By JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Growing up in Luanda, Angola, in southwestern Africa was not always easy for Hyattsville resident Helder Almeida. “There was a lot of domestic violence in my family, so I grew up quite fast. When I was eight years old, my father pointed a gun at my mom. Seeing this changed the path of my life,” said Almeida.
A go-getter with a desire to take charge of his life, Almeida started a graphics design business when he was 15 years old. At 19, he realized that he wanted to leave Angola for better opportunities. “I started looking for universities abroad because I had the vision of becoming someone successful, given what I had been through. I needed to leave Luanda, and I got accepted to Northern Virginia Community College’s ESL program. The U.S. is a country of dreams but is also a hard country to come to.”
Upon arrival in Virginia, Almeida struggled as a new immigrant. “I didn’t know anybody. That was one of the lowest points. You come to America with no English, no family, no friends, and you have to fight to learn English because this is the number one tool you need.” Although he had
vacationed in Portugal, this was Almeida’s first time living in an English-speaking country, and he encountered a lot of culture shock, particularly around how Americans treat immigrants. “One time I was in the elevator with a Spanish guy and a black man. For no reason, the black guy slapped [the Spanish man’s] face and told him that he needed to get out of this country because we don’t have jobs. [But] immigrants take jobs that other people don’t want so we can feed our families. It is opportunities that others won’t take.” Almeida also found that Americans are obsessed with money. “People don’t see the beauty of being friends with people. They only see the beauty of money. If you don’t have money, they won’t talk to you.”
Almeida reminisces about Angolan culture where he sees people as more friendly than in the U.S. “Angolans don’t see you as international or a person of color. They see you as God’s creation, and they want to be your friend and welcome you with food and music.”
Almeida also values the great respect for the Elders’ advice that exists in Angola. “We listen to what they’ve been through in their lives to use as future reference to teach our kids. We use the stories of the war, of working on plantations. In Africa, we provide for our family, including our extended family. I grew up listening to my mom every day. She was, and still is, one of the best guides for me.”
His mother’s love and strength helped Almeida eventually thrive in the U.S. After completing his ESL certificate, Almeida obtained a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of the District of Columbia, and he is embarking on a master’s degree. Almeida also started a consulting firm, Altitectur LLC, which provides designs and support for people who flip houses. “Whatever you want in life, you’re the one who should take a step forward. You cannot put your head down because your crown is going to fall. You just have to be yourself and not do things just for society or [for] friends to accept you. Freedom of choice — this is America. I didn’t have freedom in Angola, where people don’t have hope. They don’t know what will happen to them, so they only dream with the ‘if.’”
Almeida and his girlfriend, Nikki, moved to Hyattsville two years ago because it was a sanctuary city and home to a lot of young families. Indeed, he and Nikki hope to join their ranks. He enjoys living here because of the art and culture. “You can see different cultures and how people respect each other’s culture without interfering. Everybody comes together as one.”
Still, Almeida misses Angola. “I miss the sea, the young kids on the streets selling fresh drinks. I miss being close to my friends and family. I would like to move back to Angola if the country changes, and I see everybody with hope that they can succeed in life professionally. Here, I’m living the American dream. The American dream is not about being given a house, money, a job. It’s you. It’s bringing yourself with a strong mind and believing that no matter where I come from, I will do whatever I put in my mind to do. I will succeed. The American dream is to remind yourself that you’re doing what you intended to do.”
“Cultural Connections” is devoted to highlighting the rich diversity in Hyattsville by bringing forth the voices of immigrants and other foreign residents.