I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a New York-raised Black American mother and a Nairobi-raised Kenyan father. My early childhood in Louisville was pretty normal. With the help of pictures, I have vague memories of attending Sunday church services, playing in the backyard with my twin brother, and family outings at the zoo. Our little family of four was stable and full of love.
Sometime after I turned five years old, my father was unexpectedly deported and returned to Kenya. I don't remember anything about that day. It all happened during the forty-five minutes that my brother and I were napping. In the following days, I do remember continuously asking my mom where my dad had gone to, and when he would come back. Her answer was always the same; he was on a "work trip." At five years old, I wouldn't be able to understand the reality of what was happening. It was hard enough for my mom to grasp her new reality and figure out how to move forward. So, a "work trip" it was. My only wish was that my father had wings. In my mind, if he had wings, he could take a quick break from work, visit us for a few hours, then get back to business. Obviously, this was not the case.
It would be one year before we gained our own wings and flew to Nairobi to visit my dad. We stayed with him for three weeks. My memories of this trip are also vague. But based on the pictures, it was a great reunion. In many ways, I am fortunate. Some so many families cannot reunite with their loved ones after this kind of thing happens. And we had a lot of support from our community: family, friends, and our church. I'm sure at times it felt like it, especially to my mom, but we were not in it alone. I can only imagine what it was like for my dad. I don't want to imagine what it was like for my dad.
My parents met while working for an electronics company in Louisville, KY. My mom moved here as a teenager with her mom, who was relocated from New York for work purposes. My dad also moved to Louisville from Kenya during his younger years, to further his studies. Our family had been based out of Louisville for a long time. Until 2005, when we made a permanent move to Kenya. I was seven years old when we moved, so it was easy to adapt. Everything was different, but I was up for the challenge. The four of us were together again, and that's all that mattered.
We lived in a vibrant apartment complex for the first couple of years and met other families who welcomed us with open arms. My brother and I went to a standard primary school in Nairobi. School in Kenya is no joke. Sometimes we had 10-hour days, 6-day weeks, and little to no vacations, all to prepare for a national exam in 8th grade that was meant to determine the rest of our lives. I absorbed everything around me; the people, the language, the food, and the way of life. I spent my most developmental years in Kenya, which helped create the foundation of my ever-growing identity.
Once I completed primary school, my mother, brother, and I moved back to Louisville, KY. This was the summer before our freshman year of high school. High school turned out to be a good experience too. Initially, it was hard to adjust to the new system. The idea of not having to study until I dropped was utterly foreign to me. I did learn how to take it easy, but my studious nature always remained. I was part of an early college program that let me graduate from high school with my Associate's Degree in hand. I also ran track and played other sports to stay busy outside of regular school hours. Initially, socializing was hard too. I had just moved back into the country, so partly I felt like a foreigner. But I did have roots in Louisville, so I also felt at home. I wanted to fit in, and a lot of times, that meant being more American than Kenyan. This experience is not unique to me. Whether you be a first or second-generation immigrant, balancing two very different identities can be challenging. My twin brother, David, had a similar experience. In fact, he was so keen on not losing the Kenyan identity that he swore to only speak Swahili at home or around other Swahili speakers. There were very few Swahili speakers in our social circle at the time, so eventually, his English had to take over.
Then also came the challenge of explaining why my family had moved around the way we did. By the time I was in high school, I knew that the proper term for what had happened to my dad was deportation. But I didn't understand anything more than that, and I was definitely not aware of its stigma. I remember once trying to explain that to one of my teachers. Amid our conversation, I casually dropped the words, "my dad was deported." Immediately, my teacher's jaw dropped, and they had a complete look of terror. Later that night, my mom explained to me the negative perception of being deported and, in my case, of having a family member who was. I've had many more awkward and uncomfortable interactions like that. So over time, it became a part of my story that I skipped over. There is a huge misconception that immigrants who run into the law, immigration law, are violent criminals like drug traffickers or terrorists. In reality, many of these people are just hardworking fathers who work a full-time job, take courses at the local community college, and come home to their families at the end of a long day, like any everyday American.
After high school, I decided to stay close to home and enroll at the University of Louisville. I did my best to balance school, sleep, and social life - and some semesters were better than others. Outside of regular coursework, I tried to be involved with student organizations and scholarship programs. I always found myself gravitating to groups that had an international focus. Truthfully, I did feel more comfortable around people who also have ties outside the U.S. There always seems to be a common understanding between people who have lived or were born abroad. This shared understanding comes from a shared experience of movement and having to adapt to a new environment. As I continued through college, my passion for helping migrants developed. I volunteered and interned at different organizations that support migrants of various kinds. I even decided to travel a bit myself. During my last year of college, I studied in Morocco for a semester - and I ended up going back again after graduation. I learned a lot about migration in that region and bonded with so many amazing people. What I have learned through all of this, is that migration is complex. But I'm up for the challenge to learn, understand, and help as much as possible.
I trace my roots in my family, and everywhere that we are from - Mississippi, New York, Louisville, Kenya. My grandma was born in a small town in Mississippi, and at the age of 19, she moved to New York. Those were and still are, two very different worlds. But she was determined and didn't let distance or difference stop her from chasing her dreams. That determination was passed on to my mom, who moved around the world in order to keep her family intact. These are the women who raised me, and I would not be who I am without them. I am learning that my roots can be traced to multiple places and communities. My awareness of that is how I reconnect, and being an active member of my community is how I pay it forward.
My name, Niara, means "Woman of Purpose." As I continue to find my purpose, I stand firm in the experiences I've had so far and remain open to whatever the future may hold. I try not to have specific expectations of my future; we all know that life can take unexpected twists and turns. But I do hope that wherever I am, or whatever I am doing, it helps someone.
Written by Niara Wakaba