The Power of Dialogues and Citizenship
In the kitchen of one of the organization’s members, I sat and had a touching conversation with Araminta McIntosh, a long-time associate of the Liberian Community Association of Rhode Island. We dove into her experience fleeing Liberia to the United States and her journey to becoming a citizen. Then we touched on her narrative of being a Liberian immigrant in the ’70-the ’80s in Providence. In this 10-minute clip, the abundance of information is dense, poetic, and heart-warmly yet unimaginable.
I was shocked to learn how distant our narratives were due to the big gap between my experience and hers in Providence. What staggered me in our conversation was her struggles of working tirelessly in jewelry factories in Oneyville. She was making little to no wages and hiding from the “Grey Suit Boys,”; who were immigration officers disguised in suits looking to find undocumented immigrants working and imprison them for working undocumented. At that moment, all I can imagine is the constant fear and anxiety that encaged in Liberian immigrants’ souls at the time, who yearned for a better life for themselves in this foreign place. Also, I ponder the nervousness of using another person’s name to find a job, and manipulation of employers taking advantage of immigrants for their own profitable gain.
Nevertheless, I can envision how potent and fearless Araminta remained in those times and while filing for her citizenship. The politics and atmosphere during those times were remarkably distinct in how things operated, and how long until you received status did not matter to her as long as she was a citizen. These conversations remind me of how critical being engaged in America is; citizenship doesn’t just involve the ‘others’ in politics; instead, it opens up the room for financial freedom and better job opportunities and protects people from being deported.
The following conversation I had was with Emmanuel Nyema, a humorous, charismatic fellow. Before the camera was on, we had a compelling debate on the pros and cons of being here (United States) rather than in Liberia and the improvements that are happening back home in Liberia. That little moment taught me about the current political environment of Liberia and how certain things are distant and similar to America. As we got into the conversation of his narrative, I was intrigued by his demeanor and eagerness. He was coming to a new world and had an abundance of expectations of how things would be. However, even with preparation, things still surprised him upon his arrival, from the foods he ate to the site of rapid homelessness in his new environment. This is prevalent in the Liberian culture back in Liberia, which they expect America to be the holy grail. But unfortunately, as I realize from Emmanuel, it is not. Only those who have been here and experienced America can understand this misconception.
I found it interesting how influential the church is; Emmanuel’s fare to come to America was funded by his church, which, even though he never paid it back in total, oriented me about how the church took care of those in the congregation and the significance of community. It also highlights the church’s culture as a symbol of personal development. Another thing was his eagerness to become a citizen to participate in voting, and have his voice heard on policies and things he feels need to be changed in his community and state.
A trend I noticed quickly from multiple conversations with the Liberian organization members was how factory employment was the cornerstone of opportunity for refugees from Liberia upon arrival. However, it was not the best in terms of conditions and well-being. These stories exhibited the intersections of an outsider effect and the hope of a better future.
The last conversation I had was with a member that goes by the name of Shadrack Gaytee. His experiences and approach to the similar questions I have asked were different. I learned from him through his unique narrative that he had a preconceived notion about America before he came. But this surprise, the laws were very different, things had a structure, and the rules were strategic. I find it interesting how he explained his expectations and how he had more support back home than in the U.S. He advised other Liberians to be vigilant and respectful, given that the law in the United States is forceful and very harshly enforced.
We then explored his hardship and struggle of not receiving funding for college and not having a vehicle or a job, given he was not a permanent resident when he came to the United States. He had all these goals, and things were on hold for countless months, given he was waiting to upgrade his immigrant status and get driver’s and worker’s permits. His constant routine of coming home, watching t.v, and not being able to support himself devasted him. Even the low-entree jobs he had to endure when he did get a job lowered his self-esteem. His anticipation of coming here and having a dignified job like an office job was unrealistic when he arrived. A common thread I realized between each intervee was the long wait period; Shadrack mentioned ten years before he got his citizenship because he lacked a mentor for guidance on the process. This issue is too common within the Liberian immigrant community; we lack the power just to start or ask a question. This stems from the fear of deportation given the year you came, fear of not knowing how the process may go, or even financial issues.