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San Diego Immigrants Examine Past Challenges To Help Future Newcomers

Congolese refugee Joseph Ekyoci (far left), speaks at a community forum about...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: Congolese refugee Joseph Ekyoci (far left), speaks at a community forum about his experiences as a newly arrived immigrant in San Diego while other attendees take notes, May 12, 2018.

When Joseph Ekyoci first moved to San Diego from a refugee camp in Tanzania, he lacked the language skills to easily make friends at his new high school.

“It’s not easy, you know, the fact that we don’t speak English at the beginning,” said Ekyoci, a Congolese refugee who arrived in 2012. “Most of my life, I grew up in a refugee camp for 15 years.”

Ekyoci and other immigrants discussed challenges they faced when first arriving in San Diego at a forum held on Saturday in a classroom at Crawford High School near City Heights.

Ekyoci said the barrier also affects parents, particularly in medical situations.

Reported by Katie Schoolov

"Most of the time the parent — we don't really have translators when we go to the hospital, especially for those who don't speak language like Swahili, they only speak one language and it's like a tribe language," the 22-year-old said.

Welcoming San Diego, a grant-funded coalition of public agencies and nonprofits, organized the forum. It was one of several forums held across the city. The goal of the initiative is to establish better support for immigrants like Ekyoci and his family so they may more easily integrate and contribute in San Diego.

A New American Economy analysis showed immigrants represented 24 percent of San Diego County's population but made up 28 percent of the region's spending power in 2016 and represented 34 percent of the region's entrepreneurs.

Welcoming San Diego lead organizer Samuel Tsoi said discussions around education are often raised at the forums because they have been held in school classrooms. But the participants also tackle other topics including employment and public safety. He said the data collected through the discussions as well as responses to 20-question surveys will be compiled into a final report which will include recommendations to the city of San Diego.

"Things are already existing. What can we do to either get those programs out to the communities that are not yet aware," said Tsoi, who emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. as a child. "Or specific language groups, specific ethnic groups that are not being engaged?”

He said the final report will be published this fall.

In the meantime, the workshops may already be having an impact. Sixteen-year-old Maya Tipton, whose Japanese-immigrant mother emigrated to the U.S. to be with her father, said the workshop made her realize the welcoming role she can already play in her own school, especially with students who may also speak Japanese.

“As a high school student I’m just into going to like club events so I may be like, ‘join my club,’" she said.

Welcoming San Diego Community Forums

Thurs., May 17, 5 to 7 p.m. at Morse High School

Thurs., May 24, 5 to 7 p.m. at San Ysidro Civic Center

Ekyoci said it’s that kind of invitation that helped him transition to San Diego from his years in the refugee camp. He struggled using English to build connections with his peers when he first arrived six years ago, but a City Heights running club helped him connect a different way.

“We all had a passion of running, so we also are like working together, and that really bring us like a, like a family,” he said.

Ekyoci is now working to address language barriers for other refugees as a fellow with the nonprofit RISE San Diego.

"I always take kids to the library to help them to read a book, and I put them together to read to each other so they can understand the literature, so they can be able to read to the parent letters. They can be able to take their parent to the hospital and translate for them," he said.

The Welcoming San Diego initiative also comes from a RISE fellow — Samuel Tsoi. He said he hopes it will lead to the creation of an immigrant-serving city office.

A nonprofit program is asking the public to contribute ideas for making San Diego more welcoming to immigrants.


Cal Endow is a Welcoming San Diego funder, which also supports City Heights coverage at KPBS.


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Photo of Tarryn Mento

Tarryn Mento
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksThe health beat is about more than just illness, medicine and hospitals. I examine what impacts the wellness of humans and their communities.

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