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The American experience through a new lens

Nadia Sasso ’14G and her friends have created Yehri Wi Cry, a nonprofit dedicated to improving maternal and infant mortality in Sierra Leone.

Nadia Sasso ’14G and her childhood friends like to travel together once a year to reconnect, relax and enjoy one another’s company. On one particular trip in 2010, their shared experiences took on new meaning.

Sasso and her friends Marie Mansaray and Zainab Fadlu Dean are all American-born children of immigrants from Sierra Leone. A long civil war over politics and diamonds has left this West African country one of the most poverty-stricken nations in the world. For Sasso and her friends, the country’s plight was so far from their American upbringing, yet so close to their hearts.

Together, the friends set out to give back to their families’ homeland. They formed Yehri Wi Cry, or “Hear Our Cry,” to improve maternal and infant mortality in the West African nation. The organization provides birthing kits and incentive packages to help improve childbirth in facilities where the quality of care is inadequate.

“Even if you’re not born in the country, you don’t have to be rich to give back,” says Sasso. “We’re setting the example of what people can do if they put their resources together.”

Sasso’s commitment to improving the quality of life for women and children in Sierra Leone spurred The Katie Couric Show to name her to the Next Generation of Female Leaders, a short list of women-led organizations that are helping empower women globally.

“You’re raised to think about others. How can you impact change? If I see something wrong, I think of a solution,” she says. “If I find others who don’t understand or look like me, I find how I can engage others and help them understand. You can’t hold the weight of the world in your hands. But I do push myself a lot, and that’s what you have to do sometimes.”

Exploring an “in-between place”

That drive and compassion also influence Sasso’s work at Lehigh. As a graduate student in American Studies, she is exploring the culture and identity of African immigrants.

Sasso’s mother arrived in the United States when she was 12, and her father arrived as a student in 1986.

“They fall under the guise of African-American, but they’re not really. It’s very unique because you have a sense of culture unlike other African-Americans. I was taught to be very communal and think very little about myself. Being part of America, you’re forced to learn to be more of an individual.”
 
Sasso says that immigrants, like her parents, are in an “in-between place.” Exploring what that place means for an immigrant’s culture and sense of identity will guide her research and thesis work.

Through independent study and coursework, Sasso is reading and learning about the African immigrant experience and how teens respond to moving to the United States. She works closely with James Peterson, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English, with whom she studied as an undergraduate student at Bucknell University.

“That was a big influence on me coming to Lehigh,” she says of Peterson. “This is a great way to continue under his guidance.”

Translating a vision

Sasso took a hiatus before attending graduate school in order to try her hand in the corporate world. After graduating from Bucknell in 2011, she moved to Los Angeles to work in media and marketing analysis for The Nielson Company and corporate communications for Disney Consumer Products. Her experience in corporate media and communications has helped her translate her vision and communicate the mission of her nonprofit.

“Our biggest challenge is learning how to engage people in Sierra Leone on the topic at hand,” she says of Yehri Wi Cry. “We don’t necessarily like asking for money, but we do seek out cultural exchange or learning opportunities. We want you to learn more.”

Sasso saw graduate school as an opportunity not only to expand her knowledge of a subject matter, but to also improve her communications skills so that she can disseminate that knowledge.

“Coming to Lehigh, American Studies offered the closest program to an open-ended media concentration,” she says. “I’m able to build more media-related skills, so I can not only write, but keep up with the digital age and tell stories in a different way.”

To do so, Sasso is pursuing Lehigh’s graduate certificate in documentary film as part of her degree. The certificate program, which was launched through the American Studies program in 2012, is designed to augment social science and humanities students’ education and training.

Sasso plans to write a master’s thesis and produce a documentary film to complete her degree requirements. Her film will follow the path of five women who were born in the United States but chose to migrate home to their families’ native countries of Sierra Leone and Ghana. She will also profile successful women who were born in Sierra Leone and moved to the United States. For all of these women, Sasso’s curiosity lies in the creation of identity as part of that immigrant experience —the same curiosity she had about her family’s experience.

Returning ‘home’

A Strohl Graduate Summer Research Fellowship, awarded to Sasso by the College of Arts and Sciences, enabled her to travel to Sierra Leone and Ghana in July to conduct interviews for the film.
 
Sasso is at ease in Sierra Leone, which still surprises her family.

“I think they’re happy that I’m embracing it,” she says. “I think they never thought in their wildest dreams that I’d be so involved. It’s still a developing country, and they’re surprised how I’m able to maneuver and move through it. I’ve been sheltered by a lot.”

After graduating from Lehigh, Sasso says she hopes to take her nonprofit to the next level, perhaps by moving to Sierra Leone for a year. She’s also considered turning her documentary into a series.

“I think at graduation, I’ll have another great story to tell. “

Story by Tricia Long ’12G

Posted on Wednesday, December 04, 2013

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