“It is simply impossible to act as if our ethical and other differences do not exist; however, we can learn to embrace one another’s customs and lifestyles instead of disregarding them. Our distinctiveness is, after all, what makes us human, and brushing these things aside will only end in ignorance.”From “How Malden Benefits From Immigration” by Dina Genene, First Prize, The Immigrant Learning Center’s essay contest, 2022
By Jamie Perkins
The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, holds an annual essay-writing contest that, according to their website, celebrates “the impact of immigrants and refugees.” The 2023 contest concluded with an awards ceremony at The Immigrant Learning Center on Monday, May 22. This year’s topic was “How My Community Benefits from Immigration.”
All Malden High School, Everett High School, and Medford High School students can apply to the contest at no cost. Participants must write their essays in English but are not solely evaluated on English proficiency, and English learners are encouraged to apply.
The Immigrant Learning Center is a non-profit organization providing free English language classes to immigrant and refugee adults. They also work to educate Americans about immigration and conduct research with George Mason University on the economic contributions of immigrants.
Makeila Scott, an eleventh grader at the time of the contest, won first place with her essay “Breaking Social Divisions and Inspiring Togetherness.” Scott self-identifies as a second-generation immigrant and mixed Afro-Latina. Her father came to the United States from Panama when he was 19 years old.
Scott’s essay describes Malden through the lens of a student at Malden High School, where “The halls … are painted in an array of backgrounds, languages, and customs that fuel our community and enrich its soil.”
She described her interactions with a student who recently moved from China. They swapped stories about each other’s cultures and translated common phrases for each other. “This is the beauty of my community. A place where all backgrounds mesh and create a symphony of blended cultures that one can’t help but stop and listen to,” Scott wrote.
As the daughter of an immigrant and a Malden resident, Scott learns from others’ cultures and is also “someone who has learned to embrace their culture and use it to contribute to my community in any way I can.”
Miaoyi Hu, also in eleventh grade at the time of the contest, took home the second place prize. When she was a toddler, Hu and her parents moved from China to the U.S., where they met relatives who had already arrived.
Living in a new country was initially distressing, but things improved as Hu and her parents found a sense of community. Her mother found “her place of belonging” by going to The Immigrant Learning Center to learn English. According to Hu, the diversity in Malden “helped my parents find a community of their own where they could be themselves without feeling intimidated. They found people like them who decided to stick together and have each others’ backs.”
For a long time, Hu felt disconnected from her heritage because she immigrated at a young age. Then, in high school, she joined Asian Voices of Organized Youth for Community Empowerment (A-VOYCE). Hu wrote that through A-VOYCE, “I’ve grown to be more in touch with where I came from and discovered my own cultural identity,” and “for once, I was myself without feeling afraid of being judged.”
Hu and her family benefit from Malden, but Malden benefits from immigrants too. “Immigration has many benefits … communities are growing daily because of the different people and cultures that inspire others to embrace those differences.”
Nyandeng Yak won third place for her essay “Malden: City of Inclusivity.” Yak was in twelfth grade at the time of the contest. Yak’s family immigrated from South Sudan because of the South Sudanese Civil War, and she was “born and raised in a refugee camp.”
Yak wrote that the war “is why my mom and I spent years moving from place to place … why all the pressure is on me as the first-born daughter and grandchild to be successful.”
Her essay begins by juxtaposing her childhood with her father’s, who was one of the first Lost Boys of South Sudan. “My father and relatives began traveling on their bare feet at the age of eleven to seek shelter and safety. To put it in perspective, when I was eleven I was playing with dolls and learning division,” wrote Yak.
She described the unjust treatment of immigrants in the U.S. “America is a place like no other. One side of the country is promoting change and opportunity whereas another part of the country is watching your every move and screaming at you to either ‘act like an American’ or go back to your country or hide your roots.”
In a country with such division, Yak expressed gratitude that she lives in Malden, a city “built upon immigrants.”
“Malden lies in the part of the country that is promoting change … [it] is like an art class where everyone can create art with the colors they possess and share it in the art exhibition. I am glad I lived here because I was able to develop a healthy relationship with my heritage and culture. I never lost my mother tongue … Thank you Malden for allowing me to live freely,” Yak concluded.
Bakoma Itoe, a tenth grader at the time of the contest, won fourth place for his essay “How My Community Benefits From Immigration.” Itoe lived in Cameroon until 2017 when he and his mother immigrated to the U.S. to join his father. Itoe wrote that his father “wanted us to join him not just because of the educational opportunities this country would provide for me, but also to flee the escalating tensions of a civil war in my home country.”
Itoe’s essay highlights immigrants’ cultural and educational contributions to his new city, Malden. In his opinion, the best cultural contributions come in the form of food. “Malden is home to a number of commendable restaurants, a majority of them founded by immigrants, each hailing from a different corner of the world,” he wrote.
Itoe attends Malden High School, where he’s grown accustomed to interacting with people of different backgrounds in his classes. It was not easy at first. “I had fed into the notion that they wouldn’t want to interact with me or would judge me because of my accent. As time went on, I realized they were just as interested to know more about me as I was to know about them,” Itoe wrote.
Concluding his essay, Itoe wrote that Malden’s “local economy runs on the sacrifices of hundreds of immigrants who took the risk to spread their culture to the population, unsure of success. Immigration in this city reflects the nation’s ideals of opportunity, diversity, unity, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The fifth place prize went to Danny Le for his essay “Growing Up an Immigrant.”
Though he has lived in Medford for his entire life, Le’s parent’s immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the early 2000s. Technically a second-generation immigrant, he grew up with his own take on the immigrant experience. “Growing up an immigrant means growing up misunderstood … growing up between two inherently distinct and separate cultures … growing up alienated from my homeland several thousand miles away. Yet, growing up an immigrant also means growing up to discover my true identity. It means growing up to understand the many cultural differences that surround me. It means growing up to love my culture,” Le wrote.
Being the child of immigrants was difficult for Le. He refused to learn Vietnamese and “grew up without a concrete understanding of what [his] heritage meant for [his] family.” But now, thanks to living in Medford, Le no longer sees himself and his Vietnamese culture “through the scope of rejection and distaste.”
“As I grow up, I am constantly surrounded by more and more people and experiences that allow me to further understand my cultural upbringings … I have seen the city grow and continually flourish with immigrants and minorities from all parts of the globe, all contributing to Medford with their own unique sense of culture and identity,” Le wrote.
Looking toward his future, Le, who was an eleventh grader at the time of the contest, wrote, “Wherever life takes me, I hope to be part of the tens of millions of people who share their life story and experiences as immigrants—immigrants who have made a home in unknown places and forever contribute to the melting pot of culture and diversity.”
The top five winners’ complete essays can be found here.