Epidemologist by day, activist and speaker by night, Vienna Mbagaya is a woman on a mission. As the director of Vienna Nairobi, LLC, a health-consulting firm, Vienna works to eliminate health disparities and identify best practices for the improvement of health delivery in marginalized communities. Her desire to empower and uplift the voices of various communities is rooted in her own personal immigration story. Now, as the founder and director of “Invisible Neighbors,” Vienna aims to highlight and celebrate the immigrant experience by creating an online platform for immigrants to share their stories and build solidarity through triumph and adversity. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Vienna about the origin of Invisible Neighbors and her own journey.
Akinyi: When and why did your family move from Kenya?
Vienna: My mother was a homemaker and a wife, but she was also an educated businesswoman. She started a business importing African art to Europe and the United States. Once she became more established in the United States, she decided to move there in 1994. When she came here, she did what all immigrants do – she held several jobs and tried to create a life for our family.
We followed in 1998 in search of opportunity. We didn’t leave Kenya because anything bad had happened, as is often the case in many immigrant stories, but my mother saw a future in the United States where we would have more opportunities than she did. My mother was smart and had a lot of potential, but at the time Kenya wasn’t able to provide enough opportunities for her to reach her potential and to feel challenged.
Akinyi: Did you view the prospect of moving to America as a frightening experience or as an exciting one?
Vienna: Back home, all I knew of America was from television. I used to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so I assumed all black Americans were like Fresh Prince. I watched Full House and thought all white families resembled Full House. It was not like today where everything is so globalized and you can connect with people halfway across the world through tools like Facebook. When I came to the States, we relied on stereotypes of how America at the time had branded itself to the rest of the world. I thought it would be exciting and awesome when I arrived, only to realize that it was just like anywhere else. America also has its own challenges. This is a similar experience across many immigrant groups: reconciling the image of a glossy, glamorous, exciting America with the reality and understanding the larger context. When I came here, I thought it would be smooth sailing and I would just fit in, but that did not happen at all. I had to learn about racism, about my own self-perception versus the perception others had of me. I had to pick up a new identity and start from scratch.
Akinyi: What was it like being the new “exotic” kid from a faraway place in a sleepy New Jersey suburb?
Vienna: The word “exotic” when it is used positively means that people value you because they don’t know much about you. You’re mysterious and new. For me, that wasn’t the case. I witnessed ignorance – people making clicking sounds and asking me whether I hunted or lived in caves. Now, these are kids that are old enough to know better. After a certain point, I began to turn that into my own brand of humor and to understand where they were coming from. When you come from one part of the world and that’s all you know, that’s how you communicate and associate with the world. I learned to laugh about it without being bitter.
That being said, it was difficult for me. I had a thicker accent, so they put me in Special Education. I ate lunch in the bathroom and snuck into the library to read. Learning about computers and the American vernacular… all these things were new for me. I had to learn about the context of how Americans think and navigate my perception of myself without how others thought of me. Now, on the other side, I can say that I still retained my personality and identity. I am still me, still Kenyan, still African.
Akinyi: I’m so sorry to hear about how you were mistreated in high school because of your classmates’ ignorance. It reminds me of the waves of stories cropping up recently about the verbal and physical abuse of African immigrant children in places like the Bronx due to Ebola. In light of your own experiences, how do you wrap your head around such events? What can communities do to address this behavior?
Vienna: When I first moved to the US, I was one of a handful of black kids. On the campus tour that I am doing, I want to discuss how I first learned about racism. When I began to understand what it was, I just didn’t buy that because of my skin color or because of my accent, I was supposed to be less than. I think the current wave of racism and xenophobia is a reflection of how isolation and ignorance can affect our daily lives. As an epidemiologist focusing on infectious diseases, I have been asked to comment on Ebola, but I don’t want to feed into the hysteria. A lot more information needs to be disseminated instead of talking in circles and contributing to fear mongering. It’s not fair to a lot of people – not to professionals on the ground and not to the people who are connected to the at-risk communities, whether that be on the continent or in the diaspora.
To be honest, though, I find it normal for people to react the way they have because of how information has been presented to them. They have been told “those people over there have that thing.” They have been other-ed. This same mentality extends to how people often treat immigrants.
Akinyi: What was the moment that you realized you had to start Invisible Neighbors?
Vienna: When I created my consulting firm, it was my first step towards reconciling my vision with my work. I went from researching high-risk populations with HIV to working the stricter, government side by working with the military on behavioral health. When I worked in the government/corporate sphere, it was research based and less connected to the people. I knew what it was like to work directly with people and I knew what it was like to work in a high-level environment where there is a distance between you and the people you serve. When I left and started my business, it was a unique space for me. Here I am in the diaspora wanting to work on immigrant health. I caught the attention of a reporter at Voice of America who wanted me to speak about HIV/AIDS stigma among African immigrants and refugees. When I left that interview, I wished that we had more opportunities to highlight what immigrants and first-generation Americans are doing. Many of us work on these issues in silos and aren’t aware of the work others do, so I wanted to create a platform for that. I wrote a long proposal and sent it to a bunch of networks. Some people suggested making it into a reality show, but I wasn’t aiming to entertain. I wanted to edify the immigrant experience. So I made my own website and invited people to write and own their narrative. Instead of xenophobic rhetoric of “oh those immigrants do this and that,” I wanted to create a space for people to paint a more accurate picture of their lives.
Akinyi: Have you learned anything through the process of launching the site?
Vienna: I was inspired to start the website after my dad passed away. I went natural and started to doing jujitsu and a lot of things for myself. When I stopped working a nine-to-five and was in a more entrepreneurial setting, I started meeting people who didn’t have the typical schedule or profile. I realized I had been so sheltered from the connections amongst average people on the street. I was ashamed that I had gone to places like Chipotle and had not made eye contact with people just like me who maybe just had a slightly different path. I realized I didn’t really know my neighbors. That’s when I knew I just had to launch this project. As much as I was made to feel invisible when I came to this country, I had adopted that role and made others feel invisible as well. This was my wake up call to start identifying with people and start making connections.
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