LYNN — Between self-made documentaries and photo exhibits, 18 bicultural and immigrant students creatively illustrated the struggles they overcame to find a new life in America.
The emotional stories told Wednesday night by the students, from 12 countries, were part of the seventh annual Living in Two Worlds Film and Photo Exhibition. It was hosted by Ginny Keenan and Tiffany McFarlane in a packed Lynn English High School auditorium.
“I’ve been carrying my story like a weight for my whole life,” said Haitian native Chelsea Gaston in her short documentary. “The first time I’ve felt comfortable to share it was for this project.”
When Gaston was 9 years old, her world came crumbling down around her when an earthquake hit her neighborhood. She described collapsed buildings and dead bodies in the streets. She remembered dragging her cousin’s dead body out of the broken building that was once their school.
After the earthquake, everything felt hopeless, she said. With a health care system they couldn’t afford, Gaston watched her brother die from poor health care.
When she was 15 years old, her family decided it was the right time for her to come to America. She moved in with her mother and her new stepfather. Even after learning English all on her own, she described feeling like an outsider in the Florida school system.
When Gaston came to Lynn English, she immediately felt comfortable with her peers and supported by the teachers. She said her experiences led her to become the person she is today, a woman on the road to becoming a doctor.
Luis Olmos was born in El Salvador.
“It only takes a few minutes for your life to change,” said Olmos in his short documentary.
When he was a child, Olmos’ home was damaged in an earthquake. Desperate for money but wanting to stay close to her children, his mother opened up a small restaurant out of the still-structured part of their home. Olmos loved helping her cook.
A few years later, at the beginning of his teenage years, Olmos was walking down the street with a few of his friends when members of a local gang approached them. The members tried to pressure the young boys into joining the gang and when they each refused, one of Olmo’s friends was shot in the head, right in front of him.
The gang members continued to chase Olmos and his friend until they turned a corner and got away. Olmos’ parents decided it was time for him to move to America with his father.
Now, he excels academically and works 40 hours a week in a kitchen. He pays his own rent and sends money to his mother in El Salvador every week. Olmos even used his own savings to send her a refrigerator to help with her in-home restaurant.
“In America, I feel very safe,” he said.
Those two stories of overcoming hardship were just a few that were shown during the exhibition.
Amine Chajar, of Morocco, Keysi Hernandez, of Guatemala, Liliana Lopez, of Guatemala, Crismeli Mieses, from the Dominican Republic, Shaina Tilema, of Haiti, and Albjon Telha, from Albania, shared their stories through photo exhibits displayed throughout the school’s Lincoln Foyer.
The other short documentaries described cultural struggles and overcoming adversities from Faidat Amisu, of Nigeria, Obed Baswa, from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Giang Do, of Vietnam, Ayat Ould-Sahraouia, from Morocco, Laudys Reinoso, from the Dominican Republic, Udiner Robles, of Guatemala, Edgar Sebastian, of Guatemala, Titena Tiku, from Ethiopia, Anastasiya Ziaziulia, of Belarus, and Moo Soe, of Thailand.
“I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after soldiers burned down my parents’ home,” said Soe in his documentary. “We lived there for 12 years in one bedroom with no electricity and it was the only world I knew. When my parents told me we were going to America, I had no idea what that meant. Now, we each have our own rooms, electricity in the house, and a refrigerator.”
Before the short documentaries began, the audience was serenaded by the high school’s concert choir with an acapella rendition of “Somewhere” from the Broadway musical West Side Story. After the show, the 18 students received certificates for completing the Living in Two Worlds program, and a standing ovation from the crowd.
“Joining this program was amazing,” Dominican Republic native Mieses told The Item after the show. “I met people from all different places, I became their friends, and I learned all about their stories and their struggles. Now, I feel like if you put your mind to anything, you can learn it.”
Bella diGrazia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BelladiGrazia.