Omanola Wolou Djele is a twenty-three-year-old nursing student, from Togo in West Africa. Like many immigrants, she found America to be a land of opportunity - but one that required a period of sometimes painful adjustment.
“I like the fact that America is the country of opportunity,” she says. “There are so many opportunities, you just have to be smart enough to take advantage of those opportunities. Here I believe, everyone can make something out of themselves, but it's just your choice, you have to decide to do something with your life and become something.”
Omanola was a teenager when she came to the United States in the summer of 1998 to join her mother, a diplomat assigned to the Embassy of Togo in Washington. Her enthusiastic first impression eventually gave way to a more realistic view of life in America.
"I landed at Dulles Airport, and I remember the ride to Washington, D.C.,” she recalls. “I was just like, 'Oh my God, it's just so pretty!' Back home when you tell somebody you're coming to the U.S. or you live in the U.S. they just think, 'Oh my God, this is like paradise.' But I realized two or three months after that, it wasn't all like that. Because I felt that the life here was just so stressful. There were bills to be paid, there was so much pressure. Anybody who comes to America, you become another person. You become more responsible in a way, if I can say."
One of the ways in which life in the United States is different, Miss Wolou Djele points out, is that people here tend not to live in large extended families, as she did back home in Lome. She missed the warmth and support of her large family circle after she left for the United States.
"The hardest thing for me was first my cousins and my grandparents,” she says. “I missed them. I talked to them and all, but it just wasn't the same. When we first came here it was just my mom and my two sisters, so I came from a very large family to be just with my sisters and my mom. It was like a big hole in my life, it's always, you know, that emptiness."
The Americans she met did not initially fill this emptiness, says Omanola Wolou Djele. "Because here I just felt like everyone was so serious, you know, what with school, and if you have friends they're either always working or doing something, so you don't have time to enjoy life with them. But at home we have nothing to do. The only thing we have to do is just go to school and come back home and just have fun,” she says with a laugh.
But Omanola adapted. She learned English, enrolled in high school, and, like many of her classmates, got an after-school job, working as a sales person in a succession of stores. She also made friends -- with other immigrants, with some of the girls in her classes. Strangely enough, she says, it was hardest to make friends with her African-American classmates.
"A lot of African-Americans were not very welcoming,” she says. “I found that white people were more welcoming than the African-Americans were. They were very rude to me, and my sisters also experienced the same thing. I feel like they were just mad at seeing us. I mean, I got a lot of name-calling." Her younger sister often came home from school crying, Miss Wolou Djele says, but she took the insults in stride. In fact, she believes those early cruel episodes helped her become a stronger person.
"I did not take it personally, because I just felt like I have an objective, I know where I'm going and I know my purpose, so I'm not going to let anybody put me down,” she says. “I personally did not see it as some kind of barrier to not let me move forward. In another way I saw it as something to help me make something of myself, to show all those people that I can be something, I can be somebody."
After graduating from high school Omanola Wolou Djele enrolled in college to study computer science. Eventually she switched her major to nursing. She recently finished her courses and passed the board examination qualifying her as a nurse, and is about to begin studying for the next step in the profession: a degree as a registered nurse.
"America needs nurses. And nursing is I think, such a noble job, just being out there helping somebody and giving your hand to somebody. I just think it's a very noble job," she says. While continuing her nursing education, Omanola Wolou Djele works in a local neighborhood coffee shop, the Café Monet, on the outskirts of Washington. She says the cafe has provided a social milieu that makes up for the one she left behind in Togo.
"That place has just been like an amazing experience for me, because I have met so many wonderful women and so many wonderful people that I would really not trade it for anything," says Omanola Wolou Djele. "Café Monet has become like my family. I mean, right now I'm looking for a job in nursing, and my friends are telling me, 'What are you still doing at the café? You can get a better job doing nursing', and I'm like, 'It's not about the money, it's about the people I'm working with. They're just so wonderful!'"