For Lincoln High School junior Elsa Gambu, the first day of first grade was traumatic.
The Ethiopian-born Eritrean had never been to school and didn’t know a word of English. She heard giggles behind her back and was often made fun of, she said.
Gambu came to the United States when she was age 7, after her family fled from a refugee camp on the edge of war-torn Ethiopia. She shared her immigration story Saturday at a story event at Siouxland Libraries’ Oak View Branch.
She and four others from around the world shared their journeys to Sioux Falls in brief speeches with a crowd of about 40 in the library.
Gambu spoke of the obstacles her family had to overcome to escape a war that plagued her home country, and then new obstacles of getting accustomed to a new country and culture after arriving in the United States.
She remembered the first Halloween her family experienced, when they didn’t know the tradition of handing out candy after a child says “Trick or Treat.”
“(My mom) gave them cultural food,” she said. The kids said “eww” and ran away.
Now, Gambu enjoys playing basketball and dancing, and her favorite school subject is science.
Kevin Alvarado, a Lincoln High School sophomore, came from the small town of Dos Estrellas, Mexico, in one of the most dangerous states in the country. His parents worked hard, he said, but couldn’t make enough money to support the family.
It took his family about three years to make the move to the United States.
“We finally made it,” Alvarado said.
The rumor in his hometown was that all Americans were rich. But he quickly learned that was not true when his family first moved to Los Angeles. He still encountered people struggling with homelessness and drugs. It was congested, and his family lived in a small apartment. He had to sleep on the floor for months before they could buy a sofa.
His uncle had been living in Sioux Falls and said it was smaller and less violent, so his family decided to make the move to the Midwest.
“I see the world differently,” Alvarado said. “There are many opportunities in America. (I am) thankful for everything.”
U.S.-born Gina Conn moved to Mexico to live with her grandmother when she was about 4. She moved to Sioux Falls in 2018 and is a freshman at Lincoln High School. The 16-year-old hopes to someday be a marine biologist, but for now, enjoys writing historical fiction.
She’s proud to say she’s from Mexico, and said her family’s journey has made her stronger.
Ifrah Hashi, a senior at Lincoln High School, moved to Sioux Falls from a civil war in Somalia when she was 12. She had never been to school and didn’t know a word of English when she started seventh grade.
“I felt like a lost kid,” she said Saturday. “I realized I was far behind.”
While helping her mother take care of the family, Hashi studied as hard as she could whenever she could.
She said with pride that she received a letter last year inviting her to apply for the National Honor Society, making her the first English-learner in her school’s history to join the organization. Applause erupted as she said she knew she could do what she set her mind to.
Hashi will be delivering the commencement speech at her graduation and plans on attending the University of South Dakota to study nursing.
Email reporter Danielle Ferguson at [email protected], or follow on Twitter at @DaniFergs
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