As the daughter of immigrant parents from the Middle East, I often hear them talk about America as the "promise land," complete with freedom, hope, and the chance to improve life for you and your family.
As a first generation American, I will never have this perspective, but I am thankful that my parents decided to raise me in a country with more promises and opportunities.
For 35-year-old Oumarou Idrissa, the move to America from Niger was a way to escape a life of poverty.
At the tender age of 11, Idrissa had no choice but to sell bread to help buy his own clothes as well as other essentials. Although his father was a driver for the government, he only made a $100 a month, which was barely enough to support his family that consisted of 25 children and three wives.
One fateful rainstorm caused Idrissa's home to become completely destroyed. Idrissa's family was forced to live in a local school until a new house was built.
“We don’t have much, but we have each other. That keeps us strong and motivates us to to keep going.”
Idrissa's brother got a U.S. visa, and began to send back money from working in America. In 2004, Idrissa was also able to go to America with a visa to join his brother. He arrived in New York City on Christmas Eve with no money. He had been scammed of $400 during a stop to Morocco and was almost sent back home until his brother claimed him while going through immigration. While he had initially planned on attending the University of Idaho with a student visa, his lack of funds forced him to work to survive.
“When you go to America, people in your home country expect you to make a lot of money and get rich. They don’t know the struggle you have to go through in order to make it.”
Idrissa worked a job in security that paid him just over $3 an hour. Part of his job description included shoveling snow, which was the first time he had experienced the cold in his life. The hours were as treacherous as the weather, Idrissa explains:
“We had mattresses all over this one small room, 10 guys and 1 women. I wanted to go back home. I was crying. There were so many subways and too many people. I’ve never seen stuff like that. I don’t like the smell, the food, I couldn’t eat anything. My first job was doing security at a local clothing store in the Bronx. I made $3.75 an hour. That was my first job."
After five months in New York, Idrissa made the decision to move to Los Angeles, California, with the hopes of playing soccer professionally. His home country had no funding for the sport, and therefore he was never able to try his hand at it. Idrissa taught himself English by watching TV, chatting with locals, and attending classes. He also made a little bit of cash by playing soccer at a local field that locals would then watch and bet on.
“On Sundays, if I score a goal, they’d give me $30, so I’d try to score as many goals as I can just to make more money. I made a living like that (laughs).”
Idrissa gained the attention of a local soccer coach from Long Beach City College, who wanted Idrissa to play for him. Idrissa didn't have the funds to enroll as a student in order to play. He had been sleeping in a local laundromat a friend of his owned and used the shower in the locker rooms at a school.
“I didn’t tell anyone about my problems because sometimes when you tell people about your struggles, either they abandon you or they don’t respect you. So I never told people about how I was living.”
Idrissa finally opened up to the man that hired him as a youth soccer coach and referee. An older coworker of his named David really stepped up to help Idrissa.
“He took me to Long Beach City College one day and paid my whole tuition. He said, ‘Go ahead, I want you to go play soccer and go study.’ ”
Unfortunately, Idriss was nearly deported when his student visa renewal was denied because he had overstayed his first one. He also experienced extreme racial profiling by Long Beach cops.
“They thought I was a drug dealer or something. They told me to put my hands behind my back, they handcuffed me, then pushed me onto the squad car. Then he slammed me onto the ground and started patting me down. He asked me, ‘Do you have drugs? Are you on probation?’ I didn’t even know what probation was. I couldn’t even ride a bike in Long Beach without getting stopped. I got stopped like four times. Two of those times, they were very aggressive and I got hurt. I was traumatized. I stopped riding a bike because I didn’t want to keep getting stopped.”
Idrissa eventually got a green card when he married a woman he fell in love with. To help ends meet, Idriss worked a few modeling jobs and gigs an en extra. He appeared in Jay Z and Beyoncé's music video for 'Part II (On the Run)' and even as an extra in Straight Outta Compton.
Stumbling upon a Craigslist ad searching for Uber drivers, Idrissa applied as an UberX and Uber Black driver.
This enabled him to drive around some of Los Angeles' biggest celebrities. He's even been invited to exclusive parties of the stars, including the Jenner sisters' shindigs.
On a good week, Idrissa will make about $1,200, after the $700 cut he pays to the man who hired him. He sends his money back home to his family in Niger, as well as a couple of strangers who are blind and can't take care of themselves.
“My life was never about me; it was about my people: my family, friends and neighbors back home. When I was a kid, there were times when we’d skip lunch just to save enough food to eat dinner. There have been countless times I’d go to sleep hungry and I’d cry. So every two weeks, I will send money back home to my family and friends. I don’t need to be asked to send money, because you know what you left there. If I send $650, it will feed at least 20 people for a month.”
Idrissa says he is always happy and appreciative of his life, even if he doesn't have a dollar to eat with. His persistence and willingness to overcome his obstacles are both incredibly inspiring. It goes to show you where hard work and persistence can get you. Idriss plans to write a book to talk about his experiences and will continue to coach youth soccer.
Good on you, Idrissa! You're truly a role model.