Jhaleh Akhavan and Aissatou Mbengue

Recorded May 15, 2019 Archived May 15, 2019 30:55 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby018763


Aissatou Mbengue (18) tells StoryCorps facilitator Jhaleh Akhavan (33) about being separated from her parents at 9 years old by a U.S. travel ban that barred her parents from reentering the U.S. after traveling back to Côte d'Ivoire. She talks about living with her older sister since that time, shares the difficulties they have dealt with as a result of the separation, and reflects on the past 9 years of being separated from her parents, as well as things that have helped her to cope, her love for writing, and her plans for the future.


  • Jhaleh Akhavan
  • Aissatou Mbengue

Recording Locations

Veterans Plaza



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00:07 Hi, my name is Ali. Akhavan. I'm 33 years old today is May 15th 2019, and I'm here in Silver Spring, Maryland with aissatou.

00:19 Hello, my name is aissatou bang and I'm 18 years old. Today's date is May 15th, 2019 and we are currently in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I'm here with chili.

00:33 Haifa to thanks for coming in today, so I wanted to start by asking you. Can you please share a little bit about your family and your heritage? Yes. So before my parents are from Senegal, they were born there and raise their I've lived there for about 2 years. I was born in Ivory Coast. So I have the Senegalese background and also some of the ivorian Traditions with me both of my parents currently reside in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

01:14 Oh, yeah.

01:16 And when you talk about your family who's in your family, so it's my mom my dad. I have one brother and two sisters.

01:27 I currently live with my sister name is goni. And my other sister's name is Emily and my brother has two kids which are my nieces and her through the washer so cute. Yeah.

01:44 And where are your brother and your sister Emily? They're okay my sister and blaze and silver spring also and my brother is in Germantown.

01:56 So pretty close to each other same state. Yeah. Yeah my parents who are both in Kodi.

02:14 Yeah, we were talking a little bit before the recording. Can you tell me a little bit about when you came to Silver Spring and about your parents as well? He has so I came to America when I was 9 years old my came with my parents and all of my siblings. I was residing in high school at the moment after that a year after my parents left due to a travel ban and ever since it's just been me and my siblings about 2 years ago. I moved to Silver Spring so pretty new here menu.

02:59 And you said hi Isabel hiseville as it'll wear that it's still in, Maryland.

03:06 And when you came, what did you know? What did you have in mind or what were what were your plans when cuz you said when you came when you were nine, I was pretty young. So I was excited but I do know English so everything looks very confusing and going into Elementary School is really tough just because you know, I was pretty different from the other heads and it was all new to me. So I'd say school-wise. It was a tough experience, but with life, you know, I pretty much enjoyed it. I saw a new things happen.

03:44 It's so much more different than back home. There's all the malls and the different food and I was very excited for that. I know it's just very fun to go through.

04:03 And then you talked about the travel ban. How old were you when that happened? I was ten so my mother she was traveling in and out to see her family. Also including us odia back and forth thing. So yeah one day she got to the airport and they told her no ma'am, you know, he can't come in and I need a gift for a 10-year travel ban, which further on my dad was able to come and visit every now and then but the time came where his Visa expired and they were both just kind of stuck and unable to come and see their kids.

04:49 And when that happened your mom had been traveling back from the Ivory Coast. Yes, and

04:56 Can you tell me a little bit about how you found out about that what happened at that time? So I actually found out pretty late. My mother told me later on when I was about 14 and I'm guessing the reason why was because I was too young to understand what even a travel ban was. So at the time where it happened in my ID, I just kept thinking like, you know, okay, she's going to come next month or they would tell me like I will be there soon and I kind of just always expected to see her. I didn't know that it was like a 10-year ban or that she couldn't come in.

05:36 So that's basically what happened.

05:46 And you said at that time it was you and your sister? Yes. It was me and my sister and I should both of my sisters. We were living together and my brother he eventually moved out but we're just living together and basically figuring things out on our own and they were both taking care of me, but I'd say the person who was mostly there for me and you know was basically like a mother figure was my sister closest in age to me which is goonie. She's about 25 years old now and at the time if I'm correct, I'm not going to mess she was 18 or 17.

06:35 Oh, yeah.

06:37 I was definitely a learning experience.

06:40 Yeah, did you were there any other relatives or friends around support in that way or was it pretty much you and your siblings? It was pretty much be in my siblings. We didn't know anyone coming here was a new country. We had family in other states, but you know, we just never really connected with them are new other people around where we lived. So we kind of just made our own friends through school form do connections. And yeah, it was kind of just at the time.

07:22 So you're talking about this a little bit but and you talked about this a little bit before we started recording but as you said like you were 10 and so is like the meaning of a travel Banner the meaning of your parents not being there at that time was one thing. Do you remember when that started becoming clear to you or was there ever a chance time when you were like, oh, this is for 10 years or can you describe a little bit what that was like in those 10 years since yes, so after a while I'd say about two years. I kind of realized you know, okay, maybe she isn't going to be coming anytime soon because like I mentioned they would just tell me like, oh maybe next month or I'll buy for a Visa. We'll see how things goes. So I kind of always had that hope and that went on for a while until my mother told me.

08:21 Why she hasn't came and why it's been so long and that was when I was about 14 or 15.

08:33 At the time it was very it was kind of disappointing when I found out because I felt like I was being strung along again. You know, I always had my hopes up and it was very tough because I was at that time. I was very close to my mother, you know, I would basically sleep with her every night and it just went to just not seeing her again till now.

09:02 So it kind of also just created other issues Within Myself and

09:08 It just strained the relationship even more. So yeah.

09:13 Was there anyone else who knew at that age was going through the same thing? I hadn't met anyone who gone through the same thing, which kind of made me I wouldn't say sad, but it did kind of like on motivate me when I would go to school. I'd see all of my peers, you know, they have their parents pick them up or just little things like that. It would hurt me know every now and then in like

09:45 You know, I just realized like why I'm pretty young and I don't really see anyone else going through the same thing, but As I Grew Older and I found the internet and storycorps. I kind of just realize that people go through these kind of things and you know, I'm not alone and eventually things will get better. So

10:10 I kind of just focused on how I can help myself and be independent and not just steer the wrong path without any guidance.

10:24 But my sister did helped me a lot with that. She was kind of there for me and

10:30 Told me what's wrong from right? And you know, I'm very thankful for that.

10:36 So yeah.

10:45 You talk a little bit about your sister being like a parent for a year for you and you know living with your sister. And is there anything else that you would like to say about the about how it's been for you with your sister or husband for the two of you? I think it's at first it was definitely tough because obviously she wasn't used to that. She didn't know it would go this way. None of us expected that you know, our parents wouldn't come back. So I think for her she learned a lot of things along the way and it kind of took away from her High School experience because she would have to care for me and you know pick me up from school and basically do everything that a parent would do so

11:32 I'd say she kind of raised me along the way that straight our relationship because you know, she's my sister but then she has this authority of also having my mother so, you know, I felt like she wasn't really the sister figure I needed.

11:52 There is a lot of tension like that because I didn't understand it. I was still young don't lie. She tell me what to do or like you're not my mother I'd say stuff like that looking back. I think I just wish I appreciate that a little bit more because it must have been hard for her.

12:13 Is that something you all have been able to talk about since like now? Are you able to talk about that or has there been a chance to talk about that I'd say yes, and no. I haven't really in-depth talked about it with her. I think it's just something we both realize and

12:32 Along the way I said to her like, you know.

12:36 It's just what we've been through is really just interesting and also a hardship. It's kind of just always been us and at this moment I can't even imagine what it would be like to even be with both of my parents and not have my sister there or how would be like I always wonder like, you know,

13:03 How would I have been different if I was?

13:08 All these years living with my parents are you know raised by the mean I would I be a different person or

13:17 Would I have a different outlook on life and the things I've been easier but I think as time went by I kind of just stop asking those questions and just realized you know, my sister's there for me and she's done her best and I think you know, I'm a pretty good person and I think for her I think she does a good job. Is there anything you you mentioned a little bit, you know, I wish I had recognized at the time and again like you know as a child, I like you a lot and don't realize things as you mentioned as you're growing up and then also the difficulty of being separated from your family and he's going through puberty and just different stages of Life. Yeah.

14:13 From where you are now are there things that

14:17 He would like your sister to know.

14:19 Like I just finish it. I think I'd like her to know that.

14:25 I appreciate all of that and she definitely has done a good job and

14:32 I Now understand how hard it must have been for her not, you know cashing a break all these years and because I don't have a younger sibling. I'm the youngest so I don't even have an idea what it is like to have a younger sibling or having someone to look after take care of so there's that too. But I'd like to imagine that she also learned something out of this and it has changed her as a person.

15:06 And I think it's for the better with both of us. It's definitely made us stronger and

15:14 You know when little things come along, you know, we're just like there's nothing that can me. No stop us. Just we'll get through it if we got through that so I think that's definitely something to learn from

15:31 What are some of the ways that you feel you've been strengthened by this just out of necessity even and also some of the some of the things that you've taken from this I think Solitude would be one of them learning to be alone and sort of function alone. I learn how to cook basically taking care of myself and just

15:54 Things people wouldn't really learn so early on or sometimes they can go their whole life without learning it cuz there's always someone doing that for them, but I think it would make me

16:09 It'll definitely put me off to a better start if I was to be completely independent and just living on my own.

16:19 I think as far as it goes, it has humbled me and is definitely made me grateful. I see kids who don't have their parents, but they also don't have any siblings to help them and you know, I can definitely relate to it. But it's true that people have it worse every day. You know what I've gone through at least I had the help of my siblings and we were together. And so I think it changed me as a person now. I definitely tried to

16:55 Just be someone helpful towards the world, you know.

17:01 When I'm able to give back that will be my number one priority and just helping people leaving the planet think it has changed my outlook which is caring about the world and climate change anything and that's sort so

17:22 I think I've learned a lot from it.

17:26 You said that you changed a lot. How would you describe yourself as it as a child? I was really shy and reserved which I still am. I think school-wise I was always by myself and I had trouble making friends just because I felt like I was kind of difference and people at the end of the day wouldn't understand me. So I was reserved and I was a child. I think I was very clingy mostly to my mother and I will spoiled I got used to just having things done for me and that definitely turned around very quickly. So and that aspect I've definitely

18:11 Learn to just not wait for someone else to do something for you. But instead just try to do it yourself and you know at the end of the day you have yourself.

18:25 It'll help me in the future with deciding where I want to go in life and just little things like that.

18:34 And describing yourself now. What're you talked a bit about some of the things when it comes to the world and your sense of purpose that feel important to you as anything else you to add to that about how you see yourself now our how you would describe what's important to you?

18:49 I'm an animal lover. I love animals hustle. Love people. You know, I think being kind every single day something important to me and having a positive outlook is something in the past I struggle with because due to the situation. I had just severe depression no motivation. I didn't see my purpose in life. And I didn't appreciate just living because I thought it was just the worst thing in the world what I was going through, but I was still young and I decided I didn't know any of the

19:29 I basically didn't pay attention to the other problems that are going on in the world. And I think now that I'm older I have hopes to just going to school just to fight for change.

19:43 I'm looking forward to college which I think three years ago. I wouldn't have said that.

19:50 So what are you looking forward to for college my bike to go in for international relations, you know to learn about world politics and also how change can happen if I'm able to do it and definitely one of the things I love is traveling so

20:14 I'd love to have a job that will allow me to travel but then also help people around the world sort of like humanitarians. I think it's a great job and I'm looking forward to

20:27 Starting my education on that so

20:31 Have there been any teachers a particular teacher or teachers or other people around you who had a strong influence on your life? Yes. So when I first came to this country, I was alone mentary school and I spoke no English. I had my

20:51 Esaal teacher who kind of just you know, it's taught me everything and just kept giving me strength when I felt like giving up and when I was confused because I just wouldn't understand the words as she really just pushed me and I think I developed the love for riding from her and also just poetry.

21:16 And I also had another Ela Lane teacher in Middle School who she was kind of similar to my first English teacher she would just push me to do spelling bees and just write my poetry as a sense to like free my emotions and write them down. So I eventually I became good at it and I want a couple contest with the spelling bees and it just help me surpass. Even my peers when we would just stop.

21:56 Do things all English related and the language like literature writing? I saw that I had an advantage because I just would practice everything will time because of the words. My teacher has said to me in middle school and taught me how important it was to just educate yourself practice by yourself Marissa moving. She would say was that she were some of the things that your teacher would say to you. She would basically tell me, you know,

22:32 I think you should write this down in like you're very good with poetry. It could be something as a hobby because she saw that I was in the very vocal. I like very social with my peers. Like I wouldn't be around groups of friends. So she kind of just handed me a journal and I kind of started writing from the air and she was just always motivate me and I I really just thankful for that cuz it did go a long way in high school and helped me a lot.

23:07 What's your teacher's name to not remember her name, but the ring Elementary School teacher. I remember her name was Miss Brown and they just both stood out to me because with having other teachers they just I've had some bad experiences with teachers who weren't as patient.

23:29 I know I remember one day one of she was my math teacher one day. I didn't understand what was going on. Cuz obviously, you know, I wasn't very fluent and she kind of just scolded me and yelled at me and saying that you know, I know you understand what I'm saying, like you should be able to do the work like everyone else I think from that point. Just

23:58 Drew my hate for math as a whole and I went into the new school year is not looking forward to math class because you know, I thought I was in good and it's just, you know words can really just a fact someone versus when I had when I would have my English classes, you know, that would be my favorite subject like I would just love to go to class and just write essays. I think we'll see full with disagree. But yeah.

24:31 Yeah, that makes a huge difference is teachers are shaming and forces encouraging. Yeah, totally. Do you still find poetry and writing to be an outlet in a support for you? Yes, it is. Actually I write poetry still I think when I'm going through a lot or having all these emotions that I struggle to communicate with others. I would just write it down and it would help me and just to have to look back like wow, you know. I was really just caught up on this little thing and it just house me.

25:09 For me to look back on something and like realize you don't that was the least of my problems. I guess I was nothing and I I, you know, I surpass bad and I'm here, you know, I'm better so that just kind of

25:27 Makes me feel better in terms of the motions and just depression. So yeah, you also that you also have this record of all that you have liked and through like you said surpassed through at this. All right? Yeah. I think I still have some of my writings from elementary school and things would happen right go through bullying. I just see how I just write down names and everything is like a little time.

25:58 And you write to your parents or what has your how have you and your mom and dad been in touch? So I used to write to them when I was like still little but as I got a phone you knows a possibility to call them and there's this new app like called WhatsApp. So I communicate through WhatsApp and we talked basically.

26:24 I think every other day or sometimes every day, which I'm very thankful for technology because otherwise I wouldn't be possible and I don't know how

26:36 I would have managed to still be where I am today or be okay without because I can't imagine not hearing from them for like all these years just bladder is I mean that's

26:51 I'm just thankful for technology before WhatsApp. And before you had a phone like how often were you in touch with your parents like you were when you were 10 in the Years following I'm at the time you would buy credit at the gas station, you know, if you have like about $2 if you could put that in and like make a phone call for a few minutes so that that's what we use studio and how often were you able to talk to your mom and dad know that was probably like a once-a-month thing because just at the time with money was and all that good so

27:30 And now you said it's like everyday. Yeah. Yeah. We have a few minutes left to ask questions. But so far with what we talked about. Is there anything else that comes to your mind that you

27:48 Want to talk about I think from all of this I see others and I see a just my friends who struggle with problems and I just like to always tell people, you know, things do get better in the end and you can always just find your own Outlet like if it's Friday or painting or whatever do what you have to do to make yourself get through it and I think you know, you'll be fine.

28:23 Yeah, and just always remember to be kind to others give back when you can because it's important and words words hurt. So make sure you say kind words and yeah, you're not alone.

28:40 Yeah, you talked about having gone through depression and now looking forward to college and yeah, you know that changes in the relationship over time with family and with your sister and are there any other things that made a big impression on you as far as really helping whether it was something internal inside yourself or something that was strengthening or a support? I think it has made me happy so far. It has always been just talking to other people helping other people if they have problems. I kind of just a therapist friend out of the group and just helping my friends whatever they need help with and that kind of just

29:26 Makes me happy to know that I've even made a little bit of impact in someone's life in a positive manner because I wish I had more of that so I try to be there for anyone else as if I'm their sister or like I'm there extra family. That's your family. They don't have and yeah.

29:49 Thank you so much for coming in and thank you for talking with me curse. Is there anything else you'd like to add as you said like four other people who are going through stuff or for anybody in your family, for yourself to listen back to you in the future. Yes, I think with anyone who's going through depression or mental health issues or just any hardships in their life where they feel like, there is no light at the end of the tunnel or you know, no motivation to do anyting. I think there's always help around. There's always kind people willing to help even if it's just reaching out to a therapist or

30:33 Finding a hobby that will just bring the least bit of happiness.

30:40 It's important to just realize help is out there and don't be afraid to reach out.

30:48 Thank you.