Mohamed Fofana (Photo by Tatiana Flowers for Voices of NY)
Mohamed and his older brother were eager with anticipation when they boarded a plane that would start them on their journey to the U.S. two years ago. They would finally get to try those American burgers they’d only seen on TV.
Mohamed Fofana, then 18, had spent more than a decade of his life wondering when he and his brother would finally move to the United States, reunite with their parents, and meet their younger siblings.
When he was one, his father, who worked many odd jobs to make ends meet, moved to the U.S. to start a better life financially. When Fofana was five, his mother left to join his father in America. Mohamed and his brother, Ibrahim, were left behind in Côte D’Ivoire with their grandparents.
For 13 years, Fofana’s mother would phone and repeat the same refrain. “Next year, you’ll come to the United States,” Fofana recalls her promising. “You just need to work hard at school. If you pass all your classes with a high grade, we’ll bring you here, and you will continue with your studies.”
They used to send him American clothes and all of his friends would “ooh” and “ah” over his newest pair of Michael Jordan sneakers. Everybody in his town thought he was cool.
It was February 2014 when the two Fofana brothers finally boarded a plane for the two-day journey from the Ivory Coast to the U.S. They stopped over in Cairo and arrived in New York City in the midst of heavy snowfall. Mohamed was wearing a light hoodie when they landed in New York City.
Fofana’s father was waving to them and he thought, “Who is that guy over there?” He finally understood it was his father, only to be greeted by his younger sister, who was born here, saying: “Are you really my brother?” That was the first time they met.
Although Fofana had been separated from his parents for more than 10 years, he never really missed his father. “I didn’t build that relationship. You miss someone when you actually live with that person,” he now says.
Once they reached home, Fofana thought they were at the wrong house. He wasn’t expecting to live in an apartment, and he surely wasn’t expecting a place like Harlem.
In West Africa, he’d watched music videos by Nelly, Michael Jackson, and Akon and all the TV shows and movies he’d seen like “Home Alone” portrayed one kind of America – suburban America. So, naturally, he thought his home would be just the same.
“I didn’t know there was such a place called Harlem, where there is a high concentration of just black people. At first, I saw some homeless [people], and I thought, no way, I couldn’t imagine seeing a homeless [person] in the U.S.” He remembers seeing a pregnant homeless woman on the street and thinking: How come nobody is helping her?
Within a couple of days, he noticed that people didn’t speak to each other. Back home in Abidjan, it had seemed as though everybody knew one another. Families were close-knit and neighbors were always willing to share food and supplies. Now he doesn’t even speak to his neighbors. He thinks people here are extremely private and addicted to their mobile phones. Furthermore, he thinks New York City’s education system is “weak,” that it’s just about memorizing and regurgitation of information. In the Ivory Coast, he says, schoolwork and going to school was much harder. You had to pay for every single one of your materials and classes were much bigger, leaving the teacher with a harder task of focusing on each student.
When Fofana phones his family back home, he tells them casually, “it’s like hell living here,” but they never believe him. “I just try to deal with it,” he said. “I don’t run from it. It’s difficult, but the thing is, there’s a lot of opportunities here, and if I graduate, I might get a job, and that doesn’t necessarily happen in my country.” This hope, he said, is what motivates him. “I’m just thinking about my future.”
He stresses that one of the hardest adjustments here is the language barrier. It took him nearly two years before he felt comfortable enough to hold a fluent conversation in English. When he arrived here, all he spoke was French and Mandingo.
During high school, he took full advantage of the extra help English teachers offered. They often told him to be patient because learning English would take time, and to slow down when speaking, so that people could understand him. “When people realize you have an accent they don’t give a damn about you. For them, it means you don’t speak English.”
People still look at him peculiarly sometimes, but he doesn’t care anymore. “That’s their business,” he now says.
Fofana’s high school math and programming teacher, Linda Eng, said he became a bit more acclimated during his second year here, once his English was fluent. “He dressed a little differently and just wanted to fit in with every other high school student,” a shift she sees in almost all of her international students at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School. When she met him, she remembers, he was always very polite and always raised his hand in class. “He was just an overall good person,” Eng said.
She says most of her students who are immigrants agree with Fofana; America isn’t like what they see on TV. But, she says, not all of her students value the classroom the way Fofana does.
“I’ve noticed a portion of immigrant students who come here and have this serious, do whatever it takes to succeed [attitude]. They work, get good grades, and will do whatever it takes to make it in America.”
“I miss the weather”
Now 20 and a student at SUNY New Paltz, Fofana is studying computer science. Although he’s still working on getting acclimated, he yearns for a vacation to re-visit his country. He hasn’t been back since he moved here, and he says he doesn’t necessarily want to stay here. He misses the camaraderie-like atmosphere of his neighborhood in Abidjan. “I lived there for 18 years, so pretty much all my life is there. I miss my friends, family, my grandfather. I miss the weather,” he said.
Fofana has a plan: get a job and succeed here, something that’s a lot harder to accomplish in Côte d’Ivoire. But he doesn’t plan to abandon his country. If the opportunity arises, he wouldn’t be opposed to bringing his computer science skills back to the Ivory Coast to start a business to benefit the people of his country. Fofana says he wouldn’t turn his back on his country, because he loves it.
People in the U.S. have a skewed perspective about Africa in general, Fofana says, because of what they see on TV. “The only thing [the media] shows is malaria taking over some poor area in Africa. It’s like, those people are savages, they don’t eat,” he said.
“Well, there’s cities in my country and we got a lot of resources. If you really want to know what Africa is like, buy a ticket and you will see the difference from what they show on TV,” he said. “It’s not the same thing.”