Philly teen immigrants finding their voice as leaders

By Tanisha Agrawal

Conestoga High School

The journey of teenage immigrants is vulnerable to both acceptance and change.

Teen immigrants straddle two worlds. Only time will tell whether they have to choose one of them or become a bridge between them. 

This dilemma begs a question: What does it look like to confront the reality of integrating into a society that is deeply diverse and yet skeptical of diversity?

Most teen immigrants had a whole universe built around them back home: They went to school, had friends, conversed, and laughed in their mother tongue. They devoured their local food and lived with people who were like them.

No one stared or struggled to understand them — at least until they were plopped in another country, forced to be exemplary while carving a place for themselves. This wasn’t an easy task with the cultural barriers they faced, like a lack of mental health resources and high rates of xenophobia-tinged bullying.

Conversations with 10 teenage immigrants revealed what it’s like to integrate into a foreign society. Three of these journeys reveal how straddling two cultures breeds a unique set of challenges, building leaders ready to bridge cultural divides.

As a kid in elementary [school], obviously, people would make jokes — but I don’t blame them, it is really just how the media portrayed Africa in general.”
Damilola Akinboro

When 18-year-old Damilola Akinboro moved to Nigeria for a year after graduating high school, he found himself enveloped in Nigerian culture. Now back home in Center City, he still misses the little pleasures: Rowdy Nigerian parties, Jollof rice, Afrobeat music, and talking with people who are “always energetic and happy.” 

While abroad, Akinboro filmed a documentary on Yoruba culture to help people learn about Nigeria, intrigued by the stories Nigerian Americans had to share.  

“As a kid in elementary [school], obviously, people would make jokes — but I don’t blame them, it is really just how the media portrayed Africa in general,” Akinboro said. “But now we are seeing that change just a little, so I wanted to create something that can add to it.”

Akinboro said he feels alienated on occasion. Those moments carry the same emotions as when he encountered racism in elementary school. 

“As I ascended to high school, it got better. People wanted to know about Nigeria and appreciated me for being culturally connected. They called me the ‘question guy’, for I am forever asking everyone about their culture,” Akinboro said.” “I am proud of embracing my culture and encourage those who shy away from it to do the same.” 

As Akinboro transformed his identity into a strength, Shruti Satheesh, an Indian immigrant, finds joy in learning about the identities that surround her.

Satheesh, a high school sophomore who moved to the United States in 2019, is a polyglot who savors learning about the different cultures that comprise Philadelphia. She speaks Tamil, an Indian dialect, and celebrates festivals like Pongal and Puthandu with her family — with a great deal of dedication. 

“Accepting the dominant culture is important, but one must follow their culture, too. This eliminates negativity and increases diversity,” Satheesh said.

Research has shown that teenage immigrants face psychological distress, but they also can teach resilience and problem-solving skills to their classmates. 

Just like Satheesh, 17-year-old Sarahi Franco-Morales also makes sure to remain rooted in her culture. Her family emigrated from Mexico, and now she lives in South Philly.

Franco-Morales described her neighborhood as majority Latinx, something she believes has given her a sense of belonging and kept her family attached to Mexican culture. Yet, she finds herself struggling to adapt to school in America.

“In high school, whenever everyone danced to English music, I felt excluded, as I associated only with Spanish music. Over time, I [separated] my culture and school because they are two different worlds,” Franco-Morales said. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing my Mexican culture, even though I am very passionate about it.” 

As Franco-Morales grappled with this tension, she channeled her energy into becoming an advocate for undocumented Latinx families in Philadelphia by urging the local government to provide them with driver’s licenses. She led protests with Juntos, a community-led, South Philly-based, Latinx immigrant organization that fights for worker and immigrant rights.

“They have exposed me to the meaning of collective activism, and have shown me that our youth deserves to be prioritized. … My voice is power,” said Franco-Morales. 

Juntos protesting for the shutdown of the Berks immigrant detention center.

Engaging in two cultures while being miles away from the roots of one can be perplexing, especially for teenagers still building an identity. The social pressure to adapt to a country’s culture is omnipresent and, often, difficult to resist. Some individuals give up. 

Akinboro, however, has a different perspective: “If you struggle to be who you are, just remember that being different is not wrong, because it is what makes you unique. Embrace it.” 

These teens are still figuring out what integrating into America looks like. They know it requires being vulnerable to both acceptance and change, something easier said than done. But knowing others have gone through the same — dauntlessly emerging more mature — encourages them to push on.

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