First person: An immigrant among refugees

Gov. John Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, along with other state and local officials, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, welcomed more than 75 newly resettled refugees to Colorado during a reception at Union Station on Wednesday.

The Governor chose to read the poem on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Statue of Liberty, standing where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic, is also known as the “Mother of the Exiles.” Lady Liberty has witnessed thousands of immigrant families receive their keys to their American dream on Ellis Island.  

The Statue of Liberty was one of the first stops my family made when we moved to New York from China in the summer of 2006. At the time, the top viewing room of the Statue was closed down, but that didn’t stop ferries full of visitors from coming. They sweated through a steamy boat ride after hours of waiting in line to get to Liberty Island just to snatch a family photo at the foot of the statue. It is the place where the phrase “melting pot” becomes reality. With their arms wrapped behind backs, once in a while, with a nervous “peace” hand gesture held up by a child, families with different skin colors, clothing styles, and languages again and again gathered and said the word “Cheese.”

There, I told myself that I would be welcomed by my peers, and that some day I would become the one with arms open saying to the newcomer, “Welcome.”

I don’t know if that’s the same vision Fatoumatta Janko, 25, and her three siblings had when they first landed in New York two months ago after their 18 hour-flight from their home country of Gambia. Even before the dizziness brought by New York City’s skyline hit, they had to board another flight to Colorado, a state they knew little about except that their father lived here.

Fatoumatta and her two younger sisters and younger brother attended the welcoming reception on Wednesday afternoon. They talked to me after in a meeting room in Union Station. Wearing a pink hijab and a yellow high-collar sweater, Fatoumatta is the oldest daughter in her family. Only her younger sister, Isatou, 23, did the interview with her. The other two just simply smiled and shook their heads when I asked them to join us. They just recently started taking English courses.

Without even taking their backpacks off, Fatoumatta and Isatou sat down and rapidly jumped into the conversation. “Our country is surrounded by a river,” Fatoumatta said as she drew a circle on the table with her hand  “Mountains here are really cool.” Fatoumatta and her siblings had just seen their first snow of their lifetimes a couple of weeks ago. “I’m getting used to the cold weather here,” Fatoumatta laughed.

Now living in Aurora with their father, they are quickly adapting to the lifestyle in Colorado. Fatoumatta is planning on continuing her study in computer science, while her sister, Isatou, is going to study to be a nurse.

At the reception, the Mayor promised his commitment and that of the city’s toward helping these new Coloradans achieve their dreams. More than 60,000 people who have been torn away from their homes have made Colorado their new home, Lt. Gov. Lynne said.

“We love Colorado,” Isatou told me several times throughout the interview.

The match between Colorado and Janko family seems perfect. But, as I talked with Isatou and her sister, an immigrant talking to refugees, it struck me that this match came at a price I could not know.

I moved to New York with my parents from China 10 years ago. It took us only one visit to an American Embassy to get my documents approved. It was a 30-minute wait in line, one security check, and an interview with an embassy visa worker for no more than 5 minutes. It could’ve passed as another slick cosmopolitan international trip. I got to skip a day of school.

It was a privilege for me to move to America. Every summer, when I visit my relatives and friends in China, I find my stories from another country resonate with their vague imagination of the country where dreams do come true. I regard myself as an expat living in the United States.

But to Fatoumatta and her siblings, moving here was a necessity, not a choice. 

They are from Gambia, a country with a sinking economy after exiled dictator Yahya Jammeh’s more than 20-year rule. “To find a job there is really difficult. I’ve been graduated for more than five years, and no job,” said Fatoumatta. To move to America with their father seemed to be the only option they had. It took five years before their visas were approved, and in that time, their mother died.

They are perpetually displaced from their home. They were forced to take on a new identity as refugees. Even with the amazement brought by the adopted but affluent new home, they still can’t escape the memories of their devastated homeland. And they can’t feel whole without their 9-year old sister, who is still living with their relatives in Gambia and can’t apply for a visa until the family is granted permanent residence status, which they can apply for after living in the U.S. one year.

With President Trump’s recent travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, immigrants of Islam religion become the center of this swirl. Even though Gambian nationals aren’t affected by the travel ban, Fatoumatta said the ban has psychological effects on her family. “No one is perfect.” she said. “There is bad people in every religion.” 

She says it is unfair to say Muslims are bringing the harm to America simply because of their religion. She explained, “All these people in need for help … but these policies are affecting them more, and [these policies] could even kill them.”

Fatoumatta stopped talking to wipe a tear running out the corner of her eye.

“There are Christians in our country, but we didn’t do anything to them. Because we believe we are all human beings, and we are all equal in the God’s eyes.”  

Maybe two hundred years in the future, when historians look back at our time, they will be shocked, not by the immigration policies, nor the political weather surrounding it, but that, despite all the hatred and bigotry, the belief in human decency prevailed. People of all backgrounds – your tired, your poor, your huddled masses – belonged under the same flag.

When I was packing up my bag after the interview, Fatoumatta came up to me with her eyes shining with excitement and asked, “Do you know any football team I can maybe play on?” She meant soccer, and it must be funny to her that people here play football with their hands. But there are many soccer teams here who’d be happy to have her.


Allen Tian has been interning for The Independent since he graduated from Colorado College last spring.