My Immigration Story
My Immigration Story
By The Committee to Elect Will Mbah
Will Mbah’s political journey has taken him from Cameroon, where he was a student organizer, to Sweden, where he was a graduate student and environmental activist, and finally to Somerville, where he is running for Alderman at Large. Will moved to Massachusetts in 2010, and received his citizenship in 2015. He has spent six years in Somerville, a city that he loves, and that he has fought hard to stay and raise his family in. Will sat down to discuss his own immigrant experience, and his plans to make Somerville a more inclusive and livable place for everyone.
How did you get to the United States?
I was born and raised in Cameroon, where I went to school. I moved to Sweden for graduate school. In 2010, I was fortunate enough to win the American Diversity Lottery and immigrate to the United States.
When I came to the States, I lived in Taunton for a few months with my relatives. I told them that I was moving to Boston. They asked me if I knew anyone in Boston. I said no. They asked me if I had a job in Boston. I said no. So they laughed because they thought I had no idea what I was doing.
I had a few months rent saved up so I stated searching. At the time I had a local church in Taunton. I told them my story. I was able to locate a landlord who said all I needed was first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit. With the help of my church members in Taunton, I settled in Somerville.
Why did you choose to live in Somerville? What are some of the challenges you have faced here?
Somerville was really an exciting city for me. The diversity and the rich social and cultural fabric made me happy to move here. But I now know that I was not immune to the challenges that come with living in a city like that. Health care, for instance: healthcare is a human right, basic and fundamental. But it was very difficult to get it here—I applied for Masshealth, but I was rejected, because I wasn’t below 21 and at the time I didn’t have a dependent.
Then there was rent. I got my first job downtown washing dishes. I did a few odd jobs, all the while struggling with affordability. Rent just kept going up, and I kept moving from one place to another. I moved several times—in fact, five times in six years. I was temporarily displaced: I went and lived in Hyde Park for a few months. But then I came back. I have seen my friends forced to move out of Somerville—and I told myself that if I move, I don’t matter anymore! I’m just one less thing for those in office to worry about.
So I made sure I was able to move back. And that’s also why I decided to run—so I can make a difference. So that I and others like me can continue to live in the city that I love and cherish, and that I’ve invested so much time in.
What are some of the things you love about Somerville?
I feel like the city has helped me a lot. Right from the beginning, I had friends that were helping me with job searches, helping me with my resume. The first person I ever met here—Richard Brenner, the vice president of Winter Hill Bank—he helped me so much, taking me to places, introducing me to people, connecting me with different groups. The former mayor of Somerville, Gene Brune, helped me purchase my first car—my Jetta. People who didn’t owe me anything, but just had that spirit of Somerville. People are so nice here.
But we cannot leave it up to the generosity of private citizens to look after people who are struggling. I don’t know how many people are out there struggling to live in this city: artists, immigrants, working class people, middle class people. The city government must take a more active role in looking out for people who care about this city, and want to live and grow here.
That’s why I’m fighting hard for affordability. Making sure that development is led by the community, for the benefit of the community. And that we have a higher minimum wage, because you shouldn’t work forty hours a week in a job in a city like Somerville and still be struggling to live here.
Why did you decide to make affordability the main issue of your campaign?
I want to be able to live here and raise my family here, and I want the same for my neighbors. Having been a victim of displacement, and being forced to move several times due to rising rents, this has become my #1 issue. People who are the heart and soul of the city, they keep moving out every day. It is about time we started thinking about people, not just profits. Isn’t the government supposed to be there for the people?
What are some issues in Somerville that disproportionately affect the immigrant community? Why are you equipped to handle them?
Immigrants bring so much to our city. We draw strength from having rich cultural perspectives, and when we can share knowledge and learn from one another: see where other people are coming from, what they bring to the table, and what new ideas they have. Our diversity is our strength. Once we give people opportunity, they become better people and better citizens, and they can transform the community.
At the same time, many of the immigrants I’ve met say they feel like the city doesn’t think that they exist. Many of them have two or three jobs. They don’t always have a lot of time to get involved in the political process. Some of them also drive for Uber, and they tell me they don’t have benefits. They need a voice: somebody that can think about issues that are facing their community, and who will get out and speak with them to learn more.
The sad thing about our community sometimes is that if you don’t tell your story, someone might tell it for you, and it might not be aligned with who you actually are. I’ve been to a community meeting where they called it an immigrant meeting, and I was the only immigrant there. You have positions and programs, but nothing is happening. I’m actually the multicultural commissioner, and there has never been a quorum since I was appointed. I’ve gone to so many meetings, but we cannot actually do anything.
It’s pretty clear that we need people on the Board of Alderman who have personal experience with being an immigrant in the city of Somerville, and how hard it is to stay here. It’s much easier to connect with people and talk about these issues when you have actually lived the immigrant life. And I’m a renter too—I can relate to almost every single issue that is facing our community right now. That is why I think I’m the most up-to-date, equipped, and ready to hit the ground running.
President Trump recently said that he wants to discontinue the American Diversity Lottery—the very program that brought you to the US. With a federal government that has been so hostile to immigrants, how can Somerville step up to the plate?
We don’t just have to keep talking about fighting Trump. We can take meaningful steps and actions to make immigrant communities’ lives better. For instance, we can institute free legal services in the city. We can have civic information translated into the many different languages that people speak, and distribute those in churches, in different areas and communities, so that people know they have resources. Institute municipal IDs, to help immigrants navigate services in their communities, in order to empower them to live a full life. Expand activities in different languages so that those who are not fluent in English can still be able to take part. That’s what I think that we should be able to do. To reach out to different groups. We can protect immigrants, letting them know that no matter what’s happening in DC, we are a community that looks out for each other.
If you are elected, what are some of the first ideas you’ll bring to the table?
I’m interested in trying to find creative ways to keep Somerville affordable. I have clear 5 point plan for affordability that includes, more inclusionary zoned housing, a transfer tax for an affordable housing trust fund, the creation of community land trusts and pushing for tenants right of first refusal (find out more about these programs here).
I think there are a lot of creative things that we can do. We have a lot of pockets of land, left and right, that are contaminated. No one knows what to do with them. Meanwhile, we have the new high school that is coming. Maybe that is where we can start turning our problems into opportunity—we can use those lands as test sites for Somerville high school kids, so that they can help solve this problem: remediate the soil, come up with new uses, maybe in collaboration with some professors at MIT. I want to see how we can create that bond together—to see how we can work to use some of these pieces of land, transform them from problems to opportunities. And eventually use it to benefit the community: open space, some community parks, or affordable housing.
You have a young son, Joel. What kind of Somerville do you want him to live in when he grows up?
I want him to live in a Somerville that respects everybody. A Somerville that is inclusive. A Somerville where people will look out for one another—where people are not judged by the color of their skin, or where they are from, or who their parents are, but by the potential that they have. A Somerville that will be an example to other cities, and the rest of the nation. A Somerville that wants to lead the way. A city that people call home, and want to come back to, because of the resources that it has to offer. I think that is a dream that I have—that he will grow up in a community that respects one another, respects diversity, and fosters inclusion.