Leaving family in Senegal to join father in the U.S.
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Lamine Kane and his family are survivors of the genocide in the Congos. During the last 20 years, millions of people have died. Lamine’s father was a successful businessman in Congo but he saw the danger coming. He left it all and fled with his family to the safety of Senegal.
Kane: I was born in Congo and raised in Senegal. When I was a baby my family fled Congo for Senegal. My dad had owned stores and restaurants in Congo, but he lost it all when the war started. He went from being a successful businessman to a refugee trying to find food for his family.
Sometimes my mother had to go to a friend’s house to find something for us to eat. On days when we didn’t have any food, my mom would still put cups and dishes on the table so visitors would think we had something. She didn’t want our neighbors to know that we were going hungry. She always made sure that no one knew what was going on inside the house.
We may have been hungry and thirsty inside the house but when we walked outside we looked just like normal kids. My father always made sure we didn’t look poor. We always had good clothes and shoes. He always tried to make us happy, that is something I have always loved about him.
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He was able to find small jobs and get us enough food. Finally, he was making enough to send my older brother to school. Still, sometimes we had to eat only part of our lunch and save the rest for dinner. My dad saw that this wasn’t a good life for us and he began to look for other ways to help us. He applied for a visa to the United States, where he could make money for the family.
My parents decided to sell our little house to get enough money for my dad to get to America. Lots of time passed and finally he got a visa as a refugee from Congo and he came to Philadelphia.
With my dad gone, my mom looked to me to help her. I was the “mid-kid.” By this time, my older brother was in boarding school learning the Koran, my older sister was married and my younger sister and brother were too young to help much. So I had to wake up at 4 a.m. and do house chores, wake the kids up and help them get ready for school. My mom would tell me she couldn’t do it without me and she would let me have coffee for helping her.
Gallacher: What was your mom doing?
Kane: My mom had to cook and do the dishes, clean the house, do all the laundry by hand and take care of guests who came to see us. Even though we didn’t have money, we kept having guests because my dad and mom had helped a lot of people and they kept coming to us even after my dad was gone.
When my dad came to Philadelphia he began working on a visa for me to come. When he told me that he wanted me to come to America I thought it was cool.
Gallacher: Were you happy?
Kane: Not at first, I didn’t want to leave my mom. I thought, “Who will help her with the chores?” But then I started to realize that I could get a good education in America and get a job and send money to her.
My dad was doing well. He would send us shoes and all the kids in the neighborhood would stop me and ask to see my shoes. It is a “showoff” for all the kids with dads who are in other countries sending money home. We didn’t know how our dad really had to struggle to provide for us. For us kids, it was like your dad was in the NBA. So when other kids saw me they would say, “Hey, look at his nice shoes and nice shirt. His dad is in America.” On the holidays we would dress up and walk on the street in our nice things.
Gallacher: What kind of jobs was your father getting in the U.S.?
Kane: He took anything he could get. He worked in a restaurant, but when my friends asked me what he did I told them he owned a restaurant. I thought because he used to own restaurants in Congo he must own them in the U.S.
Gallacher: How old were you when your father sent for you?
Kane: I was 17. It took us a year and trips to the embassy almost every day to get the visa. I couldn’t believe it when the day came. My dad told us not to tell people where I was going because he was afraid someone might try to stop me. But my mom said that we had to have a celebration. She invited our relatives and a few friends and cooked a big meal.
After the feast it was getting dark and it was time for my uncle to take me to the airport. When the taxi came I was standing in the doorway trying to say goodbye to my mom, but there were no words. I just looked at her and cried. My mom held me and said, “Don’t worry son, you will be all right. We’ll keep in touch.” I told my little sister and brother that it was time for them to take my place and do the chores to help Mom. I made them promise. I cried on my mom and then we had to leave.
At the airport it was all serious faces with me and my uncle. I was standing there thinking, “What am I going to do when I first get there. I’m gonna go to school and become a doctor.”
It was my first time riding a plane. I put on the headphones and started watching a movie in English. Even though I couldn’t speak English then, I felt like I could. I fell asleep and when I woke up, all of a sudden, we were in New York City. It seemed so fast. I thought it was going to be days because America seemed so far away.
When I got off the plane I was amazed at all the white people. I thought I had seen a lot of whites in Senegal, but this was all white. I walked out and saw my dad standing there. He looked like he had gained weight. I looked at him and thought, “Wow, am I going to be that big in America?” I hadn’t seen him for five years. I couldn’t resist, I just hugged him and held him for a while. A handshake wasn’t enough.
I thought about my mom and what she had told me. She always seemed to know every step of my life before it happened. Now when I talk to her about a problem she tells me I don’t need to worry. My mom and I are connected in the heart.
Gallacher: How long has it been since you’ve seen her?
Kane: Almost four years. That has been really hard. When I talk to her on the phone it is such a relief. In my culture greeting a person is very important. So when I call her my mom always greets me on the phone. She will say, “Oh my son who always cleaned the bathroom and helped me with the house. Oh, the one who always heated the water for us to take a shower.”
She will make the greeting into a song and remind me of all the fun times we had. It is so fun and she does it every time I call her. She reminds me of all the things she appreciates about me. She will tell me everything that I ever did for her.
Gallacher: How long does the greeting take?
Kane: Until I stop her. I’ll say, “Thank you so much, that’s enough Mom.” My mom and I are very close.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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