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The Challenges of New Immigrants

"Cliff Couvreur" (2020-04-15)


A

s an immigrant in a totally new society and culture, I faced many challenges. However, my perseverance, hard work and faith in God helped me overcome them all. When I arrived in the USA my challenges were enormous, especially during my first six months in the country. Fortunately, my childhood best friend and her husband welcomed me to stay at their home. The support I received from my best friend was outstanding. Because I was financially broke, she and her husband provided food, clothing and shelter for me throughout my stay at their house. This hads remained entrenched in my heart. 

Nonetheless, adapting to my new American culture and lifestyle was not easy. I was often perplexed by the lifestyle of the people here. This caused me to become even more homesick. In as much as America gave me a great perspective on life, I was often amazed by the culture of indifference and selfishness that reigned in the society. During the time I stayed at my friends house, I encountered some galvanizing moments in the neighborhood we lived in. This caused me to rethink my decision to immigrate here. My friend and her family lived in a beautiful home community. Every evening after sunset, I left the house for a walk around the neighborhood. Often, there were not many people walking outside. However, some days, I met a few neighbors walking their dogs. I often greeted them, but they rarely even acknowledged my greetings. At times, these people either hurried to pass-by me or simply crossed over to the other side of the street in order to avoid any contact with me. I was baffled by this indifference. I could not understand why these neighbors were so unfriendly. Surprised by all this, I shared my acerbity to my friend and was puzzled that she had the same feeling as well. How could one survive in an unfriendly community like this? I thought. This behavior deeply concerned me because in my native homeland of Cameroon, we depended on our neighbors for good living. We looked forward to evening chats with our neighbors. This interaction provided an opportunity to get to know each other better. Hence, we had each others back in case of trouble in the neighborhood. My experience in my friends neighborhood made me to wonder how I would be able to survive in these types of secluded lifestyle, coming from a culture that required us to be respectful and acknowledge our neighbors, especially the elderly.   

As time went by, I remained curious to know why people in the neighborhood were so self-centered and unfriendly at times. I later learned that numerous crimes had been reported in the neighborhood. This made me to suspect that this apathy from neighbors might have been triggered by high crimes occurrences. I believed that, the high crime rates caused people to feel unsafe; consequently, they tended to remain secluded in their homes to avoid mingling with their neighbors. Nevertheless, even though there was an increase in crime rates, I had a sneaking suspicion that there was more to the peoples mind-set than just the recent crimes. One day, at church, I was introduced to the issues of race relations that existed in the country. This clarified my concerns about people egocentric lifestyles. I realized that the issues I had encountered in the neighborhood were not due to crime, but rather were a mere racial issue. Since most of our neighbors were of a different race, they were very reluctant to interact with us. This idiosyncratic way of life caused me to yearn for the community life in Cameroon even more. I felt a strong urge to abandon every promise America had for me, and return home. How would I survive in this type of society? I wondered.

Fortunately, as time went by, I mingled more with the people and gradually got accustomed to the American lifestyle. This gave me the opportunity to realize that majority of the American were not selfish as I had misconceived. Instead, I met friendly people who sought the wellbeing of their neighbors.  I found them to be curious to learn about their neighbors. Even though their curiosity was sometime irritating, their sense of hospitality was astounding. Hence, I concluded that the egocentric lifestyle I had encountered earlier was just a standpoint of only a few people. I remained determined not to allow this self-centered attitude to influence the social-lifestyle I had brought with me from Cameroon. Nonetheless, I was anxious to regain my life and join the workforce. Impressed by the numbers of job vacancies available then, I was determined to make the best out of the opportunity.  At that juncture, it dawned on me that America was truly the land of plenty and equal opportunity for all, but I soon faced a major setback - I needed assistance with childcare. Since I had no relatives around to help me out, I realized that it would be very difficult for me to achieve my dream of going back to school while at the same time working full time and caring for a newborn baby. At first, I wondered how other single mothers survived and this revived my hope that if they could survive, so could I. However, I failed to realize that other single women had family relations to depend on for childcare, while I had none. I was on my own with a few friends to rely on. I had to do everything by myself. I also realized that most single parents received at least one or more welfare benefits, which enabled them to send their children to daycare. Since I was a non-citizen at the time, I did not qualify for any form of subsidized benefits. The stress of trying to juggle between work, school and dropping off and picking up the child, sometimes very late at night from my friends house soon caught up with me. I was exhausted and things were not moving as fast as I initially planned.  The challenges I faced in order to provide childcare for my daughter were enormous. Even though I was working, I was financially broke and needed a second job to supplement my increasing financial needs, but in order to do so, I needed to find childcare while I was at work. Fortunately, some friends offered to help me out on their days off from work. This meant that I had to work around their schedule and only accept a job that allowed me to work on specific days. Since I had no other choice, I welcomed their offer. I later found a part-time position on those specific two days. This was a blessing from God. A little later, my friend lost her job and this changed everything; she was no longer available to care for the child since she was out job hunting. Hence, I had to pay someone else to care for my child and this was very expensive. All the money I was earning was being used to pay for childcare and monthly bills. I was not saving as much as I would have wanted. This was very depressing. I could see my dream of building a successful future for my children slowly drifting away.

Growing up in Cameroon, childcare had never been an issue. Because of the inclusive nature of the family, anyone who lived in the community was family. Sometimes even the neighborhood storeowner Wahjo, Hausa migrants from the Northern region, agreed to watch children while the parents were out running errands for the family. When a woman needed childcare for her children, she merely took them to the neighbors. Sometimes also, a parent simply sought the neighbor to keep an eye on the children when they were old enough to be by themselves. This was a reciprocal act, and it became a custom in the local communities. People supported each other without expecting reward or compensation. This was however, not my experience with childcare in America. It was awful and frustrating to find out that I had to pay someone, even a neighbor, to care for my child.  In as much as America opened many avenues for my success, I soon realized the extreme capitalism that existed here. I was sad to recognize that financial greed was at its utmost here. Money was at the center of everything. Money surrounded everything and without money, you were nothing. It was always money, money, money all the time! Nothing was free. Even when an announcement said free, you had better watch out for there was always a catch phrase like tips are however welcomed to get you to pay something. Hence, if you needed a service, you paid for it.

Relating on a personal experience, I once asked a neighbor whether she could watch my children while I was out running some urgent errands at the bank. She agreed and I was very delighted for her help. However, when I returned an hour later, she insisted I pay her for caring for them. I was aghast at this. Wow! I just did not expect it. What was I thinking? Had I forgotten I was in America were no service was free? What a materialistic world we lived in! Money was causing us to lose the essence of life. If you needed someone to care for your children, you went to a place called the daycare and paid for that service. If you needed someone Donation to Immigrant Covid 19 braid or style your hair, you went to a house called the beauty shop and paid for that service. If you need someone to mow your lawn, you called a lawn service agency and paid for service. These services were numerous and endless since life was all about making money. Frightful isnt it? This meant that people continuously strive very hard to earn enough money to be able to afford these services or else they had to rely on social welfare. I believe that the people fight to accumulate more wealth only contributes in tearing the social aspect of life. Who is to blame? Greedy people mentalities or, a society that has structured itself diligently that it overlooks peoples relations. I often heard of community life, neighborhood associations here and there, yet, I did not seem to see the spirit of communion existing in the neighborhoods. Often, when neighbors met in the common places, like the pool or playground, they failed to acknowledge each other. They each clenched on their cell phones in an efforts to bar any avenues for conversation with others neighbors present. In an effort to break this apathy, on the weekends, I often made a point to pay casual visits to my neighbors. I even invited them over at our house; however, I quickly realized that my visits were never returned. I often wondered whether this apathy was due to my heavy African accent, which made people realize that I was a stranger.

Ironically, once I approached a new neighbor who had just moved into the neighborhood, and soon as I began welcoming her, she seemed to be carried away by my accent rather than getting to know me personally. So, where are you from? she inquired, to which I nicely answered, I am from Cameroon. Do you know where that is? I asked. No, she responded. Unbelievably many people I encountered could not give me an accurate geographical location of this country, which was well known worldwide for its great soccer performances at FIFA world cup. Oh, I forgot that soccer is just now gaining interest in the people here. Is that in Jamaica? she curiously inquired. No, Cameroon is in Africa, Cetral Africa precisely, I responded. Since she was interested in knowing more, I gave her a brief summary of the geography of Cameroon. I also encouraged her to search for more information from the Internet if she was interested. After that encounter with my new neighbor, I flashed back to my childhood. I remembered how in high school it was mandatory to memorize all the countries of the world as well as their capital cities. We thoroughly learned American and European history as part of our school curriculum. Yet, I sadly noticed that not much about African history was taught in our American schools.

This brings me to conclude that, the community does not make people but rather, people make the community. Community life is all about people helping each other, especially the stranger. Welcoming our neighbors and helping them become comfortable in their new home is very important for healthy community life. How we live together determines whether we will enjoy living together or not. Where is community life when people tend to socialize only with their kinds? Some complain they do not have time to socialize since they are too busy with work. Hey, do not get me wrong. I am not asking you to quit your job to socialize, for I will never do that. All I ask is that we should acknowledge our neighbors when we meet at least in common places. Yes, time is money, but is life all about money? What would you do with all your money if you had no social life? Acknowledging neighbors fosters relationships and creates trust amongst neighbors. When trust establishes people feel safer and happier.

To read more check out my book Entrapped in My Own Shell  on Facebook or email me at maneteh@yahoo.com