Blessing Ovie was only 12 years old when she left Nigeria seeking a better life. She took a harrowing journey across Africa, ending up not in Europe but in Morocco where she spent the next four years under increasingly desperate conditions.
One day, a friend suggested she contact the United Nations, but others told her not to bother. The people spoke French rather than English, which Blessing spoke. Most were white. Why would they help her?
“I had heard that the UN didn’t help Nigerians. That white people didn’t like blacks. That nothing would happen for me,” she says.
With low expectations and facing numerous obstacles, it wasn’t easy to wait in line, tell her story to strangers, or fill out extensive paperwork. But Blessing found the courage — and was surprised by what she found.
Blessing had the good fortune of meeting a UN official who helped change her life.
“When this person was talking to me, it was different. She told me that there is a better future — you can start again. You are the author of your story,” she says.
A month later, Blessing was accepted as an official refugee. While the UN Refugee Office looked for placement for Blessing around the world, she was given a safe place to live with other kids accepted under the program. The kids cooked and ate together while they underwent a process of physical exams, background checks and paperwork.
Blessing could have ended up going anywhere — or maybe nowhere since not everyone finds a place. In fact, less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees are selected for resettlement. It is fairly rare to come to the U.S., particularly as refugee quotas have been cut drastically in recent years (and now are suspended altogether because of the pandemic).
But Blessing was accepted under the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) program which helps young people under the age of 18 find new homes. URM was created in 1980 to address the needs of thousands of children in Southeast Asia without a parent or guardian to care for them.
In the 40 years since the program began, less than 13,000 minors have entered the program. Only six minors have come to this region since the program began in Grand Traverse County in 2017. That makes the chances of Blessing coming to Traverse City pretty small, even miniscule.
Despite those formidable odds, Blessing received word in February 2018 that she was being resettled in America. She left the next week.
“Was this a dream? I wasn’t even thinking, just going with the flow. I put on the clothes I’m wearing today and got to the airport,” he says.
Her first time on an airplane, Blessing opened her eyes after dozing off and saw an unforgettable sight of clouds and scenery below.
It was at that moment that Blessing realized her life had changed. “I thought, this is reality. I’m actually going to America. I never imagined that. I never had the thought. I never had that dream.”
On the flight from Chicago to Traverse City, a woman seated next to Blessing started talking with her. “It was surprising. I was expecting someone to say, ‘I can’t sit next to someone black from Nigeria.’ But the person was nice, excited to talk with me. She had been to Africa before and wanted to hear about Nigeria.”
Warm encounters continued as Blessing arrived in Traverse City and met her case-worker from Bethany Christian Services and the woman who became her first foster mother, Emmy Lou Cholak.
“I never felt that acceptance before. Every single white-skinned person I met smiled at me and wanted to know about me. The streets are beautiful, the houses. Everyone is always smiling,” she says.
By the time Blessing moved in with her permanent foster family, Steve Baumgartner and Danielle Beauvais, the transformation was complete.
“Coming from a place where I was patiently waiting for death, where I had no options, no dreams. To be here where my Dad and Mom say ‘good morning’ and tell me how beautiful I am. Being able to rely on family that will protect and love me,” Blessing describes as a dream from which she never wants to wake up.
In Blessing’s narrative story of her own life, which she made up and wrote down, she imagines herself as a black child who was lost. The entire family is looking for her and they swear that whenever they find that child, they will love her with every beat of their heart, every fiber of their being.
“I am that child and my new family are doing everything not to lose me again… I feel like I am home. This is where I belong. Where I was meant to be. My Mom and Dad. My sisters are my mentors. They are hard-working and brilliant. They give me space in their parents’ hearts and in their own hearts,” she says.
Before the interruption of the COVID pandemic, Blessing was dual-enrolled at Traverse City High School and Northwestern Community College, and also attended the Career Tech Center while working two days a week.
“Every day I say the pledge, ‘One nation, under God, indivisible’ and I believe that everything is arranged by God. This is where I should be. I feel welcome… All my family and friends, they are holding lanterns and saying, ‘Don’t worry about the darkness. We are here for you,” she says.
Blessing also believes that if America didn’t exist, God would need to create it because of the important role that America plays as a beacon of hope and inspiration around the world.
She knows how important it is to have hope.
“My middle name in Nigerian is Oghenekevwe which means ‘God has given me.’ I see that in my life today. God has given me an amazing family and an opportunity to be successful in life. God has given me joy,” she says.