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Student’s Path Leads From Africa to Hollywood – to U.S. Citizenship
Ly and his mother arrived in New York from Senegal on Sept. 10, 2001.
The 13-year-old (whose name is pronounced Lee) was shy and spoke no English.
A year later, his mother returned to Senegal. Ly shuttled between New York and a family friend in Indiana. He returned to New York as a high school junior in 2004, and struggled to put down roots for himself.
“Who validates your thinking? Parents. They offer a safety net, comfort and a foundation. If you’re not certain about something, you ask your parents,” he said. “I was disconnected, looking for answers in books or on the Internet.”
Friends in his after-school technology club became his family, and he excelled in robotics.
In 2006, during his senior year, his East Harlem team won a regional robot-building competition. But Ly was unable to fly with his teammates to the national finals in Atlanta. He had no government-issued identification.
More importantly, he faced a bigger problem that the publicity forced him to reveal: he had no legal status to remain in the United States.
The staff supervising the technology club rallied to send Ly by train, and contacted the media for help on his immigration status. Public officials and others called on the Department of Homeland Security to allow him to stay in the country. The New York Times featured his story.
Rather than being deported, Ly received a foreign student visa, which enabled him to go on to college.
He took an acting class to improve his public speaking skills, and ended up finding a new talent. He began acting in independent films. After graduating, Ly – who became a legal permanent resident in 2009 -- moved to California to pursue a career in Hollywood.
He played Henri in “Twilight Breaking Dawn: Part 2.” He wore an African outfit to the 2012 premiere to remind children, he says, to be proud of who they are.
He also wanted “to tell people going through immigration that, ‘Yes, you are special.’
Because of their accent or the clothes they wear, they may be bullied or made fun of, but all those things make you special. The worst is to let [someone] stop your dream. It’s all we have in life.”
Indeed, Ly never lost sight of his American dream. His journey to citizenship took him 13 years – really, another lifetime for the 13-year-old who arrived in New York on the eve of 9/11.
On Aug. 27, 2014, he recited the Oath of Allegiance at a judicial naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Field Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) handled his case.
“I want to reach my full potential as a human being by making movies, music and working in the technology field,” Ly says. “Every morning, I ask God to guide me towards living to my full potential. I am here to leave my mark and give back.”