About this episode:
Host Kristen Cerelli talks to African immigrant "Leonie" who fled the same abusive marriage to save herself and her children, not once, but twice. In the process she lost her ability to practice medicine with patients, but she found an unwavering strength and ability to "just do it" that puts the cliched Nike slogan in its place.
About our guest:
"Leonie" was born in Africa, into a large family that valued education. She attended medical school, practiced gynecology and had two children with a very influential man who, despite his power, did not treat her with the respect she deserved. When the relationship became abusive, she fled with her children and has reinvented herself in both Europe and the US.
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Kristen Cerelli 0:00
The interviews in this podcast, all of which are ultimately uplifting stories of human transformation may contain general discussions of depression, trauma, violence, abuse, or cultural and racial bias. On this episode of shift shift Blum,
you know, I was a physician, I was, I was in a high rank position in Europe, and then I came to the US to become a housekeeper. But I didn't look at that as being, I mean, low. I look at that as being very grateful, you know, starting as a housekeeper, and then because I knew that, I wouldn't say, a housekeeper all of my life. It was a life lesson for me.
Kristen Cerelli 0:47
Due to the nature of the information she's about to share, Today's guest has asked to remain anonymous. For the purposes of this interview, we will call her Leone. While she is altering some of the identifying details of her life. Her story is true. I'm Kristen Cerelli. And you're listening to shift shift bloom, a podcast about how people change.
My guest today goes by the name Leone, African born, a licensed gynecologist. Leone has fled the same abusive marriage twice in order to protect her children and herself, leaving Africa for Europe and Europe for the United States. She has also had to leave behind family, friends, ways of life and her medical practice. I am so grateful for her bravery and choosing to talk to me today. Welcome, Leone.
Hi, I'm happy to be here.
Kristen Cerelli 2:11
I love to sit across from you and get to see your smiling face. And I know you you grew up in Africa, what what do you most remember about your childhood,
um, growing up in Africa was I would say, the best memories of my of my life. Because I had a lot of siblings. And my parents have always supported me. They wanted me to be very well educated. Not only me, but all of my siblings. So I came from a very well educated family. And I inherited that from my parents. So I came from a very big family. And I really enjoyed, you know, growing up in Africa,
Kristen Cerelli 3:08
what are you to medicine.
So I, my mom is a nurse, she was a nurse because she is retired now. And in Africa, you know, people will come to our house to get my mom, you know, to treat them because they don't have a lot of money to go to the hospital to get treated. So they will come to see my mom and ask her to treat them. So and usually I will go with my mom to their houses and help her, you know, placing Ephesians or just doing injections, or giving them pills or doing a consultation. And I really enjoyed doing that. So that's why growing up I really wanted to be a physician.
Kristen Cerelli 4:04
From what age Was she taking you along?
Leonie 4:08I was:
Kristen Cerelli 4:11
And did you ever have any worries? Were you ever thinking oh, I don't like this.
Yeah, I think I've never had I was never afraid of that. I just wanted to help that was higher than any fear that I could possibly had at a time and that's what really drawn me to to helping people.
Kristen Cerelli 4:39
The gender gap is closing in terms of women going to medical school in Africa. But I imagine when you went was there still a pretty big disparity in how many women are going to medical school versus how many men were going
when I was going to medical school at a time to gap was kind of getting close a little bit. Let's see. We were I was a 40 versus 60. Yeah.
Kristen Cerelli 5:11
Oh, that's okay. So, so, so pretty, pretty closed was the gap at that point? Yes. When you went into medical school, were you already thinking about gynecology and obstetrics?
I didn't choose to be a gynecologist at first because I really enjoyed a lot of specialties en t. Gi, dermatology. And it's not it's only when I got to fifth grade, that I really decided, Okay, I think I'm gonna go do you know, to gynecology, I'm gonna do OB GYN. Was
Kristen Cerelli 5:49
there an event or a determining factor or something that you saw in the OBGYN rotation that that led you to make that? Obviously, it was a difficult choice? You had options? You had other interests? What was it that sealed the deal?
Yeah, so actually, it was a regional hospital setting. And I went there during my rotation, and it was really tough. I worked in very difficult, you know, very challenging situations there. And I decided, Oh, I really need to go back to help them.
Kristen Cerelli 6:25
Do you have a preference? Or did you discover a preference for bringing babies into the world or being helping women through the gynecological exam? What was their preference there?
Yes, actually, my preference was, I mean, obstetrics sides, you know, bringing babies to the world.
Kristen Cerelli 6:47
I can't imagine must be amazing.
It was, yeah, the best time of my life, really?
Kristen Cerelli 6:53
When? And how did you meet the man who became your husband?
So I met my ex husband in Africa back there. Actually, I was I was doing my presidency. And I was supposed to give a presentation in, in opposite tricks. And I needed to gather a lot of information. And I couldn't find that on, you know, on the books that I had at a time. And at that time, you know, internet internet was just started. And there was a conference on internet. So I went to that conference, and I met my ex husband there.
Kristen Cerelli 7:38
Did you start to date immediately? Was it exciting?
Yeah, it was exciting. I didn't start right away, because I didn't have a lot of time, you know, with my residency time. So it took time, you know, to get to know each other, and also in Africa, depending on the countries, you know, it's very conservative. So you cannot live together if you are not married.
Kristen Cerelli 8:08
How long did you date before you got married?
We did it for a year.
Kristen Cerelli 8:15
What was the early part of the marriage? Like,
the early part of the marriage was, it was fun. It was you know, because we, we were trying to understand each other and to live together because we hadn't lived together before. Yeah. So it was it was okay. In the beginning of the marriage. And I will say a few months, I mean, into the marriage. It was it was it was okay.
Kristen Cerelli 8:45
Had you completed your medical studies? And were you working in the field at that time?
Yeah. So when I met my ex husband, I was working as an OBGYN in the same hospital where I got my medical degree from where I also did my,
Kristen Cerelli 9:04
my residency. How long was it before you had had children? It was a
year after I got married that I got my, my first child.
Kristen Cerelli 9:14
Wow. Boy or girl. Oh, girl. Do you remember that as a happy time?
Oh, it was? Yeah, that was a year after the marriage. So that was a happy time.
Kristen Cerelli 9:25
And were you able to work and be a mom, are you juggling both of those things?
It wasn't easy to do both at the same time, so I stopped working for a few months, you know, in order to take care of my daughter and then after that, I went back to work.
Kristen Cerelli 9:48
When did things start to go wrong? In your marriage?
Yeah, so when I got married, I wanted to go to Europe to study more So I went there with my, my two kids at a time, because after my daughter, so I got my son. So I went with my children in Europe to, to continue my studies. And then so my ex husband will come to visit us. And I spent two years in Europe. And then so when we were, you know, separated because of, of the distance, so that makes things very difficult. And also, he had a lot of friends back there, and they will started telling him that he wouldn't have let me go, because I'm a woman. And if you are a woman, you have to stay in a hot, hot household, and obey your husband and be a good wife.Kristen Cerelli:
So your ambition and desire to continue your education was a wedge? Do you think he would have come to those thoughts and feelings? Had he not been influenced by his friends? That kind of outside influence?Leonie:
Hi, maybe maybe not. That's hard to know, for sure. But I think the fact that he was, you know, influenced by his friends that really played a huge part in the in our marriage.Kristen Cerelli:
So you went for two years to Europe? Did you go back to Africa at that point?Leonie:
Yeah. So after getting my degree in Europe, I went back to Africa. And then things started to change because he became very abusive at a time and he became very jealous because he didn't want me to, to work.Kristen Cerelli:
If you're able to share or you want to share, what was the nature of the abuse? And was it towards you or towards your children as well.Leonie:
So the nature of the abuse was towards me, he, he wanted me to be to stay home. So actually, he told me that if I wanted to work, that was fine. But he had to choose, you know, with what companies that I can work with or not. So if it was, like, well known companies, he didn't want me to work with those companies, because he didn't want me to be independence.Kristen Cerelli:
Were you surprised by this?Leonie:
I was expecting that a little bit, because I know, I knew his friends. And I knew what happened to one of my friends who was married to his best friend's. So I knew what I should have expected.Kristen Cerelli:
Is this a prevailing cultural norm in Africa in your country, that the expectation is a woman will not work once she has children that she will defer to her husband's wishes, that she will not overshadow her husband professionally? Is this sort of normal culturally?Leonie:
Yeah, I would say yes. Depending on really on the husband, because yes, it's for the husband to decide. And the wife should obey her husband. That's the norm.Kristen Cerelli:
So it sounds like the abuse was quite psychological manipulative. Did it ever become physical?Leonie:
It becomes physical. Yes. It began physical in the beginning, it was variable, emotional. And then he Yeah, it became physical. And when it becomes physical, I couldn't stand it anymore.Kristen Cerelli:
Did you confide in anyone?Leonie:
Yes, I did. To my friend's family. And I had an aunt, I have a lot of answers, but I can find it to one of my aunts. And I told her, what happened that he abused me physically. And she just said, that's normal. You have to accept that. And I said, No, I won't. I won't accept that. That's not normal. He has to respect me, as well as I have to respect him. But you know, I'm not I'm his wife. And to my point, we are equal. You know, I'm not inferior to him because I'm his wife. So he has to respect me as well and that's not okay with me.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you just know this? Because of who you are? Or do you think you had female models of this sense of equality? Where does that come from?Leonie:
So my parents are very well educated. They are very open, open minded. So, yes, so seeing my parents, you know, the way that they always, they have always been, you know, so my model was really my parents, my mom and my dad, and my dad has never ever treated my mom. Like my husband treated me.Kristen Cerelli:
I'm just curious. While this is happening, I know you must have so many thoughts, and you must be making so many plans. Do you have any? Do you have a desire to push back? Or do you just have a desire to to flee to Escape to get out?Leonie:
So I had a desire to push back. And that's what I did initially. So I decided to you know, that I needed to get a divorce, because I couldn't stay in that situation anymore. And that's what I did.Kristen Cerelli:
How old are your children at this time?Leonie:
They were six and four.Kristen Cerelli:
What propelled that decision? Was it not enough to have a divorce? What propelled the decision to leave the country with your kids?Leonie:
So at that time, my ex husband was very powerful. He was very close to, to the president of the country. And he told me that I wouldn't see my children anymore, that he will take them and I will never get custody. And you believed him? So that's why yes, and, and that was the truth. So I started the divorce procedure in Africa. And then I knew that I would have lost my children. Had I stayed there. So that's why I decided toKristen Cerelli:
leave the country. Did you have a support system? Did your family know your plans? Were they able to help? You know? No,Leonie:
nobody? I didn't want to tell anybody because I was very afraid to to not be able to leave. I knew if I had told somebody, maybe I wouldn't have been able to, to leave the country.Kristen Cerelli:
Did you leave before the divorce was final? I left?Leonie:
A week before the divorce was final. Because in Africa in that country. So the divorce takes on the two weeks in order to be finalized. So it's it's very, very, veryKristen Cerelli:
fast. Okay. Yeah. Who was helping you on the outside? How did you set things up to be able to get to Europe with your two kids?Leonie:
Yeah, that was very difficult. And even today, I when I think about it, I don't even know how I was able to, to escape because my my ex husband, he knew everybody. And it's it was like a small village. So my fear was to even get to the airport, and that maybe somebody might recognize me and call him. So I wasn't sure if I would be able to leave the country. But before leaving the country, I called International international lawyers in Europe to explain to them my situation, and that I was about to leave the country without, with my children. And it told me that if I really want to leave the country, I have to come before getting getting the final decision from the judge.Kristen Cerelli:
So that was the advice you are given by attorneys to get out before the divorce was final. Yeah. Leone, as I'm listening to this, and you are so poised, and seemingly calm as you relate the facts back as this is actually happening to you in real time and you're keeping these rather large secrets in a way you have to keep everything to yourself to protect yourself and your kids. Do you feel like some part of you is shifting or changing to adapt to this situation that you're in.Leonie:
Yes, I needed to adapt, I needed to adjust. And even when I decided to leave the country, it was a very tough decision, because at the time, I was still living with my ex husband. We weren't going to court, but we were still living in the same house. So it was an easy to plan.Kristen Cerelli:
Did you literally leave with the clothes on your back?Leonie:
Yes, I didn't take any bags, anything. I just took the most important with me, my children and my degrees, because I knew when I get to Europe, you know, I will have to find a job. And in order in order to find a job, I will have to take my degrees with me. Wow.Kristen Cerelli:
And you mean literally your physical the physical copy of your, the proof of your education?Leonie:
Yes, absolutely. But I couldn't take anything else because he would have known, you know, if I would have to take even one bag, he would have known that I was planning to leaving.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you remember the moment you got on the plane and the plane took off?Leonie:
Yeah, still today. I remember that moment, because there was only one plane at night, leaving to go to Europe. And I couldn't take that plane because my ex husband, he would have known. So I decided to take a plane during the day, and to go to another African country in order to get to Europe. And what happened was that when we got onto the plane, so there was a technical issue with the plane. And I and I say, oh, no, that couldn't happen. That can happen right now. Because if they they had to delay, the, you know, the departure, so I wouldn't be able to leave the country ever. Oh, but I we got very lucky. So that took only one hour. And then they were able to fix the plane.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you breathe a tiny sigh of relief at that point or? Not yet?Leonie:
Not yet, just a little bit because I left the country. So that was a big relief. But I was still in Africa, and still yet to get to Europe.Kristen Cerelli:
You get to Europe, what's the first thing you do?Leonie:
So the first thing I did was to, to call one of my siblings who lived there and told her that's okay, I'm here with my kids. We came here she was shocked. Because she didn't know what was going on. And then, yeah, it was the beginning of hell.Kristen Cerelli:
What do you mean by that?Leonie:
So when I got there in Europe, I went to to see a lawyer because I needed one. And then that lawyer told me that I needed to go to the police, to let them know that I left my husband, my ex husband that I left the country just to have a record of that day. And they asked he also told me that right after being to the police, that I needed to call my ex husband to let him know that I was in Europe.Kristen Cerelli:
What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What do you do it?Leonie:
Yes, okay. I did it. Because, you know, because I wanted to start a new procedure in France, you know, in order to get my children's custody back. And he told me, okay, that's, that's the way to go. And that's what I did. But I didn't call my ex husband myself. I was with my sibling, my sister, and she is the one who called him but I was with her in the car.Kristen Cerelli:
What was his response? HeLeonie:
said, Yeah, he said that, you know that I'm very powerful. I'm gonna destroy your life.Kristen Cerelli:
As you're hearing these words, or as you hear yourself say these words now. What are you thinking? He has the power to do?Leonie:
My ex husband has a lot of connections in Africa, in Europe, everywhere, I will say except in the US. So in Europe, I felt protected in the beginning, but when I learned the connections that he also had in Europe, you know, I didn't feel protected it anymore.Kristen Cerelli:
Were you always looking over your shoulder when you were there?Leonie:
Yes, I was. Because when I got there in Europe, so I served him. So he will come back and forth. So I will see him. Yeah, very often. So he knew where you were. Yes, he knew he knew where I was.Kristen Cerelli:
So when you say you started a new proceeding, you literally were starting a new fight to keep your children. How does that work? Legally? He's the father. They're African born, he's an Africa, you fled. This, I'm daunted just listing these things. What? What do you have to do now to counter this?Leonie:
So yeah, I didn't know how to do really, but I was just hoping that, you know, since we was in Europe, and then maybe starting a new proceeding, maybe that will revert you know, the procedure. I mean, the decision that I got from from Africa, that what I was hoping, but I didn't know for sure.Kristen Cerelli:
So what did happen? How did that unfold? Were you able to get the decision reversed?Leonie:
No, I wasn't able to, because in international law, it is very difficult. I will say even impossible, you know, to reverse the first decision from that country. But he never didKristen Cerelli:
take them back.Leonie:
He did. He did take them back. When? Right away? No, it wasn't right away. So when I started the new proceeding in your, in Europe, he would come to see them every year, actually, to see the children and also when we had to go to court. So he will come to go to court. And then he so we we've been doing that for four years in Europe, because the first decision that I got was that since my ex husband got custody, you know, in the first place that they couldn't reverse the first decision. So I made an appeal of that decision. And I even went to the Supreme Court to try to reverse that decision to no avail. So after we went through all the proceedings, he was able to, to enforce the decision from Africa to Europe. That meant that because I was living there in Europe, so he had custody, as well in Europe, so he was able to take them back to Africa because of that.Kristen Cerelli:
And he did, he did for how long did he have them there?Leonie:
For 10 months,Kristen Cerelli:
and what led to a change there.Leonie:
So when he took them back to Africa, he got married, and his new wife didn't want to see them. He she didn't want to, to have to keep the children with him with her. And then my ex husband decided to take them back to Europe for vacation. So when he took them back, I found out that he was abusing them in Africa. And I decided to not let them go with him. Even though I didn't have custody.Kristen Cerelli:
How did that information come to you? But he was abusing the children.Leonie:
Because at that time in Africa, I had a nanny taking care of the children there. And I was in contact with her. So she witnessed everything that he was doing to them. And she let me know that and also when my children went back to see me in Europe, they also told me what was going on.Kristen Cerelli:
So you said even though you don't really have you don't have custody, he has custody, you do not allow him to take them back to Africa. How do you accomplish that?Leonie:
That was very challenging, very, very challenging. I had to to call one of my siblings living there in Europe, and then she came to help me. So we took the children to one of her friend's house. far away is it was in In a countryside, so we hide them, the children there. So when my ex husband came to pick them home, I told him that, you know, because he abused them, that I wouldn't let him, take them back to Africa. And then we went, we went back to the court again. And he said that he will punish me for what I have done, and that he will take them back to Africa.Kristen Cerelli:
But he didn't.Leonie:
He didn't, he wasn't unable to. Because I came to the US.Kristen Cerelli:
So that's, that's the next moment of change. Now, given the new wife, not wanting these children in her life, do you think he would have taken them back again? At that point?Leonie:
Yes. I'm sure because it wasn't about the children. It wasn't even having the children or not having them, it was about me, it was how to, you know, destroy my life, how to get to me, it was all about that it wasn't for the best interest of the children. Because when I was living in Europe, he had never, ever contributed to, to their education, to their lives to anything he had never provided for, for them. So it wasn't about taking care of the children or having the children, it was all about how to get to me.Kristen Cerelli:
You describe this period of your life as hell. And it sounds like how not only are you not really safe, not only are you fighting for the safety of your children and the ability to take your children and care for them. But you're not practicing medicine, either. Is that correct?Leonie:
Yes, I was not practicing medicine. And I really missed that, you know, seeing patients. And that was one of the reasons that, you know, I went to medical school, but I couldn't, I couldn't practice medicine anymore, because I left my country. And you know, when you practice medicine in one country, and then when you move to another country, you have to start all over. I couldn't I couldn't start all over going back to school. And so I tried to find something else to be able to work as, as a physician, but not seeing patients.Kristen Cerelli:
I know that that is not unusual. I know that maybe even in the best of circumstances, it's it sounds like they make it hard. countries make it hard on doctors to practice to begin to practice in a new country, you have to maybe take your boards again, maybe do a residency again, in some cases. Is that fair? Is that right?Leonie:
No up? To me. It's not why it's because medicine is medicine. That's how I see things. It might be different, because in Africa, depending on the countries, you know, we are well versed in infectious disease diseases, maybe. But it's the same medicine. And I can tell because when I left Africa to go to Europe, and now, you know, to, to the US, so it's exactly the same. It's the same management that we do for any single disease. So it's, it's exactly the same. I knowKristen Cerelli:
you have so many things going on at this moment, powerful things, you fled your country, you're fighting for your children, do you have a chance to even make space for the loss or the grieving of the career that you really, really wanted and really worked hard for? Do you even have time to have those feelings?Leonie:
No, I didn't even have time for that. I just wanted to fight to give my children I wanted to fight to provide for them. It was all about that. So I didn't even have time to think about my career.Kristen Cerelli:
Were you able to find work in Europe that was in any way gratifying or interesting?Leonie:
Yeah, I was able to find work in Europe and it was very gratifying, even though I was unable to go back to the hospitals sitting, but it was gratifying. It was still being a physician but It's in another industry. So it was, it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed my time there.Kristen Cerelli:
Happy to hear that. So how are you able now to get from Europe? It sounds like it has to happen again, very quickly. This threat has been rendered by your ex husband? How do you get them here? How do you get yourself here?Leonie:
Yes, that was a very challenging time as well. Because, you know, I did it once, from Africa to Europe. And now, I needed to do it again. But the most difficult part for that time, was that, you know, I spent years in Europe. And I really enjoyed working in the company that I was in with all of my colleagues. You know, it was like my family, Willie. And it was resigning from my job and moving to, to the US, without knowing what will be my future. And knowing that I didn't speak English. So that will be a big challenge. I knew that. But I didn't think about all of that. The only thing that I wanted to do was to protect my children, and the only country where I could go, in order for my children to be safe. And that's why I came to the US. But it was very challenging to, to live Europe, but I had to, I had to do it, I had to do it for my children, I had the choice to either let them go with their dad, or resigning from everything, you know, from my career and choose my children. And that's what I did. I chose my children.Kristen Cerelli:
You seem to have this remarkable capacity to know, with such clarity, what you want and need to do. And to not let the things that seem, would seem like insurmountable obstacles. Stop you, you seem unstoppable. I mean, to come to a country where you don't speak the language alone. What is the primary force in you? What what is this sense that you can do it? Is it? Can you articulate it?Leonie:
Yeah. It is hard to say. But in my mind, it's always you have to do it. Just go. Don't ask questions. Don't even think that you you can't do it. Don't even think of that. Just go ahead and do it. That's how I feel. And and also, you know, never give up. If you can, can do it at first, learn how to do it better. You know, you will always succeed. If you do that. Never give up.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you think that I don't want to call it anything? I don't want to name it. But I'm going to, I'm going to attempt to name it knowing these names are just words. But do you think you develop some confidence or discipline or powerful control over your own mind in that way? visa vie your being steeped in education and going to medical school? Like was this a muscle in some way that you had this sense of just do it, don't think just do it?Leonie:
I think what's really helped me is you know, living in Africa, living in very challenging difficult situations. And whatever I went through during my residency in the regional, you know, hospital that I had my residency in, I think that's where I really got my my strength.Kristen Cerelli:
While that's happening, while you're in the trenches, seeing what you're seeing and being challenged. Do you feel yourself changing? Do you feel that strength developing or is it something you have to look back on later and go, Okay, oh, look at that, you know, I just got, I just got that skill out of that experience.Leonie:
I think it's, um, it's like a moving target. It's never ended. Even now in the US. You know, there are a lot of challenges. So it's, it's a mindset that I got, I will say from Africa, but You know, it's a life changing experience. It's a life learning experience as well. But you know, it's an I use that every single day in my life. It's never ended.Kristen Cerelli:
So talk me through walk me through, landing here in the US getting yourself here to the US.Leonie:
Yeah. So when I came here, in the US, the most difficult part was that I didn't speak the language. So that was a huge barrier. So I went to school to learn to learn the language, but it was very frustrating, you know, not be able to express myself. So I started as a housekeeper housekeeping, so I did housekeeping and home health. And I didn't look at those job as being, you know, inferior to what I used to be because, you know, I was a physician, I was, I was in a high rank position in Europe, and then I came to the US to become a housekeeper. But I didn't look at that as being, I mean, low. I look at that as being very grateful, you know, studying as housekeeper. And then because I knew that I wouldn't see a housekeeper all of my life. It was a life lesson for me.Kristen Cerelli:
How long before you started to feel like, I can get to know people, and they can get to know me via the language? How long did that take?Leonie:
So when I went to school to learn the language for four months, and then I knew the grammar, I know how to write and everything, but the most difficult part was to communicate in a way to be understood. So I actually decided I didn't want to spend a year going to school, I really want to be, you know, with people to just exchange with people, you know, doing voluntary, volunteering, jobs. And then I started as a housekeeper and home health. And that's really helped me to get to know people and to get to exchange with Americans in order to be able to improve my, my language.Kristen Cerelli:
How long have you been here? And what has your experience been of this country?Leonie:
So I've been here for seven years now. And so my experience was that, you know, in Africa, so I dealt with being a woman. And then in Europe, I dealt with being black woman, and black as well, and coming from Africa, and then in America, and dealing with being a foreigner, being from another country, and speaking with an accent, because people will say, oh, there is a lot of racism, people are racist. But really, I haven't experienced that, here in the US, as much as I've experienced that in Europe. In Europe, it was way worse than in America. What I like living here in America, is that there are a lot of opportunities. And people don't look at you saying, Oh, she's black, she won't be able to do the job. No, they really look at what you have in what you are capable of. That's the most important. What are you bringing on the table for that company? That's the most important and that's what I like here in the US.Kristen Cerelli:
And yet you face judgment? Because you're an immigrant, what do you say?Leonie:
Yes, I will say that that sometimes the judgment is not even related to my to the fact that I'm Black is related to the fact that I'm an immigrant, because not only white people, but also black people, African American, they will call me on that because I'm an immigrant. I have an accent.Kristen Cerelli:
Leone goes on to tell me about her second job in this country working as a technician in a medical lab where she encountered something that really surprised her.Leonie:
And in that lab, I worked with African Americans. And that was the worst experience ever. Because so it was to African American woman. And they didn't respect me because because coming from Africa, and they will tell me that they will make fun of me, maybe because of my accent, but also, they feel like the, they were superior to African people, you know, because they didn't know anything about Africa. So I had to teach them, it was an eye opener. Opening for experience for them, the most difficult part was to, you know, for them to make fun of me. Like, every time like, every day, they will make fun of me, and but I told them, okay, I'm doing this job from now, but years down the road, I will become a physician, but you will still do the same job. And that's what happened.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you think they shifted at all by meeting you? Do you think their experience have you had any impact on them?Leonie:
Um, yeah, I think so. Because one of them. Finally, she really wanted to, you know, to get to know me more, and the fact that, you know, I wasn't from the US, and then that I came from Africa, Europe, and then the US, would they feel that that was very interesting and attractive to them to try to learn more about it? And also, you know, I was telling them, why do you want to stay working in a lab in the US, you can be whatever you want to be, don't just stay in this job saying that I cannot go back to school, you can go back to school if you really want to go back to school. So one of them really listened to me. And she went back to school, actually. So I will say that yeah, I had an impact on on them.Kristen Cerelli:
According to an article by Nigerian born journalist, oh, he might on my USA, published in JSTOR. Daily, we only story reflects the social distance between Africans and African Americans that dates back to slavery and really took root during the Jim Crow years when, quote, African Americans were encouraged to shun the idea of a connection to Africa, to think poorly of Africa, and to celebrate traits in themselves, which supposedly distanced themselves from Africa. In other words, to think of themselves as more cultured, more Christian, more white, more civilized than Africans, and therefore, to look at African pneus as a matter of shame, or a kind of taint that needed to be avoided, and quote, The article also highlights the fact that most black Americans are six to seven generations culturally removed from the African continent and negative portrayals of Africa, in pop culture, do nothing to disrupt the stereotypes. On the other hand, negative images of guns, drugs and violence in African American communities have greatly shaped how African immigrants perceive African Americans is a complicated dynamic, surely, one that Leone found herself right up against in that job. I find it perplexing that we forget, this whole country is made up of immigrants. None of us here are native except the Native Americans. How How has it been for your children? When they arrived here? How old are they?Leonie:
So when they arrived in the US? They were 10 and 12 years old. So it was easier for them to adapt to adjust to learn the language, which is to to be part of the country right away.Kristen Cerelli:
You started you said working in home health and as a housekeeper, what are you doing now?Leonie:
So now I'm working as a physician. Yes. So I made it from housekeeping. Home health to physician. So it's the the American dream. Yeah, everything is possible in America.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you have the same feelings of warmth towards your job that you had towards the job in Europe? Do you have friends there? Is it gratifying?Leonie:
It is gratifying. I really liked the job that I'm doing. But in America, you know, I'm from a different country, different culture. So I would say it is very difficult to to make friends in in America. People are really nice, but I think like the the friendship that you can get in Is it is superficial. It is not like the friendship back in Europe that I think like it was more rooted with it, then compared to the friendship here.Kristen Cerelli:
I love, I love unpacking this piece of the conversation with you because I think I've had a conversation in the same stream with some of my friends just about how, how challenging it can be to make new friends in adulthood. And I sort of wonder if we Americans, we sort of are, we have a mythology around, she's been my best friend since kindergarten, or, you know, I met him in high school or college, or we look for these bonding experiences with our friends. And that's who we tend to, like, cling to, even if sometimes we've outgrown the relationship, you know, truly, we change. And some of those historical relationships don't necessarily serve either party, but we hold on to them. And I wonder if that's a little bit of what you're bumping up against is our own. First of all, I think it's a bias towards historical I'm going to call them historical friendships. And second of all, it's a discomfort with knowing how to make ourselves vulnerable to new people. As we age, I don't know if that's not a part of the friendship making process in Europe and Africa. But people get very set in their ways. And they don't always know how to change or welcome someone new into the circle, or let go of things that aren't representative of who they've become. So it's just a really interesting topic of conversation. And I think it's so important, though, to widen our circle even more as we get older and to so that we keep learning so that we don't homogenize our relationships, all of our friends look one way or do one thing, or I've had the similar experiences, as opposed to looking for friends who enrich us because they're different. The minute you meet this woman, you know how deep she is. So I asked her if, in her seven years in this country, she's been able to form any relationships that are more authentic.Leonie:
I met a very wonderful guy in the US, and then he he passed away. But I will always remember him, I will never forget him. He helped me a lot. He was my rock. He was my he was he was everything for me. He really helped me going through all the challenges that I've been through. When I got to the US. He helped me with all the bills, the lawyers, bills, and everything. He even sold his house to get a small house in order to pay for the bills. He was the most wonderful man that I have ever met in my life.Kristen Cerelli:
Was he a friend? A romantic connection?Leonie:
Yeah, he wasn't romantic connection. We even got married. And he came down with cancer and he passed away.Kristen Cerelli:
Oh, Leone. I'm so sorry. Thank you. Something about what you just said reminds me of the moment you got on the plane and the plane had technical issues. And you weren't sure you'd get out. I wonder if you feel like some force is looking over you and helping you. Even though this loss is a big loss, that he came into your life and loved you and gave you so much support. At a time when it must have felt like you wouldn't have been able to do it alone. Do you feel like there are some angels?Leonie:
Yeah, I really feel like Phil that I really believe in that. And even when I met him, he told me that God had sent him to help me.Kristen Cerelli:
What's life like now for you day to day?Leonie:
My day to day is is all about working. That's what I do.Kristen Cerelli:
Is that you Is that American work culture? Is it both?Leonie:
Oh, it's maybe both. Yeah, it might be both. But I really like I love working because I remember when I was in Europe, people will tell me Oh, you really you work as like an American?Kristen Cerelli:
hard and long hours?Leonie:
Yeah, I think so.Kristen Cerelli:
And what about your kids?Leonie:
Yeah, they're all about working education as well. I think they got that from from me. since they were little. So they know that, you know, in order to succeed, you have to be educated. Do they see their father? No, they don't see him?Kristen Cerelli:
Who has custody now? Legally,Leonie:
legally, he still has considered us custody. Because in the US, it was the same thing. So they didn't have jurisdiction on my case, because Africa has was the first, you know, to give the custody decision. So because of the international law, so in the US, as well say, so they couldn't do anything about it.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you ever talk with them? Do they ever talk with you about what you've done for them?Leonie:
Yeah. They talk about it. Because they knew that I sacrificed a lot for them. And they want to make me proud of them. So they really work hard because of that.Kristen Cerelli:
Now that you're here, are there things that you would like to do that you feel like you can't? Are there still feelings of fear? Or just worry? Or has that all dissipated?Leonie:
Yeah, I'm not worried anymore. When I moved here at first. Seven years ago, I was very worried. But not anymore. Because, you know, my kids are old enough. And that was the goal, I really want them to be old enough to, you know, to be able to defend themselves, and to be able to decide for themselves. So I think now I'm in a good place of life. Where I'm not afraid anymore. I'm not afraid of my my assessment anymore.Kristen Cerelli:
This is maybe a silly question. But as you're saying, and I just got this sense. Did you wake up one day and realize that?Leonie:
Yes, I did. Really? Wow. I did. And that was when he came. So he can hear to take them back. And that was three years ago, he wanted to take them back to Africa, because he still had custody of the children. So he can because of that, and then he was unable to because the mansion run, refused to go back with him.Kristen Cerelli:
Did you witness that?Leonie:
Yes, I did. witness that. And not only me, but other people, our friends. My children told him that they are not objects, and that they have rights. Even though there are children, they can decide for themselves and they refused to go back with him.Kristen Cerelli:
That's pretty incredible.Leonie:
Yeah. And since that time, I haven't heard from him.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you think something has changed in him? Do you think that experience changed something?Leonie:
I don't think so. I don't think so. Because he will still you know, if he is he's evolved to do something, you know, in order to destroy my life, he will do it that really, there is nothing that he can do, you know, because now the children, you know, they are old enough. And there is nothing that he can do in order to reach me or to get to me.Kristen Cerelli:
What do you miss the most about being here?Leonie:
I miss my family back in Africa, back in Europe. And being with friends. That's what I missed the most.Kristen Cerelli:
You know, we talked before about not really having the time to process some of the things that were happening that were secondary to what was primary which was the safety of you and your children. Have you had some more time in the last couple of years to release, or feel the feelings and release them? Like have you had some time to let all that stuff move through you?Leonie:
I haven't really because I haven't had the time since the beginning, really when I left Africa to go to Europe, and then when I left Europe to come to the, to the US, when I look at, you know, everything that happened, I haven't had the chance to just sit back and look, you know, look back at my life.Kristen Cerelli:
Yeah, it sounds like, it sounds like it's just been a tornado of expectations, you know, that you've had to fulfill? Do you see your future here in the US?Leonie:
I really like the UAE the US. I see my future here. Because now that I can, you know, to live here with my children. So now they are part of this country. So yeah, I see my future here with with my children. And I believe I will stay here, but I don't know yet. We'll see down the road.Kristen Cerelli:
Yeah. I'd like to end every interview with some rapid fire questions. So don't think Leone just say this first thing that comes to mind, fill in the blank. Change requires blank.Leonie:
Change requires adept at its ability.Kristen Cerelli:
If you could go back in time and change one thing and only one thing about your past, what would it be?Leonie:
Not meeting my ex husband? But I wouldn't say that, because if I if I hadn't met him, I wouldn't have my children. So that's right. Yeah.Kristen Cerelli:
What is one thing big or small? You would like to see change in the world?Leonie:
Race colorism or I don't know, just not seeing color. on people, you know, everybody just the same?Kristen Cerelli:
What is one thing big or small? You hope never changes?Leonie:
My strength?Kristen Cerelli:
What is one small or superficial thing about yourself? You would like to change?Leonie:
It's hard to not thinkKristen Cerelli:
it's okay. I'mLeonie:
just I don't know how to define that. But it's not my culture. I wouldn't say that. I want to change my culture. I love my culture. I love who I am. But just finding the way to be able to be accepted. Here hear in the US?Kristen Cerelli:
How often do you change your toothbrush?Leonie:
Every two months?Kristen Cerelli:
I know we're all we all have aspects of each of these. But do you consider yourself primarily a change maker, a change seeker or a change resistor?Leonie:
a change maker?Kristen Cerelli:
What does your next change look like in life? And you can feel free to be imaginative or fantastical or aspirational in your answer.Leonie:
My next challenge will be to to go back to Africa and change women's rights.Kristen Cerelli:
What would you say to a woman in Africa or elsewhere? Who feels trapped by something and feels that there's no way out?Leonie:
I will say that there is always a way out. And that you have to look for solution. You have to look for help. But there was always a way out.Kristen Cerelli:
You seem like an incredibly positive person. Thank you. Is that true?Leonie:
That I'm positive?Kristen Cerelli:
Yeah, that you? You have hope?Leonie:
Yes, that is true. I always have hope. Because without hope I wouldn't be able to do what I have done for my children.Kristen Cerelli:
I've never asked to guess this but I'm going to ask you what is your hope in telling your story?Leonie:
My hope is that maybe by telling my story that I help someone, a woman somewhere in any country that It may be I don't know. But I just remember that when I was in high school, I still remember that reading. Without my daughter. I read that when I was in high school, and I think that book really helped me. When I needed to take a decision to leave the country with my children, I still remember, you know, the book. And at that time, you know, when I took the decision to leave the country with my children, I had that book. And I think by reading that book that really helped me to overcome, you know, whatever I overcome during that time. And I think that by telling my story, that may help someone someday. That's my whole.Kristen Cerelli:
Do you consider yourself a rebel?Leonie:
I could be sometimes Yeah.Kristen Cerelli:
Yeah. I think it's that thing I was asking you about? Did you want to push back and you did, you said, I did push back. And you've you've pushed back against so many things. I feel such an interesting clash with you have this lovely, peaceful, quiet, reflective person and this absolutely fierce rebel, who just won't back down? And what a powerful combination. That is. What a powerful, powerful woman you are. Thank you. I am really, really happy that you were willing to share your story with me and what I wish for you is a circle of friends that will welcome you with open arms and learn from you and support you when you need it. Because I cannot think of a person who deserves that more.Leonie:
Thank you. Listen, I hope so. I will be working on it too.Kristen Cerelli:
Thank you, Leonie. Thank you for your bravery and your honesty and your relentless pursuit of respect.Leonie:
Thank you. Thank you for having me today.Kristen Cerelli:
You're very welcome.
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