Reprinted from Represent with permission by Youth Communication, a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
Since I came to the United States, I’ve been pushed off track from my goal of studying at a college over and over. I had already graduated high school back in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) before I had to flee political violence without my family. At age 16, I found myself in New York City, in foster care as an unaccompanied minor, and taking GED classes so I could enter college and study social work.
I turned 18 in June 2021 when the pandemic was raging. Because of the rules of the unaccompanied minor program, I had to leave a foster family I loved in New York and move to Philadelphia, starting over again with a new foster family, a new GED program, and a new city.
Through my unaccompanied minor program, I have a lawyer who’s seeking asylum for me. But, because of the pandemic, most legal offices and courts are closed. My discharge from foster care depends on my receiving asylum.
I believe my lawyer and my agency are doing their best. But it is hard to have so little control, especially because I feel more grown-up than others my age. I believe that my life experiences made me an adult before my 18th birthday, and it’s frustrating to keep starting over again and again.
Taking on Responsibility Early
My parents divorced when I was 8, and after that I lived in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, with my father, my stepmother, and my grandmother. One day when I was 15, my grandmother announced, “You are going to cook the cassava today.”
I changed out of my school uniform and went to the kitchen. I put the charcoal on the grill. Then I put the cassava in the pot with all the ingredients. I knew what to do from watching my grandmother and siblings cook.
Forty-five minutes later, I served the meal, and everybody liked it. My grandmother said, “Now you are a grown woman. You can feed people without asking what to do. You figured everything out by yourself. I’m very proud of you.”
At 16, I graduated from high school. Then I began volunteering to teach English to adults and children at a center that a teacher of mine had opened. I continued to live with my father and his wife. My English wasn’t great, but I learned more through teaching, and I gained confidence in my ability to meet challenges and to work in new environments.
Seeing Myself Onscreen
Around that time, a great opportunity knocked on my door. A friend told me that people were auditioning actors for a documentary about the diplomat Dag Hammarskjold. The friend said, “Since you can speak a little bit of English, I think this job will suit you.”
I met the director of the film at a hotel in Kinshasa. After a short conversation, the director said, “Your English is good. You are going to play the secretary of Dag Hammarskjold. We start shooting in two hours.” I had no acting experience.
The director sent a guy out to buy me a white shirt as my costume. Then he told me the story of Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary-General of the United Nations who died in a plane crash in what is now Zambia, just south of the DRC. We filmed my scene for two and a half hours, and then I was paid $200 in cash.
I had never dreamed of being in a movie. I was humbled to play an adult role at age 16 without any experience in film. When I watched the movie, I saw myself on screen as beautiful, focused and mature. I cried tears of joy. I saw a confident adult even though there were still two years before it was official.
Many New Starts in the U.S.
Later in my 16th year, I met another huge series of challenges when I had to leave my country. My older sister and I flew to Ecuador, then traveled by bus through Colombia, Central America, Mexico, then entered the U.S. illegally. Crossing all those borders, running out of money in Mexico, trying to communicate with people who spoke neither French nor English was very hard, but I pushed through.
I was detained in Texas, separated from my sister, and sent to a shelter in Chicago, then to New York City, and then I was moved to Pennsylvania, where I was placed with a Guyanese foster mom for six months. I couldn’t attend school while I was there, so I learned to braid hair, a skill that will allow me to make money wherever I live.
Suddenly the plan changed again. My case manager said, “You need to go back to high school for another year to get to college.” So this past December, I moved in with my first White foster family and started classes at a mostly White school.
I am, once again, adjusting. My first night in the new home, we stayed up till midnight playing Monopoly, which they had to teach me. It seemed like a weird game, and I was not good at it. On the first day in Palisades High School, I was a little nervous, but I soon adapted. It was strange to start in second semester, especially during a pandemic. We were initially remote, but then returned to the classroom.
Theater Was a Fun Detour, But I’m Ready for College
A highlight of the semester was being in the student production of “High School Musical.” In February, I joined the cast in the role of a cheerleader. We rehearsed in person, wearing masks, and when we filmed scenes, the actors took off their masks to sing. I had only one short scene.
I was the only Black person in the play, but I felt accepted, even special. The others treated me with respect and were eager to know about me and my country, language, and culture. They were surprised to learn that in school back in the DRC, we didn’t all have computers. One said, “I don’t even know how to write in a notebook!”
On March 5, the show streamed online. My foster family gave me a cake, flowers, and a card written by everyone in the house to congratulate me on my performance. Before the play, others I knew in the U.S. sent pictures of themselves sitting on their couches, waiting for the play to start. My previous family in New York called to congratulate me too. I was touched by all the support.
Doing the play was fun, and I made a few friends that I still hang out with regularly. Acting for a second time was fun, and I would love to do it again if the opportunity comes up.
But I feel a difference in maturity with my classmates. They talk about chocolate, movies, and things that happened in middle school. I was expecting more talk about the future, but even some of the seniors headed to college aren’t planning careers or even majors.
“Grown Up” Is Not the Same Everywhere
Some of the gap is cultural. Turning 18 in Congo is not as much about leaving your parents’ supervision; it is more normal to keep living with your parents and obeying their rules, even after you go to college. It seems that rebelling against your parents is part of growing up in the U.S. This was not the case in DRC, and I’m often surprised at how disrespectful teenagers here are to their elders.
My life is nothing like I expected it to be, but I’m doing my best to adapt. In order to be ready for college math, I must take another semester at Palisades. If I want to attend graduation, I would “walk” in June 2022, even though I’d be done in December 2021.
I have learned a lot about myself, and I understand the USA a little better. American kids don’t appreciate how many resources their education system has, and compared to kids back home, they seem a little lazy.
Once I finish high school, my refugee program will have me move out of my foster home and into semi-independent living (SIL). I’m glad for the opportunity to finish my high school before SIL. My foster families in the USA have been a blessing. I’m grateful that at every step of my life, they have encouraged and supported me.
Still, I look forward to graduating college and finally moving into my adult life. I want to study psychology in college and become a mental health counselor. I want to help people who are struggling.