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There are lots of words to describe 18-year-old Blossom Ojukwu. Her teachers would say she’s “optimistic," she calls herself “tenacious.” Blossom came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 5 years old.
“We had just begun to establish ourselves in the United States and things were going great for my family," Blossom says.
Blossom says “the American Dream” was not just an ideal; she was living it. Her father was an immigration lawyer and her mother was a hospital technician and, along with her two younger siblings, they led a very comfortable life. And then one day after school during chorus rehearsal when she was 12 years old, she got a call from her mother.
“She tells me that there’s been a family emergency and that I should hurry up and come home. And when I did and she tells me that my father had been taken away that day," Blossom says. "And ever since then, I just grew more inward to myself. But after hearing something like that, you really need to take it in because it’s like your whole world really changes.”
Her father was arrested for visa fraud and incarcerated. Overnight, she became one of the nearly 3 million children in the U.S. who have parents in jail or prison. She suddenly found she was carrying a lot of shame and stigma and secrets. Like not being able to tell her friends about visits with her father.
“I remember those car rides were silent and tense and difficult. And then when we would get there, the people we were around weren't people we were used to being around. And seeing him was definitely heartbreaking. He was losing a lot of weight. He was still optimistic but you could see that his faith was getting smaller. And I think that the hardest time that really got to me was when he was in prison and his mother died and my mother had to break the news to him and that was the first time I've ever seen my father cry," she says.
Blossom tried to stay upbeat during those visits. All their conversations centered around being a family again.
“We would talk about him coming home. And we would talk about what we would do when he would come home," she says. "And he would tell us how much he loved us and how much he missed us and that he was going to come home.. All of the sudden, it felt like the rug was being pulled out from under us. Taking the breadwinner in the family and he… it was hard, especially for me, because I was the oldest, I had to grow up really fast. And at the time I was 12."
Relatives she loved and trusted distanced themselves overnight.
“They didn’t see my family the same way after — they saw what happened to my father and they judged a lot. When I was growing up I had a, what I thought was, a very big family. And it hurt a lot, because you expect uncle, auntie, this to always be there for you. And then you learn how cold people can be and how the world works," she says.
Her mother suddenly found herself a single parent, struggling to support three children. They had to pay lawyers and went through their savings. Blossom’s carefree childhood became more complicated.
“Bills weren't being paid. My mom was working all the time. I had to take care of my younger brother and baby sister. Cooking, cleaning, helping with bills sometimes, if I could," Blossom says.
At first she was optimistic about her father coming home.
"It wasn't real to me until that summer when you see your friends go on vacation or you see your friends out with their families, it just hit me that that my father isn't here anymore. There’s no longer, you know, two people in a household. There aren't those little luxuries that you didn't pay too much attention to until they were taken away from you.”
That meant no cell phone, no cable and then it got worse.
“During that summer, the bills were so high so it was either, we wouldn't have any food or we had to get rid of our electricity and our water for some time. At home, it was really bad because it was hot, the food was going bad. We all slept in a bed in our basement because it was the coolest room in our house. We couldn’t take showers in the house.”
They burned candles for light and even washing up was difficult.
“We'd have to go out to maybe like the Safeway across the street or the Chik-fil-A to use the bathroom sometimes," she says.
She spent most of her time at the library or in church: “That was my source of entertainment. I studied a lot. I was able to play games with my younger siblings and teach them things, tell them stories.”
Blossom’s father was in prison for two years and then he was deported to Nigeria. She hasn't seen him since, although she’s kept in touch. In the last two years, her life has slowly gotten back on track.
“I was the class president and founder of the international club, National Honors Society, I was part of the visual and performing arts at my high school and AP classes and International Baccalaureate classes," Blossom says.
Music became her escape. Blossom began performing in churches and winning singing competitions. She even got a chance to sing for President Barack Obama when he visited her school. But most importantly, she says she’s made peace with her father and how her life turned out.
“At the end of the day, things happen for a reason. And I'm grateful for all of the experiences and obstacles that I've been through because in the end, I know if I do face those things again, I know how exactly to go about that. I learned how far I can go and how far I can push myself," she says.
Today, she wears a bright red dress that matches her big smile. She just graduated with a 3.9 GPA and can't wait for college.
“I’m looking forward to the people that I meet and the person that I become after. High school shaped me into a great, well I would hope, a great person. So I want to see what college shapes me into.”
As a first generation immigrant, Blossom worried about whether to follow her dreams of being a singer or to choose a degree that would lead to more financial security. But with her mother’s blessings, she will study music education and music performance at the University of Maryland this fall on a full scholarship. Blossom says she reminds herself every day to use the life lessons she’s learned to shape her future.
Kristen Sorensen and Julie Alderman contributed to this report.
Partial support for WAMU's education reporting comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Music: "You're Golden" by Patrick Brothers from Crooks & Crows forthcoming album / "Love Is An Open Door" by Kristen Anderson-Lopez from Frozen (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)