Monica’s story is one of courage, perseverance and a desire to create change. She’s become a creator and a powerful leader, despite childhood challenges that would have discouraged many. Instead, she used these huddles as fuel for her future. Meet IGNITE Fellow Monica Sibri, and learn what it means to never give up.
Tell us your story! How did you arrive in the United States? What brought you to this country?
MS: In Ecuador, I can say that I grew up pretty blessed. We had a big house with lots of land and a car. I went to an all girls school where I learned to “understand my place.” Read: sew, clean, and cook. One reason why I think we need to change the way we educate young women!
I only learned of my family’s economic difficulties when my mother reprimanded me in tears for eating the last tomato in the refrigerator – she had never done that before. I knew that something was not right. A month later my father migrated to the United States. My parents’ upbringings were humble and that is why they worked really hard to give my sisters and I more opportunities to succeed.
My parents sacrificed everything to bring us here. I immigrated to the US at the age of 16. People thought we were weird when our parents held our hands as they dropped us off at school on the first day.
It was really hard at school because I didn’t speak English. We moved from a large home in Ecuador to a small apartment in Brooklyn with barely any furniture, sleeping on air mattresses. Now my father works at a restaurant and my mother cleans houses.
What was your experience as an immigrant in college?
MS: Honestly I am unsure how I graduated from high school, as I had barely learned English. College was both terrifying and lonely. I took a year off after high school because I did not have enough money to pay for school, and I was given the wrong information about tuition. I had to pay $6,578 per semester (out of state rate), which didn’t even include my transportation, books, and other related education expenses.
I was also undocumented which prevented me from accessing financial aid and scholarships. Thus, during my first year of college, I worked 3 jobs and spent nights in the library to do my homework since I could not afford to buy the books.
I thought for sure I was destined to drop out of college as I had not saved enough money to pay for tuition. I decided to enjoy as much I could of the first year since it had already been paid for. I joined the soccer team and I attended as many club meetings and events as possible.
A soccer teammate, who was also undocumented, is the reason I was able to finish my college education. She realized I had been told the wrong tuition rate. Once the school fixed my residency status to pay in-state tuition it was enough for me to stay in school.
What drove you to organize politically on campus?
MS: I received a letter about a leadership program for minorities and I applied. I got into the program and I got up the courage to talk to people from the student government about my experience. Previously, I attended the student government meetings mostly because they had free food but I never talked. I felt this was my first real opportunity to make a politically difference in my immediate community.
This work allowed me to see that things are possible even without papers.
At the time, I was finishing a program for ESL students at the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education where I worked helping adult immigrants access city services. This work, in combination with the leadership program and the soccer team, allowed me to see that things are possible even without papers.
In 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) came out. DACA helps advance the lives of undocumented people academically and professionally. These are people who greatly contribute to our economy and are adding to the vibrancies of our cities and towns. It gives people hope and helps communities build bridges to see that immigration is an issue beyond race, gender, or status.
That being said, under the Trump Administration, my family and those supported under DACA are at at risk of being deported with no due process, respect, or dignity.
I learned of many other undocumented students, not only at my school but across the country and at the Mayor’s Office. I remember a colleague who was celebrating being granted DACA, but I couldn’t because I came three months after my 16th birthday. In tears I told him I was also undocumented. The overwhelming frustration and sadness of this realization, gave me the strength to come out as an undocumented immigrant publicly through the New York Times.
Coming out as undocumented condemned me and liberated me.
MS: It condemned me for life because friendships were lost. I was seen as an illegal who was taking the spot of an American who deserved to work at the Mayor’s Office, be on the soccer team, be in college, etc. It was my liberation because I did not have to lie anymore.
This provided me the opportunity to get accepted into the DREAM fellowship with City University of New York, or CUNY. The people I met hrough this fellowship gave root to my organizing. I started to research and discovered that there were 6,000+ undocumented students at CUNY. I felt in my heart we were all going through the same situation, so I created CUNY DREAMers to build a network of support.
What are your personal leadership aspirations? Why are you organizing around DACA?
MS: If President Trump fulfills his promises, we are going to be deported. Now is the time to build coalitions to stop such an inhumane action from happening. My goal, and the goal of so many others who are working on this issue, is to not only protect DACA but to also adopt immigration reform that will allow 11 million undocumented Americans to live without the fear of deportation.
Young women in our network are organizing & strategizing how to change communities for the better.
What do you hope to accomplish as an organizer?
MS: As a recent college graduate without a social security number and living undocumented in America, I am in a different stage of my life – one that reminds me that we can make things happen even without papers. I want to become the best strategist in issue advocacy and electoral campaigns in the country.
I want to see our communities represented proportionally and issues like access to higher education, immigration reform and gender equality to be addressed with respect, dignity and given the same platform of importance.
Eventually, I would like to run for Public Advocate, but without papers, I can’t. So, I’m charged with doing everything in my power to make sure that undocumented and immigrant communities have a voice, and are safe and valued in America
Why did you get involved with IGNITE and what do you hope to achieve through your fellowship?
MS: IGNITE is changing the way young women think of themselves and empowering them to see their greatness beyond all the barriers this world has created for them. I joined because I wanted to be part of this movement and help advance opportunities for young women like me to declare their political ambitions without fear.
This is the year and time for women to build coalitions and participate actively in the political process. IGNITE provides a safe space and community for women to do just that. With IGNITE the young women in our network are organizing, strategizing and learning how to change their communities for the better. I’m committed to getting more Latina women in office in NYC. I will help these women tap into local resources and different communities who can support their political ambitions and raise the money they need to run effective campaigns.
Monica is the Founder of CUNY DREAMers, the first CUNY- wide student-led organization that represents the needs and aspirations of undocumented students at The City University of New York, regardless of their legal status. She is a leading advocate for creating change and accessibility to undocumented students for higher education and an organizer for equity laws that protect and advance the lives of immigrants.
Monica firmly believes in civic engagement. She has successfully helped organize and led voter registration campaigns from across the five boroughs. Monica is most grateful for the DREAM Fellowship Award that enabled her to become an organizer; and the Latino Leadership Institute Electoral Activism and Leadership Academy Award, where she learned intensive skills to be a better organizer and advocate for the immigrant community.
Monica’s current and future goals include pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy and to get more women elected into office – particularly, to get more Latina women into the New York City Council by 2021.