Walking in their Shoes
ITC exhibit navigates visitors through the dips and turns of the immigration experience
The stories are wrenching, inspiring, heartbreaking. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo immigrated to the U.S. after his entire family was killed. A young Nigerian left everyone in his country— mother, siblings, friends—to attend a Minnesota community college on a scholarship. A Cambodian came after riding a bicycle 500 miles to Thailand, getting captured by the Khmer Rouge, escaping, falling into a booby trap and surviving a refugee camp.
Then there is the young wife from Mexico, whose husband swam across the Rio Grande River while she crossed in an inner tube, clinging to a handful of clothes.
Welcome to “Why We Came: The Immigration Experience,” a powerful and poignant exhibit at UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures.
The exhibit traces the experiences of 16 immigrants through a creative game board. Visitors select color-coded cards and immerse themselves in the journeys of actual immigrants, learning the motivations of becoming a U.S. citizen and understanding the challenges of the process. At the end, visitors take a citizenship test and share their own immigrant stories.
“I hope this will open people’s eyes to the complexity of immigration,” said Sarah Gould, the designer and curator of the exhibit. “It’s not easy.”
Benga Adeeko emigrated from Nigeria in 1978. It took him 15 years to become a citizen.
Adeeko and his wife, Moji, went from one part of the U.S. to another to further their education and endured a long and agonizing journey to citizenship. They struggled through unemployment, low wages and separation from family.
“It was heart wrenching,” he said. “The waiting, the state of limbo and the uncertainty of what the outcome would be are what made the process difficult. Thank God for overcoming.”
Along with the Adeekos, Gould interviewed each immigrant featured in the exhibit and wove their stories throughout the display. There are six stations that visitors pass through, where they learn what the immigrants packed, how they adapted to a new environment, which traditions they kept and which they abandoned.
Adeeko, for example, maintained his native language. But he and his Nigerian wife raised their children speaking English only. The exhibit includes this quote that explains why: “Part of the reason was we didn’t want them to have the same accent handicap we do.”
Adeeko earned a bachelor’s in education from the University of Illinois, and an M.B.A. from Eastern Illinois University. Today, he serves as the director of endowment services and compliance at UTSA.
The exhibit notes the successes of other immigrants, such as Lan-Anh Ngo, a doctor, and Soan Ngo, a dentist. Lan-Anh Ngo came to the U.S. from Vietnam with her mother and attended high school in Texas. At 13, Soan Ngo escaped Vietnam by boat with his sister, nearly died at sea, and finally settled in Amarillo, Texas. The two met at Texas A&M University and got married.
“I came here with nothing and now I’m a physician,” Lan-Anh Ngo said.
The exhibit also offers compelling trivia. Did you know the founders of Google, eBay and Yahoo are all immigrants?
“Many immigrants are entrepreneurs,” Gould said. “In fact, approximately one out of 10 immigrant workers owns a business. That means immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than a native-born American.”
What the “Why We Came” exhibit does best is explain the many paths to citizenship. There are 185 different kinds of visas. Some immigrants become citizens in as little as six or seven years, including those who are closely related to a U.S. citizen—such as a parent or spouse. Others who can naturalize quickly are wealthy investors and star athletes. But the path to citizenship for most, Gould said, is 10 to 20 years.
“For a lot of people, the process of immigration is confusing and kind of a mystery,” she said. “This exhibit is designed in the shape of a game board so you have to navigate the process.”
For Benga Adeeko, the pathway to citizenship is complete. But even after living in the United States for 35 years, he thinks about his home in Africa.
“Even though I came here to further my education, from time to time I still feel the guilt and pain of the heavy price I paid—and continue to pay—for that opportunity to be here,” he said, referring to family, friends and familiar places he left behind, especially his widowed mother. “When I listen to or read about people that immigrated here as refugees, escaping war, famine or personal persecution, I feel humbled that there are others that have paid a greater price than I did.”
Shukuru Saidi is one of them. In 2004, he fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and went to Tanzania after his entire family was killed.
“I feared for my life,” he said.
Saidi wound up in San Antonio— and his story is now displayed on the walls of the ITC so that visitors can try to understand, or at least appreciate, what he went through to be here.