My Mother: The Surviving Immigrant

Statue of Liberty

Around November of last year, I was on the phone with my mother when I asked her to stop by McDonald’s and get me some food on her way home; after a pause, she told me she couldn’t because the drive-thru folks would not be able to understand what she was saying. I remember getting annoyed with her before hanging up. But her fear of people not understanding her through her thick accent remains with me.

My mother immigrated from Kenya to the United States in December of 2016, eight years after my siblings and I had immigrated here. The immigration process was tedious and took a tremendous amount of resources and time. And after her arrival, she struggled with adjusting to a life that was unfamiliar and fast-paced. She would often say she wanted to go back home because she couldn’t adjust to life in America. At some point, she stopped saying she wanted to go back home and began “surviving.”

First, she wanted to survive the cold winter months after her arrival, then she wanted to survive the driver’s ed road test, then she wanted to survive her first interview, then her CNA classes and then buying her first home, and the survival list goes on. In the early months, I would find her sitting at the dining table late at night looking through her study guides trying to chase away the sleep in her eyes.

Like many immigrant women, my mother soon got into what I call the “immigrant cycle of survival.” She consistently worked long hours, so she would come home to sleep, go to church on weekends, and then the cycle would begin again. Every so often she would ask my siblings and me if we would take her to the international/African food stores where she would take hours perusing through the aisles looking for food familiar to her.

During those early months after her arrival, she would frequently talk about her struggles and pain, but that soon stopped as the exhaustion of 12hr shifts took over. I would often wonder what her dreams or hopes were during those early months and how that has changed within the last three years, but I never asked. I would see glimpses of hope when she would ask us to google information for her and her excitement when she first discovered YouTube tutorials or bought her first home.

Like countless immigrant women and families in this country, their only goal is to survive, and I periodically wonder at what cost. Like my mother, I spent my early months in America surviving. I wanted to survive the first few months of school, ESL classes, the taunting jokes from peers, and the new life that was unfamiliar to me, but at some point, the weight of survival was lifted off me and distributed to my parents.

In 2017, I read a tweet by Bo Ren saying “My parent was tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization. The immigrant generational gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.” Three years later and I still see my mother surviving. From time to time, I feel an immense amount of guilt for the pain and suffering my folks have endured to give me the privilege to live my true authentic self. I wonder how differently her life would have been had she been offered the privilege of self-actualization rather than being tasked with survival.

When I think of my mother and the countless immigrant women tasked with survival in hopes of providing a better future for their offspring, I feel a sense of duty to live twice as boldly. I am a product of my parents’ will for survival. I am a result of countless unimaginable sacrifices and investments made into the American dream. Through me, I hope my mother can boldly live out her hopes and dreams.

I hope women like my mother know their sacrifices do not go unnoticed. When I find myself in spaces where no one looks like me, it is on your strength and voices I call. It is your voices and sacrifices I represent and amplify. It is through your investments I can seek fulfillment and moments that spark joy. As an immigrant and child of immigrants, I see you, I hear you, and I continue to create spaces in which you feel seen and heard.


Joy originates from Kenya where she spent most of her childhood before moving to the triangle area in 2009. She is a storyteller, traveler, advocate for marginalized and disenfranchised communities, an ally of the LGBT(Q) community, and lover of all. She recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a Masters degree.

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