Part 2: Into America
Guest contribution by Saint Cyr Dimanche
Read the first installment of Saint Cyr’s account, “Part 1: Out of Africa,” and the final “Part 3: Out Again and to Isaan” on December 21.
III. The immigrant
I was 17 years old when I took my first step onto American soil. I was now an immigrant. I still didn’t know where I was going or who was going to meet me. I only knew that I was going to “Boston,” wherever that was. At the airport, I had only a small bag with my clothes and a name tag around my neck. Some people approached me who I didn’t know (I learned later they were Ascentria Care Alliance workers). There were two others, a man and a woman, who I guessed were….my hosts?
The first few weeks were very hard because I didn’t speak any English. It was almost impossible to communicate. We stopped and ate at the fast-food restaurant, Chipotle Mexican Grill. I was taken to a home where I was showed a room. The couple tried to explain to me many things, communicating a lot with their hands –some of which I might have guessed but most I’m sure I didn’t able to understand. Thankfully, after three weeks we were able to find someone from the Central African Republic, a man named Patrice Djinaye, who spoke my language, Sango. Finally, there was someone who could translate for me. Up until then, I didn’t even know where I was! And now I could tell my new parents what I really wanted to eat!
It was only then that I learned what and where “Boston” was, that I now lived in Worcester, and that the couple, Anne and Bob Bureau, were actually my new mother and father!
Communication was the huge challenge. After first being able to communicate with an interpreter, I began my four years of intensive studies at The New Citizens Center School (NCCS), the only program of its kind in all of Massachusetts. My first words to my American parents was, “Papa, I want iPad!” At first I thought I might have to start with kindergarten, as admittedly, I had only had a few years of schooling in CAR. But thankfully, I wasn’t.
The NCCS taught me English and how to use a computer, and after just two years, I was able to advance to the 11th grade at a Worcester public school.
When in high school, I was also very involved with African Community Education (ACE) which provided after-school programming and extra support on Saturdays. ACE became my second family in America.
Mama Anne spent a lot of time helping me with my homework. I studied really hard to pass the MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test which is required to graduate from high school I took the first test at the end of 11th grade, and then the second one two years later, in 2015. With three years of schooling in CAR and four in the US, I graduated with a high school diploma at the age of 20. I was so proud…and thankful. Ascentria’s program had gotten me to America and New Citizens Center School helped me get through school. And all through that, I have have this wonderful American family whom I can now call my mother and father. They had supported me for the past four and a half years, through this part of my journey. I thank God, for having them!
During my senior year, I began applying to colleges with the help of “Bottom Line,” a local nonprofit organization that helps first-generation, underprivileged kids get a higher education. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. My father was barely literate. My mother, on the other hand, had been able to study politics in high school, by virtue of her father fighting in World War II.
My counselor also told me to apply to the Myra Kraft transitional year program at Brandeis. This program is a special one for students who need an extra year to get ready for college. I never thought I would get in, and I was so happy when I got accepted! In my first year, I was in the transitional year program with over 15 other students. We all took classes together and got lots of support.
III. The citizen
It was August 30, 2017. I was sitting there, surrounded by 993 others, representing 94 countries–France, China, India, Russia–all tingling with excitement because this day had finally come. After a speech from an official, we were asked to stand up in groups, according to our home country, and say the oath. Some were very large groups. In a few cases, where there were not many from a single country, they called out a region. When they said, “Central Africa,” I was the only one, and so I stood up alone before all my new compatriots and another 2,000 guests. I raised my right hand and said:
“I hereby declare, on oath, …that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America…that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
It was a joyful moment, to be affirming in front of thousands of people my new sense of belonging. It was a moment of feeling a sense of accomplishment, after the long struggle I had gone through. I had reached the final destination. I wouldn’t ever be deported. I wept, my chest swelling with pride and relief.
And as I exited the hall and even before I met up with the family and friends who were there to bear witness to my naturalization, I stopped at a table they had right outside the doors where I could register to vote! I felt I is not only this duty, but it’s as symbols of my sufferance and a reminder of my achievements despite the eternal struggle. There were elections in CAR, but people seemed to barely note them. The capital was far away. Elections never seemed to mean anything. But this right to vote, as an American citizen, did mean something. And I was going to use this right the first chance I had!
I was a boy fleeing violence and death.
I was a refugee, hoping to go somewhere where I could stay until I could change my status as one.
I was, I am, an immigrant who was finally able to begin to realize my potential as a full, caring human being.
I am a proud, naturalized, and engaged American citizen.
And I have taken my citizenship seriously. Besides working hard at Brandeis University as a major in International Relations with a minor in Political Science, I felt that I have to give back to communities and organization who helped others. I have volunteered with the Ascentria Care Alliances, the American Red Cross, and the Genesis Club.
Even closer to my heart, I am currently helping the Central African community in the Worcester area with Sango translation. We are also working hard to develop an organization called “ACAR” to support community development within the Central African Republic.
In terms of helping support other immigrants and creating more understanding in society about immigrants, I got involved in 2014 in a Media Fellowship, N-CITE, which works out of Clark University in Worcester. We produced a 40-minute documentary titled, “A Place We Can Call Home,” which focused on the story of a young immigrant.
As full right of any citizen, I have gotten involved in politics, both locally and nationally.
On a more personal side, I have taken up long-distance running and have run several marathons. I even achieved my dream of running the 2017 Boston Marathon, four months before becoming a citizen.
IV. An American citizen, A Central African, A refugee, A human being
Since 2017, I have been a proud naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I am proud to be a naturalized citizen. Unlike Americans born here, I do not take my citizenship for granted, as it is something I chose and worked hard for.
America has been given me so much, like my education that I never thought I would have the opportunity. Indeed, being an American citizen is everything to me as because the country has given so much opportunity and a brighter future that I envision. But I also have to think, before I obtain all of this opportunity I have stored it somewhere.
In America, I often hear people say, “Do not forget where you come from.” But in practice, they don’t think about what that really means.
What I have I storied away? My being able to move to America with a refugee status. This is why I always want to maintain my allegiance to my former refugee status because without that I would not exist or be able to make it to America.
But deeper than that, what I’ve stored away is my Central African identity, my traditions, my culture, my customs. I don’t want to lose any of them. I need to regain and preserve my history. I am proud of my Central African identity because that is where my story began. That is where I was born, raised, and developed. Despite nearly two decades of conflicts, the lack of resources, a lack of access to education, or much of any opportunity to thrive there, CAR is my country and still my home because it is from there that I still receive the spirits, dreams, motivation, and goals of doing anything in life.
Although I am very happy and grateful to be here, I haven’t had any contact with my family in Africa because they live in a very undeveloped area without telephones or internet access. And it is still too dangerous to travel there.
I have nothing but my heart to remember them by: no photos, no letters, no personal effects.
For many years, my family didn’t know that I was leaving Africa or if I was even still alive. News of my home comes from third-hand, or fourth-hand, or I don’t even know how many hands. I heard, to my great sorrow, that my sister made the perilous journey to Cameroon to try to find me. I heard that maybe my family has come to know that I’m alive and here. I’ve heard that my mother and sister are still alive. But the news comes through so many hands, I can never be sure. Soon, I will need to go back to search for my family, despite the dangers.
When President Trump calls African countries “s***hole” countries, I feel very disappointed and can’t stop thinking about the future of a boy like myself coming to America. It is deplorable when President Trump uses racism to demean refugees and immigrants from Africa. It is very unwelcoming, unkind, and divisive and dismisses the values of African people’s lives.
At the same time, some part of me agrees with the president’s words, because maybe they could apply to the corrupt elites leaders in African. But that doesn’t mean African countries or ordinary African citizens are “shit.” They, we, are human beings possessing human dignity.
I am now in my four years in college and working hard. I am majoring in International Relations. It is my hope to be prepared so I can help people in struggling countries to find their voices and share their stories with the world.
I take part in all the important commemorations dedicated to those who fought and suffered for justice.
I am a proud citizen of the US, yes, but I am equally proud of my previous status as a refugee and immigrant.
I want to fight for those who suffer, and in particular, refugees in this world–all those millions, just like me, who were forced to leave their beloved homelands.
When I hear Trump call refugees criminals and rapists, I feel diminished but I know for fact that it isn’t true. In fact, most refugees, including myself, are running away from situations such as insecurity, corruption, domestic violence, and a lack of economic opportunities. For them, going to a country like America is the only opportunity for them to get out of those situations. It just breaks my heart when I hear the president talk like that, because every migrant is a very humble person. We deserve a chance to seek help and full support from the U.S. We don’t deserve to be dehumanized by calling us criminal and bad people.
When I hear Trump talk about “the caravan” of refugees coming up from central America, I empathize for I think of my own journey from conflict and of those things that brought me to migrate from CAR to Cameroon. There just aren’t any opportunities. And without opportunities, there is no hope. Those people like me are looking for refuge. I fled my country, the CAR, when I was in a devastating life situation. So many of these refugees are now going through now what I had gone through. I hope they are welcomed with open arms and accepted and received in the same way I was. They’re trying to make it to the U.S. because they have no other chance. I can only pray that they are in the hands of God who can help make it through to America.
Read the final installment of Saint Cyr’s account on Dec. 21: “Part 3: Back out again to Isaan”