This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mouhamed Niang, a native of war-torn Mauritania in West Africa, came to Philadelphia in 2007 at the age of 17. His reason was straightforward: “I wanted to change my life.” Although he intends to go to college, he did not attend high school last year because he was unable to provide proof of his immunization history or his residence. To learn English, he enrolled in an ESOL class at Community Learning Center, a literacy program in Kensington, where he earned an award for his commitment, drive, and progress. Niang speaks Pulaar and French. His teacher, Marti Bowditch, said that he knew so little English when he came to CLC a year ago that he was unable to fill out the intake form. “Now, he speaks idiomatic English with an American accent,” she wrote in nominating him for the award. “He is the epitome of an active learner.” Niang’s story illustrates the bureaucratic nightmare often facing young immigrants. It took him months to get his medical records from home, and more months to prove his address. He lives with two older brothers who immigrated earlier, but his father had moved to Ohio, and all the rent and utility bills he could use to establish residency were sent there. And because he was still a minor, school officials als demanded that his father, his legal guardian, come with him to school, even though he had moved away. “I think this is a good city, but there’s sometimes difficulty, if you are not a citizen,” he said. “I was looking for a high school for seven months. I wanted to go to school right away, but I could not.” His mother and three more siblings remain in Mauritania, which is still plagued by conflict. In August, the army staged a coup against the first elected government in more than 20 years. Because of the constant fighting, Niang was sent to school in Senegal, where he finished tenth grade; he proudly displays his report card, a parade of high marks. Now 18 and legally an adult, and with his paperwork finally sorted out, Mouhamed looks forward to attending Frankford High School this year. “I want to finish high school here, and I want to go to college,” he said. “I want to be a doctor.”