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By Jaime Rodriguez-Sosa

Photo: Adenike O sought asylum to protect her daughter from violence and genital mutilation. Now she works as a Certified Nursing Assistant after completing a licensing program, also volunteering to train prospective students at Nile Sisters.

May 11, 2016 (San Diego) -- The California State Refugee Service Bureau states that since 1975, California has provided refuge to 700,000 people, with San Diego County being the most notable recipient of refugees in the whole state. On average San Diego resettles 2,500 refugees per year, with areas such as City Heights among the most prominent areas for resettlement. These numbers are expected to increase in coming years, with refugees from Syria being accepted to resettle in the United States.

Yet numbers are often deceptive because they are abstract and difficult to grasp. As such it becomes necessary to understand individuals on a personal level, taking into account where they come from and the struggles they face in search for a new life.

Adenike O sought asylum in the United States in 2014 following threats of violence from her husband’s family for her refusal to force her pre-teen daughter to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is a custom perceived to limit women’s libido and thus protect their chastity however, millions of women suffer from lifelong pain especially in child birth and during intercourse. According to World Health Organization (WHO), over 200 million young girls between infancy and the age of 15 have been cut in over 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Much like many other asylum seekers, Adenike left behind a life of relative comfort in Nigeria despite university level education, employment at a national bank and running of her own distribution business. Unlike refugees, who are invited by the United States government and given permission to work, asylum-seekers arrive out of their own volition and can be denied entry, making their journey that much more challenging. One can sympathize with Adenike simply on the basis of being a mother trying to protect her family and in the process losing her entire livelihood, ultimately being forced to start from scratch. From her home in Nigeria, Adenike and her children travelled to Mexico before applying for asylum in the United States. Following her arrival in San Diego, Adenike, now a single parent, was receiving public assistance while seeking to become self-sufficient to provide more opportunities for her family.

A colleague familiar with Adenike’s circumstances recommended she learn about Nile Sisters Development Initiative’s (Nile Sisters), California Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) vocational training. Adenike completed the 22-day program and passed the necessary exams to become a CNA. Alongside her grueling four hour daily commute by bus to class, taking care of her children,  and studying for an intensive class workload, Adenike still managed to obtain her California driver’s license with the help of Nile Sisters. Nile Sisters’ employment facilitation programs also helped Adenike to craft a powerful résumé and strengthen her interviewing skills, which led to her new career at a health center in San Diego.

After having gone through such trouble and misery, many people would not be so driven to continue but despite the challenges of having to start a new life in the United States or elsewhere, recent arrivals to the U.S. have consistently shown a willingness to work hard and provide a better life for their families. We see many refugees working as taxi and truck drivers, nursing assistants, and pioneers in small businesses that cater to other refugees. Were it not for these refugees, the amount of diversity, innovation, and community that exists in so many parts of San Diego would not be present. The success stories of refugees and immigrants are not only attributed to community-based organizations, such as Nile Sisters, that provide resources to empower them, but also due to the individuals’ motivation to become self-reliant. 

While many success stories of refugees and immigrants like Adenike exist, there are many handicaps in providing aid to refugees in a culturally and linguistically competent manner as funds are not always available. Thereby, the latter hampers the availability of programs that focus on addressing barriers associated with post-resettlement and advocating for refugee-inclusive policies.

Given the growing number of refugees that arrive in the U.S. each year, Nile Sisters recognizes the need for strengthening community-based organizations that ease the transition of life in a new country and provide technical assistance and training on a more personal and understanding level. Organizations such as these have staff and volunteers who are multilingual, trained to be culturally sensitive and are able to understand the cultures of a variety of underserved populations who often arrive with little to no knowledge of English or American culture. Linguistic, cultural, educational, and transportation barriers means that immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers often survive on the economic fringe-- either unemployed, receiving public assistance, or working in part-time minimum wage jobs. Without community-based organizations dedicated to breaking down barriers and promoting technical skills education, the situation for many refugees and immigrants would be even more critical.

Discourse against refugees and immigrants often states that they are a burden and unwilling to accept cultural norms in their host country. This type of discourse ignores the fact that the Americas were never made up out of a homogenous culture and they never will be. As new people arrive they will leave their mark on us as a country, we will change and adapt. Adenike’s story emphasizes the reality that many refugees and immigrants that arrive are well educated and bring in their ingenuity and hard-working attitudes in their quest for a better life and that is a beautiful thing.


Jaime Rodriguez-Sosa: Jaime Rodriguez-Sosa is a graduate from the University of California, San Diego with a B.A. in International Studies-Political Science. His studies focused on global issues such as the politics of immigration and asylum-seekers as well as politics and development of human rights norms. He currently serves as a volunteer at Nile Sisters Development Initiative as a Case Management Intern.

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