For today’s Powerful Perspectives, I interviewed Wafa Elkhalifa, President of Border State Bank, and Sawsan Elsafi, a personal banker at Border State Bank.
Can you share a little bit about your background? What brought you to the United States and how did you get into banking?
SE: When I moved here it was my first time ever leaving Sudan. I am originally from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. I went to a university for women only in Sudan and have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, so, far away from banking. I met my husband at a wedding in Sudan. He is a citizen of the U.S. He was born here (in the United States) but raised in Sudan because his mom passed away when he was 6 months old, so he was raised by his grandparents. His dad stayed here in the U.S., in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which is where we lived before coming to Rochester. So we met at a wedding and started talking, and then we got engaged. We don’t date in Sudan, so pretty much you get engaged first before you date. At the time I was only 21 in my second year of college. And the college I attended was for women only, so he wasn’t even allowed on campus. You’re not allowed to go to restaurants or anything like that until after you are actually married, not just engaged. In three months he came back and we ended up getting married.
Moving away was a scary thing for me at the time. I was 22 and it was the second year we were engaged—we got engaged in December of 1991 and then we decided to get married so that we could have the marriage license so he could start my paperwork so that I could come here (to the U.S.) The time it took to process my visa allowed me to finish my schooling. In the meantime he came to Sudan three times in the two years I finished school and we really got to know each other.
My husband was working two jobs when I arrived in Texas: for a phone company delivering phone books and working at Pizza Hut as a delivery driver in the evenings. So he took a week off and we went to Houston for our honeymoon and that was it. That was the only vacation that we took for a long time, for 18 years.
I used to be very bored. I didn’t know a lot of people and didn’t know where to start. Even though all of my education was in English I had to get used to the concept of hearing it and talking it constantly, as opposed to Arabic. “Days of our Lives,” that was my educational thing, and I would turn off the captions so that way I could just listen and train myself to understand.
A lot of times I would ride with my husband. I just couldn’t stay in the apartment all day. From there my first job was at Kmart. In Sudan I didn’t have a license, so I didn’t drive when I first arrived. So my husband said OK, let’s find something that’s close to us so it won’t be a huge distance or barrier for you to come to and from work. Kmart offered me a job as a cashier during my 9th month living in the U.S. My husband would sit with me and teach me the coins, and I was so confused why the dime is so small but is bigger than the nickel. And he would not give up. We still remember these conversations and laugh about it. I remember not being able to give change back to customers. I would just open the drawer and say, “Can you just please take your change? I don’t know how to give you.”
I will never forget my manager Mary. She was wonderful! She never made me feel worthless, or like I was no hope. She would say, “You can do it. You’re gonna do just fine.” She was awesome.
My husband was still working his two jobs, and at the time he decided to open up an auto body shop. He was working the body shop on top of the two jobs. He hired people and he was responsible for running it, doing the inventory, etc. He’d lost his gap time, his rest time.
At that time I started driving. I was not able to go back to Sudan for the first 4 years. I had to get my nationalization. I didn’t leave. We couldn’t afford it at that time. Money was an issue. There were three of us. So everything that came in would go right back out into bills. I was on and off work. We didn’t want to pay daycare. We didn’t know about social services. The whole time we were in Texas the only thing we got was medical assistance once when I was pregnant. No medical insurance. I didn’t even know about insurance back then or benefits. His two jobs didn’t offer any benefits. So we continued to work hard. I got a job at Burlington Coat Factory, which was an upgrade for me. They gave me more money. I got to know a couple of the Sudanese families in the area. My social life was a little bit better than being alone. So my whole life was pretty much working hard and supporting my family in Sudan. I got my son in an in-home day care and started working full time. At that time the politics and wars in Sudan were making things difficult. Two of my siblings were in college at that time. So that was my focus: to give back as much as I can.
We had a good life in Texas. We didn’t know anything but work. My husband’s good friend was working here at Mayo as a translator of Arabic. He suggested we move Rochester. So we started looking up Rochester and learning about the weather and its location. My husband came and saw the good opportunities. We were fearing for our children at that time. The crime rates in Texas were pretty high and the schools weren’t that great. So he convinced my husband to move out and get a job as a translator. It paid more, and Rochester was a safer place to live.
It was the end of March and I was driving home from shopping at Hy-Vee on 37th Street when I saw this big advertisement on the 37th Street Wells Fargo building: “Hiring and open house.” So I stopped in and I was greeted by Deb Anderson and Patricia Larson. I still remember them to this day. I walked in and was like, “So I just moved to town and I have cashiers experience. I don’t know what banking is like.” We did have an account with Wells Fargo and I was used to going in to the bank because I would cash our checks. I didn’t know how to use checks. I remember going place to place paying bills in cash. In Sudan we didn’t have a banking system and didn’t use checks or cards or anything like that. You buy cars and houses in cash. Like, you would buy a property for 2 million dollars in cash. Just recently they started introducing debit cards and ATM machines.
I filled out an application on the spot and they just loved my personality. Then there was a quick interview. They took down my number and called me two days later. We were super excited. I bought a calling card and told my family and they were so happy for me. This was huge. It was a big deal.
WE: I’ve been in Rochester and the U.S. since 2002. I was born and raised in Oman in the Middle East. It’s a small country in the corner of the Arabian Peninsula next door to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE on the north. We have a long coast on the Indian Ocean. My family is originally from Sudan. My parents moved to Oman when my father got a job in an agriculture bank doing agriculture lending. He worked there for 18 years. He married my mom and had our siblings. I am the oldest. I have two brothers and two sisters.
At any point my father could lose his employment because of his not being an Omani national. He ended up coming out to Rochester to help address some of his health concerns. When he moved here it was August 2001, a month before 9/11. He shaved his beard to look less threatening. When we moved here we had to undergo three interviews. Our English wasn’t that perfect. My family was relying on me to speak to the government workers because they knew I used to listen to American pop music like NSync, Brittany Spears, so I knew a few of the words! I also had my Arabic to English dictionary with me to help. It was a very interesting process and we just felt so lost.
I remember my first day in school. I was taken to John Marshall, and my dad tried to make it easier for me by introducing me to another Sudanese family with kids at John Marshall. Schools in Oman are different than here. In Oman the teachers move around from class to class, not the students. So of course I never really saw in school the people dad introduced me to because of this. So one day I did see her, and when I finally did, I started talking to her in Arabic because I was so scared in school. And she looked at me and said, “Don’t talk to me in front of my friends in Arabic. Talk to me in English only.”
There are some generations here who feel embarrassed when talking in another language other than English. They don’t embrace it or see a benefit in speaking in their native language. Whereas me, I’ve seen where you get paid more for speaking other languages. So maybe she felt embarrassed and didn’t want to speak Arabic.
But then I did meet some wonderful students. I used to sit at lunch with this girl from Vietnam, this girl from Somalia, this girl from South Sudan. You’d think how could we communicate because we were all ESL students, but we figured it out! We all became good friends. Every now and then I see them around Rochester and they see me and we recognize each other and say hello.
When 9-11 happened, that day students were angry and they said things at the time that I didn’t understand. They would say, “You go back home, sand nigger.” “Remove that towel from your head.”
This one time my mother and I were shopping at Walmart and this woman came and attacked us. She said the worst things about the prophet Mohammad. We didn’t understand all of what she was saying and didn’t know how to respond. She was so angry. It wasn’t easy for us to form sentences back then. So I was trying to go and get a manager, but all I could do is start crying. And my mom looks at me and says, “She’s yelling at us and I don’t know what to say!” and I didn’t either. So my mom finally says “Police! I will call police!” and then the lady started running out of the store. My mom ran behind her trying to get her car. And we didn’t know who to tell about what had happened to us. So yeah, that was the one big incident that happened. People were looking as it happened and you could tell they weren’t sure of what to do and just walked on by. I think it was a weekend that day. The store was full. I was 15 at the time. I just wanted someone to say something to her because I didn’t know what to say.
I had an injury one year where I twisted my ankle. I had to get a bunch of surgeries and was in a wheelchair for a while. Kids used to push the wheelchair in the hallway, and I would scream looking for help. That was a rough year.
It got a lot better for me in 2003 when I went to Mayo High School. That year I helped start a diversity committee. Mrs. Bachman was our English teacher. She helped us start it. At our graduation that year it was the first time in the history of Mayo High School where we were allowed to greet our families in different languages, so I stood there and said a greeting in Arabic, and my friends did in their languages.
I started working at McDonalds and then Walmart. My dad started taking classes at RCTC before I went to college so that he would understand how the college system worked. So he took a couple of English classes to help with his English. My mother took ESL classes that helped her apply for jobs and other things.
At that time I had two very little siblings. My baby sister was one and my brother was 3. At Hawthorne they would have daycare while she took English classes. That went on for a couple of years. My mom started working when she phased out of Hawthorne to help with finances. My dad was already working 70-hour weeks. We were able to get on board with education that way.
I worked a couple of jobs and got into banking without planning for it. I was working a contracted job while at Mayo High School as a concierge for a hotel. I knew the job was going to end and some point. One day I was talking with my banker about this and he asked me if I’d ever considered working in banking. He said there was a teller opportunity at the Center Street Wells Fargo. I applied for it and got hired after the interview. I started as a teller and worked there for two years, then worked at other banks for a few years to get my certificate to be a loan officer. I ended up becoming a branch manager and worked as a branch manager for four years prior to the position I have now.
It has gotten better. Back then I would feel bad and complain about the things I’d experience. But then one day someone asked me, “Do you get U.S. mail delivered to your house?” and I was like, “Yes.” And then she asked, “Do you pay taxes?” And again I said, “Yes.” Then she said “You’re no different from me, so whenever someone says anything mean to you just tell them that!” I’m a good person. I have done nothing bad, and so if anyone says anything to me now, I remind them this is my home, but it took years and lots of challenges to get to this level of confidence.
I see a lot of people get depressed and get homesick. I’m a different situation. I never felt that attachment to Sudan. My parents were born there and left at a young age but I was raised in Oman and moved to the U.S., so where is my home? I’ve learned over the years that home is where you are able to do good and give back. You make it home. You can make any place home. God’s land is big so you just choose where you want to be. This is my home.
I remember the first time I voted. It felt amazing. I went to the voting area the day before giving birth to my son. The lady there helped me sit down but I made sure I told her that I was going to vote that day. I couldn’t do that in Sudan or Oman, but I can do that here.
What are the main similarities and differences you see between culture in Sudan and Oman vs. American culture?
SE: The big difference is the independence. Here you are on your own. In Sudan everything is done in a family way. We are very concerned about each other. We help each other out. I have siblings that are grown, but we still help out when we can whenever they need it. I feel like here you are on your own, and that is a big difference. For me to come on my own and just have myself and my husband, that was tough.
Do you notice that independence in your children?
SE: Absolutely. My kids at a very young age woke up on their own for school. Walked to the bus by themselves. I never had to ask them about their homework. One of my twins is diabetic. And he would go from age 12 to the gym, then come home and do his homework. He’s an honors student with a 4.2 GPA. I have never seen him with a B in his entire life. Never. My twin is very responsible I never ask about clothes, or what they are eating. If I wasn’t around she would clean up. They growing up to be very hardworking adults. They say that they’ve learned that work ethic from us. I used to get so mad at my husband for not attending the kids’ games and things like that. But the children understood and appreciated the fact that he had to work. They recognized that he gave up a lot of his time working. I ask, Don’t you get tired? What motivates you? He says, I’m trying to leave them with more than just money. I want to leave them with a good work ethic.
First generation immigrants come here and don’t know where to start a lot of times, and that makes it easy to get stuck on social services. We don’t have that back home. The help you get from your immediate family, somebody can sell some land to help you out if you have financial distress. That’s our social services. We don’t have a system that you can be on for years. You can be on social services in this country your whole life. Sometimes I feel like it’s best not to know about it so that you don’t find yourself relying on it to survive. I feel like everybody, unless you have a disability or an illness, can do something for themselves. We spoke with a social worker when my son got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She was filling out an application to get him labeled as disabled so that he could get disability benefits. This upset and offended me. She was telling me to label my son as a disabled person, and I just didn’t understand it because he was fine. He just needed insulin. I didn’t know how it was going to be labeled. I didn’t want any red flags popping up on his name in anyone’s system. Up to this day I don’t feel the need to call him a “disabled” person. Diabetes is something that he manages. He’s been playing three grades up in sports despite his disability. He’s an honors student with the highest GPA in his grade. We’ve never felt the need to take advantage of our status as immigrants by getting more benefits. You just feel so good when you accomplish something by working hard. I feel like this is what we need to teach our kids.
Wafa, what about you? What similarities or differences do you see?
WE: Oman is a beautiful country. It is also a small country of about 4 million people. Most of the population are people who weren’t born in Oman, but migrate from all across the Middle East for jobs in Oman. However, the way it works in Oman and UAE is different than here. In the United States you can eventually establish citizenship and buy a house. In Oman it is a bit closed. During the time I was there we couldn’t purchase property or anything like that because we were not born in Oman. The universities were off limits to non-Omani citizens. If you want to get on the honor roll, or if you got the highest grade, you will never be named the top person if you’re not Omani. On the workforce side of things, there are certain jobs that are only for Omani nationals. I totally get it because they want to give chances for their citizens. You would never see anything like that over here.
Sawsan, all of your children were born in the United States. What has it been like keeping them connected with Sudan and Sudanese culture? How do you foster that sense of identity within your children?
SE: I always talk about where we’ve come from. My kids are very fluent in speaking Arabic, but less fluent with reading and writing it. I’ve always felt the need to talk about our background, to spend money to take them back to Sudan so that they can visit their family. We attend the mosque prayers for Eid. We’ve been very intentional about keeping that connection strong. My second son when he graduated from high school didn’t want a party or money; he wanted a ticket to go to Sudan and see his grandma. He attended Ramadan and the holidays in Sudan as his graduation gift.
Wafa, how do you personally stay connected to the Sudanese community?
WE: I work with the Sudanese community here on various different projects and events like World Festival. The community is growing. We have amazing examples of successful people from doctors to social workers to teachers. I just wish we had a stronger presence here in the community and in positions of leadership.
If you could give one piece of advice to anyone planning on immigrating to the United States from any country, what would that be?
SE: You are very lucky. I would say that living here gave me a lot of potential. It shows you your strength. Sometimes we get stuck in, “I can’t do this,” but in tough situations you will find your strength. When you travel to different states you will appreciate Rochester, its community work, and the care we have for each other. I remember when Trump got elected and the hate that was being spoken against Muslims, Rochester Minnesotans rallied and stood up for us. My neighbor next door chose to call me instead of calling his own kids when he fell down the stairs. That aspect of community is priceless.
WE: I have a friend who applied for the visa lottery and I was helping him with his application. I always tell him that if you are putting it in your mind that you are coming to receive help and benefits, don’t even bother. If you’re coming to work hard and make your dreams come true you should definitely come. I dislike people coming here with the mindset of relaxing on benefits. That pisses me off. This country opened its arms for you to come here. You should appreciate what you have and give back. That’s my advice that I give out to people. It’s coming from a place of people associating me and other immigrants that we are that way, but then I show them my business card and everything changes.
What is diversity, what is welcoming, and do you consider Rochester to be diverse and welcoming?
SE: Diversity to me is a community that comes together from different backgrounds deciding to take care of each other and learn about each other. I continue to see that Rochester is a diverse community. When I first moved here I was inspired by the way people were treating other immigrants. The Mexican community, despite being great in number, wasn’t treated fairly in Texas. There’s been a huge difference between the two states that I’ve lived in with regard to this treatment of its minorities and immigrants. So yes, welcoming diversity is huge in Rochester and it is contributing to what makes us a great city, making us one of the big cities.
Working in the bank gave me the opportunity to serve my community through the bank. I was very proud to be known in this community. People would have my name and search for and find me because they wanted me to be their teller. Not having the banking system in the Middle East, I was able to introduce electronic banking to the Middle Eastern community here. Teaching it to them has allowed me to give back.
WE: Diversity is respecting one another. Embracing each other and differences. Celebrating differences and educating each other. Refraining from making assumptions and stereotyping. When I see local Minnesotans at events like World Festival, I feel welcome. When they are there to just learn, that feels welcoming. If we break isolation, we can be more welcoming. I see welcoming in a financial way [social services] as security. We still need to work on being welcoming at an emotional level. I will see people and agencies try to help others by connecting them with services, but what about the emotional level? What about friendship? Breaking the ice and forging true connections is the one missing piece.
Speaking with Wafa and Sawsan inspired me to work harder in my own life on my own goals. I was greatly empowered and inspired by their personal stories and the work ethic their families possess.
Both Sawsan and Wafa mentioned the need for the Sudanese community to connect with the greater Rochester community. I challenge you to see what you can do to forge those connections. Perhaps stop by Border State Bank and brainstorm with Wafa and Sawsan. I’m sure you will find the experience as inspiring and life changing as I did.