Victor: Youth worker, future lawyer, and Liberian refugee

My name is Victor, I am Liberian, and I come from a refugee camp in Ghana called Buduburam. I was actually born in Ghana because of the Civil War that took place in Liberia. The funny thing is, the people in Ghana didn’t even like us because we were refugees. I didn’t grow up with my parents and we don’t know where they went during the wartime. My sister and I ended up getting displaced and later adopted by my Aunt and her husband. We had been living and going to school in Ghana when we got a resettlement through Immigration Services to come to the United States in 2005, after spending a short period of time in the UK. I’ve been here ever since, but it is a mission of mine to go back.

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When you’re in Africa, America is described as a Utopia. When I first got here, everything was brand new to me. The way of life was different and much faster. I had to get used to the weather, the time changes, the differences in culture. The United States was full of more individualized communities than a collective community like where I came from. Luckily, I spoke English because I was educated back home, so it wasn’t as hard for me to fit in. However, my family didn’t really have that same convenience. To this day, my mom still struggles to speak English when she goes out and I have to advocate for my family.

The biggest challenge we’ve faced is just understanding the way that everyday life in the U.S. is supposed to work. There are all these laws and rules you have to comply with to get the necessary services that you need. For us, it was hardest to figure out how to find job openings, who to help you fill out forms, how to file taxes, and where to find government services. Also, transportation was a big issue, especially living in Minnesota. When you don’t have your own mode of transportation, it makes it even harder to maintain a job and support your family. I took the bus to school every day and, if there were field trips or after school activities, my parents didn’t have a car so I wasn’t always able to participate. As the years went by, we adjusted, in large part thanks to our community who helped us get kicked started. We had a lot of people from our churches who supported and assisted us out by taking us to appointments.

The most glaring misconception I’ve heard about refugees is that, when “people like us” come to this country, we’re taking out of Americans’ pockets and putting their money into our own. I don’t know who could possibly uphold that logic because I work, you work, I get compensated for my work and you get compensated for yours. If you don’t have a job, it’s not my fault and has nothing to do with my livelihood. We come from a hardworking culture, yet people think we’re lazy. For me personally, people always assumed that I came from the Jungle, that I’m uncivilized, I can’t speak English, I add to the burdens of everybody else, etc. Well, I disagree with that. I’m a highly intellectual young individual, smarter than many people I’ve met in my time here. Because I’m a refugee, people automatically think I’m not educated. Little do they know, I was supposed to be in the 7th grade as an eight-year-old. Yet, they still hold the perception is that we are leeches in the community and in our society as a whole. Because we have a lack of understanding of the American structure, does not necessarily mean that we are detrimental to society. If you teach us the ways in which the system works, then we can figure the rest out on our own.

I think empowering refugees and immigrants have to start with encouraging people not to focus on the external. Most immigrant populations are tight-knit communities. We focus on the people we love and their well-being. A lot of people are on temporary protection status and some are getting sent back to Liberia because of Trump. I’m nervous but I hope it drives us to become a collective again and build our individualized culture within the American culture. Sticking to what we know and what we believe in is the first step. Once we can do that, we have educated professionals in all facets of our immigrant communities that can contribute back to society. For example, I know a lot of Liberians who still have trouble understanding systemic things. They’ll call my mom like, “Hey, can Victor do my resume for me?” and I’ll sit there, doing six, seven resumes at a time, helping my community members get jobs. This is the work that’s important to me. I need to take what I’m learning outside, and go back and empower my community. No one else is going to do it; we’re condemned everywhere we turn, especially in this political climate. But we’ll survive by rising above the hate by spreading empowerment and knowledge.

There was a time during the civil war where every day was life or death. My definition of success is, first and foremost, waking up each morning. Once I’m up every day, I look at where I come from and find ways to better myself. I understand that, if you took someone else from back home in the refugee camp and put them in my place, they would excel and take advantage of every opportunity possible. For me, going to school and learning new things is a success in my day. Giving back, in my work for the YMCA with vulnerable youth or otherwise, is a success in my day. As an immigrant, that’s the least I can do. I know how the refugee camps work: you wait on the UN to deliver your bags of rice, everyone lines up behind these trucks, and you scan the lists, trying to find out where your family members are. I remember this every time I volunteer my time. It’s not about how much you achieve personally, but how much you contribute to the lives of others.

I’m motivated by pain and I’m motivated by hurt. I’m motivated by not being understood and living in a world where the people around me only know my experiences from what they’ve seen in movies. I’m living in a world where my reality is not the reality of others. I have to keep it inside in order to deal with it on a daily basis. I wake up to nightmares recounting my struggles. I have to look myself in the mirror every morning and remind myself that I am a black man living in America. I take all of that and it motivates me. I also come from a country that has over 8 million children in poverty, where everyone lives below the poverty line. I’m going to go back one day and make it a better place for my people; even if I only touch one life. I’m going to initiate change and I hope other people can follow. That’s my motivation.

I enjoy being in an environment where I am working with young children who wouldn’t otherwise have adequate resources to enjoy a normal childhood. Kids whose parents are working odd hours to support them and can’t be home to have family time. Some of these children are living like they’re refugees in their own country. I’m working with kids who are in 8th or 9th grade and thinking about dropping out because they don’t have the tools that they need to succeed in school. I’ve had kids who have told me that they didn’t want to keep going because nobody cares about them or where they come from. That’s my biggest accomplishment: telling a child who feels like they should give up that they are capable, they are intelligent, and they can go to college or whatever else they set their mind to. I tell them where I come from, and explain to them what they need to do to follow their dreams. I go to a four-year University at one of the best schools in the country, but that’s not my proudest accomplishment. It’s that I can use the skills that I’ve learned to inspire and empower youth and the rest of my family and community. That’s the only thing that matters to me.

Right now, I’m attending the University of St. Thomas as both a Leadership & Management major and a Business Law major, with a minor in Economics. Outside of school, I coordinate a youth program with the YMCA and work at a summer camp with kids from low-income families. I also started a nonprofit called Initiative for A Better Africa, where we help children in Africa with food and school supplies so they’re able to live comfortably and succeed in their education. We’re looking into sending computers as well as rebuilding schools and community centers. I want students to know they aren’t going to school in vain, but for a valuable purpose. For Africa to truly change, we need to start empowering the young people so they can help make that change happen. When I’m not working, I’m getting ready for my LSAT’s, preparing for law school and my future as a lawyer.

My advice I would give any refugee is that, believe it or not, because you have your own distinct culture that you come from, you are already winning in life. Don’t be shy, embrace it and express yourself everywhere that you go. Remember where you come from when you walk into a space and you’re likely the only refugee there. Understand that being a refugee in itself means that you have overcome difficulty, and continue to use that to motivate and educate yourself. If someone is spewing some generalizations about immigrants and refugees, remind yourself that you’ve been there before and you’re going to be okay. Hate made us refugees, hate continues to condemn us in society, but guess what? You’ll rise above it. Rely on your culture, rely on your people, and keep on going.

Felicia Philibert