An Anniversary Tale

Maricarmen arrived in the United States three years ago today. When she and her daughter landed in Miami, she thought they would just stay a couple weeks and then return to their home in Venezuela. Her husband had been detained by the military several weeks before, and Maricarmen hoped that taking her daughter away for a vacation would pass the time until her husband was released. She reflected, “My husband is so chill and good, so I thought they might detain him and interrogate him for a day or two and then release him.” But one week of imprisonment turned into one month and Maricarmen realized that she and her daughter could not safely return home. She applied for asylum.

Three years later, and her husband remains detained as a political prisoner. Maricarmen was granted asylum in the U.S., but she is now alone trying to forge a life for her and her daughter. It’s not easy. She lost her home, her social support—and her career. In Venezuela, she had been working as a dentist for 12 years and loved it. She even taught dental classes at the local university. But when she arrived in the U.S., even though her degrees transferred, she did not speak English and she was not licensed here. She could no longer do the job that she loved and that she knew how to do.

Undaunted, Maricarmen said, “I have my plan. I have my goal.” She is studying first to be licensed as a dental hygienist. From there, she will work to become a dentist once again, a longer and more expensive endeavor. But the process to be licensed as a dental hygienist takes money, time, and English proficiency.  When living in Orlando, she quickly secured work as a dental assistant to remain in the field. But the job is low-paying, and she and her daughter struggled to make ends meet in the expensive Florida city. A friend suggested she move to Greensboro where the cost of living was not so high. So they did.

Since coming to Greensboro in 2019, she’s been working, saving, and then using her savings to pay for each next licensing exam. But she has a lot on her plate: working as a dental assistant and sometimes as an Amazon delivery driver, going to English classes at both GTCC and Reading Connections, taking care of her daughter, and day-to-day household responsibilities.  To make room for studying for her licensing exams, she wakes up at 4:00 in the morning every day.

On top of everything, the pandemic further delayed her plans. Last spring, she was placed on furlough and did not receive a paycheck for a couple months. CWS was able to help provide rent and utilities assistance through COVID-relief donations, and Jamestown Presbyterian provided food deliveries, but she had no extra money to save towards recertification. Besides the financial strain, she’s had to help her daughter navigate virtual school. But she said, “I’m lucky. My daughter is so good. And her teachers always tell me that she makes 100s on everything! And she’s so kind.”

Last month, despite the challenges of the past year, she reached a milestone. She passed the exam that she has been most anxious about for the past three years: the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. That written exam requires an extensive technical English vocabulary. It alone was several hundred dollars. (Community members helped her cover the cost.) Maricarmen has three more exams, but she is not worried about passing them. Unlike the written NBDHE, they are clinical—based on skill as a dental hygienist and not language. With years under her belt as a practicing dentist, she is prepared. But her next tests cost over $1,200. So she continues working and saving.

Maricarmen is driven and goal-oriented. She is a professional. She loves her daughter, and she wants to succeed. But refugees seeking to re-enter their former career fields in the U.S. face tremendous challenges. We are grateful to be a part of Maricarmen’s journey, grateful to those who donated to make a difference in the lives of refugees this year, and grateful most of all to our neighbors like Maricarmen who inspire us with their courage, resilience, and hope.

Happy 3-year anniversary to Maricarmen—we are proud to call you our Greensboro neighbor!