How My Family Ended Up On Dancing With The Stars

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Building Wealth and Owning Something—on Your Terms

I came to America with nothing. And when you have nothing, an awful lot of people who mean well make assumptions, virtually all of them wrong, about what you need and want, Still, by the time I graduated from college, I knew how important it was to build a foundation for my family and me. In college, I was grinding to be successful so I could make the most of my future. When I graduated from college and got a job, I realized my future had arrived. I had to shift my primary focus from accumulating knowledge to achieving security for my family. I never overextended myself. My wife and I lived in a small apartment while I was finishing graduate school. We decided to continue to live there after I graduated to save money and work toward something of our own. I also felt like I had something to prove to myself. An opportunity to own a house fell through in the fall of my senior year in College, and that made me hungrier to buy a place to prove to myself that I could do it.

When I was growing up, my family and I never waited for people to hand us things. We never felt we were victims. We worked hard and accepted the reality of our limitations without letting them stop us from striving for more. My mother instilled in us this value: “A chicken does not eat more than it can swallow.” I held on to this value. We were always realistic with the plans we put in place in order to reach the next milestone. We admitted when we needed help or did not know certain things. My mother taught me to be resourceful, to always be open to learn and to find people I could learn from. We were fortunate to have people in our lives who advocated for us and helped connect the missing pieces.

One of these people was a man named Michael, who wanted to practice his French and help new immigrants who were resettling in NH. When he found out that we had recently emigrated to Manchester from the Congo—where the primary language happens to be French—he felt compelled to meet us. We hit it off right away and Michael has remained a close family friend. But we certainly had no clue when we first met that he would have such a big impact on our lives.

In 2007, Michael thought it would be a good idea to put together a small documentary about my family and send it to the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on ABC. We did not think much of it, but we made the video anyway and sent it out. We told our story and showcased our dance skills. We didn’t hear anything back until the spring of 2010. A producer of the show contacted us and told us she loved our story and that we were a potential finalist. We were surprised to hear from them. They sent another producer and a camera crew to create a finalist video. We were more excited about telling our story than we were about getting a home, because we realized that our story would give a voice to thousands, perhaps millions, of people who didn’t have one. The producer came to our home and filmed us as a family at home as well as doing our dancing and different things in our community. From spring through the summer, they contacted us frequently to inform us that we were still in the running..

Our situation was different than those of other selected families. As a matter of fact, there were two families in NH who had been selected in the past. Most people had their own homes, which were then remodeled. We did not have a home of our own, but they were still interested in us. They also reached out to the City of Manchester and the alderman in our area. The city initially said yes to donating land for building a home. All of these discussions were happening without our knowledge. At times, the directors of the show spoke to two of our friends whom we had designated to arrange logistics in the event we were selected. Things were looking good. And by early fall my family was chosen to receive a new home. But they didn’t tell us right away because there were some complications that arose with the city. Apparently an alderman changed his mind and decided to vote against donating the land after all. And that was that. The show could not move forward. I am not sure exactly what occurred that changed the alderman's point of view but I do know that some leaders in Manchester and New Hampshire were unsympathetic to refugees. In fact, the mayor had asked for a moratorium on refugee resettlement in the city. Since the premise of our episode on the show was to highlight our story of escaping war and finding a voice in the state, as well as to honor our mother for all her hard work, I can only speculate that this played a role in reneging on the land deal. This wasn’t the end of my relationship with ABC.

In October of 2010, I was in my college dorm room preparing for a quiz when I received a phone call from a producer of the TV show “Dancing with The Stars.” The call caught me completely off guard.

“We got your story from the producers of ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ and we want to feature you in our show,” the producer said. “ Would you be interested in performing with your brothers to honor your mother?”

I was shocked. “I’ll have to talk to my family first,” I said. “I’ll get back to you.”

“Do what you got to do,” he said. “But keep it under your hat that the idea is to honor your mom.” His tone was conspiratorial.

“Got it,” I said.

An appearance on “Dancing with The Stars.” I couldn’t believe it. I called my brothers and mother and told them the good news, that the show wanted to do a segment on us. My brothers were excited. My mother sounded less enthusiastic but said she was fine about. I don’t think she knew how big a deal this was. This was national television on a top rated show.

I called the producer back told him we were all in. He told me they also wanted us to perform, but not to tell my mother about that either so it would be a surprise for her. He said he would send a producer and film crew that weekend to shoot the segment, and the following week we would fly out to LA to be on the live show. He also mentioned that Kym Johnson, one of the professional dancers, was going to fly out to Manchester to work with us to co-choreograph the segment. I was excited and shocked that all of this was happening.

Even though we lost the opportunity for a new home, another door opened. That's one of the funny and wonderful things I’ve discovered about perseverance. When you bust your butt to succeed in one area, you create this kind of magnetic field around you that draws to you all these other opportunities that you never imagined. Like this “Dancing with Stars” gig. We didn’t know the gig itself would ever happen. Then when it did, we didn’t know all of this stuff was happening on the back end. But it all started to make sense when I framed my perseverance as the connection between everything. And now my family was going to have the chance to tell our story to millions of people.

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So Kym Johnson and I co-choreographed the segment dance and we rehearsed in Manchester with my brothers without my mother knowing. The following week we flew out to LA for the show. We detoured for an awesome time in Disneyland first. Then we rehearsed on stage and met all the contestants for that season, including Rick Fox, Brandy, Kurt Warner, Jennifer Grey and Kyle Massey. We even got a chance to meet John Legend and Jason Derulo who performed that week, too,. Surprising, it did not feel shocking being on the show anymore. In fact, it felt like that was where we belonged. We were not scared to perform. We were pumped to be on the show.

Meanwhile, the news spread back home that we were going to be on the show. Close friends sent Facebook messages wishing us luck, which made us feel more like stars. We sat in the audience with our mother, but just before our segment aired, my brothers and I were sent backstage. Our video story was playing on the big screen while we prepared to perform our dance with the professional dancers. It was a surreal feeling. We were ready to tear the floor up. Then the music started. It was a Cha Cha/Hip Hop fusion. We started to dance.

The professional dancers of the show were the real deal. I remembered some of them from the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” We all had solos in the dance and my brother Vinny finished his session with an amazing front flip. We received a standing ovation from the audience. It was a great moment for me and my brothers, but what it really represented was all the hard work my mother put in raising us and keeping us safe.

Later, we met some of the producers of the “Extreme Makeover” show who shared our story with the DWTS producers. They said they were sorry things didn't work out with the city officials in Manchester. I told them I was grateful for the opportunity they offered us to share our story and talents with millions of viewers.

On the flight home, I thought about what happened with the Manchester alderman who blocked my family from getting a home. And I concluded that it didn’t matter. I did not need them to give us land. We never relied on people to hand us stuff and we were not going to start now by begging officials to donate property. From that day on, I knew my quest was to buy a home of my own. I never doubted that it was possible. I just knew I needed to finish school and get a job first.

I did not have a credit card in college, so after graduation I decided to finance a vehicle to build my credit. My mother and my father-in-law co-signed car loans for my wife and I. I made sure I paid everything on time. The next thing I needed was an advisor to help me understand the process of buying a home. I thought it might be smart to buy a multi-family home. I reached out to a gentleman I used to go to church with, Norm, who owned many properties and flipped homes. He was open to teaching me. Six months went by and I had a great credit score, good to qualify to buy a home. I was working two jobs, a full-time job at the National Passport Center and a part-time job at the university as a learning coach. I was determined to succeed.

And I did. When I was just 22, with a loan from my in-laws for a down payment, my wife and I purchased our first home. We were able to pay our in laws the down payment back within a few months. It was a major milestone for me. And I had proven to myself it was obtainable and that I did not need help from the Manchester City officials.

Our home had two units and, within a month, we had tenants in our second floor unit. Their portion of the rent covered a lot of the mortgage. Many people who saw our home did not believe a young black man and his wife owned the place and that I was also the landlord. It was a reality they weren’t used to seeing. Those things do not faze me, because I know that, if I put my mind to something and develop the skills I need and am open to learning, I can reach my goals. People who only see the surface do not know what has shaped me or where I came from.

Perseverance is everything. You have to be able to sacrifice and put in the time to get what you want. While you are in the process of developing and building, you have to know what you need and how that differs from what you want. You do not want to put more in your mouth than what you can swallow.




Eritrean Refugees experiencing snow for the first time

I had to make a reaction video to the video of the Eritrean Refugees experiencing snow for the first time in Canada. The video warmed my heart and encouraged me very much. It reminded me when I first experienced snow 18 years ago in Manchester NH as former refugees from the Congo. The best video to go viral! It reminds us that everyone needs a chance to live and have a better life. The celebration of the refugee children is a symbol of hope, faith and perseverance. I originally saw the video through The Shapiro Foundation. The Shapiro Foundation is based in Boston and they are doing amazing work advocating and funding refugees resettlement all over. We can do better to advocate for others and we must continue to challenges ourselves in being proactive in helping marginalized refugee populations.

We Are All Human-Community Forum(After 2016 Election)

We Are All Human-Community Forum after 2016 election focused on how we were going to move forward after the 2016 election. We Are All Human—a community discussion on race and inclusion created by Deo—provides a positive environment to discuss race and cultural differences. To better understand how improvements can be made, participants get opportunities to express their concerns and ask each other questions. By helping participants to fully confront their biases, the program has had much success in facilitating engagement.We can make the world a better place if we can view those different from ourselves as equally human.

Deo Mwano serves a large community. Not just local, it spans the entire country. Drawing from often painful but instructive life experiences as well as an undergraduate and graduate education, Deo has much to offer to his community and your community. If you are interested to bring a We Are All Human event to your organization/community reach out to Deo by clicking on the contact.

How a community embraced a family of refugees and changed its trajectory

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Our flight from Benin to New York City carried 250 refugees. We arrived at JFK Airport on February 17, 2000. Things were happening very fast. In two hours we would board a small airplane headed to Manchester, New Hampshire. All we knew about New Hampshire was that it was close to Boston. It felt surreal to actually be in America. There were five of us—my three brothers, my mother and myself. At nine, I was now the patriarch of the family. We had spent the last two years living as refugees in the small West African country of Benin. Of our fellow passengers, we were the only ones going to New Hampshire.

The airplane to New Hampshire had just 30 passengers. For the entire flight my mother’s arm was draped across the shoulders of my two youngest brothers, Destin, age two, and Gedeon, age three. I set next to Vinny, who was seven. I kept thinking about the vast cement and asphalt city of New York as we flew over a wilderness of trees covered with snow. I wondered if we would be the only African family going to this place.

A man’s voice over the intercom filled the cabin. He spoke in English and, since our grasp of the language was minimal, we did not know what he was saying. As the airplane descended, we saw roads and small houses.

“Is this it?” I asked my mother. She did not know. Snow covered everything and there were no tall buildings.

The airplane landed and we were the last ones to disembark. I was entrusted with our blue and white IOM (International Organization for Migration) bag. Given to us by the UN at the refugee camp, the bag contained all of our refugee documentations and destination information. Without it we would be lost—literally and figuratively. We were told to keep the bag visible throughout our travels.

A whole new world

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There was no passenger bridge, so we had to walk outside to get to the terminal. It was bone-chilling cold. Inside we were welcomed by Moraud, a specialist from Lutheran Services (now Ascentria Care—based in Concord NH). Originally from Morocco, Moraud spoke French. We felt more at ease thanks to his warm greeting and ability to communicate with us. He told us we would stay in temporary housing until our place was ready the following day.

Our apartment in Manchester had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. It was furnished with second-hand furniture in good condition. Our cabinets and fridge had food purchased by Moraud with funds from Lutheran Services. A few trash bags contained second-hand clothes. My brothers and I sorted through the clothes and picked the ones we liked. We were excited to settle down in our apartment.

So was my mother. She had no possessions to give us, but she had something better. “I have nothing to give you but guidance,” she said. And with that guidance, she assured us, she would help us find whatever opportunities this country offered us.

Sister Irene The Angel

Lutheran Services showed us around during our first few days in New Hampshire. They took us to hospital appointments, grocery shopping, immigration appointments and enrolled us in social welfare programs. My mother was enrolled in ESOL classes. We found a local Catholic church, Saint Anthony’s, a few streets from our home. We met some awesome people at Saint Anthony’s. By our second week in Manchester, many people had welcomed us.

The first person we met was Sister Irene. She visited us with a box of food and trash bags of clothes. She became one of our closest friends and introduced us to many people. She spoke French and helped my family very much. Every day we had people knocking on our door. Most of our new friends were French Canadian families who had lived in Manchester for generations. Among them were the Bessonettes, who basically adopted my family. We called the two grandparents Papa and Mama Bessonette. They had a vast immediate family in Manchester and the surrounding towns. Between the Bessonettes and Sister Irene, we felt welcomed and loved by the people of Manchester. Furthermore, we were fortunate to meet some other African families who resettled in New Hampshire. They came from Burundi, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia.

Mwano family

Mwano family

By the third week, my brother Vinny and I enrolled at a local elementary school which was one mile from my house. My two younger brothers started daycare. My mother continued going to the ESOL classes. But the excitement of moving to America began to dwindle the longer we settled in. And we began to experience the challenge of starting from scratch in a new country—with no family or money, unable to speak the native language, and not having a driver’s license or a car. While we lived in a great location, close to a Walgreens Pharmacy and Vista Foods grocery store, everything else was à la carte. For transportation we relied on taxis, friends, and sometimes the Lutheran Services. Public transportation in Manchester was not the best. When my mother realized the money she was getting from the social services was not enough to support us, she stopped going to the ESOL classes and, with the help of Lutheran Services, found a job at a local factory. She was able to coordinate rides with some of her co-workers and in return paid for the transportation.

Our first month in New Hampshire was not easy, but we were able to acclimate and find help when we needed it from a circle of about 50 people. Sister Irene was the angel from heaven who oversaw much of this help. She gave my mother strength and advocated for us in many areas when Lutheran Services support tapered off. During our first summer, Sister Irene coordinate with volunteers to drive my brothers and me around while my mother was at work. One family even took Vinny and me to a summer program. Another family took my two brothers to daycare. We were never alone.

Sister Irene was the impetus behind our first-year successes and breakthroughs. She spent a lot of her time getting to know us and customized her support based on what worked for us. By February of 2001, a year later after arriving in NH, we had a community of friends we called family. We no longer had Lutheran Services supporting us. Most resettlement agencies support new refugees for three to six months. Sister Irene taught us how to be resourceful.

The Bessonettes, the family who adopted us

We became part of the Bessonette family. They were strong and giving people. On most holidays and birthdays they brought us to their home and blessed us with gifts, love, and encouragement. On her 27th birthday, my mother was surprised with a celebration. Everyone brought her gifts, and she had a large cake. My mother was very happy that day. She had gone through a lot of trauma helping my family get out of the Congo, and was particularly grateful to have the Bessonette women for moral and mental support. Mama Bessonette always had her back. We were all overwhelmed by the Bessonettes’ kindness.

Bessonette family

Bessonette family

It took my mother four months to get her license after we moved to Manchester. This, along with having a car, was a major milestone for my family. It built our confidence and gave us encouragement. Now we had our own vehicle to go places. It meant more freedom and more access to the things we wanted to do. And it would not have been possible without the Bessonette family’s encouragement and support. They dedicated their time to teach my mom how to parallel park and risked their own credit by co-signing her loan. At the end of 2000, we spent Christmas at the Bessonettes. Their immediate family totaled 35.

The Bessonette family showed us unconditional love that helped us heal the many wounds we brought with us to New Hampshire.

Holidays with the Bessonette

Holidays with the Bessonette

I found Congo in New Hampshire through music

As our circle grew, we continued to make progress adjusting to New Hampshire life. We were also becoming more self-sufficient. The ability of my brothers and me to speak English improved tremendously. My first two years of school were spent in ESOL classrooms. Many of my friends were from Sudan, the Dominican Republic, Bosnia, Mexico, Vietnam and Uruguay. We were all trying to learn English and adapt to America. Extracurricular activities like sports, music, and performance allowed us to integrate with native students.

Deo and his classmates from his ESOL class celebrating a birthday

Deo and his classmates from his ESOL class celebrating a birthday

In fall 2001, I started sixth grade at McLaughlin Middle School. I was in an ESOL class for most of the day but was able to take other classes with native students. In sixth grade, I joined the orchestra. I enjoyed learning music and how to play the viola. Under the guidance of my teachers, we started a bongos percussion ensemble and performed at different school events with the orchestra. It was an awesome experience. I was able to utilize my drum skills from growing up in the Congo. I am grateful to my orchestra teachers for the opportunities they gave me. It was the beginning of my involvement in extracurricular activities.

Deo in his sixth grade ESOL class

Deo in his sixth grade ESOL class

Middle School at Saint Joseph—I don’t want to tuck my shirt in

When Sister Irene saw how I excelled in certain areas in my learning, she thought I should attend a private school. She worked very hard to advocate for me to attend Saint Joseph, a private middle school with students from all over New Hampshire. I was accepted and began in seventh grade. My mother thought Saint Joseph was a better place for me to study, but I did not want to go. At Saint Joseph, we had to wear uniforms and tuck in our shirts. And no jeans! There were no ESOL classes either and diversity was very low. There was only one other black student and one biracial kid—half black, half white. On the first day of school, I fought with my mother because I did not want to tuck my shirt in. She dropped me off, but wouldn’t drive away until I tucked in my shirt.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School event

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School event

But I misjudged Saint Joseph. It ended up being one of the best environments for me to learn and engage. I discovered a lot about myself in 7th and 8th grade. The school ignited my inner creativity. I felt very welcomed by the teachers and my classmates. I joined the soccer team and loved it. The administration encouraged me to pursue dance and music. I formed a dance team, and we performed at school events. I was not the best student academically, but I worked very hard. I spent twice the time doing certain assignments as my classmates. On the plus side, my English continued to improve. Even better, I made lifelong friends. My friends’ parents were very welcoming, too. They would always give me a ride home. Sometimes they even covered extracurricular costs my mother could not afford.

Deo's Saint Joseph Experience

Deo's Saint Joseph Experience

Overcoming Depression

Even though I had a great experience at Saint Joseph, middle school was a very dark period for me. I dealt with depression, anger, and suicidal thoughts. The more comfortable I was adjusting to America, the more my past experiences with the civil war in the Congo haunted and tortured me. I would share stories with my classmates about the atrocities I experienced. Some were open to learning, but others didn’t care or understand the magnitude of my family’s ordeal. Through prayers and focusing on things that built my confidence and kept me engaged, I was able to have some breakthroughs.

Deo and his brothers

Deo and his brothers

Church Family

Church always played an important role in my family’s successful acculturation. We ended up changing to a non-denominational Pentecostal church called Believers Christian Outreach Church. This church was more aligned with what we had known. It was critical to my emotional development during my resettlement. Believers treated us as family. In fact, my Pastor, John Fortin, and the elders—Nick Dager, Harry Shepler, Norm Hebert, and Ron Cote—treated me like a son. They mentored me. When I needed help, they stepped in and cared for me unconditionally. They even helped me develop a sense of responsibility by giving me work at their businesses and yard work. The extra money freed my mother from worrying about her inability to buy me the things she thought an American boy should have.

The pastor and church elders helped me to see possibilities I could not see on my own. I also met some awesome women—JoAnn Trombly, Michelle Dager, Barbara Shepler, Darla Freeborn, Anna Hebert, and Celeste Fortin—who were also very nurturing. It was like having a group of mothers who had my back. JoAnn Trombly was my youth group leader. She worked with my mother to help her see the value of my involvement with different activities. I remember calling JoAnn and crying to her about how depressed I was and how I could not escape my bad memories. She always had great words of encouragement and helped me find activities that cleared my mind of self-destructive thoughts.

At the end of middle school, I overcame many of my personal challenges. I came out a very different person than when I started. My church and Saint Joseph families were critical in building my confidence, encouraging my creativity, and making me feel like I belonged. I developed a strong self-confidence and drive. My community in Manchester gave me a seat at the table to be me. I felt grounded and knew I would have support in whatever direction I chose to go. And of course having the support of my own family during those first four years of living in Manchester provided me with a strong foundation for what I hoped to accomplish.

Deo at Saint Joseph's 8th grade Graduation Ceremony

Deo at Saint Joseph's 8th grade Graduation Ceremony

In so many ways I was lucky to come to America when I did. Today refugees and immigrants are marginalized. They feel—and are—unwelcome too often. People come to America because they want the opportunity for a better life. It’s not an easy process. Refugees must endure a long and tough vetting process. Case review takes a minimum of 32 months to resettle once selected. Refugees have less than a 5 percent chance to resettle in western countries. Diseases and sometimes blood types prevent people from being selected. For those who are chosen, it’s a dream come true. The average time spent in a refugee camp is ten years. By the time refugees move to their final destination, many are starting from scratch with nothing except the dream of a better life. It is our duty as American citizens to provide a welcoming community. This will not only increase the success trajectory of refugees. It will encourage refugees to contribute positively to your community.

I leave you with these thoughts: Your ancestors came to this country to find a better life. Along the way, they relied on help from their communities to succeed. That success trickled down to the privilege and access you have today. How can you get involved and contribute to a positive trajectory of refugees’ success in your community, town, city and state? Find out today.

Let's Collaborate!

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