THE STORY OF VANESSA
A seventeen-year-old, homeless warrior
By Madiha Kark
Recently, Human Rights Initiative took on the case of a young seventeen-year old girl from Ivory Coast. Vanessa is currently enrolled at Richland College and hopes to one day become a petroleum engineer. Unfortunately, those dreams seem to be moving further away from her. In the past two months, Vanessa has been completely cut off from financial support, become homeless, and is struggling to still pay for school. Please read her story below and consider the possibility of becoming a mentor or financial benefactor to this young girl with so much spirit!
Six months ago, 17-year-old Vanessa packed up her luggage, ambition, and determination to make a solo journey of 6,000 miles from Ivory Coast to the United States. A childhood dream and a promise to her deceased father were her only companions. Vanessa’s mission to become a petroleum engineer has turned into a struggle to survive alone in a foreign country.
Within her first semester at Richland College, Vanessa was left homeless and struggling to stay afloat financially. The uncle who had agreed to fund her education and living expenses in the United States left her stranded. The reason: he wants to marry her off to his wealthy 71-year-old brother. Already married twice, the brother has two other wives both in their fifties. “I love my studies,” she fights back her tears. “All I want is to have a good education.” Even without money for tuition, books or a laptop, Vanessa tries to maintain a 4.0 GPA. This means long hours at the library after classes. “Sometimes my brain doesn’t have the energy to focus. I am so tired, but I cannot leave because I don’t have a computer to research at home.” She stares into the nothingness. A soft smile emerges, “but I am not giving up. I never give up.”
When she landed in Dallas, she knew what she was here for: to study hard for her passion. When asked what she would do if she couldn’t be a petroleum engineer, she squinted her eyes and asked to repeat the question. “I have never thought of anything else. This is my only career choice.” Her unassuming naiveté may be attributed to her young age, but her resolve to fight for her education is ripe with maturity beyond her years. Vanessa is no slacker – within a month of entering the United States, Vanessa had settled her sights on attending Texas Tech University. She spoke with an admissions officer to put together a degree plan that would get her there within two years. Back in Ivory Coast she learned to speak English and Spanish in an effort to prepare herself for her future globe-trotting career. She laughs as she recalls the first English book she read to prepare herself for reading the language – ‘First day at Elementary School.’
Vanessa’s brush with homelessness forced her to move in with a woman she met outside a grocery store who offered to help. Unfortunately, the woman began treating her like a servant: forcing her to miss class, clean the house and babysit her three-year-old twin boys in the house. Vanessa moved out after a month and now lives with a friend who is also struggling to make ends meet. Vanessa is only allowed to work on her campus, under the parameters of her visa, and has been struggling to find a job so late in the semester. Recently, the young girls discovered their apartment has been infested with bedbugs and are unable to afford the pricey cost of extermination.
Vanessa’s true name (not written here to protect her privacy) means “a girl who is independent and pure. People want to be her because she will change the world.” This description fits her perfectly, she admits, “I don’t want to be dependent on anybody, I count on myself.” To maintain legal status in the country, Vanessa must be enrolled as a fulltime student and can only work on campus. The pressure to succeed at school and the constant guilt of choosing to stay in the United States is almost too much for her to bear sometimes. “If my father was alive, this would not be happening,” she says looking away, believing in her heart that life would have been very different.
Vanessa is determined to change her fate and future. She is pursuing an education so she can succeed in life and change her circumstances from the ones that her family planned for her. This battle is not easy for her. “I want to be the one to choose my man,” she says with resolve.
Her current lack of funds not only means that she cannot afford an education, it also means she cannot stay in the country on her current visa. In Ivory Coast, her mother and brother are torn between encouraging Vanessa to pursue a different life in the United States and facing the hardships of the uncle who continues to exploit his power and influence on the family. The promise of a life of wealth and luxury is what the uncle wants Vanessa’s mother to choose for her daughter. But Vanessa clings tightly to her dream and chooses her independence and future career over wealth and luxury, especially at the cost of marrying into this family.
For Vanessa, it’s not just the marriage and the visa that are a problem. She fears that if she goes back she will also be circumcised. Female genital mutilation is still practiced in her home country and amongst her tribe. A cousin who was forced into a marriage faced this fate. “Sometimes I cry thinking about the problems and difficulties. They make me weak. I lose focus and that’s hard. It’s really hard.” In the face of all these struggles, however, Vanessa doesn’t want sympathy, so she rarely talks to her friends what she is going through.
Petroleum engineering is an unusual field for girls in her home country. Vanessa was the only girl to pass preliminary science classes. A documentary about fracking and the oil industry in Ivory Coast sparked her interest to become a petroleum engineer. The high quality oil is exported to other countries while toxic and sub standard oil is used locally. “I was 8 or 9 maybe; I asked my father what I could do to bring a change in this situation.” She remembers her father’s words, that it required specialized knowledge and petroleum engineers to bring that change. “I told him, I want to be a petroleum engineer.” She pauses for a moment and then adds, “He laughed at me. A week ago you wanted to be a doctor, now you want to be a petroleum engineer.” But she says she knew that’s what she wanted. “I said, no, no, I know, this is what I want to be,” and unconsciously a smile emerges on her face as she revisits the memory. Even though her father isn’t alive, Vanessa feels he’s looking down on her. “He’d be proud of me.”
If you would be interested in becoming a financial benefactor or mentor to Vanessa, please contact HRI’s Social Services Director, Zainab Ellis by email, zellis[at]hrionline.org or by phone 214-273-4335.
Today we’re very excited to feature two amazing All-Stars, Carol Jablonski and Matt Zelle, whose work as volunteer in-house attorneys has greatly supported our Women and Children’s Program in particular. Click the pictures to read our Q&A with Matt and Carol!
HRI has been fortunate to have many fantastic interns over the years, (some of whom have re-joined us as volunteer attorneys). Today as we celebrate National Volunteer Week we’d like to share our two newest legal interns with you: So-Young An and Ryan Seay. Both are first year students at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. Click the picture to read the Q&A we did with them!