A journey from Senegal to Connecticut, all for soccer

Senegalese soccer player Papi Diouf talks about arriving in Connecticut for the first time.

When Papi Diouf arrived in Connecticut in 2011, he was immediately struck by one thing: the cold.

“The breeze, the white, the cold, the ice,” said Diouf, then 13 years old. “That hit me first — and now I know I’m not in Senegal no more.”

A native of Thiès, Senegal, Diouf came to the United States after being offered a scholarship to play soccer for Avon Old Farms, a boarding school just outside of Hartford, Connecticut.

Soccer runs in Diouf’s blood. His father grew up playing the sport and his brother plays professionally in Sweden.

Papi Diouf, 24, was born into a soccer family. His talents and family legacy earned him an opportunity to compete in the United States when he was 13 years old. (Photo courtesy of CSUN Athletics.)

He never imagined leaving his home in Senegal, but when the opportunity arose, it was his mother who gave Diouf —  a self-proclaimed “mommy’s boy” — the motivation to do so.

“She told me, ‘If you love me, you’re going to go do what you got to do,’ ” he recalled. In that moment, he decided, “You know what? I’m out because I would do anything for you.”

The words of his mother stuck with Diouf as he told her goodbye at the airport. Doubts and second thoughts began to creep in. But with tears in his eyes, Diouf reminded himself, “You can do this.”

Diouf had difficulty adjusting to life in the Northeast. He remembered having difficulty breathing the piercing cold Connecticut air. Even American food made him sick. He said he cried almost every night and begged to go back home in his first year. Diouf also didn’t speak English, which hindered his performance in the classroom and on the soccer pitch.

Diouf recalls not being passed the ball due to him not knowing how to communicate with his teammates in English. (Photo courtesy of CSUN Athletics.)

“It was so painful being on the field, playing with a friend, not knowing the language,” Diouf said. “Sometimes you have a chance to get the ball to score, but they don’t give it to you because you don’t ask, because you don’t know how to tell them to pass the ball.”

After an extended stay at a camp school in New Hampshire to focus on learning English, Diouf returned to Avon able to communicate with his peers.

Papi Diouf went from not being able to ask for the ball in English to earning a bachelor’s degree in communications. (Photo courtesy of Papi Diouf.)

Despite his difficulties, and despite being one of only a handful of non-white students at the boarding school, Diouf said he never felt alienated or isolated. He instead found himself welcomed with open arms by his classmates and the staff at Avon Old Farms. They seemed to understand the sacrifices Diouf made to be there.

“At that point I wasn’t thinking, ‘where’s the black people?’ ” he said. “I’m just seeing everybody as a family.”

Diouf struggled with homesickness, but he was able to find comfort and familiarity in the home of Peter Rice, his high school coach. Rice’s wife, Tieba, is from Togo and the couple lived in the West African country for a number of years, Diouf said. They would cook traditional African dishes such as white rice with fish, tomato sauce, or chicken, which gave him a piece of home whenever he needed.

The Rice family took Diouf in as one of their own. He would go to them whenever he needed to talk things out, which was crucial to him in his teenage years. They made the Senegalese teenager at home in Connecticut despite being more than 3,500 miles away from it.

“Family isn’t only blood. Family is who you can relate with and tell them what you think, and who can understand you … because of who you are.”

Papi Diouf

Diouf spent three years at Avon before moving to Kentucky in 2014 to play for the University of Louisville, where he scored a goal in his first match.

Diouf then transferred to California State University, Northridge after his freshman year, where he scored the fastest goal in Big West conference history — eight seconds into an August 2016 match.

He recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications.

Diouf is still training in hopes of playing professional soccer. If no team signs him, Diouf’s backup plan is to become a sports agent and help young African athletes get the kind of opportunities that he did.


From one way streets to four-lane freeways

Gabriela Linares talks about traveling to a new country with only memories of her homeland of El Salvador.

A baby blanket, pillow case, and photo album are the only items Gabriela Linares brought with her to the United States. She’s a long way from home but can depend on these treasured pieces to bring back memories of her early life in El Salvador.

Linares is a 24-year-old student at California State University, Northridge. She moved to Sylmar, just outside Los Angeles, when she was 14; the same age her parents were when they had her. While living in El Salvador she was raised by her grandmother, who she calls Mama Sonia. 

Gabriela Linares holds the baby blanket, pillowcase, and photograph she brought with her to the U.S. (Photo by Sofia Gutierrez)

One of the most shocking things she remembers of her early days in the U.S. is seeing a four-lane freeway for the first time.

“In El Salvador we don’t have anything that’s similar to a freeway. We have a fast lane, but nothing like that.”

Gabriela Linares

The fast roads of California meant she no longer had to take buses or drive for 40 minutes to the nearest Burger King, like she did back in El Salvador.

American food was distinctly different from back home, especially the portion sizes. Linares remembers her first trip to a Japanese restaurant with her mother.

“They bought this big boat of food [with] sushi and meats and stuff like that. And I was like, ‘Wow! We should have this in El Salvador. People will go crazy about it.’ That was the very first shock … just being able to finish the whole boat, the four of us it was … crazy to me.”

But life in a new country wasn’t easy. Since coming to the U.S. at the age of 14, she’s had to adjust to traffic and American culture  — and deal with the language barrier.

When Linares started high school in California she was immediately placed into a class for English language learners. She was able to recognize people who spoke Spanish — like her — by overhearing conversations. Linares recalls trying to make friends with some girls in the school yard, but not everyone was friendly. 

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna be friends with them.’ So I walked up to them and [said] ‘Hola, ¿cómo están?’ And I just remember this because … that was the most, I don’t know how to explain it, a cultural shock, in a sense. The girl turned around to me and she goes, ‘We don’t speak Spanish here. We’re in America.’ But then she turned around and she kept talking in Spanish with her friends.”

Although she felt rejected, Linares was able to use the experience  as motivation to keep learning English. She even spoke the language with her family at home.

Gabriela Linares’ baby picture laying over her blanket. (Photo by Sofia Gutierrez)

Another cultural shock Linares faced upon her arrival was how open the LGBTQ community was in the U.S. In El Salvador her grandmother, who is a psychologist, repeatedly denied her sexuality and told her she was “going through a phase.” Now, her grandmother has accepted her orientation as a queer woman. Her parents, on the other hand, weren’t shocked at all. They said:

“ ‘[We] already knew it. We were just waiting on you. It was really obvious. Why didn’t you feel more comfortable with telling us?’ ”

Although the adjustments to life in the U.S. were inevitable, Linares believes the process was easier for her than others. Going to school allowed her to fully submerge herself into the customs of America. She has now adapted to the changes, but still carries her home country’s memories with her.


How new experiences led a Peruvian globetrotter to the San Fernando Valley

Peruvian immigrant Orlando Olarte talks about finding success in the San Fernando Valley.

Six days a week, Orlando Olarte drives his 2006 PT Cruiser less than a half mile to his insurance office in the San Fernando Valley.

Orlando Olarte, 78, with his 2006 PT Cruiser on Jan. 7 2020. Olarte expressed the importance of having a car in Los Angeles, “without cars you are nothing,” he said. (Photo by Logan Bik)

Wearing his infamous fedora, the 78-year-old gets to his small, two desk office at 9 a.m. and works until 7 p.m.

A self-made man, Olarte immigrated to the United States in the late 70s. He runs a successful insurance business now, but this was not something Olarte could have envisioned for himself in high school. 

“The only problem in my country [was] you know, unemployment,” Olarte said. “It’s very hard to find a job. When I finished my high school, I was thinking to go into engineering but gosh, it was impossible. I went to the test and everything, but who’s going to support me? So I had to do something.”

Along with high unemployment in Peru, financial pressure from Olarte’s family forced him to pursue a stable job that wasn’t necessarily his dream.

After working for the police force for a few years, he became a land surveyor. Starting in the Amazon jungle, he prepared land for oil extraction.

“Working in the jungle for the oil exploration was very special work, because you have to go to the wild forest, there’s no people in there, totally wild,” Olarte said. His work took him to far-flung places like the island of Malta and the Sahara desert.

In between contracts, he decided to take some time to visit his family in California. Olarte’s sister, a real estate agent, encouraged him to buy a home in Los Angeles.   

“She said ‘don’t be stupid, you know for investment.’” Olarte recalled. “So, you know, we buy the house that we are [in] right now.” 

Olarte rented out the home while he lived abroad. After one work assignment in the world’s largest desert, Olarte received a year of vacation. He decided to spend his time in California, near his family.

The world traveler had many new experiences in the United States.

“My first pizza was here. In Peru there was nothing, in those times. And then it comes and I mean, it was good. It was delicious. I enjoyed it. With a soda!”

Orlando Olarte

This new lifestyle inspired Olarte to work towards citizenship, with the support of his employer. 

“Luckily, later on for me, it came so easy. I mean so easy, I didn’t have to do nothing,” Olarte said.

The Peruvian immigrant came to the United States in 1977, where — after a long career as a land surveyor — he opened an insurance company, World One Insurance Agency. (Photo by Logan Bik)

Leaving the oil company, Olarte decided to try something new, which led to working in the insurance industry. He later opened his own company, World One Insurance Agency, where he mostly has Spanish speaking customers. 

“My business is insurance, especially auto, home,” Olarte said. “That’s what I do and I enjoy it.” 

After living in America for over 40 years, Olarte said there are things he misses about Peru.

“I would like to be living close to the ocean,” Olarte said. “Because I love seafood. Especially fish and I am not eating fresh fish, for I don’t know. I miss it a lot.”

But the desire to travel and see different parts of the world is still there for Olarte. “I’d rather go to places that I’ve never been, that’s my thinking.”

He admits he’s surprised by how his life turned out. “I am not a businessman, honestly,” Olarte said. “You know there was something there, take it.”

The ideal of hard work started at a young age for Olarte, and has continued to follow him today.  

“Well, I am not thinking of retiring because, you know, what will I do?” Olarte said. “When you get older, going home is doing nothing and you get older faster. That’s my idea. I’m not going to be home, forget it. Just to eat and sleep.”


Diving in the deep … just like James Bond

Irish scuba diver John McFadden shares his story of arriving in the U.S. after spending a decade in Saudi Arabia.

John McFadden knows the exact moment he wanted to become a scuba diver — at the age of 10, while watching “Thunderball,” the 1965 James Bond movie.

“In fact, I contacted people to find out how I could buy the wetsuit that James Bond wore during the movie,” McFadden said.

It wasn’t until five years later at age 15 that McFadden took his first dive in the frigid waters of the Irish Sea: “It’s not a very nice experience,” he said, but he was hooked. Yet McFadden started his work life as a medical photographer, not in the water.

John McFadden outside the PADI Americas office in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. (Photo by Elaine Sanders)

His career took him to a teaching hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a country renowned for its gorgeous coral reefs and 100 foot visibility. The diving was easy; the catch was getting there. “You couldn’t move around freely,” McFadden recalled, he had to apply for a permission letter from his employer in order to travel inside the country.

Despite this challenge, McFadden became a scuba instructor and — during his free time — taught hundreds of students how to dive in the Red Sea. McFadden went one step further. He became certified to train instructors through a program with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world’s largest scuba diving training organization. “Then I realized that I was really, really interested in doing this … as a career.”

Sharks in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan, where Jacques Cousteau built his marine habitat. McFadden took this photo on a two week trip while living on a boat and diving every day. (Photo courtesy of John McFadden)

At the time, the two best scuba training facilities in the world were located in Florida. McFadden and his wife decided that after a decade of living in Saudi Arabia, it was time for a change, both in culture and career. So the two of them made the move to Florida in 1998.

“I would say that you experience reverse culture shock when you return back to a western country,” he said. “That’s exactly what we experienced, I think. But it was a very, very pleasant shock.”

After a few years in Florida with the luxury of diving four or five times a week, McFadden accepted a job at PADI’s world headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. He is currently working as a quality management consultant, where he makes sure PADI scuba instructors are teaching up to standard. He considers himself an Irish-American and got his U.S. citizenship “since this is now my home,” said McFadden.

Even without knowing it, McFadden’s journey was always about the diving.

“The feeling of weightlessness is really amazing. Plus, there’s so, so many wonderful creatures to see underwater. It’s something you just can’t experience any other way.”

John McFadden

John McFadden diving outside the mouth of a reef cavern on one of his many trips to the Red Sea. (Photo courtesy of John McFadden)


Romanian doctor finds freedom through medicine

Jewish doctor Dan Streja found his freedom through medicine.

Dr. Dan Streja’s office is filled with photos of his family. His five grandkids are all around the room grinning at him from picture frames. He smiles remembering when he first came to live in the United States.

“What was a surprise was how friendly people are … how easy it is to navigate everything,” he said.

Dan Alexandru Streja was born in Romania in 1939, to a mother who was a gynecologist and a father who was a urologist.

“I was trained from age five to give shots to pillows … to be a physician. My father’s dream had been that I will be a professor of medicine somehow,” he shared.

Dr. Streja at a conference in Los Angeles. (Photo by Elani Streja)

Today, Streja is a clinical professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. He’s practiced medicine for over 40 years in the United States and has a clinic in West Hills, about 25 miles north west of Los Angeles. He is still active in research and has published over 46 papers and co-authored four textbooks during his career.

Dr. Streja (circled) and his classmates in Romania. (Photo courtesy of the Streja family)

But Dr. Streja’s life was not easy. When Nicolae Ceaușescu took over Romania, Dr. Streja said he knew things had to change.

“When I saw that, I made a pledge that I will absolutely not stay in this country. I’ll do anything to get out of here.”

Dan Streja

After spending some time in Winnipeg, Canada, Dr. Streja and his wife, Lidia decided that it was time to move to a warmer place. They headed south, directly to Los Angeles, California.

“It looks like everybody here does what they want. I mean, everyone can keep their own traditions. In other countries that won’t work. You can do it but … it is not something that they will promote. Here … I might not agree with you but I’ll give my life. That’s … the American principle,” he said.

The Streja children when they were younger: Elani, David, Leanne. (Photo courtesy of the Streja family)

Dr. Streja and his wife raised their family in Los Angeles. They had one son and twin daughters. David, Elani and Leanne have excelled within their own fields, too, Streja said. Elani Streja is an epidemiologist and professor at UC Irvine. Leanne Streja Goldstein is a statistician for Deloitte. David Streja was a businessman and director of Infosphere Clinical Research. David passed away in 2017.

“There is a Romanian poem that I learned by heart and I’m repeating it over and over again. It tells the story of the pain of parents. It’s about a father and mother who are mourning … everything that’s normally happening when something like this happened,” he said. 

Dr. Streja said he doesn’t think he will ever leave Los Angeles. He’s never returned to Romania because he doesn’t feel like he belongs. 

“I don’t hate the Romanian people. It’s not their fault. But somehow they made me feel that I’m not part of them.”