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RapidChat: Graci Harkema

Days after being born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Graci Harkema was placed for adoption at a local orphanage. After being given only 12 to 24 hours to live, she was adopted by her (now) parents. Following her move to Grand Rapids as a child, Harkema has gone on to become one of the city's most passionate leaders, fighting for everything from LGBTQ rights to racial equality and more.
Graci Harkema

Days after being born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Graci Harkema was placed for adoption at a local orphanage. After being given only 12 to 24 hours to live, she was adopted by her (now) parents. Following her move to Grand Rapids as a child, Harkema has gone on to become one of the city's most passionate leaders, fighting for everything from LGBTQ rights to racial equality and more.
Rapid Growth Media: Your name “Graci” comes from a pretty interesting backstory; do you mind expanding upon that?
 
Graci Harkema: Well, I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a mud hut. My biological mother was really sick when she was giving birth to me, so she brought me to a local orphanage a week after I was born. That same day I was adopted.
 
RG: Being adopted that quickly is rare, isn’t it?
 
GH: Absolutely. A lot about my story is so uncommon. Like I said, my mother was dying when I was born. I was really sick too. I had four different diseases, so my mother thought that giving me up to an orphanage was the best way for me to have care or any chance at life. Within two hours I was adopted by two missionaries from Grand Rapids. When I arrived to the orphanage, because I was so sick, they placed me in the back, away from all the other babies. On the same day, my (now) parents had a day off from their missionary work, and they decided to take a trip the orphanage. When they were there, my mother went to the bathroom and saw me in a Fisher Price-style toy cradle. I was so small at the time, only three pounds, so my mother thought I was a doll in a play set. She then saw my head move, and came up to touch it. She then heard from a voice: “This is your daughter."
 
RG: So your adoption process started then?
 
GH: More or less; there was no paperwork involved because the orphanage gave me only 12 to 24 hours to live because I was so sick. But my parents were set on me and that I was their daughter. They believe in miracles, so they brought me to their village nearby. I wasn’t named at this point, because they wanted me to come into that on my own. One day passed, and then another, and then another, and I was still alive and thriving. There weren’t even doctors or hospitals around. Miraculously, I was healed. So they named me Graci… by the Grace of God.
 
RG: That is such a beautiful story! At what point did they bring you back to their hometown of Grand Rapids?
 
GH: We moved here in 1988, when I almost four. We moved for a lot of reasons... one of them being that I am a part of the Tutsi tribe, and the city where I am from is about a mile from the Rwandan border, where signs of the Rwandan genocide were starting. They also wanted me to have an American education. One interesting caveat in all that, though, is that I had to get my citizenship on my own. As it stands currently, if a U.S. citizen adopts a child from another country, they are automatically a U.S. citizen. But when my parents adopted me that wasn’t the case. It took me 11 years for me to become a U.S. citizen. Much of that was due to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, since they first needed to release me as a citizen. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to; it just took a lot of time to get the paperwork. I had two lawyers working on the case, and it is largely due to my immigration attorney that they released me as a citizen.
 
RG: Immigration policy is obviously a huge issue within our country right now. Can you shed some light on your personal experience?
 
GH: Before you can even apply for citizenship within the U.S., you first you have to get your permanent residency. You also have to take a test. There are 100 questions they give you to study, and only 10 are put on the test. Out of those, you have to get 80 percent correct. All the questions are about presidencies, laws, bills that have passed, and general U.S. history. Then you have to go to do a one-on-one with someone. Have you seen the movie “The Proposal”? It’s similar to that… and they are open to question anyone in your life. After you pass that, you can now be a candidate for naturalization. Then you go to court and are sworn in. It can take months before you are a citizen. 
 
RG: What have been some significant changes in your life since then?
 
GH: Traveling is the biggest thing. Ironically, I was just talking about this yesterday.  I had traveled abroad back in 2005 when I was a permanent resident. I was flying from Kenya back to Grand Rapids, and I was detained at the airport. I couldn’t come back. Since I wasn’t a U.S. citizen, I didn’t even have the right to fight back. I was allowed one phone call, so I called my immigration lawyer, who eventually helped resolve the issue. So that scared me. I did no more international travel. It was so scary – you literally have no rights.
 
This stuff has been happening over the years… but now it’s happening a lot more and it’s getting a lot more attention. My citizenship is my greatest procession.
 
RG: Any other unforeseen obstacles?
 
GH: Well, when I graduated from college back in 2009, I was applying for jobs all over the world. I didn’t even think about the fact that I couldn’t apply for them, because I wasn’t a citizen. I tried to move other places (nationally), but doors were opening in Grand Rapids. I am thankful to be here, though, because I believe I have a greater voice. I am a much stronger advocate here, for the issues I believe in, then I could be in bigger cities.
 
RG: What sort of issues do you consider yourself to be extraordinarily passionate about?
 
GH: I am really passionate about LGBT issues in terms of equality and inclusivity in the workplace and in the community.  I am also passionate about trans rights, racial equality, and also empowering young professionals. I have been very fortunate since coming out, and I haven’t experienced much adversity from it. I have friends that have come out and lost their jobs; I am very fortunate I can be my authentic self.
 
RG: So these conversations personally impact you, as well.

GH: Yes, and like I said, my overall experience has been really great and positive and empowering; I couldn’t have done it on my own. What has also really helped me is that I just wasn’t identified with one group. There have been various groups I have been associated with, and they have all impacted my entire life.
 
RG: What advice do you have for people that are personally experiencing adversity on these issues?
 
GH: First and foremost, you need to be assured in who you are. You can’t really do anything until you feel comfortable in your own skin. Those who didn’t support me… left. The ones that did… they saw that I was authentic. No matter what adversity I was experiencing, I wasn’t going to change who I was for anyone else. That’s what enabled me to have a voice for others. But it took me years to be comfortable in my own skin.  When I interviewed for my current role at TEKsystems, that’s when I knew. I had never told an employer about how I have overcome adversity with race, gender, and so forth. My director just looked at me with acceptance, and knew that I would be successful in the role.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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