Nathalie - Democratic Republic of Congo  ·  Democratic Republic of the Congo

You Look Undeniable

"I still have more dreams..."

Writing by Twila Bird
Photography by Sherianne Schow
You look undeniable

I was born in the Congo, but I ended up in Kenya. I was in an orphanage for six years. After the orphanage, terrible things happened [when I was in foster care]. I wanted to go back to my country but the UN refused; they told me, “If we send you from Kenya back to Congo, if you die, it will be our fault.”

In the orphanage [in Kenya], my dream was to be a journalist. I wanted to show in my country what was happening but I never got a chance to go to school and you can’t be a journalist until you go to school. So, I learned sewing as a way of surviving. In the orphanage, they taught me how to sew. I thought this was what was going to be my job. I took it seriously and learned everything that they could teach me. They told me they will help me to find a place to live. That’s how I came as a refugee here to America. I was 14. I came to this state of Washington. I was in foster care here. After that, when I was 18, I was homeless.

I lived in foster care for five years. After coming here, my dream [to be self-sufficient] started when I could see that after foster care, I would be homeless. While I was still in school, I was working in Home Depot. [One time] I told my boss that I cannot make it to today because I need to do homework. (Because for us, English is a second language. You need to put in more than Americans to be able to pass the test.) So, when I told my boss, “Please, I need only two hours [then] I will come to work,” he told me, “If you don’t come, you have no job.” The manager was really not nice.

I met this guy. He asked me out. I told him, “You don’t want to go with me because I am a mess.” He was really nice guy. He took me out to a museum but I told him I don’t want to date, because it was a hard time, and in my heart – there were a lot of terrible things I passed through – I wasn’t ready to be with a man. And he respected that. He told me he would tell his mother. He thought I could go to stay with her.

So, I went to visit his mom and I thought maybe it’s a trap. I didn’t believe them. I called the lawyer who helped me during foster care and told her this guy introduced me to his mother and his mother wants to help me. And my lawyer said, “Don’t do it!” And I said, “I’m not going to [keep] sleep[ing] in my car.” And she said, “If that person really wants to help you, they need to write me a letter and sign it, then give it to me.” So, his mother wrote the letter and I took it to my lawyer and she went with me to [discuss this with] my social worker.

And we realized his mother — her name is Patricia — was real! She was real! That was the first time I found someone who is real to me. Because people will promise you stuff then they won’t do it. People will promise but they will never give what they promise or what they said they will do. I had lived that kind of life, so I was like, “She is just like other people.” But I was wrong. Patricia has been like a mother; she has been everything to me!

I went to live in her house. She gave me free living for one year, for a whole entire year. I worked and saved the money to start my own little sewing shop.

I did not end up with Patricia’s son because he was studying and going to law school in New York, and ended up with somebody else. Yes, but she’s still my mother. I still talk to her every day. When I’m broken or when I’m happy, I always call her.

Well, at work I was wearing a dress that I had made. And this guy came to me and said, “Oh, my goodness, you look undeniable.” I said, “Undeniable?” So, I went to Google the word, and it was so beautiful! And I was like, I’m going to start my own shop and it will be called, “Undeniable.”

I opened [my dress shop] here so I can teach foster-care kids skills. I can teach them, and they can work here. If they don’t want to learn [sewing] skills, they can work here and go to school and do the homework. As long as they are doing it faithful, you know, showing me that they’re doing something to make them better. Because I went through it. I understand the pain of [working hard to achieve goals]. Some people think foster kids are lazy, they don’t work. It’s not true! They did not have training. They don’t have role models to see people working.

For foster kids, we think we’re always made to be homeless, just to live on minimum wage and stuff. I want to break that! I want to show them that we can do something! We can live better lives like other people. I don’t want them to settle for small things. I don’t want that! I want them to dream, to know that we can do it too.

I didn’t know where my siblings were located, but I was like, “I’m going to look for them.” So, I went to Facebook and I found this guy — his father was my dad’s lawyer — and he helped me find my siblings. He told me that he was with my brother but my sister was in an orphanage in Kinshasa. So, I was like, “I’m going to look for a job to get money to bring my siblings to America.”

I got a job at Fred Meyers [a U.S. supermarket store chain]. I was overjoyed. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m gonna get money and I’m gonna get my siblings.” So, I started the job. I sometimes had to push shopping carts when it was raining like crazy. It was cold but I did that job for two years. I saved all the money for my siblings.

The Red Cross helped me to bring my siblings from the Congo into Kenya, where they stayed for three years. Then my brother got tuberculosis. Every week I would send $100 for his medicine. It took an additional year for him to be able to heal, because you cannot come to the U.S. with TB. If I did not do it, he would be dead. He always tells me, “Without you, I would be in the grave now.” He’s always telling me that.

I spent over $12,000 to get my siblings. They live with me now. I got custody. One is 17; The other one is 16.

They’re doing good in school. Before, they really didn’t care about school. When you’d tell them about their homework, they didn’t care about it, but these days I tell them if you don’t do it, you are not eating in my house. When I got my brother — he really loves soccer, he plays soccer a lot — but, if he doesn’t do his homework, he doesn’t go to soccer. He told me, “This is too harsh. In foster care nobody would tell me this kind of thing.” I said, “Because no one cared about you in foster care.”

In the normal foster home, they don’t care. They really don’t care. You always know this is not my home. You always know that. And after a child leaves the system, you don’t have a home to go to anymore. You don’t have a place to call home. I know because that’s what happened to me. I don’t want my siblings to feel like that. My home is their home.

She told me she was not helping me because she was scared that I’m not going to make it. I knew that I might fail, but I was like, “I’m 23 years old. I can sleep outside. It’s okay.” After one month, when she saw people coming in to buy this stuff, she came in and said, “Okay, I changed my mind.” She helped me a lot.

Society says you have to be skinny to be beautiful. I don’t believe it. People want to squeeze into clothes that don’t fit them, that are not their size. Women have different shapes. I always tell them, ”Don’t go with someone else’s body. Go with your own body.”

Right now, most of my customers, they’re coming back. When they go on the street, people appreciate what they have [purchased from me]. A woman just told me that for the first time in her life, someone told her, “You look beautiful” and “Your jacket is beautiful.” She told me all the time [when] she puts on my clothes, she gets compliments. And that means a lot to me.

There’s another [woman]. She lives behind me. I made her a dress and she told me she went out and men around her said, “Are you from France?” She said when she puts on my clothing, she wants to show off. She always comes in.

The shop is going good! I’m making people’s clothes and they love it. And there’s nothing that makes me more happy than to see how making somebody’s clothes makes them feel happy.

I wanted to have my own family. I wanted to have, you know, someone to care about me. I was by myself. Sometimes I would get so stressed. And I would say, “God, why?” And then when I met boys, they were the wrong boys. So, I created a dreaming board and on it I listed everything I wanted: a good husband, one who would care about me and wouldn’t care that I was a foster kid; money to live a good life; my siblings still in the Congo; finish my schooling; eat healthy food; get a car, and meet Oprah Winfrey.

Every day when I would wake up, I would see that board. So, one day, when I was feeling broken and lonely, I said, “Let me go to church,” because I felt I had too much to lose. So, I went to church and I met my husband there. He was a nice guy. We were married and we now have our baby son. My siblings are living with us. We have a car and live in a nice home. I finished my schooling and run my dress shop. But I. I haven’t met Oprah, yet.

Everyone needs somewhere like a park to go to when you have stress or something. For me the choir is that park. I have been in the choir for two years. Whenever I have stress, my friends [in the choir] help me to go through it. It means a lot to me. People here in America try to make friends. Making friends is really hard, but here it’s easier to make friends. It’s not only about singing, it’s about community, especially for us, who came from different countries. We have different cultures and here, when we come as different cultures, sometimes we miss that, to be a group. But in the choir, I have that.

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