrew came to Rhode Island, he felt both welcomed and unwelcomed. Some people embraced him fully, like the family at his church who took him in “like he was their own son;” they even gave him the very first car he drove in the United States. Andrew quickly became friends with a fellow foreign student from Guatemala named Stuardo, and the two became like blood brothers; to this day their families remain very close. On the other hand, others were less eager to welcome Andrew; some people were quick to judge him because he spoke differently from them, or perhaps they thought that as another immigrant he had come to take opportunities away from society. Andrew explains that:
“They [immigrants] add to the fabric of our community. Many of them are simply looking to improve themselves… If someone is looking to improve themselves chances are the community in which they settle will improve as well.”
In fact, that is exactly what Andrew has done. In 2008, Andrew and his wife Anna became ordained as pastors at New Dimension Church, where they are serving the local community to build stronger families.
Andrew states that he was always blessed with great opportunities growing up, whereby he always had three meals a day and did not lack much growing up in a blessed household; he credits his parents for giving him the opportunity to acquire a good education in Uganda, England and later on in the United States. Currently Andrew has settled in a city with an economically diverse population; however, it was not until he returned to his native Uganda in 2009 that he fully recognized the impact of his blessings compared to others around the world. On this trip to Uganda Andrew was able to visit remote village areas where he saw a lot of people [especially children] living under severe poverty conditions.
“While we were driving on the streets of Kampala at night, we were shocked to find little children between the ages of 3 and 8 years… who were abandoned on the streets to beg for food into the late hours of the night.”
After seeing this Andrew and his wife Anna together with other friends decided to start a non-profit charitable organization to help widows and orphans; in 2011 they started AAM Global Mission and Pennies On Purpose (a capital campaign), with the sole purpose of building schools that service orphans and helping widows create small farming businesses to improve their sources of income. Andrew considers helping less fortunate people as his greatest achievement in life; his passion for education and charity combine to create this accomplishment.
“I believe that if I had not received the gift of education I would not be where I am today; if it were not for education you would all not be where you are today. So we want to use education to help widows and orphans get back on their feet and become self-sustained, that’s my greatest desire.”
Andrew and his family are planning to return to Uganda this summer, along with a team of volunteers to complete building a school they started in 2013. Andrew’s future includes retiring from teaching and dedicating his life to serving widows and orphans through AAM Global Mission. Their hope is to build over 100 schools over the next ten years around the world, and through education projects they hope to reduce poverty in Uganda and in other countries such as Haiti, India, Guatemala and several others.
Andrew hopes that one-day Rhode Island will be more diverse.
“I want a kind of Rhode Island that is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” kind of Rhode Island; that’s the kind of Rhode Island I want for my children. I want my children to look at a person of any race and receive them without any reservations. I want my children to sit down and enjoy the same brotherly relationship that I have developed with my friend Stuardo from Guatemala… I want, a Rhode Island where people really respect each other, where my kids respect any kind of person, background, and I think that would be a better Rhode Island for all people.”
Andrew loves Rhode Island and would not move to live anywhere else—since this was the first and only US state he has ever lived in; he feels a very deep connection and claims to have been bitten by the “Rhode Island bug.”
“I’m proud to be an American. I became an American last year . The United States has become my home; I’ve been living here for the past 24 years, and it’s a big chunk of my life. The United States is home for me”
The Mangeni family currently resides in Lincoln, Rhode Island, and is looking forward to another mission trip to Uganda early this summer.
Written and compiled by Lizzy Tighe and Brian Millham
Victor Morente was born on January 17, 1990, in Zacualpa, Quiche, Guatemala. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, where the community suffered from lack of food and clean water. Victor remembers the people living in extreme poverty, in houses built of Adobe mud, with no cars.
Due to the civil war and genocide in Guatemala at the time, Victor’s mother fled the country and crossed over the border as an undocumented immigrant in 1994. She was forced to leave Victor behind with one of his aunts because he was too young to accompany her. At the age of six Victor finally embarked on his journey to the United States. He crossed The Rio Grande on a raft, traveled through Mexico, and walked the deserts of Texas. After finally reaching an airport in Texas he was able to take a plane to Providence, Rhode Island.
Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in the Southside of Providence with many other minorities, Victor felt welcomed. He was an excellent student, who put a lot of time and effort into his schoolwork. In high school however, Victor was told that his dream of going to college would not be possible because he was an undocumented immigrant. He became disillusioned and stopped doing his schoolwork.
Two years after graduating high school, Victor and his family finally received a phone call from their attorney who informed that they had a court date scheduled at the Boston Immigration Court based on their immigration application for asylum protection. When the court date finally came, his mother was extremely nervous, while Victor remained calm and confident.
After 16 years of waiting, Victor and his mother finally were granted legal permanent residency. He believes the struggle he went through from being an undocumented immigrant motivated him. “And that’s why I am even more driven now because for a long time they told me I shouldn’t even be here right now.” Victor was determined more than ever to pursue his dream of going to college and continue to work hard to become successful.
After making a trip back to Guatemala with his family last summer, Victor saw how Guatemalans struggled to put dinner on the table for their families and how the government was not protecting its citizens. This only motivated Victor further, because he saw where he came from and how privileged he is today to have the opportunities that he does in United States.
“If you have initiative, it doesn’t matter where you are from, you can definitely become successful.”
Victor attended the Community College of Rhode Island part time while he was undocumented, and then transferred to Rhode Island College after his legal situation was resolved. He is currently a senior at Rhode Island College where he is majoring in Political Science and Public Administration, while also minoring in International Nongovernmental Organizations. He is a member of the National Political Science Honor Society, also serves as the President of the Programming event board on campus, and is currently interning at the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office.
He hopes to attend law school with the goal of one day becoming an immigration lawyer. Just as he received assistance throughout his journey, he hopes to be able to help other immigrants toward their path to citizenship. It was for that reason that he also interned at Dorcas International Institute this past summer in the Feinstein Center for Citizenship & Immigration.
“I feel that if you get help from someone, it’s your duty to give even more back.”
Victor resides in Providence with his mother and brothers. He is a strong believer in the importance of recognizing the individual contributions of Rhode Islanders from all cultures and backgrounds, and that stories like his must be shared more often.
“I was so afraid of what people used to think about me, but why not tell them? In high school they always made jokes about going to your home country, and being a wetback, and I remember those jokes. For a long time it was shameful, but now there needs to be more stories about these things.”
Written and compiled by Evita Iiskola and Andrew Hopkins
Stephanie Alvarez was born in Cali, Colombia in 1994. When Stephanie was only six months old her parents uprooted their lives and headed to the United States. As cooks, her parents found jobs in Providence in the culinary field and struggled to offer their children a better life in the United States.
“Well like a lot of other people, they came for the search of better jobs, and a better place to raise a family. They chose [Rhode Island], I think, because they heard a lot about economic opportunities, and it was a small state and seemed like a good place to settle.”
Settling in Central Falls, Stephanie was raised with Colombian values infused in her life. Although she does not remember Colombia, she still identifies with Colombian culture, largely in part because of her mother’s influence. She was taught Spanish as her first language and is proud to be bilingual.
“Growing up in Rhode Island was great, but it was really hard. My first language of course was Spanish, my parents knew next to no English; so going to school was really tough without knowing English. I got made fun of a lot for my heritage, and as a child that really affected me.”
Stephanie is currently a student at the Community College of Rhode Island and hopes to transfer to Providence College to pursue her dream of becoming a pediatric surgeon.
When she is not in school or working full time as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Waterview Villa Nursing Home in East Providence, Stephanie is taking care of her two-year-old son, Christopher, whom she refers to as “the absolute joy in my life”. She is raising him to be bilingual; with a strong sense of Latino values that she believes played such a pivotal role in her life.
Stephanie hopes to one day be able to travel back to Colombia to see the rest of her family, especially her older brother. Her parents did not have the financial means to bring the entire family to the United States and had to make the hard decision to leave Stephanie’s older brother back in Colombia as the rest of the family went to Rhode Island.
Since Stephanie left Colombia at such an early age, she does not actually know her older sibling personally, but rather has a relationship with him through social media. This has a deep impact on Stephanie who wants nothing more than to have her family in its entirety together in the United States. “You know, we have been trying [to bring family members to the United States] for a really long time. It has been a long and tedious process, hopefully one day it will happen.”
Stephanie feels a special bond with other immigrants in Providence, regardless of their home country. She is proud to be an immigrant and loves that Providence fosters such an open environment to all foreign-born individuals. She hopes to see a continuation of this cohesiveness between the immigrants in Providence and is glad that she can be a part of it. Stephanie’s ultimate goal is to see a world in which immigrants are totally accepted for who they are.
“When you first come here to America, it’s going to be really hard. It’s still hard for my family. So I think if we all work harder, then we can be a more welcoming community.”
Stephanie hopes that one day equality with reign over prejudice. She wishes this not only for herself, but for her young son Christopher as well.
“As he is growing up, I just want him to have opportunities; opportunities to be who he wants to be, and [to] grow up in a safe environment. I don’t want him to be judged or stereotyped as different…I want a Rhode Island that will welcome him. That will be supportive of him. Not just for him, but for everyone. I don’t want him to be judged, or looked at differently. That’s the Rhode Island I want for him”.
Written and compiled by Melissa Keiser and Michael Finnerty
Oraine Christie was born in a very small, populated area in Kingston, Jamaica.
“Kingston, Jamaica is a very small area but it’s very populated and in that population everyone wants to achieve their goal and come out with something.”
Growing up in Jamaica he held various jobs which included working for an insurance company as well as networking for various companies such as a mobile company out of England. In Jamaica, the process is rather different in order to go to college.
“In Jamaica you have to pass certain amount of exams in order to go to college and so forth. I went to one of the elite high schools in Jamaica.”
About two years ago, Oraine was able to come to the United States on a work permit for a company that he had a connection with through work. “I first came here because my cousin in Jamaica he has a girlfriend that worked up here and the company normally takes people from my country to come up here and work for usually certain amount of seasons so on and so forth.” Coming to the United States would allow him to generate a higher income than he would in Jamaica. “I am actually going after what I want to do, so that’s a big difference in my life.”
Upon arriving to the United States, Oraine started off in the Dorchester area of Massachusetts where he had some family members. However, his main motivation was to receive his General Educational Development (GED) in order for colleges and universities in America to recognize his diploma so he enrolled in a GED class at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island.
After graduating with his GED from Dorcas International Institute, Oraine begin his journey to Harvard. He is currently attending Harvard Extension and will soon transfer to Harvard University, his “first and only choice”. “[Harvard] is where I wanted to go.” At this point in his life, Oraine considers attending Harvard his greatest accomplishment. However, Oraine has his sights set on the future and strives to attend Oxford University for his Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). He also plans to go to law school.
“I want everyone to be like ‘Oh he has an MBA from here and another one from here and then Esquire at the end of his name’….I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was young…I want to be able to be someone in life and I don’t want no one to be able to walk all over me. In Jamaica I would have given an arm and a leg to become a lawyer.”
The constant movement between work, school, and socializing serves as a strong hold against sleep for typical Jamaican lifestyle, and Oraine had to adjust when he first arrived.
“It is slow. Because I’m always up and about, as soon as it hits 6am I am up, that is just my natural clock. So when I’m up I try and make myself as busy as possible during the day because if I don’t I will not sleep at night.”Not used to all the down time here in America, Oraine tries very hard to be busy during the day, that way he will be able to sleep at night.
Oraine has one complaint about the weather here in New England and that is that it changes too often; “Today will be good and then tomorrow it rains, then the next day is good and then rain! The fluctuation kills me!”
Since his arrival, Oraine has not lost touch with his close friends and relatives. “We are in constant communication.” He hopes to soon visit friends who are now living in Canada and England. Oraine is also headed back to Jamaica come summertime to visit friends and family and celebrate his upcoming birthday.
Oraine does not plan to slow his pace any time soon, in fact he is just beginning. As a loving father of a five-year-old son, Oraine works to give his child the opportunity to achieve his wildest dreams.
“The other day he told me he wanted to be an artist, so I told him ‘draw’. It is America! He is the only thing that will keep him from accomplishing his dreams.”
Oraine describes a certain drive embedded in his mind upon coming to America, “…everybody only got one life to live and you can’t let someone go and take that from you”.
Written and compiled by Emily Matthews and Phil Lynch
Maritza was born in Baitoa, a small country site town, in the Dominican Republic; where she grew up with her grandmother and her four siblings. When she was a young child, her parents left the Dominican Republic to go to the United States to find work and to support the family, eventually bringing Maritza and her siblings to the United States.
After graduating from high school, Maritza arrived at the age of 17. She moved in with her parents who were living in Providence in a neighborhood with a large Dominican community.
“The first year, we were really excited to learn about the culture and people of the United States.”
Maritza was able to learn English, American history and other skills that lead her to further her education in America. After successfully completing her General Education Diploma (GED), she earned an Associates degree in Social Work from the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). CCRI provided some of the best memories Maritza has in the United States, because they were instrumental in supporting her to further her education. She went on to be one of the founding members of the Latin American Student club at CCRI.
She also earned as a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Rhode Island College (RIC) and a Masters degree in Psychology from Cambridge College in Boston; all while working full time and raising two children. One of the biggest challenges Maritza reflects on was learning to speak English and acclimating to the American fast pace and highly structured way of life.
“The language was the most difficult because you get frustrated learning to pronounce the different blends and sounds and its difficult to communicate your wants and needs. The American routine is hard to get used to because on the island you don’t have that kind of routine or schedule. You mostly do things without planning and maybe the weather is a factor that helps, but language was the hardest thing to overcome.”
Not only was the language hard to learn, but getting used to being discriminated against was also something Maritza had to adjust to.
“It’s hard to get use to hearing people making comments about you when they think you can’t hear them… It was painful to be treated different just because I had an accent and am a Latino woman of color. Everyone experiences this kind of discrimination differently and I think that education is the key to help people accept one another.”
What made Maritza feel welcome was passing her citizenship test after completing her degree from CCRI at the age of 25. She describes it as being a good accomplishment and it being something that makes you feel part of the United States.
In 1990, Maritza began working at the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) as a social worker. Currently she works as the Coordinator of Community Relations for DHS where she ensures that Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals have access to language services and an interpreter when needed.
Maritza is passionate about helping others and has dedicated her career to doing so. She is keen on making sure that there is no discrimination within the community and letting people know someone is there for them. She always wants to help the immigrants so their transition is smooth and so they do not have to struggle when they get here.
“To have a place in the community is important and having a feeling that you belong is important. What I want people to know about is even though we are immigrants, we come here looking for a life where we can work and raise a family. We aren’t here to harm anyone; we just want to be accepted by the community.”
With a strong value of education instilled in her by her parents and grandmother, Maritza is proud that her two children are currently in college pursuing their degrees.
“Education has always been a big part of my life. Even though my grandma never had an education, she made sure we did and that is how I raised my kids. That is how they will get far.”
According to Maritza, being from a Caribbean island automatically instills a sense of family closeness in you. That was what Maritza was most surprised about when she came to the United States.
“We have a saying back home, “Mi casa es su casa”meaning my house is your house. We don’t need to know when people are coming or how much food to cook, you come over you will be able to eat. Everyone is able to eat when you show up and everyone stays. The culture here is different in that most activities are scheduled.”
While she misses the tropical Caribbean climate, she does enjoy the snow until it has to be shoveled. Maritza now resides in Cranston, Rhode Island where she lives with her husband and two children. “This is the only place I have lived in the United States, I like the city, the ocean and the summer here.”
Written and compiled by Eriksson Goncalves and Rachel Ugolik
Komlan Soe was born in Toe Town, Liberia. At the age of three, a civil war broke out forcing Komlan and his family to flee to a refugee camp in Ivory Coast, where his family survived on little rice, cornmeal and flour distributed by UNHCR. At the age of seven, he started first grade at a school established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other non-profit organizations. The school was in unfinished buildings and on under trees, where Komlan and other youngsters would sit and learn their basic Math and ABCs.
In 2002 when civil war erupted in Ivory Coast, Komlan and his family fled to another refugee camp in Ghana. While in the camp in Ghana, Komlan’s curiosity and passion for education grew stronger. Komlan took a high school entrance exam, and he came first out of 70 applicants. He later received a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, where he was able to sit, for the first time, at comfortable desks and discovered a passion in international affairs.
With his father already settled in Rhode Island, Komlan and his family migrated to Rhode Island in November 2005 as refugees sponsored by Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island.
It was a bittersweet family reunion because his two sisters and a brother remained in Ghana. His welcome into Rhode Island with a sign greeting him and his family was an experience he would never forget.
“It was… I’m finally in the United States. Yes that’s good. It was like a dream.”
As an immigrant, the transition of life in the United States was difficult. The first time Komlan saw snow, he was in disbelief. He was also not accustomed to the American sports, or the food, and did not understand why some people in his new community did not give up their seat to elders on the bus.
In 2008, Komlan began his studies at the Community College of Rhode Island after more than three years of delaying college in order to work and help his family financially. In 2010 he transferred to the University of Rhode Island (URI) where he became heavily involved in different activities while pursuing a dual degree in Political Science and Sociology. While at URI, Komlan worked as a Teaching Assistant and held down a full-time job. He graduated in May 2013; a dream he had finally achieved. “I am the first in my family to graduate from college.”
Komlan now works with the African Youth Development Initiative, which he co-founded to empower and engage African and African-American youths around issues such as violence, education, and African culture and history. He not only hopes to engage the youth in Rhode Island in the discussion of what is going on in their state, but also hopes to see more challenging education systems for those young students:
“One day you will be actively involved to bring about change. So the mobilization of young people and then challenging young people… challenging them to get involved is the most important thing I think I can take from that.”
His hope for immigrants is that they should no longer be viewed as victims, rather as survivors. As an immigrant, he saw the ways in which the civil wars affected his family and those he loves, but he says he is very glad he is in America.
“To be an American is to have a story,” says Komlan. He has spent years now getting comfortable sharing his story, and telling people about his past. Komlan believes it is important to remember where you come from, and that having pride in your roots is what makes America so great and unique. It is diverse with many different people, he says, yet everyone shares a common ideal – to make their lives better.
Komlan hopes to attend grad school at Harvard University or Columbia University to continue his passion for education. His biggest goal is to one day become a diplomat to speak, and have a voice for those who don’t. He has since been back to Ghana and Liberia and feels he is needed back in his native homeland, so he plans to help.
“An African proverb which I always refer to says, ‘You are… because we are.’ And that means everything that is done has to be done collectively. One person’s success is everyone’s success and people have to hold together”.
No matter what challenges face him, Komlan smiles and stays determined to get through it.
Written and compiled by Delia Egan and Joseph Thuillier