For many people across the world, America represents a kind of utopia. It’s a land of opportunity where hard work guarantees success. But, as with most things in life, the reality is far more complicated.

Katia Alicerces Submitted photo

For my friend Katia Alicerces, America represented safety. In books and movies, Americans always seemed physically and psychologically secure. It was a far cry from Angola, where poverty and political unrest contribute to high crimes rates and violence. Still, Katia thought she was insulated from all that. With a master’s degree in banking and finance, she’d managed to build a prosperous career working for a big oil company and lived in relative peace.

Then, a relative’s political career led to her being kidnapped. She escaped, but was traumatized. “It was the scariest time of my life,” she tells me, explaining how the attack left her convinced the perpetrators would return. When an acquaintance told her that Maine was exceptionally welcoming to newcomers, she decided to come and apply for asylum. “I just wanted to be able to walk outside without worry,” she says.

I first met Katia at the Immigrant Resources Center of Maine, where I helped her access transportation to an upcoming asylum appointment. A few days later, she returned to thank me in person, and we struck up a beautiful friendship that continues to this day.

Katia told me that much of the initial support she received here, from case workers and nonprofits, aligned with the welcoming and supportive version of America she expected. But she soon realized that these resources weren’t readily available to everyone. To meet new people and give back to the community while she waited for her work authorization to process, she began volunteering at Trinity Church in Lewiston. There, she helped organize clothing donations and serve hot meals to Lewiston’s homeless population. The number of people who seemed to be struggling with mental health in her new city surprised her; the lack of resources to help them was shocking.

She simply had no idea that nationally, about 25% of homeless people struggle with mental illness. “My eyes were opened to a whole other part of America,” she tells me. “It had a big impact on me. My mom was a nurse. And after seeing the mental health care issues firsthand, I just wanted to help.”


She enrolled in courses at the Maine Adult Education center to get her health care administration and patient services certificate. When she finishes, she hopes to get a job working at a health care center or nonprofit helping those who struggle with mental illness. “Coming from a country where poverty and violence are a part of life, I understand how important it is to support each other, show compassion and spread love,” she tells me. “Because it can save someone’s life.”

While she studies, she’s also working. With her master’s degree, she was hired at a local credit union and educates other new arrivals about building credit and accessing financial resources. “It is very important to me to help other immigrants, other African immigrants especially,” she says. She wants them to achieve what she has: “Having safety, making my own money, it gave me a sense of freedom,” she tells me.

And yet she is moving forward with a more realistic understanding of the challenges so many Americans face, from housing insecurity to lack of health care. She knows that to live a fulfilling life in America isn’t just about personal opportunity and success; it’s about making those opportunities widely available. America is not the utopia so many people hope it to be. But with community-minded people like Katia living here, we’re getting closer, one day at a time.

Héritier Nosso is a health promotion coordinator and community organizer in Lewiston.

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