Content Warning: Gang Violence, Sexual Assault
My name is Natalia, I’m 21 years old, a student, and a refugee from Central America*. This is my story. I came here in 2009 with my family. There was a lot of violence in our country and the abuse we had to endure, including at the hands of my mother’s sister, caused significant delay. It took over a year to make the journey to America.
Shortly before we left, the gangs were starting to take over the town. They start recruiting kids as soon as possible, around 12 or 13 years old. If they know you have a family name that is well-known, they will aim for you first, especially with the boys. For the girls, it’s a harsher fate. They’ll try to make you their girlfriend and if you refuse, they will take you, rape you, and kill you. They dispose of you like you aren’t human. We had a curfew in our town to prevent such violence so, depending on your age, you could not be out past 10 pm. If you were, you had to wear a white t-shirt or a white symbol to signify that you were just trying to go home. One time, we were robbed by gang members while waiting for the bus. I was held at gunpoint and my mom was terrified that she might lose one of her children. That pushed her to bring us to America; she didn’t want this life of violence around every corner for her kids.
When I came to the United States, it was wintertime and it looked just like the movies. In reality, it was nothing like the movies. I felt strange and I missed home. There were a lot of mixed emotions. You don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what to do, you just try to fit in as best you can. The main obstacle I had was learning the language. I was very blessed to get the opportunity to go to a private middle school where I was taught English for a year straight, 7 am to 4 pm everyday. We also struggled with basic rules of America, like knowing where you can stand and what you can say. My mom helped us through much of that. My brother inspired me because he was so determined to figure it all out. We really persevered together.
Whenever people meet me, they assume I’m Mexican. I try to explain that I’m from Central America, but they continue to ask me which part of Mexico. It’s not just Mexicans that are facing violence and instability. There are so many other countries like mine where people are suffering and trying to seek refuge. Another misconception is that my level of intelligence must be lower because I’m foreign. People assume that I can’t be at such a high level of math or other skills. It pushes me to prove a lot of people wrong. When people get to know you, they’re surprised and finally understand that immigrants and refugees can be - and often are - smart. There’s a lot of ignorance from people who are unfamiliar with other countries.
I try to make a difference by combating these stereotypes and lack of exposure to other cultures. In our high school, they would play music every Friday. For over a year, I was in a fight with our Student Senate to get them to play international music. Because of all of the consequences, I faced from this fight (sometimes including punishment) they have added the Latino Union at the school. I get emails from the current students asking for my advice and telling me about the impact I’ve made on their lives. I hear from the kids I used to tutor, telling me how they’ll never forget how I pushed them to get things done and convinced them to never give up. If I get to share a little of my motivation with somebody and help them in their life, that is a major accomplishment. My personal motivation is my mother. She always encourages me to do better. My brother is another inspiration, so I want them both to be proud of me. One day, I want to wake up and feel a sense of relief when I find that I am truly happy. That is when I’ll feel successful.
I go to school part-time, I work full-time, I run a dance club. I’m busy but still building my future plans. When I was younger, I thought I had it all figured out. I would stay in Central America, get a degree, and start my career. Obviously, I ended up here so I try not to plan too far in advance anymore because you never know where life will take you. You can achieve your goals, but it takes hard work and extreme amounts of patience. A lot of doors will close, but for each one another better opportunity comes along. A lot of people will try to shame you for who you are, but never be ashamed of where you come from. For example, one person who looks like you or comes from the same background does something wrong on the news and everyone in the country attacks you, despite you having nothing to do with it. Keep your head up and be proud of who you are, even in these times of crisis. If you have an accent, own it. Don’t change anything about yourself to please others. The process of immigrating to a new country inevitably changes you in one way or another, so it’s up to you to stay true to yourself.
Right now, I have cousins out there who are building a website to spread the power of refugee voices. They are doing photography and painting murals to show that we are the next generation and we can take back our country. Sometimes, you might think you can’t continue on or achieve your goals. Remember why you started and why you keep going. Remember your main purpose: you want a better future and you want your kids to have a better childhood experience than you did. To other refugees, don’t try too hard to fit in. You don’t need to find your place; as long as you know who you are, it will find you. There will always be people in the same boat as you, so keep an open mind and try new things. I’ve met so many people who share my same interests and passions just exploring and doing whatever it is that I want to do. These are people I would not have met otherwise if I had tried to conform to this stereotypical idea of “normal”. Be yourself, be a role model, and never stop working to better your life.
*Name and country are changed for privacy and safety at the discretion of the interviewee