Emanuela P. Leaf
Editor’s Note: The American Dream Person of the Year Award aims to recognize immigrants 18 years or older who live in the Fairfield County area and have faced many challenges along their journey to achieve their American Dream. In this award category, two finalists have been selected and they have received two tickets to attend the gala. On the eve of May 16, one winner will be revealed, who will receive a $3,000 award and the American Dream Awards statue, and have her name permanently displayed on a plaque in Danbury City Hall honoring Tribuna’s American Dream Awards.
Below is a snapshot of the stories of our 2015 American Dream Person of the Year Award finalists.
She was 23 when she was teaching in the Rio de Janeiro suburbs and won the prestigious Fulbright Commission Scholarship for teachers; she headed to the University of Texas.
“At that time, I didn’t know that my American Dream was beginning, [that] after many years of studying and dedication, comings and goings, frustrations and joys, I would understand the fullness of the phrase ‘I came, I saw and I conquered,’” wrote Dr. Almeida in her nomination essay.
The Commission offered Dr. Almeida a scholarship extension to pursue her Master’s degree. She had become interested in linguistics but couldn’t accept the offer; as an only daughter, her parents depended on her and she had to return to Brazil. “My second chance occurred when I was in a boat in the middle of Guanabara Bay. I was taking the American Fulbright scholars for a tour at the request of the Commission, when Rio de Janeiro’s American School director, who was also on board, invited me to work at his school.”
Dr. Almeida was married, had a son and took care of her parents and her husband. The parents passed away, the marriage ended and she found herself with the responsibility of a teenage son in a country with an unstable economy, high inflation and violence.
“I told myself that it was time to make my dream come true. I took my son, and with the support of an American friend, I came to the United States to pursue a PhD. It was a big and late-achieved adventure to embark on…,” she recalled. Balancing among perfecting her English, motherhood and her PHD work was a constant struggle; nonetheless, she managed them well.
In 1998, Dr. Almeida received her PhD in linguistics and her son earned a business degree, both from the University of Florida. “I went to work at the University of Georgia as a Portuguese teacher but the University did not want to invest in sponsoring my Green Card Application. In 2003, after all my efforts, the prestigious Yale University invited me to teach and invested in my permanent residency.”
“My son returned from his studies in southern England, where he had fallen in love and got married. Destiny has placed all of us in the state of Connecticut, near each other and I get to enjoy my grandchildren. Life goes on and my American dream was crowned with my citizenship.”
Her American Dream was to meet a nice guy, have children and own a home. “Well, I did two of them: I have a son who is 12 years old now and I purchased my own house,” wrote Mercia Ordine.
A month before her son’s birth, his father packed up and returned to Brazil. When her son turned one month old, her older sister, her only relative living in the United States, also had to return to Brazil, and she found herself alone, without any support system. She decided to sell her house and travel to Brazil, too.
“It was not easy to find a job in Brazil at 41 years old, but I survived. I enrolled my son at a day care to be able to work. He was one year old when I learned that he and other children suffered physical abuse at that private school. We went to the police and took the case to the court but nothing was done.”
She was outraged and decided to return to the United States. When her son celebrated his second birthday, she began to notice that he was an extremely anxious boy; he didn’t speak, he would cry for hours and he would feel very irritated with the world around him. When he turned five, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism and ADHD.
“The world around me changed. I no longer had the same expectations that parents have of their children. I felt like I was in another country without knowing the language.”
For Ordine, the most difficult thing was being alone. She had to work to support her son and at the same time, be very involved in his treatment. There were weekly meetings at school, daily therapy sessions, constant visits from professionals in their home and doctor’s appointments.
She felt overwhelmed and started attending a support group for parents of special needs children, looking for people with the ability to understand the difficulties and barriers she and her son had faced together.
“Being constantly faced with situations of discrimination, witnessing children bearing difficulties and parents unable to recognize their children’s developmental challenges, in the summer of 2013, I took action.”
She created a group on Facebook called “Familias Brasileiras com Necessidades Especiais de CT” (Brazilian Families of Children with Special Needs in CT), with the purpose to guide Brazilian families, who due to their limited English skills, would be even more overwhelmed as they navigate the complex system of care for those with mental illnesses and developmental challenges, and to raise awareness to fight against discrimination.
“We can and should live a productive life in the community with adequate intervention and support. This spring, the group held its first event, a day of fun for the children and their families, promoting their interaction, creating opportunities to help each other and providing them with information. I could not be prouder of our members and kids.”