United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

October 20, 2013

Miriam’s Story

A past of fear and loss transformed into a future of limitless possibility. This is Miriam’s story.

The gunfire could be heard from outside of the walls.  Seven year-old Miriam Nyan hugged the bare floor, trying to get some sleep. Every mattress had been deployed to the front door, stacked in a feeble attempt to slow down stray bullets that could penetrate the Nyan home.

It was Liberia 2001, and the country was under siege. Violence from Sierra Leone spilled across the Liberian borders, plunging Miriam’s country into an abyss of slaughter and horror. She would spend weeks at a time sequestered in the house, with the only food coming from the periodic, death-defying runs made by her parents into the war-ravaged outdoors. Each day brought the same question: would this be the last she would see of her mother or father?

A hopelessly dark situation was penetrated by the light of a miniature miracle: Miriam’s father won a visa lottery, allowing him to move to the United States of America. When he arrived, his mission was to get the family out of Liberia. Money began to flow to Miriam’s mother (the fruits of a three-job workload stateside) and she used the income to secure bus tickets for Miriam and her four sisters and three brothers. They were going to make a run for Ghana.

Miriam’s first few months in her new country were spent in a refugee camp and despite the spartan conditions and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, she was thankful.

“To be honest, life was wonderful,” she said. “I had just come from a situation where I thought ‘Today could be the last time I see my family, see my friends.’ It might be the last day you sleep in your bed, before you have to get up in the night and start running.”

Eventually, the Nyans transitioned into a real house, living with Miriam’s uncle, just west of Accra, the capital city of Ghana. There, Miriam began attending one of the city’s better schools, thanks to the leverage of having a father who lived in America. And while she was able to receive a better quality education than her counterparts in the public schools, life was not easy. The teachers were infamously strict, often beating pupils for failure to perform. Worse, as a transplanted Liberian, Miriam was constantly faced with the specter of racism, looked upon with resentment by native Ghanaians who considered the refugees interlopers and resource drains.

Meanwhile, Miriam’s mother parlayed her meager income into small business ventures.  She bought and sold items and worked odd jobs to grow the Nyans’ modest nest egg, all with an eye on one goal: get to America.  But the visa process had been mired in bureaucratic muck for years, and the Ghana red tape proved especially suffocating.  The family left Ghana, tried their luck in neighboring Togo, and were met with similar frustration.

Success eventually arrived in, of all places, Liberia, which had seen a substantial decrease in violence since the Nyans’ escape and allowed an easier negotiation of the emigration legalities. So in 2007, Miriam and her family secured passage abroad, leaving the tortured country that had shaped her childhood, and arriving in the exotic land of Lowell, Massachusetts.

“My friends in Africa always thought America was Heaven,” she says, chuckling.  “They thought the streets were paved with gold and you can get anything you want.  I found out it was much more difficult.”

For Miriam, the adage of “America is the land of opportunity” was more than a cliché.  While ease and comfort weren’t exactly laid at the feet of the Nyans when they disembarked the plane, Miriam realized that if she worked hard and focused on her studies, the United States was indeed poised to reward her.

She entered Henry J. Robinson Middle School as an eighth grader.  Embarrassed over her thick accent and uneven grasp of English syntax, Miriam kept to herself and was ostracized and often bullied by her classmates.  Many days she would eat lunch alone in the bathroom. Yet she never lost sight of the opportunity in front of her and was, in fact, stunned by what she saw from her peers.

“I don’t think the other students really appreciated what was being offered to them,” she says.  “And I couldn’t believe the way some of them were talking to the teachers!”

It was at the Greater Lowell Technical High School when Miriam hit her academic stride, perfecting her English (literature and writing became her favorite subjects) and making friends.  And with support from her guidance counselor, she was able to move from the remedial classes she had originally been placed in to more rigorous courses.

As a sophomore, she learned about the Marian Heard Scholarship, a program powered by United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley that offered funds to low-income, college-bound students who are also active in their community.  During the summer, Miriam was a member of Spindle City Corps, an organization that tasks youth to give back to Lowell through community volunteerism and beautification projects.  Here she was prompted to apply for the scholarship.

Two years later she learned she had been selected as one of fourteen recipients of the Marian Heard Scholarship and would receive $10,000 for her college education.

“I started screaming in my house,” she says.  “My mother was jumping all over the place.”

This fall, Miriam faces another new beginning as she enters Worcester State University, the first in her family to attend college.  She plans to major in biology and one day complete medical school so she can return to Africa and help drive down the devastating death tolls that result from curable disease like malaria and cholera.  As someone who witnessed these needless tragedies first-hand, Miriam is driven to take full advantage of the chance she has been given to go home and, as she says, “Do something.”

As she prepares to enter a new phase of her life and takes a moment to survey her experiences, she sums it up as such, offering a piece of wisdom her mother would often tell her: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Another cliché? Perhaps. But for Miriam Nyan it is literally true, the recollections of those nights spent clutching the ground in the pitch black–with death lurking just outside her home’s fragile walls–still fresh.

Then, the floor was cold and hard.

Now? There is no ceiling.