Life in the U.S.A.: Adjusting and Integrating in American Culture
After 13 years in Denmark I learned so many things. Learning Danish was so difficult. I could have given up, but I didn’t. I did it. So why not English? Even though I learned English back at home, in Congo in high school, I never used it. When I came to the U.S., if I tried to start speaking in English, I would speak Danish. But I started to build my life in the United States, first with learning English. I have so many languages in my head so it was really difficult for me, but I had good luck because I had a good teacher. My life is better because of her. Her name is Beth and I love her. I always tell her I love her, and I know in English “love” isn’t a good word to say to a woman but I still tell her I love her because she taught me to speak. I told her, “If I have a job or if I will do well, it will be because of you.”
“I don’t really see her as my teacher, but maybe as my mom, because she taught me to speak, to tell, to say. She opened my mouth. She taught me, she accepted me.”
I took my time because I didn’t have permission to work in the United States. When I came here I only had my passport from Denmark, so I started the process to work here. They take two years, these processes. The whole two years, I took English. I took all the sections in DMACC and I never missed one day in class. After class I would go to the library, and when I went home I watched the news, Channel 8. Even today, I don’t know if my TV has another channel. My kids, they ask me, ‘why don’t you watch something else?’ But Chanel 8 has taught me so much, so I love it.
Because my son spoke “English” I couldn’t even understand him, but my daughter helped me. When I had homework, I talked with her so she would teach me in my language.
“As you know, I am a teacher, so I told her, ‘You now work for me. Show me how to do things, explain, but don’t ever give me the answer.’”
I learned English for two years while the papers were processing. In 2014, on November 12th, I got permission to stay in the United States legally and work.
I had been refereeing soccer games in the U.S. because I played soccer and refereed in Denmark, and I met a woman named Leslie. She became my friend and told me to call her when I got permission to work. Instead, I started working at Walmart, in the toy section, but this job wasn’t for me. I needed to be working with people, with my heart. So Leslie found me and told me I could be an interpreter for refugees. She told me “They have a position at Lutheran Services. They want people who can interpret.” I told her that I couldn’t because my English was not very good, so it wouldn’t be possible. She kept telling me to try and got me an interview because she was friends with the woman who would interview me, Karen. So I went to LSI and they asked me about my life, about everything. There were so many questions, and they were all in English. Now when I talk with Karen, my supervisor who interviewed me, she said “I gave you the job because of Leslie. Your English was so slow. But now, your English has exploded!” I love my job now. I work with refugees and help them relocate here.
Today I had a question, I was teaching a volunteer who would become an ESL teacher. I told them, “Before you teach the people, you need to understand their background. Where are they from? What was their life like?” We have a different background here than people who have never learned their alphabet. We have people who speak Arabic who don’t use our alphabet. We have people from Nepal who have never learned to write. Imagine those people.
“You have to be patient. You have to learn how to teach those people.”
They are traumatized from the war. But, the people need to learn. They have the commitment. They have the courage to come to school. They want to learn, but they have so many obstacles.
I was lucky when I came here because I have so many people that helped me. I have a friend who lives in Texas, Justin. He called me every day for two years, in the morning and the afternoon. He always told me “Benjamin, you can. You can learn English. You can.” My wife also really helped me. During the time when I couldn’t work, she worked and she got money for us. I didn’t have as many problems here as in Denmark, because I had family here. Many people when they come to the U.S. have nothing. But I had family. I had friends. It was different from when I was in Denmark. It was easier.
I also had a community with church. So many people, when they come here, just stay with the people from their country. They don’t go out and learn how things work in the world. This is not good, it’s bad for them. Even in church, they have their own service. But in my experience, you have to try. It takes time, but you have to try to talk with the American families. We need to go to the same church as them. We can have an extra service for us, but we need to go with them, too. We have American church at 9:30, and Congo church from 11:00-1:00. I like this. I like ours in the afternoon, but sometimes I don’t go there because the morning is enough for me. I like being with the American people, and it is really important to me.
I remember when I came here first in 2008. That was after the campaign for Obama, and his words were “Yes we can.” I’ll never forget these words. When I came here in 2012, I said, “Yes I can, yes I can, yes I can”. Even Obama could, as a black man. Who would think the president of the United States would be a black man? Never. Now I read so many stories from the U.S. sixty years ago, when the black people sat on the back of the bus. Now after 60 years we have a black president. That’s incredible to me.
“That’s what I think when I say, ‘Benjamin, you can.’”