DJenebou Doumbouya’s Story
As retold by Patricia Wisenbaugh
My son loves the snow. Two inches or twelve, he’s outside rolling in it, packing it, creating snowballs and building the bodies of snowmen. His face lights up when he wakes up to find that snow has covered the ground in the night, and he’s outside as soon as possible to play in it. Many times he will plead with me to play with him. “Let’s make snowmen, Mama! Let’s have a snowball fight, Mama! Do you want to make a snow angel, Mama?” I shake my head, smiling, and shiver when he turns back to his activities. Snow is much too cold for my liking. Beautiful as it is, I have found that I can only appreciate it from the safety of my warm house.
Ten years ago I came to the United States from my home country of Mali. Mali is part of West Africa, a hot place that never sees a temperature below eighty degrees Fahrenheit, so it never snows there. Because I spent most of my life in such a warm place, snow was a shock, and I don’t believe I will ever get used to it. While living in Mali I attended university for law school. This decision was influenced by my mother who wanted me to become a lawyer, but I only studied law for one year before deciding to change majors. My plan was to study marketing, but once again my mother stepped in. “Marketing?” she said. “There are no marketing jobs in Mali. Everyone tells everything to everyone else. That’s how we market here.”
So marketing was out of the question. I finally landed on sociology thinking I would like to become a social worker, but soon enough I realized that this was not for me either. With no more paths coming to mind, I completed my bachelor’s in sociology. Some years later, I came to the States with my husband, not to continue my education, but to be close to him. In fact, it was not until after we split up that I pursued college once more. I intended to better myself and thrive in this country, and I had my son to use as motivation. My boy depended on me for survival – I was Mama, the one who put food on the table and made sure he got his own education.
For me there are two major struggles I faced in coming to the U.S.: the language and the idea that everyone is supposed to take care of themselves. I started taking classes at Mott Community College in Flint. Michigan, and initially, the classes I took at there were English classes. Taking English seemed to be the best first step to take to learn the language and from there be able to thrive in this culture. I won’t lie, both the language and the independence are still struggles I face ten years later. The struggle with English is not so much in comprehending it as it is in expressing myself with it. Sometimes people assume that I am not intelligent simply because I cannot speak my mind fluently in their language and are surprised when my English grades are good. My teachers do not make this assumption, and they often ask me to clarify my statements so that they may better understand what I am trying to say. I also have an abundance of access to technology and books in the United States, and this helps me to teach myself to better express my thoughts. I feel bad that I must pay a tutor to help my son with his studies because I cannot understand what his teachers are teaching him, but I continue to work hard. I work hard not just for me, but for him.
My second major struggle is independence. In the U.S., everyone is expected to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s an “every man for himself” deal, and it is very different from Mali. When I lived in Mali, neighbors were so friendly that they were practically family. There, neighbors are allowed to reprimand the children of others, even ground them, without fear of backlash from the parents. The maxim “it takes a village to raise a child” is literal there. It is different here. Here only my elderly neighbors show any sign of the friendly behavior I knew in Mali, but I would not expect them to be involved in raising my children. Everything related to this expectation is a struggle every day. Adjusting to having to survive independently is tricky and exhausting, but I know a few loopholes. I found people who came from someplace in Africa. Their stories are not the same as mine, but they are similar. We help each other and form a miniature community reminiscent of the places from whence we came. I have adopted them as my family.
There is one other thing I should mention. The United States of which I dreamt was a place of acceptance and diversity, but I have found this to have changed because I cover my hair in a hijab. I am a Muslim, part of a minority that is facing a lot of hate and blame. One time I went out shopping, of course wearing my hijab, and I was exposed to such hate. “Your god is killing people!” the man shouted. He continued to shout and to verbally attack me, and I was only getting groceries. That was not the only time. Others have leapt at the opportunity to put me down for my religion. It is something that makes me afraid for me and my family. When the clock strikes seven PM, I stay inside my house because of this fear. I don’t stay out anymore.
Every day I face these and others, and sometimes I have a hard time facing them. What I do I do to better myself, to give myself a better life, but still my driving force is my son. Everything I do is for him and, more recently, for my young daughter. They depend on me for everything. From me they will learn how to survive in this country. It’s my job to teach them how to do so.
This story originally appeared in Facing College: Immigrant & International Students’ Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan.