Sofia Andres vividly remembers the day in 2005 when she and her family learned they would be moving to the United States from Russia. It began a journey that led her to Thomas College with an immigrant’s perspective that she now shares with others in an effort to bring people together in understanding and leave the divisive issues of our time behind.

She was eight years old, playing with her brothers, Jonas and Joel, and getting into sibling spats. Her mother, Maria, was meeting with American Red Cross coordinators who had been interviewing families for entry into a migrant program for people who had fled or planned to flee their homeland in search of a better life.

Maria Andres had followed her husband to Russia in 1995, bringing their son, Jonas, with her, as they fled endemic war in central Africa. Sofia and Joel were born in Moscow, the family fell on hard times and their father got into drugs and was put in jail. The mother and three children spent most of their life in Moscow bouncing from house to house, their landlords kicking them out, often abruptly and without notice, because of their black skin and Angolan heritage.

The Red Cross program offered relief from this discrimination and a fresh start in the United States.

A woman who was interviewed before Maria Andres had been denied entry into the program, Sofia Andres said as she recounted the day in a recent interview at Thomas College.

“My mom’s heart was beating so fast,” she said. And then it was Maria Andres’ turn.

“As soon as she heard them say the word accepted, she didn’t even take the papers they tried to give her. She just ran to where we were and picked us up and hugged us,” Andres said. “She was just emotional.”

At the time, Andres said she was excited, but she didn’t realize what immigrating to the U.S. meant for herself and for her family.

“I just thought, ‘Oh, well, we’re going somewhere else.'”

She didn’t realize that “somewhere else” would lead her to Thomas College where she would study early childhood management and become the president of the international club, joining other students from around the globe in sharing their culture.

Today, she spends a lot of her time at the small, predominantly white Maine college engaging others in a dialogue about global issues such as gender discrimination, poverty, immigration, interracial couples and Black Lives Matter. Recently the club put on skits to show different perspectives on those divisive issues in order to get people to understand viewpoints other than their own.

“For me, what is important in these issues is that the only way to overcome them is to be working together,” Andres said.

LONG ROAD TO U.S.

For Andres, growing up in Russia wasn’t easy. Her family faced racial discrimination from neighbors, landlords, classmates and employers.

“It wasn’t like when you’re young and you get to go out and play outside,” Andres said. “There were times when we’d go outside and play for an hour, and we’d have to go back inside because our mom was always scared something might happen.”

When they went into the busy part of the city, she said, people would often stare, point and laugh at them.

“They’d say, ‘Why don’t you go back to your country?’ and things like that. Sometimes we’d be shoved and pushed when we’d go on the subway.”

At school, her older brother Jonas faced the brunt of the discrimination, sometimes being beaten up by classmates just for showing up and sometimes being told by teachers he couldn’t come to class.

At 14 years old, Jonas was still in sixth grade because of how often he was held back in school.

Parents of students would complain to the school about the Andres children even being there.

“They didn’t want their kids going to the same school as a colored child,” Andres said.

The friends that Andres and her brothers made were also refugees from African wars.

“There was an influx of people from Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo in Moscow,” Andres said. “We stuck together.”

It was difficult for Maria Andres to support three children on her own, especially when she couldn’t find steady work.

“My mom would start a job and then she would have to leave when she’d be fired for no reason or anything,” Andres said.

Andres was split from her family at times because they didn’t have a place to live. She lived with church members while pastors cared for Jonas and Maria and Joel stayed with other people they knew.

When they didn’t have anywhere else to go, the four of them briefly stayed at a refugee camp in Moscow.

Not too long after that the Andres were accepted into the Red Cross program.

Andres said she knew very little about America before they moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. When she thought about the U.S., she’d think of Michael Jackson’s music and hamburgers from McDonald’s.

But what she eventually found was a welcoming community.

“From the minute we stepped our feet here in the United States and started taking classes, they were welcoming,” Andres said. “I had people who were helping me and teaching me English and telling me what things were and how they worked.”

Adjustment to this new place wasn’t without its challenges. She and her brothers had to work with an English as a second language instructor to get caught up, and it was still difficult for her mom to find a good job.

After living in Raleigh for eight years, Maria Andres decided to move the family to Maine, where the cost of living was lower and she had the opportunity to study nursing.

In 2013, they moved to Lewiston where Sofia Andres started high school as a junior.

“It was different,” Andres said of her new home. The way the buildings looked, the fewer stores and shops, the whiteness of the population — it was all different from what she’d gotten used to in North Carolina.

“I was a city girl going to a small town,” she said.

SCHOOL AND FUTURE

On Wednesday, Andres and her peers put on a show at the Ayotte Auditorium at Thomas College that tied together all of their varying identities, the stereotypes that came along with them and the issues that divide Americans everyday.

They showed different perspectives on gender discrimination, poverty, immigration, interracial couples and Black Lives Matter.

In one skit, Andres played a waitress who immigrated to the U.S. from Congo and was picked on by customers because of her accent and broken English. In another, she was denied a job for which she was qualified because of her gender.

A narration of facts about the topic, as well as common misconceptions about it, followed each skit, and a reminder “not to judge a book by its cover” but “to open it and read it” became a refrain among the actors.

“Nobody wants to listen to anybody and everyone thinks they’re right,” Andres said.”Our purpose is to try to get people to understand different perspectives.”

Andres will be sharing her story about growing up and experiencing hardship in Russia and what it was like to immigrate to the U.S. March 10 at Thomas College Plugged In, an event for community members to share ideas and create new networks. It will include student speakers who will tell their stories of innovation, inspiration, success and hardship.

A citizen since 2011, Andres said that in her ideal future, she would be working as a school superintendent or principal of an elementary school.

“I want to focus on helping our future leaders because I feel like the issue is that our education system is not that strong. Especially in Maine I feel like we’re behind,” Andres said. “I felt like, I want to help. That’s my calling.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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