Reflecting on the Transition into America as a Refugee

As Told to Alexyss Panfile.

First family photo in America. (Lydia, lower left)

Iwas young, but I knew that things were not normal or okay. The war in our country, Eritrea, had been going on for years and it was becoming more dangerous to stay where we were. The war was between my country and Ethiopia over power — and it wasn’t going to just end abruptly. I was a child, so of course I was scared and always on edge. At night we could hear bombs going off, and I can remember glimpses of dead soldiers. It was terrifying to live in a war zone — especially being so young. My parents knew that we had to flee or the worst would happen, so they contacted a church in America that would sponsor our family throughout our dangerous travels to safety. Eventually, we were approved for sponsorship and immediately fled with hundreds of other families when I was about five-years-old.

Mother and daughter photo taken in Eritrea.

We began with fleeing to Sudan and living there for two years. It’s hard to remember the entire trip, but I can remember some of the ways we had to get around. We did things like sleep in farms to hide from soldiers, we hid in the woods, and we went through deserts on camels or got around on horses. It was not a simple task to try to make it to America healthy and alive. My country is so beautiful, and it’s sad to think such ugly things happened there during the time. I find it hard to remember a lot of that because it was traumatic and naturally, you try not to think about those things.

Eventually, we took a plane to New York. I was about nine years old, and extremely overwhelmed with my new surroundings. It was loud and way more advanced than Eritrea was at the time. I was not used to all the city commotion, and the smell of New York — that was something to get used to. I can remember my first meal in America being a hamburger, and it was so good. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the food from my country, but having a hamburger for the first time as a nine-year-old was awesome. I’ll never forget that.

My family was transferred to the sponsor home from New York where we would stay with tons of other families. We weren’t living in the best conditions, obviously. We were being sponsored by other people — so we were receiving hand-me-down clothing and having to live in crammed spaces. Multiple families that were also refugees lived with us, so it was scary to stay where we were living. You always had to be aware of your surroundings because you just didn’t truly know the other people that were living with you. Of course, we made a lot of lifelong friends out of living there.

Lydia with friend in high school. (Lydia, right)

Going to school was the hardest part about moving to America. My siblings and I were in a predominately white school, and we were clearly different from the other kids. I couldn’t speak English, but it was obvious that I was being teased for the way I looked and because I couldn’t speak English. I was made fun of for my hair, my clothes, my skin, even my name — everything that was different about me was a target. It was hard, but I didn’t let that stop me. I learned English and started making more friends in high school. You can’t let people like that get to you, it will only stop you from progressing.

Our whole family experienced this ignorance — my parents and siblings. But we worked hard and made a great life for ourselves in America. We all didn’t let that stop us from continuing to succeed. It only made us stronger in the end. I’m grateful to have been able to come here and make a great living. I hope to one day go back and visit Eritrea, it is truly a beautiful place and will forever be my home at heart.

(Lydia, right, and daughter, Alexyss)

[ Lydia is Alexyss Panfile’s mother ]