Featuring a poem from a teen participant and stories about how Americana has impacted refugees, immigrants, and underserved people
My name is Suada and I am from Somalia. My uncle was the first to leave because of the war. He went to Kenya by boat and he wrote us to tell us to wait because the boat was too dangerous. We couldn’t afford to fly so we had to wait a long time.
My uncle got a job for the UN and saved little pennies so we were able to get to Kenya. We were stuck in Somalia for years waiting for him to save enough. Finally, we had enough to pay for a spot on the plane, but we had to sit on the luggage. It was the first time I was ever on a plane and I didn’t have a seat! I was so afraid.
We made it to the refugee camp in Kenya and stayed for four years. They say we were the luckiest ones because the camps were already built and the food was there, but we didn’t think we were the lucky ones.
The camp bathrooms were horrible. We had to wake up two hours before everyone else woke up so we could use the bathroom and then we didn’t again for the rest of the day.
We went through the application process with the UN and were resettled in Dallas Texas. We struggled a LOT in Texas. There was no help. They tell you to go find a job but who is going to hire you when you don’t speak English?
We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have money to wash our clothes. The resettlement agency didn’t provide us with anything. The house they set up for us only had one sheet and there were so many cockroaches. We didn’t have soap to wash our hands so we scrubbed them together. We used to walk a lot. No one checked in on us because we didn’t speak any English.
We had a couple of clothes from back home and the schools would laugh at us because we didn’t have the same clothes as them. It was horrible. My uncle got a job at the gas station and also had a second job so he couldn’t go to school to learn. They couldn’t give us food stamps because we were 17 and 18. Some days we would think the refugee camp was better because at least there we were not alone. We didn’t have any support at first. We couldn’t ask anyone where to buy food or clothes.
They kicked me out of high school because I was 18 and too old. Later, I heard that they cannot do that, but they did anyway. So then I had to find a job, but then there was a car issue. Texas is so big you can’t find a job that’s one or two bus stops away. Everything is far far away. But I survived.
I learned to drive, but I failed the written test because of the language issue. So I memorized the words and answers – I didn’t understand the question but I knew what questions matched with what answers.
I got my license, but I had to work longer hours and far away. I had to work for my grandparents who were with me but I also had to send money to my parents who were back home so I had to work long hours. Then I got in a really bad car accident and was in the ICU for 7 days.
My uncle had moved to Minnesota so we moved after I got out of the hospital. The support there was so different and we finally had help and I was able learn some English.
It was a rough time though because it was after 9/11 and the people in Minnesota were from the country so it was difficult. They would throw things at us and would yell at us to go home.
I got married and we moved to Louisville in 2003. I feel more comfortable here. I feel like more religious people live in Louisville which has made it easier.
I wish I found Americana years ago because in the short time I’ve been here, I have learned so much. And the support is amazing. I am in the Family Education program and they support the parents in a lot of ways – they help you if you need therapy, they help you if you need a job, they help you if you want to buy a house, they help you if you’re sick. I mean, any need a parent has, they are there for you. Which is incredible.
I have three kids. They are 11, 8, and 4. We live in a small apartment and my dream is to buy a house. It would be easier for me if they could run around in a bigger space, maybe in the back yard. My husband works, but I want to find a job so we can save for a house. Our credit is very good but we can’t take a loan out because it’s against our religion to pay interest.
I like to help people so I hope I can have a job that helps others. Americana is helping me with my resume now and I just finished my ESL classes at Americana and hope to begin my GED class after the summer.
Americana has been there for us. It doesn’t matter if you are in the United States for 20 years or 2 hours. You still need a community to provide support and Americana has been that for me. We can ask questions and share our concerns and I feel comfortable to talk with the teachers and my family coach. It is nice to know that they care.
So I want to thank Americana.
And I want to thank you all for being here to listen to my story.
A 2016 summer intern, Emma, interviewed one of the teen participants at Americana’s Summer Program, Gabby. The following is a transcription of their conversation, edited for clarity.
GABBY: When I was like 7, I think, I didn’t really have that much friends, cause like, I was really really really shy, I guess. I don’t know. So my parents were like “Hey, you need to like—we want you to have friends,” so we was looking around for like summer programs and then—I was 7—me and my brother came here and you know how in the gym people was playing? Well like, the first day, the first couple of days, I would not play. I would just sit there and watch. And I remember my brother, he was like, “Hey! Come on, let’s go play.” I’m like, “No. I don’t know these people.” Yeah.
EMMA: Okay. So why do you come here?
GABBY: Well like, over the years, I ended up meeting new friends, new people. Once upon a time, there was a lot of Haitians, so like—
EMMA: At Americana?
GABBY: At Americana. So like, we speak the same language. And I remember they would give me this fake name. They would call me Gabey instead of Gabby.
EMMA: And so your family is Haitian?
EMMA: You said just your—?
GABBY: My dad.
EMMA: Your dad, okay. But you were born in Louisville?
EMMA: That’s cool. So you speak English and you said you understand French, right? And do you speak Creole at all?
GABBY: My grandmother does.
EMMA: So you’ve been coming to Americana for a long time. Since you were little.
GABBY: I need a job.
EMMA: You need a job?
EMMA: Well what year are you going to be? A sophomore? Junior?
GABBY: I’m gonna be 15 next month.
EMMA: You’re 14? Okay.
GABBY: I want to go work at Pic-Pac.
EMMA: Someday you could work here.
GABBY: Yeah, I don’t know.
EMMA: The summer teens. Okay. Can you tell me more about your family background?
GABBY: Well I really don’t know cause some of them don’t share.
EMMA: Okay can you just tell me about your family? It doesn’t have to be anything—just tell me how many siblings you have, that kind of thing.
GABBY: I have a brother and a sister.
EMMA: Okay. Are you the oldest?
EMMA: Okay, you’re the oldest and…anything more to say about your family?
GABBY: My mom, my dad. They’re like married but they’re not married, so like they have their own house and I tried to explain it to Malia [another teen participant at Americana] and she was like, “Oh so they got divorced,” but my dad, he’s got his own house that we’re staying in right now and my mom’s got her own house and we go to my mom’s house—it’s like a few blocks over—for school.
EMMA: Do you have any particularly memorable experiences either in general or at Americana or when you think “weird things that have happened to me” or “interesting things that have happened to me,” what comes to mind?
GABBY: Whenever I think about family, I think of this one moment that I loved—it’ll kind of look bad to you, I guess. So, one day my dad he had cancer and I remember my mom, she would drag me and DJ [her brother] and my little sister and we would go to this bus because at that time, my mom didn’t have a car. And my mom, she was talking to this man and he was just talking and he said to my mom, “Why don’t you go and bring your kids to the waterfront so I can babysit them?” And she was like, “What do you mean the waterfront?” He was like, “Oh, where the dog—the dog—trains.” And my mom was like, “I’ve been to Louisville all my life and I haven’t seen a dog park at the waterfront.” And he was like, “Oh well it’s brand new and your kids will really love it.” And my mom, she told me, like she told the man, “I don’t know you and you aren’t gonna go and touch my kids. My husband’s gonna kill me and I’m gonna kill you.”
EMMA: How old were you then?
GABBY: I was probably like 8 and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was busy playing with the bus thing—I don’t know. And I remember that day really really good. Whenever I’m mad, I’m just thinking about how much my mom does for me.
EMMA: Can you tell me about your high school? You were telling me earlier that you don’t go to the one you want to or something, right?
GABBY: I’m supposed to go to Iroquois, but that’s not a good school, so I have to wake up extra early to go to a place where I don’t really know people. I know people since elementary school and they go to their home school, but I can’t go. And I remember the first day, I didn’t really like it cause I didn’t know nobody from Shriberly (?), like, I’m from the Southside where you go around the corner and you see Cubans and you go the next corner and you see Arabics [sic]. There’s nothing about white people so I don’t know who to talk to.
EMMA: So what school do you go to now?
GABBY: I go to Butler. I said I go to Butler. I have to go there.
EMMA: So you’re going to be a sophomore?
EMMA: Okay. And is that a magnet school?
EMMA: Okay. Interesting. Do you see it picking up? Do you think it’ll be okay, your next three years there?
GABBY: I remember a time where I wore extensions, this girl named—I don’t remember her name—like, she was talking about me in second period—in English class—she was like, “Well I can’t stand Gabby because she’s so stuck-up,” and I’m like, “I only talk in this class, so.” And like, she’s going to talk about me and I’m thinking, “She’s so lucky I’m in ROTC,” cause she’s just so lucky. So, I was like, why’d she hate me? I don’t know what to do with her.
EMMA: That is annoying. I’m sorry.
GABBY: I don’t really care. Just when it’s early—like 9 o’clock—I’m tired.
EMMA: Do you have plans for the future, for the rest of high school or going into post-high school? Is there anything you’re trying to work towards?
GABBY: I’m trying to go into the Air Force and probably become a lawyer. I need money so that’s why I’m doing it.
EMMA: Are you going to join the Air Force right out of high school, or are you going to go to college?
GABBY: I’m going to go to the Air Force and then go to school at the same time. I’ll try to do that.
EMMA: Oh like keep doing ROTC at school? That type of thing?
EMMA: I know some people who are in the Air Force ROTC at college and then after that they serve. You know what I’m talking about?
EMMA: That’s cool, though. Why the Air Force?
GABBY: Well, this is like really funny. Okay so, one day I was thinking about college and I was like, man how can I pay for all of that because I don’t want my parents to be in debt. So, I was watching TV and guess what comes on? The Navy commercial came on. I was like, man I should go in the Navy. And then, much opinions based on—I have a friend who was in the army and he didn’t really like it and then Ms. K [a teacher at Americana], she’s from the Navy so she was talking to me about it and I was like, man I hate the sea, so I might just go to the Air Force.
EMMA [By this point it was clear that Emma was running out of questions]: What do you think are your strongest qualities about yourself? In a good way or a bad way?
GABBY: Well I like how I can talk to people and then—I don’t know. For some reason I’m a quiet chick, but I remember one time, a few months ago, Ms. Kathryn [another teacher at Americana], we was like doing World Fest. World Fest happened and I was so bored, so I was like, hey might as well sell something, so we was doing this thing and Ms. Kathryn told me, “You know what? You’re a really sales woman [sic]. You just sell to the wrong people, that’s all you do.”
EMMA: Ms. Kathryn’s funny. What’s Word Fest? Oh! World Fest. Were you selling at World Fest?
GABBY: No it was this fundraiser to like run a marathon. I was bored, so I just did it.
EMMA: Okay. Do you have anything else you want to tell me?
GABBY: I guess my worst quality is that, I guess, I hate how I’m super-duper quiet and I just observe people. I remember one time, me and DJ and Nicki [her sister] was just talking to some neighborhood kids and I didn’t know them, so I’m tryna see if I could be their friends, if they were bad people, or whatever. And DJ’s telling me, “Go home. You’re not doing any of this. Go home.” And I’m like, “Yeah I am. I’m on my phone.”
EMMA: You speak up in this class [a writing workshop], more than a lot of people.
GABBY: Cause I’m bored, okay?
EMMA: That’s not a judgment. I’m not like, “Gabby, why are you speaking in class?”
GABBY: Nobody’s talking and I hate when people aren’t talking, so I’m like, okay I might as well just talk.
EMMA: It’s awesome that you’re willing to share. I wish everyone in the class were willing to share their work.
GABBY: I try to share, but then again I don’t like sharing too much of myself.
EMMA: That’s okay. Everyone is entitled to keep things to themselves. Thanks for talking to me.
GABBY: Kay, I’m done.
EMMA: Yeah. Thank you for talking to me. I really appreciate it.
[End of recording.]
Let me tell you what the Americana Community Center has meant to my life.
When I look at where I am today and when I’m able to reflect on the kind of life it has been, I can’t help but recognize the role that the Community Center has played in it. I was 11 years old when the center became a part of my life; I grew up with it and in many ways, through it. Today, I’ve recently finished my Masters degree and have joined the working world and though I have countless individuals and organizations to thank for having helped me throughout my journey, I’d like to use this moment to thank the Americana Community Center.
Let me start from the beginning.
Louisville became home in the winter of 1999 and my bedroom shared a wall with the Americana Community Center. The center was then housed in the Americana Apartments, now known as the Kingston Apartments. Originally from Rwanda, we’d largely lived a transient life since the time we left the country. After close to a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we spent three years in Dakar, Senegal, and in 1998 moved to Landover, Maryland.
Americana is where I opened my first email address. It’s where I spent countless hours working on homework, helping others with their homework, attending health classes, speaker series and art classes- all alongside my little sisters and some of my best friends to this day. Later, my first job was also with the community center when I became old enough to be a counselor at their annual summer camp. When it came time to start thinking about college, I began the search with Americana by going on various college visits.
Americana is where I was introduced to the city of Louisville and Kentucky, with trips to museums, caves, parks, shows. More importantly, it is true that Americana is “where Louisville meets the world” because my years there, as I would later realize, were a crash course in sociology; I was introduced to various cultures and most of all, to other kids I could relate to and families much like my own. These were also people who had come from some other far away land for a number of reasons and who like me, also had to start over in more ways than one.
Some of my best summers in this country were spent as a participant of the Americana Community Center summer programs. Swimming pools, lunches, field trips and best of all, all your friends for most of the summer. We had it made and though I didn’t know it then, spending time in that summer program was one of the reasons I wasn’t out spending it elsewhere, possibly engaging in the kind of behavior kids, impressionable or not, would sometimes resort to with too much time on their hands and no one to supervise. In short, I thank the center for the consistently positive place and role it played in my life, those of my sisters and my friends.
Americana is where I formed some of the greatest friendships of my life and I couldn’t imagine my life without these same relationships.
On the same note, some of the people I hold to great esteemed are also some of the ones I met through the center. To the members of staff and the many volunteers, young and old, present and past- thank you. I was always impressed by the kindness you brought with you and the lessons you taught my peers and I during your time there. A few years later, my mother formally became a part of the Americana Team and would work there for 6 years.
While feeling nostalgic for my south Louisville childhood recently, I decided to browse the Center’s new website and read that it serves individuals from 81 countries around the world. Simply put, that is remarkable and I’d like to call attention to that by saying thank you for what you do. Thank you for doing what you can for a community that needed it then and needs it now.
This should have come sooner though since it is never too late to say thank you, here I am. You are and were always appreciated. I wish you continued success and support in your mission.
Ibis Ramos, a Cuban mother of two, attended family education and participated in family coaching for two years. She completed the goals she set out to accomplish in that time. She wanted to get her daughter into an educationally enriching middle school, to improve the business she and her husband owned, improve her English skills, and give her son, Francisco, a strong educational foundation. She completed her advanced English course last spring and has since moved to a new family educational program for international GED students at the Louisville Academy for English as a Second Language where she and Francisco can continue their education.
Mah Mae and Bleh Htoo and their 3 children have attended family education and participated in family coaching since 2013 when they were referred to the center by friends in the Karen community. Through coaching, they learned about a financial education program that helped them learn the steps necessary to buy a home and helped them save money for a down payment. They bought their house in 2013 when they were able to welcome extended famliy into their home in 2014 when they were resettled as refugees from Burma. Mah Mae has shared her knowledge and skills from their home buying experience with others in the Karen community, many of who are now home owners, as well.
Bleh Htoo completed the advanced English courses offered in Family Education and is now working to complete his GED, Their son, Aung Kant Win, will attend his first year of high school at Butler Traditional this year*. They applied to the school when they learned about school choices in a family coaching session. Yon Zar Phyu, their daughter, started kindergarten a year ago prepared for school and tested proficient in English comprehension after 3 years in the Family Education program. Henry Htoo, their youngest, will begin his first year of Headstart this year. Mah Mae found out about the Headstart program through a community speaker at Americana and signed him up.
*This information is from 2015.
In her journey, through coaching, Oretha Johnson, a Liberian single mother of four daughters, has taken advantage of counseling services, learned interview skills, created a resume, and worked with her children to get them into schools where they can excel. She felt confident that she could leave her meat packaging job, where she had worked since arriving in the United States 10 years before and apply for positions that offered better opportunities. Oretha has built job experience housekeeping in assisted living homes and factory work to become financially independent. The managers in her workplace have come to rely on her consistency and strong work ethic. Oretha has referred several community members to positions in the places she works and all have been hired. She chose powerfully to leave an unsupportive relationship as she developed the confidence to take control of her life. Oretha’s eldest two daughters are now attending college. Her 3rd child, Haja, is an active teen community leader who is attending the magnate program at Atherton High School. Michelle, her youngest, is now in kindergarten* and has acquired the language comprehension to move out of ESL classes in her elementary school.
*This update is a few years old, so Michelle is now further along in elementary school.
Wah Wah was a Karen refugee from Burma, and when she found Americana Community Center she entered the building with goals. She had heard about the Family Education Program and she wanted to be a part of it. After that goal was accomplished, she moved on to the next one immediately. (This is how she is.)
Wah Wah wanted to be a better parent. Her son would hold his breath until he fainted when he was upset and she didn’t know what to do. She learned about a child’s development with skills to help guide them forward like time out (we quickly cleared up that, no, that does not mean you should send them out of the house). Things improved radically and she moved on to her next goal. She wanted to buy a house so she participated in the financial education class. She was the first Karen family to purchase a home with New Directions Housing’s support. All the while, she was a role model among the community at Americana as well as her Karen neighbors. They would often follow her lead and she would help them along the way. She helped interpret during other people’s closing and she interprets for free during a 40 hour job orientation so other people in her community are able to have work. If Wah Wah didn’t know how to help, she would bring them along with her to Americana.
Her children are enrolled in the Youth Program and she is now working on her GED. Her next goal? Opening her own salon, she says, and for some reason, we don’t doubt its fruition.
[Again, any updates?]
Alida is from Burundi, a small country in East Africa that faces an escalating crisis. Her family fled to a refugee camp before they were able to resettle in America. Unfortunately, without the proper support, their initial resettlement was very difficult. They moved to Kentucky because they had heard there would be more resources available to the international community.
Alida was four years old when they finally made it to their final destination, but her obstacles did not cease upon arrival. She is now in middle school, and to put it simply, there are a lot of people in her household who are supported by very little. Her father works 60 hours a week and her mother has severe PTSD and cognitive impairment. Alida learned quickly how to take care of herself and her younger siblings, but was always committed to school and was ready to get to work when she came to Americana Community Center. She would encourage the other participants to finish their homework in the afterschool program. She took leadership roles in the Girl Scouts program and volunteered around the center when she had free tine. She would have hard days and through mentoring programs, the staff at Americana was able to remind her how good of a job she was doing and that was good enough for her to keep giving 100%.
The staff helped her apply for a scholarship to attend a prestigious summer camp in West Virginia which led to an even larger scholarship to a private boarding school. After months of paperwork, Alida has started at this new school where even more opportunities will arise, and we couldn’t be more proud of her.
Hear from some of our participants at the Americana Community Center about their obstacles and goals!