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slides: Rhode Island Honors 16 Immigrants + Refugees—Their Stories

Friday, November 30, 2012


Rhode Island has always been a port for immigrants and refugees, and tonight The International Institute of Rhode Island in Providence will pay tribute to 16 men and women--immigrants and refugees--who make up the rich and diverse texture of the state. The event, “My Story, Our Community,” honors their stories, which are shared today with GoLocalProv.


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Nazneen Rahman

From Bangladesh to Pawtucket

Nazneen Rahman relocated to Rhode Island in July of 1978 in order to join her husband, who was working with an American company.

In 1980, Nazneen found a job as a teacher at Project Persona, known today as the International Institute of Rhode Island. This was where she felt she truly belonged, referring to it as her “home away from home” and a place where people were exceptionally kind to immigrants. Today, three decades later, she is the Director of Adult Education & Training.

Nazneen sees Rhode Island as her home. It is where her daughter grew up, and where she feels most at peace. “America is a great place. It is filled with so much opportunity and hope. I continue to aspire to achieve the American dream and to uphold American values such as a quest for knowledge, higher education, equal rights of women, and the acceptance of all cultures, religion, and people.”

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Rose Adhiambo

From Kenya to Providence

Rose Adhiambo was born just outside of Nairobi, Kenya and worked for Zawadi African Education Fund, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that assists young women in Africa with scholarships to study abroad, before arriving to Providence in January 2012 to join her husband who is working towards his Ph.D in Chemistry at Brown University. One of the main challenges was adjusting to the weather of a Rhode Island winter.  “Leaving the airport [upon arrival] the cold air that hit my face was like walking into a freezer…I had not conceptualized that kind of cold.”

Rose hopes to begin her own Ph.D. program in Public Policy within the next year. This winter Rose is going to go out of her way to make sure her family is ready for the cold by stocking up on boots, mittens and anything else to stay warm. “We will be set this time around, bring it on!”

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Claudia Cardozo

From Colombia to Lincoln

Claudia Cardozo left her native land of Colombia in 2002 in search of a better future for her and her 3-year-old daughter. A coworker’s brother was living in Providence and was able to assist Claudia when she arrived in RI.

Claudia found a food court job at Providence Place mall but struggled tremendously with the language barrier. “There were a lot of times where I felt a sense of embarrassment, they made me feel like I was completely ignorant.”

She spent every night at Gloria Lutheran Church, taking English classes for over a year before moving on to RI College for more English and technical training.

Helped by The Center for Women and Enterprise, RI Small Business Development Center, and  Dorcas Place's Bridge to College program, Claudia became a US citizen in 2008. She is currently the Urban Business Development Manager for the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC).

In 2010 Claudia was chosen as the recipient of Rhode Island’s Minority Small Business Champion Award granted by the SBA, and in 2011 she was chosen to participate in Leadership Rhode Island. She is an advisor on several boards. She lives with her daughter in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

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Manuela Duarte

From Portugal to East Providence

Manuela Duarte was born in 1948 in the Azores islands of Portugal. From an early age, Manuela’s parents instilled the value of education and Manuela pursued a career in teaching. At the age of 20 she arrived to the US in 1968, fleeing the fascist dictatorship, and worked towards earning her Bachelor’s degree in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies from Brown University, and later a Masters degree. “I was very persistent. I had a goal, and my goal was either I make it here or I’m going back.”

She worked at the Multicultural Teacher Training Center at Brown and worked with ESL and Bilingual Education teachers across the country for 14 years.  Later, she became the Coordinator of the English as a Second Language program in East Providence.

“After becoming an American citizen, the first time I voted, I cried. It was a freedom that was unknown to me,” she said.

Manuela lives in East Providence, RI. Retired, she continues to be an English Language Learners Consultant for the East Providence School Department on a part-time basis.

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Carlos Fernandes

From Guinea Bissau to Central Falls

Carlos Fernandes was born in Canchungo, Guinea Bissau, located in West Africa. At 27, married and with a baby, he entered the Diversity Visa Lottery to come to the US and paid $1,000 for his visa. He left his family behind and arrived in New York City in April 1990 with only $500 to his name.

He worked at a factory, saved money and after 3 years was able to bring his wife and eventually his daughter to RI. In 2000 they bought a home and 5 years later he received his Business Management certificate at Sawyer School in RI. He takes English language classes but has to focus on earning money to support his family. “Most of the time at home instead of watching the Portuguese Channel I watch the English Channel. Even if I don’t understand but it helps to understand how to speak English.”

He keeps traditions by eating African food prepared by his wife and celebrating Guinea Bissau’s Independence Day. Carlos is currently a part of the Guinea Bissau Community Association where he is helping new immigrants from his country find their place here.

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Javier + Varsobia Gallego

From Colombia and Venezuela to Pawtucket

Javier Gallego was born in Envigado, Colombia, the youngest of 16 children. He received his degree in Modern Languages taught English.

In 1990, Javier moved to Caracas, Venezuela and met his wife, Varsobia. He ran his own teaching and translating business there until 1996 when he read an advertisement seeking Spanish teachers in the US. This was the opportunity he had always wanted.

The couple began in North Carolina in 1998, and after several back and forths to Venezuela, Javier joined Providence County Day School as a Spanish and French teacher where he also coaches the boy’s junior varsity soccer team.

Javier is also a devoted member of Project GOAL (Greater Opportunity for Athletes to Learn), a non-profit whose mission is to facilitate the development of Rhode Island’s disadvantaged youth through after-school tutoring and soccer-related programs.

Varsobia works as a Spanish teacher and is an involved member of her community. Javier, Varsobia, and their two sons, Sebastian Ignacio (14) and Mauricio Javier (8) happily reside in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

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Dr. Apurv Gupta

From India to Barrington

Dr. Apurv Gupta was born in northern India in the capital city of New Dehli.  He came to the US in 1978 at the age of 10. Apurv’s father joined the faculty of Roger Williams University, and Apurv lived in Providence, attending Classical and later East Providence HS.

An MD with degrees from Brown, Apurv is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer of Healthcare Leadership at Brown University and a co-founder and Managing Partner of Physician Performance Improvement Institute.

Apurv had a traditional, “arranged” marriage in 2001, and now lives with his wife, Anupama, their children, and his parents in a “joint-family” setup in Barrington, RI.  They are raising their two children with American and Indian cultural values and traditions. Both children are learning Hindi at a Sunday school that Apurv’s father started in Providence, RI. His children attend Gordon School and Montessori because they value the emphasis the schools place on multiculturalism, social justice, and passion for learning.

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Gracias "Jim" Hakizimana

From Burundi to Providence

Gracias “Jim” Hakizimana was born in 1987 in a refugee camp located in Tanzania, where he lived until coming to Rhode Island at the age of 20. His parents, both teachers, had fled Burundi in 1972 due to the ethnic civil war between the Tutsis and the Hutus. Jim, his mother, and his three brothers came to Rhode Island in August 2008. “We didn’t know where we [were] going…I didn’t choose Providence, Rhode Island.  They just picked for me. I was in a plane. I didn’t know where I [was] going. Just, you know, I’m going to US. I was just happy.”

Jim took English classes at the International Institute and was able to grasp the language in less than a year, then earned his Associate’s Degree in Metro-Engineering at New England Institute of Technology.

Although Jim loves being in America, he constantly thinks about the family he left behind at the refugee camp in Tanzania. Several of his siblings were not approved to come to America, and are still waiting to become reunited with Jim and his family in Rhode Island. The refugee camp where his siblings reside is closing next month, and Jim is worried about where his brothers and sisters will go.

Jim’s goal has always been to help others, and dreams of becoming a doctor one day. He currently works at PharMerica, a pharmaceutical company, and has started taking pre-pharmacy courses on the road to his fulfill his dream.

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Sajeentharan Kanagaratnam

From Sri Lanka to Pawtucket

Sajeentharan Kanagaratnam was born in 1978 in the northern part of Sri Lanka amidst violent civil war. A Tamil, Sajeen was often discriminated against. He witnessed the murders of close neighbors and the disappearance of his best friends.  “I used to bury bodies and stuff. You get used to it.” 

His family applied for the Diversity Visa Lottery and settled in Rhode Island. Now 18, Sajeen worked at a textiles factory, where he was inspired to learn English by his uncle and coworkers. “I am going to buy you a dictionary," one said. "You will learn; I will teach you.”

Sajeen enrolled in English classes at the International Institute and was encouraged to go to college by his teacher Bill Shuey. After taking one class at a time, Sajeen graduated from Rhode Island College with a degree in mathematics. 

Sajeen got married, saved up money and managed to open his own business, something he never thought was possible. "If I was living over there, my life would be different, you know. I might achieve like one-tenth of what I have done over here. I feel like, you know, this country is the land of opportunity."

Currently Sajeen works at TD Bank. He and his wife are happy living in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and are expecting a child in the near future. With his spectacular optimism and whole-hearted nature Sajeen is now living the life he has always dreamed of. "I'm like a free bird now.”

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Jaein Lee

From Korea to Providence

Born in South Korea in 1981, Jaein Lee moved to Paraguay with her parents and younger brother when she was six years old. At the time, South Korea was still recovering from the Korean War while Paraguay experienced an economic boom. After a year in Korea after high school, Jaein moved to New York, took ESL classes and worked at a Spanish phone card company to support herself.

After college at Bowdoin, she received a distinguished Fulbright scholarship and earned her Master's in Sociology at the University of Chicago. 

Jaein moved to Rhode Island to join her husband, who is currently in a Ph.D. program at Brown University. She Jaein lives in Providence and works at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University as a research analyst.

She wants to have a better life for her and her future children in the States than her parents did in South Korea and Paraguay. “I ultimately chose the U.S. because it was the only country that could provide me with an environment where I could be myself and still be accepted for my difference. One day, I will have children of my own, and I want my children to grow up in the U.S. experiencing the different cultures that this country can offer.”

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Maliss Men Coletta

From Cambodia to Wickford

Maliss Men Coletta was born in Cambodia in 1977 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a communist group that ravaged the country from 1975 to 1979.  At the age of seven Maliss was forced to leave her home with her parents and four siblings; they embarked on a dramatic journey that eventually brought her to Rhode Island.

While seeking to escape, her family was jailed for six months in Thailand, walked hundreds of miles down the east coast of Malaysia and swam to Singapore where they were jailed again. Eventually they made their way to Indonesia, where they were finally permitted to come to the United States.

At 11, Maliss was thrown into an American world. The family had little money even with her mother working three jobs, and prided themselves on getting the best education they could. She struggled to fit in and didn’t understand why her neighbors in Lincoln, RI thought it was odd that more than 10 people lived in one house.

She now lives in Wickford with her husband and enjoys the beach and being close to her mother. Maliss is currently a teacher and case manager at the International Institute of Rhode Island where she assists fellow immigrants and refugees to become self sufficient.

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Ali Mortezaie

From Iran to Providence

Ali Mortezaie was born in Tehran, Iran in 1972. He spent much of his youth as part of a youth activist group supporting the freedom of speech and movement.

At the end of 2002, Ali fled to Turkey, requesting refugee status, but after four months was deported back to Iran. After being jailed for a year in Iran Ali fled to Turkey again where he was placed in a deportation camp for almost one year. 

Ali finally arrived as a refugee to Rhode Island in January 2012. “When I arrived at TF Green airport the Customs officer said ‘Welcome to your home’. This was the first contact for me with Americans and I saw their hospitality. I was ready to cry.”

Ali has become an active community member in Rhode Island, taking classes at Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center for IT Programming to receive his A+ Certification. He is also enrolled in a workforce training class for customer service. “Education is so important for all people when they come to the United States so they can communicate with others and be certified to find a better job.”

After everything that he has gone through, Ali still maintains a positive attitude. Though he misses his family and home every day, he has accepted his new life here and enjoys being in Rhode Island. He dreams of opening his own business one day to develop computer program software.

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Jaime Murillo

From Ecuador to Providence

In 1999, when Ecuador experienced an econonic crisis, 24-year-old Jaime Murillo's father left for the US to try to make a better way for the family. A challenging year later, the family would reunite.

Jaime prepared extensively for his life in the US, taking driving as well as English lessons. He now works for Wexford Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, where he is a project manager. As project manager Jaime is able to travel, communicate bilingually, and help people in Latin America improve their health.

He is an avid member of the Asociación Ecuatoriana de Rhode Island (AERI). In August 2012, the Association held the first civic ceremony in the Rhode Island State House to celebrate Ecuador’s Independence Day.  “As a group of Ecuadorians we felt proud in that moment, to see our flag raised for the first time in the State of Rhode Island. It was a really, really good moment.”

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Richelieu Norris

From Liberia to Providence

In 1990 when Richelieu was three years old, a civil war in Liberia would eventually push the family to leave their home. They migrated to Ghana for approximately three years before Rich, his father, and his younger brother joined his grandmother on Gallop Street in Providence in December 1999. Rich remembers being shocked at the New England cold weather. “I got off the plane and was like, ‘I want to go back.’”

Adjusting to the weather, food, and American English were difficult at first, but Rich focused on school and family. “My family always said you primary responsibility was to get an education,” he said. Since his parents didn’t finish high school, he felt especially motivated to excel. “I think that one generation should do better than the next.”

Rich became a middle school teacher and loves how every day brings something different. He feels his immigrant experience has given him a new eye to look at things in the classroom, and a new way to relate to kids. Rich received his Master’s degree in Counseling from Providence College in May 2012 and hopes to eventually go into education administration, “as a principal in my old middle school, cause I’ve never left that school.”

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Elvys Ruiz

From Dominican Republic to Providence

Born in Santo Domingo, Elvys became involved with popular theater and used it as a vehicle to bring awareness of social issues to the community.  In 1991, at the age of 25, Elvys met a Californian, John Edward Parsons, who was looking for playwrights and authors from the Dominican Republic so that their works could be translated and published in the United States. After Elvys expressed interest in coming to the US, John invited him.

He finally settled in Rhode Island where his relatives were living and he obtained a temporary job working in a factory for Hasbro.

After earning his Bachelor's and Master's degrees, Elvys works for Rhode Island Department of Transportation as the Minority Outreach and Highway Safety Coordinator.

He lives in Providence with wife, son and daughter.  “I always tell my children, whatever you achieve in life you have to think about your past [and] the world. You have to leave this country, or whatever country, and this society better than how you found it.”

Seven years ago Elvys’ parents arrived in the United States to be reunited with him. In his office, he still keeps a photo of the American who invited him to the Unites States, never forgetting how he welcomed and assisted him in his journey.

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Mary Tsangarakis

From Greece to Providence

Mary Tsangarakis was born on the Greek island of Crete in 1954. In order for her and her brother to receive a better education away from the oppressive military state environment, Mary and her family came to the Miami, Florida when she was fifteen years old in 1969.

Just a couple of years after arriving, Mary was accepted to several well respected universities, but chose Brown sight-unseen. “It was like love at first sight and then I ended up not leaving at all after graduation.”

At Brown, Mary received her degree in engineering, which, combined with her multiple language skills and international exposure, enabled her to delve into international business development in the power generation industry.

One of very few women in a male-dominated sector, she developed business beginning in the early 1980s with China, Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico and several other Asian, European and Latin American countries. She is now the director of IBMS, a company she established in 1986.

Appreciative of the life that her parents created for her by moving to the United States, Mary realizes it was not an easy thing to do: “For my parents, it was tough for them. You think of two adults that have an established life, business, social life, house, car… then all of a sudden their whole life is reduced to a suitcase.”


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