As a mentor to first-year students at my college last Fall, I was lucky enough to have Mukena Kasongo “Deogracias” as one of my students. She was charming and inquisitive, and impressively fluent in French, English, Swahili, and Lingala. Now that we are in an African Music course together, we took the time to speak about her immigration story from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the barriers that she has overcome to be a successful and inspirational college student.
Deogracias came from the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa. When I asked her why she moved here, she said “I moved to the United States because my mom moved to the United States. She didn’t really want to come here, she wanted to go to Canada.” “However,” she added, laughing, “the problem was that Canada was really cold.”
Deogracias’ mother moved to the United States in 2011 when she was 7 months pregnant with Deogracias’ sister, and Deogracias soon followed in 2015. However, Deogracias told me that “I was supposed to go to London and not go to the United States. For me, that was not my plan.”
When I asked Deogracias what the most difficult part of her transition to the United States was, she said that it was her high school experience. Luckily, Deogracias knew quite a bit of English even before coming to the United States. She explained that at her home in Kinshasa, “I could listen to English because my step dad is from Zambia. He would always speak English to me, and I would listen. I was also watching movies in English, and was starting to learn,” with the help of her step-sisters. However, once arriving in the United States, she realized that “The English that I was speaking was really different because they speak England-English,” in Zambia, so when “I moved here, it was really different.”
As a native-English speaker, I have often had trouble understanding the different accents that stem from the United Kingdom, so I understood and empathized with the difficulty that Deogracias was explaining. After traveling to Spain several times, I have noticed that I understand Spanish in the capital Madrid way better than Spanish in the Southern city of Sevilla, due to the accent and language syntax that I was taught throughout school.
When reflecting upon her experience in high school, Deogracias opened up and told me about people who “bully me because I am African.” She elaborated, saying “they think that African people come from the jungle, but African people have lives too just like in America.” There are many stigmas and myths that exist in the United States about Africa, and I was sad that Deogracias had to combat these on her own. She continued explaining her high school experience, saying that “when you say something sometimes, they try to make you feel bad and will start laughing at you when you say something. No one wanted to talk to you because you are African, so I made friends in my French class and my ESL class.” However, Deogracias told me that “I didn’t really pay attention to that because if I did I would run away from the school.” Deogracias learned to ignore ignorant American teenagers because she knew her own self-worth and importance. I found this to be particularly impressive, because I knew that if I was in Deogracias’ position, I would have maintained some anger and resentment. However, Deogracias showed a maturity that I doubt many of us could have exhibited in her position at her age.
One instance of xenophobia that stuck with Deogracias was a situation that occurred with one of her classmates. “I had a friend who was white, and she was really my good friend. I wanted to go see her, but she said ‘don’t come to my house because I don’t want my parents to do bad things to you because you are black.’” This experience really affected Deogracias because she realized how deeply rooted racism was in Pennsylvania. She expanded upon this thought, saying that “I don’t think that people want to come to the United States now because of racism.”
When I asked Deogracias what she most missed about back home, she fondly recalled her love of her community. While comparing it to her home in Pittsburgh, she said that “here, you don’t know your neighbor, and you don’t know anybody around you. But back home, everybody knows everyone. If you want, you can go and put your chair in your neighbor’s house” for dinner, and “no one cares.” When she came to the United States, her mother warned her that Americans acted very differently. Neighbors didn’t interact often and people were very particular about “private properly.” Deogracias recalled that when she first moved to the United States, “I was scared because my Mom told me that ‘they will call the police on you.’” This was only one of the huge cultural shifts that Deogracias had to make immediately upon arriving.
Now in the middle of her sophomore year at Washington & Jefferson College, Deogracias is studying a fifth language (Spanish), and has aspirations to be an immigartion lawyer. “Some people say it is going to be hard. I know it is going to be hard for me because English is not my first language.” However, Deogracias highlighted her determination by saying that, “You just have to work hard to get it. That is my goal, because I like helping people” and because she wants to help make the world a better place.
For me, Deogracias’ story was shocking, but also very inspirational. Even though she was bullied in high school because of where she was from, she decided that she would not let people define her, and would aim for her goals, regardless.
I think that a lot of people often don’t understand that the ability to speak English doesn’t define someone. There is a complete double-standard regarding immigrants who are multilingual versus Americans who become multilingual. Immigrants are often disparaged, whereas these multilingual Americans are considered “very educated” and “impressive.” I hope that those who read about Deogracias will internalize that even if someone doesn’t speak your language or doesn’t come from your country, they are still human beings. Deogracias said it best. At the end of the day, “all of us are the same.”