Comment/The Dilemma of the Immigrant Parent

03/20/2012 11:28

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Dilemma of the Immigrant Parent

To send or not to send? Immigrant parents face the daunting challenge of deciding whether to raise their children in their adopted countries or send them home.

By Amadou Basiru Jallow

Immigrants in general face the unprecedented challenges of adapting and assimilating into their new adopted country of residence.  These challenges come in different forms: learning a new language, being away from family, speaking in a loud voice and looking into people’s eyes as you speak to them, etc. But immigrant parents face a unique challenge of deciding how and where to raise their children. The main challenge here is deciding whether to raise their children in their new adopted country or send them away to their native land. This issue, without a doubt, poses a great dilemma for the parents. However, for the nonparent, this will seem as an easy issue to resolve.  As many would say, “who cares where they are raised?”

My goal in this article is not to provide a one-size-fits-all answer to this issue because there is none, but to explore the potential impacts of each individual decision so as to aid parents in their decision-making process. 

Preservation of Cultural Heritage

After speaking with many immigrant parents about this issue, I realized the main reason why immigrant parents consider the decision to send their children back to their native country to be raised is the desire to preserve their cultural heritage such as their native language, cultural and religious values.  However, in rare cases the parent’s immigrant status and financial circumstances encourage the decision to send the children back. These are all very important points to consider when raising one’s children.  One myth worth mentioning is the argument that first generation immigrants care about their parents because they were raised in their country of origin.

The other side argues that sending the children back to one’s country of origin deprives the children from enjoying a better life that brought their parents here in the first place. They believe that the values the parents are trying to preserve can be instilled in these children here without having to send them back.

I was born and raised in Basse. My parents hail from Guinea Conakry. As a son of an immigrant and now an immigrant parent as well, I believe I am in a unique position to share great insight into this issue based on my personal experiences and observations. My immigrant father, like many immigrant parents, was very serious about instilling his religious and cultural values in us. He wanted us to grow up to be very responsible adults. For some reason he believed the best way to achieve this was to send some of us away to be raised by other people. Some may call this tough love. In reality, I believe he was worried that we would grow up to be spoiled children who would take for granted his hard work and sacrifices. Therefore, some of my siblings were raised at home while others were sent away.

I was one of the children he strongly believed would become a mommy’s boy because of the close bond I had with my mother. His initial intention was to send me to FUTA TORO to read the Holy Quran but it did not materialize. My two cousins pleaded with him and convinced him not to send me away. My cousin Oustass Sulayman Jallow promised him that he would teach me the Holy Quran. And my cousin Mamadou Alieu Jallow promised to send me to school. My father was convinced but even then demanded that I go and stay with my cousins. I was only allowed to come home and spend two nights a week (Thursday and Friday) at home. These were the nights I wouldn’t read the Holy Quran. My cousins’ home was a walking distance from my father’s. I was sent to live with them at the beginning of Primary Two. They were very loving and caring. I was happy living with them. However, as I grew up to be a teenager, I started longing for my father’s home. I remember confronting my father a number of times about coming home but he would not give in. After finishing my Grade Nine examination, I went for holidays in Guinea Conakry. When I returned, I went straight to my father’s house without any consultation. My father was still in Guinea at the time. He did not say a word to me when he returned. That’s how I came back home.

The Challenges of Conformity

My older brother was sent to Guinea when he was around seven years old or younger and did not return to The Gambia until he turned 18 or older. As a result, he did not go to school. He cannot speak the Gambian local languages fluently. When I visited The Gambia in December 2009, we travelled to Senegal together. At the border, a Gambian immigration officer took hold of his Identification card and questioned him how he got it. The officer admitted that the card was from the immigration office in Basse but insinuated that my brother had bribed someone to secure it. I never got questioned. Why was that? I strongly believe that my brother’s identity was questioned because he did not fit the mold of what a Gambian is made up according to the immigration officer. Many Gambians speak several local languages fluently. And they manage to understand and speak English a little even though they may not have been to school. This is just one example of the social stratification system that exists in the world where access to valued resources is limited to a certain subpopulation group and not another.

Like the case of my brother, many immigrant children may be subjects of racial profiling because they did not meet the characteristics of the mold. For example, many immigrant parents are educated and speak the official language of their adopted country fluently, but they often get questioned about their country of origin the moment they speak. Therefore, sending one’s children back has the potential to subject them to such identity challenges which in turn limit their access to valued resources. Children who grew up in their country of birth understand and identify with the country better than those who were born and raised elsewhere. They build childhood friends that last a lifetime. These friends may open doors of opportunity for them in the future. In terms of the education system, the children will be at par with their colleagues and do not have to adjust. They are confident in their identity. They understand their rights as citizens. And, they understand the system and are able to navigate through it with ease.

The most challenging of all the concerns that immigrant parents have I believe is teaching their children their native language. I must admit that I used to take this concern lightly. But I have come to realize the grandeur of this challenge. I often catch myself speaking English to my three-month-old son before switching to my native language. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to teach the children your native language. The first step is to agree with your spouse to speak your native language at home. And only speak your adopted country’s language to your children when helping them with their homework. This process may be challenging and time consuming at the onset but will be worth your while later on.

Some immigrant parents are also concerned about instilling their religious beliefs in their children who may not find it appealing. Children think that what they see their friends doing is most appealing. Therefore, it is hard to convince them to do anything outside of the norm. This can be a real challenge if you live in a country where your religion is overshadowed by popular culture. Fortunately, many community mosques offer religious classes to children of various ages. These classes are often held on Saturday and Sunday of each week. This is a good place for concerned parents who are not able to teach their children at home to enroll their children. Undoubtedly, this will be challenging for parents but the sacrifice is worth it.

Another sure way for immigrant parents to instill their religious and cultural heritage in their children is by organizing and attending regular community activities with their fellow countrymen. Also, when possible, immigrant parents should send their children back to their native country during holidays from school. This is a good time for the children to reconnect with the extended family and build a lasting love with them and their culture. This visit also enables the children to be rounded and to appreciate the diversity of people and cultures the world has to offer.

Parental Love

I have been told many times that I love and care about my parents because I was raised in my country of origin. And, I am sure many of you have been told the same. It is true that the surrounding where you grew up plays a major role in shaping you as a person. But, it has little or nothing to do with how much you love and care about your parents. I believe that immigrant parents love their parents mainly because they were raised in a stable home with both parents present. They may not have everything they wanted but they understood their parents’ clear intentions. That is, they love them and care about their well-being. They saw firsthand how each day their parents went out fending for the family. It wasn’t their parents’ fault that they encountered challenges along the way. That’s what life is about. Therefore, sending your children back to be raised by someone else will not amount to their loving and caring about you. They may not hate you either. The children will reflect on the true intentions behind your actions. That’s how they judge whether you loved and cared about them.

Parents have an incredible impact on their children’s future. Our decisions today determine how our children see themselves. I recognize the fact that parents have their own priorities for their children. In each case, it is important to remember that children who are raised by their parents in a stable home fare better than those raised by surrogate and single parents. One scientific research shows that “monkeys who are raised by their peers instead of by their mothers have reduced function of serotonin in the central nervous system – a condition that has been linked in humans to violence, alienation, social isolation, and suicide.” And, “children deprived of one parent during childhood have a greatly increased risk of many individual diseases, as well as suicide and alcoholism.”

At the end of the day, it does not matter where the children are raised. What matters is that they are raised in a stable home by their loving and caring parents who have the children’s future at the forefront of their decision making process.


Karren, K.J., Hafen, B.Q., Smith N.L., & Frandsen, K.J. (2006). Mind/body/health: the effects of attitudes, emotions, and relationships (3rd ed., Pp. 363,369). San Franscisco, CA: Pearson Education, Inc. 

Amadou Basiru Jallow is a member of My Basse's Editorial Board. He Lives in Phoenix, Arizona, (USA), with his wife and young son.


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