Whether they came over the Bering Strait, on the Mayflower, or are first generation Americans, our staff and volunteers are guided by their own immigration stories in everything that they do serving immigrants in downstate Illinois. These are the immigration stories of our agency.
This is Abigaelle Ngamboma’s Immigration Story
Abigaelle joined the Immigration Project as an intern in 2016. She provides valuable service to our agency through case work and French and Lingala translation and interpretation.
Abigaelle’s family came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when her mother was granted a visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. In addition to her mother, she came with her father, and two sisters. The Diversity Immigrant Visa program provides visas to people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.
Her family lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abigaelle was nine years old when she moved to the United States and still remembers Kinshasa. Her dad was an engineer and her mom worked as a secretary. Abigaelle went to a Catholic elementary school where she was an excellent student. There were some realities of life in the DRC that she was not aware of because of her age. Abigaelle recalls one night when gunmen were in the street outside of her home. She, along with her cousin and sister, locked themselves in the house, turned off all of the lights, and waited for the shooting to stop. It was the most vivid memory she had of political instability in the DRC.
While political instability in the DRC was concerning, education was the primary reason her parents wanted to come to the United States. Education was very important, especially to her father, and while she attended a very good school in the DRC they knew moving to the United States would allow Abigaelle and her sisters to access opportunities not available in Kinshasa. Her parents sold everything so they could move to the United States. They lived well in the DRC, but adjusting to life in the United States was a still a struggle for her family. Like many immigrants, when they arrived the education her parents had received in the DRC was not recognized in the United States, which made finding employment difficult.
Abigaelle remembers when the family first arrived to the United States. They landed in Chicago where it was snowing, she had never seen snow before. She slept the entire car ride to her new home in Champaign.
While she was an excellent student, she was held back a grade when she registered for school in the United States. However, she was still advanced in many subjects and often found herself bored in class. At the same time the rapid speed of English spoken by her peers was challenging. Since she was a young child it was easier to for her learn English and eventually speak at the same speed of her classmates. Her ESL teacher, Madame Ho, helped her family, as well as many other immigrant families, transition to life in the United States. “At school you are trying to learn the language, at home you have to keep your language so you have to be find balance between speaking the language and learning,” Abigaelle explains, summarizing the challenge many immigrant youth face in education and at home. Her parents also took classes in order to learn English, but as adults it was more difficult for them. Her mom currently takes classes in an effort to improve her English. She uses English at work, but wants to continue improving her English skills.
Abigaelle’s family planned to stay in the United States permanently even though her late grandparents and other family members remained in the DRC. She remembers her mother studying English and civics for the citizenship test. Abigaelle also recalls the financial burdens and masses of paperwork her mother had to navigate on her path to citizenship. As an intern with the Immigration Project she has developed an even deeper appreciation and understanding for the immense challenges her mother conquered to become a US citizen. Abigaelle was still a child when her mother naturalized and also became a US citizen. However, her sisters were too old and had to naturalize on their own. Her father also naturalized a few years later.
The DRC is almost always portrayed as a country overwhelmed with political corruption, poverty, and violence. However, this is not the country Abigaelle remembers. The Democratic Republic of Congo has many people who want to see the DRC improve and take advantage of the natural resources abundant in the country to help their country. Congolese citizens are working hard to improve conditions and Abigaelle is hopeful for the future.
“It is not as if everyone is trying to flee the DRC,” she added when asked what she wanted people to understand about the DRC. Her cousin attends university in the DRC and is part of a new generation of people who have the desire to rebuild the DRC. “It is not hopeless. They’re not hopeless,” She said.
Abigaelle’s family may have planned to stay forever, but she might not. With the knowledge and skills she is acquiring during her time in the United States she wants to go join that new generation of Congolese youth trying to improve the conditions within the country.
By Hanna Tarbert