Vicky’s Immigration Story – Slough, the United Kingdom to Lexington, Kentucky


Vicky was born in Slough, a town she describes as a “busy dirty place” (right next to the “very posh” Windsor) and says British people make a lot of jokes about Slough. Vicky’s sister used to go for riding lessons and Vicky tagged along. For the first couple of years, she was terrified by the thought of riding. Once she got over the fear, she fell in love.

“When you are little, they are huge. You’re not strong enough to hold them, so you fall off. You have to be quite tough to get going. When I was 11, I got my first pony. He was like a dream pony. I used to go to shows, do jumping, and win rosettes. My biggest dream was having a room full of rosettes.” (audio below)

Vicky’s grandfather was really into horse racing – specifically gambling at horse races. He would take Vicky to the tracks, and she was awe-struck by these “big beautiful animals and their power and strength.” When Vicky was 19, she got her first chance to ride an actual racehorse.

It is like driving a mini and then suddenly going and driving a Rolls Royce. You just can’t believe it. Wow, this is amazing! When you are going flat out on them, it’s the best feeling in the world.” (audio below)


Vicky’s husband Pat was born in New York City to a third-generation Irish bricklaying father and a mother from the United Kingdom who taught Irish step dancing. Pat’s father passed away when he was five, and his mother wanted to go back to the UK to be with her family. Despite leaving the US at five, Pat always held on to his American identity. He figures it was his way of holding on to his father. (audio below)

He spent a couple of years in London with his grandparents, and then his mom married another Irishman. They moved out to the quiet suburbs, near Epsom, home of the famous Epsom Derby. When Pat’s parents took him for pony riding lessons, he was instantly hooked. Pat ended up getting his own pony, doing show jumping, and then getting into horse racing. He tried to become a jockey [see the photo below] but discovered that it isn’t the best choice for an asthmatic.

Pat loves the connection he feels to the horse when riding and also the adrenalin rush. He finds the features of horses comforting. Even though they are big and robust, they aren’t aggressive. 

 “It is a timeless thing. Horses really were the things that first helped people be more than they could be on their own.” 

Pat also feels like horses bring him closer to nature. 

 “If you are out riding on a trail, you have a different perspective than on foot. You can see more, and wild animals don’t scatter. It’s a nice experience. Except when you are on a thoroughbred, then it is a frightening experience. Some people get a bit addicted to it. You feel alive.”  (audio below)

Equine Studies

Pat and Vicky both enrolled in Equine Studies – the first one of its kind in Europe – at Warwickshire College. They studied anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, and everything else required to become a “competent horse person.” 

It was at the “Horse Racing Club” Pat organized where they first saw each other. Vicky remembers Pat getting up to talk, and saying to her friend, “oh, look at him, isn’t he awful!” Three months later, they got chatting at a college bar and began dating. 

 “It was easy being around each other from the start.” 

Vicky jokes that they have been together so long; she could have murdered Pat and gotten out of jail by now! (audio below)

When they finished their finals at college in 1994, they decided to take a summer holiday to Kentucky. They had a great time, and the night before they were going to return to the UK, Pat turned to Vicky and said, “this is where we want to be.” Vicky didn’t think so. 

 “I literally begged Pat to come back to England with me.” 

Above: Jack, first day at school, age five


Vicky and Pat married in 1996, and by that point, had their own stable yard with horses where Pat trained, and Vicky helped him. That same year they had their son Jack [see the above photo].

 “The first thing he ever saw when he went out of the house after coming from the hospital was a horse’s head over the door. He’s been good with animals his whole life.” 

When Jack was a boy, and people would ask what he wanted to be, the answer was always a “jockey,” and that dream never died. Pat and Vicky signed Jack up for pony racing.

 “I didn’t think he would have the strength to get the pony to the start, let alone ride in the race. But he did and fell off at the start. The race was off, and he finished third. I thought, ‘Oh, hell! He’s going to be a jockey!‘” 

They tried to steer him away from working with horses, but Jack just got better and better, and admittedly, Pat and Vicky have put some of their own dreams into Jack. 

United States

Vicky tried to convince Pat and Jack they had everything they needed in England. Jack went to Kentucky for a week exchange as part of the British Racing School, and after returning, every day, he asked when he could go to the US again to race. 

They waited a year so Jack could finish school. Vicky and Jack applied for visas through Pat, to help make their son’s dreams come true, It took 18 months, and when the green cards were approved, they only had six weeks to pack up 25 years of their lives together and leave before they expired. Vicky had expected they could leave England whenever they wanted, but that wasn’t the case. 

When they landed in New York in 2014, it was Pat’s first time back to his place of birth since he was a kid. 

“The things you don’t do are the biggest regrets in your life, and I had it in me to come and spend time in America where I was born, and I’ve done it.” 


When they arrived in Kentucky, Vicky couldn’t stop crying and continued to have “tears for the first month”. She felt useless and lost. They needed to find a place to live, and she hated driving the big truck they got. The second time Jack raced in Kentucky, the horse broke its leg, and Jack went down with it. It gave them a real scare, and Vicky started to really question why they had moved to the US. 

Vicky had to stop watching Jack race – it is easier on her nerves. 

“The way I deal with it is I don’t watch him, yet when he does win, and you are there, it is the best thing ever. When he does fall, your whole world stops. We’ve been lucky so far. I always say to him the day you don’t want to do it, you stop. It’s been a roller coaster.”

Above: Pat watching Jack’s race from his living room (audio below)

Jack says he hardly remembers England now, but Pat is much more reflective. He realizes had they come to the US for a year, then headed back to the UK, it would have been enough for him, but he knows how much Jack loves living in the US.

“I know a lot of people emigrate out of harsh economic necessity, but even when you have a choice, it’s a tradeoff you gain something and lose something.”


Ultimately Pat and Vicky like where they live in Kentucky – rolling hills and giant trees. One thing that stuck out to them when they first arrived is how many people wear jeans and t-shirts. It’s a lot different than the New York Pat remembers of “slacks and collared shirts”. They like how laid back everyone is in Kentucky.

 “I thought the Irish were laid back, but the Kentuckians make us look like strung-out messes – and in the summer, they’re even more laid back!”

Father & Son

When they arrived in the US, Jack, age 17, didn’t have a driver’s license. To race, he needed to travel to nearby states and the five different Kentucky tracks. That first year, Pat, as Jack’s “chauffeur”, drove 80,000 miles. They would leave at four in the morning and arrive back home at midnight. That year of being together non-stop involved a lot of tears and laughter, as they tried to get Jack established in the racing scene. Pat was doing something with Jack that he never got to do with his father. 

“It was the first time in my life that I ever really thought about my father. He was gone, and I was in another country. When I came back here, it felt quite strange. In the end, I saw a counselor and spoke about it. It was quite emotional. I never really grieved for him.” (audio below)

After a year and a half, Jack got his license and could drive himself. Pat cherishes that extraordinary experience of spending so much time on the road with his son. Pat was a racehorse trainer for nearly two decades. It was so special that Pat decided to take time off to write about the experience. In 2018, he published Around Kentucky With the Bug.

WinStar Farms

When they arrived in Kentucky, Vicky didn’t plan on working with horses. She had so many incredible years in England with horses and figured nothing would be the same in the US. 

“I said, ‘I’m never going to ride a horse again. I was done with that.’ And then you find you miss them, they are in your blood, and you just can’t get away.”

She started her job at WinStar Farm in 2016, working as the Barn Foreman, who oversees the smooth running of the barn and assists the trainer.  

“Just being around horses every day is good for your soul. They don’t ask too much of you. I mean, they drive you crazy: they bite and kick, and push you around and don’t do what you want them to do, but they are so beautiful. I prefer being around them to people, I guess. They don’t judge you, and they forgive you. I guess I’m a half-horse!” (audio below)

Vicky loves the people she works with and finds that, in general, people in the US are more open and easy to connect with. Christie, from New Jersey, is one of Vicky’s coworkers [see the above photos].

“It is nice being around young people. I think it is a bit of the mother thing. We don’t have that much in common, and Christie’s so much younger than me, but when you work with horses, you have them in common.” (audio below)


Vicky and Pat miss their family in the UK, including two horses they still own back in England, that they consider part of their family. Vicky went back to the UK recently and was surprised to find herself missing Kentucky. 

“It was weird; I wanted to come back here to Kentucky. This is home now. I prefer the weather here. It makes you feel great to be alive. You don’t get that in England. Everyone is miserable.”

Audio: Vicky talking to the horses


In the future, Pat and Vicky hope Jack continues to pursue his dreams.

Pat says he has passed the stage in his life of grand ambitions and feels grateful for what he has. He jokes that he hopes his book “sells better than Harry Potter”!

Vicky hopes that Jack will one day have a family, and she will have grandchildren, but she emphasizes that it is all up to him. She also would love to open a cat sanctuary one day, with a few horses there as well.

*Update: Since the interview, the two horses (who are like family) in England, have now immigrated to Kentucky too. At the beginning of 2020, their son Jack bad accident breaking a collar bone and smashing his whole face. He fought hard to return to racing and is now competing again. Vicky and Pat, are happy (for their nerves’ sake) to know that Jack only plans on competing for a couple more years tops.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Mukesha’s Immigration Story – Kigali, Rwanda to Louisville, Kentucky


“I don’t know anything about my hometown Kigali, Rwanda, besides the stories I have heard from my parents. I have no connection to Rwanda besides the blood that is flowing through my veins and the language I share with my parents. Rwanda is the country on every document that I have.” (audio below)

Mukesha’s parents have told her stories of what it was like before the genocide, what their childhoods were like – playing under the trees, watching the stars at night – stories of joy. Once the genocide started, the stories are sad – running away and being torn from family.

Her parents are reluctant to talk about Rwanda; it is a reminder of how much they have lost.

Above: Mukesha’s pre-school graduation shortly after moving to South Africa

South Africa

In Rwanda, her parents had good jobs and were living comfortably as middle-class citizens. When they arrived in South Africa in 1998 as asylum seekers when Mukesha was six, they couldn’t enter the formal labor market. Her parents ended up doing odd jobs to put food on their table. Mukesha is grateful for all the sacrifices her parents have made.

A diverse place, Mukesha is happy to have grown up in Durban. Still, as she aged, she became more and more aware of being a “foreigner”: bringing a different lunch to school and braiding her hair differently from others. She remembers in sixth grade getting called “ kwerekwere” – a derogatory term to describe foreigners. To fit in, Mukesha found herself drawn towards friends who were South African, and avoiding kids, who like herself, were from other parts of Africa. (audio below)

Life was callous for those who weren’t South African.

Above: Mukesha’s First Holy Communion


Mukesha’s faith has played a pivotal role in her development.

 “We didn’t have much in South Africa, but we had our faith. We would say the family prayer together. I remember thanking God for braces before I could afford them.” 

Mukesha says she has always been a dreamer. “I was kind of delusional, to be honest.” She wanted to become a teacher, a profession she started pretending to do very early on in her life.

“I used to teach math to dolls with missing arms, and teddy bears with missing eyes.”

Her mom told her that teachers don’t get paid much, and that ended that dream. When it came time for university, Law was her first choice. Her parents explained to her how nobody would hire her as a lawyer in South Africa since she was a foreigner. Instead, her parents wanted her to be a doctor or nurse, as it wouldn’t matter if she were a “foreigner.”

Her second choice was a degree in Media Communications and Business Management, which is what she ended up studying. She had grown up watching and wanting to be like Oprah, so working in the media seemed exciting. (audio below)


The “xenophobic attacks” that swept South Africa were the catalyst to her family, starting the resettlement process in 2008. Mukesha describes how these attacks began as some people making fun of “foreigners,” and escalated to people like her being burned alive. She remembers all five of them being in a room presenting their story to a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) caseworker. Mukesha was 15 at the time, and what her parents said surprised her. She didn’t know the struggles her parents had been having – how hard it was to be a Rwandese adult in South Africa. 

“I felt like I had been in the dark all my life. OMG this is what they go through every single day in taxis, at work, on the bus.”

The family did these interviews several times; then, they separated them to do individual interviews to make sure their stories matched up. It felt unnecessary, and Mukesha felt like it was “reinforcing trauma.”  Her family waited in a state of limbo – hoping to get the word. She would go to school to write a test and think ‘should I study for this if I am going to America tomorrow?’ It wasn’t easy for her to finish college with so much going on in the background. They waited for six years. Finally, in 2014, the same day Mukesha graduated college, they found out that they had 48 hours to pack and be ready to leave for the United States.

“I should be celebrating. I am getting this thing I always wanted, but what about my friends? How do I say goodbye? It all just happened so quickly.” (audio below)


Before boarding the plane, their caseworker handed them their resettlement package, and said, “Oh, by the way, your family is going to Kentucky.” Mukesha had never heard of Kentucky. She had heard of Los Angeles or New York, but not Kentucky. Mukesha googled Kentucky on her phone, and all she saw was farms, farmers, and the term ‘hillbillies’ came up, which she didn’t understand. This surprised and angered her. The address on their resettlement package was for the resettlement agency (Catholic Charities) but Mukesha thought that was where they were going to be living. When she googled the address, it was a church!

“I was like, ‘Mom; they are taking us to a church!’ I was already mad that we were coming to Kentucky, and now we were going to be living in church! My mom said the novena like ten times and the rosary, ‘God, hopefully, we are not going to a church’. I was freaking out. This is America; I’m expecting big things! As we are landing, we start to see bridges and houses, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually a city.’” (audio below)


Mukesha had never been on a plane – especially one landing in a snowstorm. After arriving in Kentucky, the person who picked them up spoke to them in a “deep Swahili accent,” which Mukesha thought was funny since her family can speak English. Another volunteer warned them that the neighborhood they were moving into wasn’t the best. 

“It’s important to remember perspective – you can only see what you see based on where you are standing. For me, it seemed like a nice apartment with three bedrooms! I can share a room with my sister, and my room has a door that you can close! The fridge was stocked, we had vouchers, and we ate as a family for the first time in years.” (audio below)


For the first two weeks in Kentucky, they stayed inside their new apartment. The one thing they noticed right away was that there weren’t a lot of people around.

 “Where are the people? In Africa you see people walking around. People in America don’t walk. We started to feel nostalgic for the whole community vibe.”

That first trip to the supermarket overwhelmed Mukesha and she found herself asking: “Why do we need two aisles for cereal?” (audio below)

Another shock was when Mukesha’s family took the bus to their ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.

“That is where I saw the racial divide. The people on the bus looked like they were struggling. They were no different than the people I had seen in South Africa. This was not something that I ever expected to see here. The places the bus was driving through looked really bad.” (audio below)

Her family discussed their collective shock after taking the bus that first time. They were so confused by how this level of inequality and poverty could exist in America. In contrast, the church the white woman invited them to, used a bible made out of gold.

“The entire church, besides our family, was caucasian. They drove proper luxury cars! The neighborhood where the church is is very different from where the ESL classes are. This is when the divide hit me the first time. What’s happening here mirrored South Africa. Even though this is the country that everyone looks up to, it is not all roses and butterflies.” (audio below)


Mukesha’s first job was at an Amazon warehouse, dealing with customer returns.

“When I got my first paycheck, I almost lost it.”

When she mentally converted the money to South African Rand, it was a lot, and this motivated her. This money meant she could finally get the braces she prayed for. Mukesha liked her manager and the job, but there was a lot of negative energy coming from the people she worked with. They complained a lot and thought her positivity was strange. She could feel the negativity rubbing off on her. The question she had for her fellow employees was, “If you don’t like the job, why don’t you leave it?” Now she realizes it isn’t easy to leave a job if you have bills and dependents. This job taught her a lot and it allowed Mukesha to be able to meet a lot of American veterans. She couldn’t believe the hardships they faced, after sacrificing so much for the country.

 “I had always wanted to meet an American veteran. Why would people who served the country come back and not be helped?”

A lot of people she worked with didn’t know any black people or any Africans. A coworker in their 40s asked her if she had a pet giraffe. An older white male coworker, who she considered a friend, told her how “paying taxes sucks.” When she asked why, he said, “Us Americans, we pay taxes to bring people like you here.” These comments frustrated Mukesha – she was paying taxes too, and her family had to pay back the money received for the flight to America.  (audio below)


Mukesha hopes that by sharing her story she can help the youth be more informed. It is for this reason that she has seized every opportunity to speak publicly about her experience as a refugee.

Above: Mukesha sharing her story with a group of middle-grade students

Many of the students she has shared her story with have written her letters that she has kept. One note from a student named Jordan says: “I have a completely different outlook on refugees now”. (audio below)

“Every time I’m feeling discouraged I read these letters for a reminder of how great life is.”

Crossroads Ministry

In 2016 Mukesha started working at the Crossroads Ministry – a retreat center where privileged students come to have relationship-building opportunities with marginalized people in overlooked places. Mukesha’s job is to lead these students as they visit agencies where they can connect and find commonalities with people different than themselves – whether it is a refugee, or an elderly person, or someone with substance abuse issues. The most important thing is that these students identify that this person they are connecting with is a person first before being a refugee or female or Somalian or an alcoholic. Mukesha hopes to plant seeds that change perspectives on preconceived notions and show these students, that we must understand the complexity of everyone, and avoid believing there is a single story. (audio below)

“I remind the students that this won’t be the last time you are at a crossroads with someone who has been marginalized. What do you want to do? No one is voiceless – some people’s voices aren’t being listened to. I tell students to be the voice that will amplify.”


Mukesha regrets how she and her siblings used to complain to their parents about the life they had growing up. She knows now how much they gave up for them. Mukesha is happy that her parents aren’t merely trying to survive today. She knows that they don’t have their ideal jobs, but they do have a home and a car, and they are safe. In the future, Mukesha would like to pursue a college degree in the USA, since employers in the US don’t recognize her degree from South Africa. She dreams of making a film or writing a book about “third culture kids”.

“Besides the stuff that is on the surface, there is so much more. When you are a young refugee, growing up in a culture that is not yours, you are sometimes delusional to reality because your parents shelter you. I want to write a book about the difficulties of being a ‘third culture kid’. I want to explore the trauma of being a young kid, moving from one culture to another and how it affects you into adulthood.”

Other than that she wouldn’t mind becoming “rich and famous”!

Amplified Voices

Mukesha wants to continue trying to amplify the voices of people being persecuted and advocating for Louisville, and Kentucky at large, to be welcoming to refugees and immigrants [see the above photo of her discussing this with the mayor of Lousiville]. 

“I want to be the voice that is going to amplify the voice of that refugee girl sitting in a refugee camp, thinking she is never going to leave. Your circumstances don’t necessarily determine your future.”

*Update: Since the interview, Mukesha decided to take the leap of faith and go back to university as a full-time student. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership and Learning at U of Louisville. She is still at Crossroads Ministry, but as a part-time retreat associate, so she can focus on her academics.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.