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By SAM SPOKONY | ORIGINALLY POSTED APRIL 22, 2014 | At a high-profile forum at the Lower East Girls Club last week all eyes were initially on the organization’s featured guests, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, who were there speaking and taking questions as part of the Clinton Foundation’s “No Ceilings” initiative to empower girls across the world.
But for one teen in attendance April 17, the event’s Q&A period quickly became one of the most important moments of her life.
Nova Bajamonti, 19, a student who began attending L.E.S. Girls Club programs several years ago and has now become a proud Girls Club employee, raised her hand, stood up and made an admission that drew gasps and applause from the crowd.
“For the first time publicly, I want to say that I’m an undocumented immigrant,” said Bajamonti, speaking through tears.
“It’s been very hard for me because I don’t have the documentation I need to get a job, to vote, which is essential to women’s representation, or to buy an apartment, or to take out a loan for college,” she continued, going on to explain she came with her parents from their native Croatia at the age of 5 and has lived in America ever since.
Bajamonti, who now lives in Woodside, Queens with her mother, later said she’s soon graduating from the Borough of Manhattan Community College in Lower Manhattan, and will be going on to Brooklyn College next fall. Although she’s struggled after her green card application was denied — her mother’s has been pending since 2006, and her father’s was also denied, leading him to leave America — Bajamonti now works at La Tiendita, the L.E.S. Girls Club booth in the Essex St. Market, which sells products made by club members and is operated through a job-training program that focuses on professional development and culinary arts training.
The Girls Club’s main center, where the Clinton Foundation forum was held, is located on E. Eighth St.
During her question for the Clintons, the teen went on ask: “What do we need to do to make [immigration reform] a priority when it comes to Congress? Because this is an extreme glass ceiling for me that I can’t even control.”
And before answering, Hillary Clinton took a moment to praise the girl for her courage to come out.
“That was really brave, and I thank you for doing that,” said the former U.S. Secretary of State who is considering another run for president, “because it’s important to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. One of the big hopes I have is that we can get back to being a country where people can understand what others are going through, and have empathy for it, and really try to help each other.”
Clinton went on to stress her strong support for immigration reform legislation that has passed the U.S. Senate — a bill that would create a path to citizenship for Bajamonti and America’s 11 million other undocumented immigrants — but has not made it through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
Later, Bajamonti said that response from one of the world’s most idolized women made her declaration worthwhile.
“It was very empowering,” she said. “It was a very big and liberating moment for me. I’ve been keeping this secret in order to protect myself for so many years, but after seeing inspiring women and seeing this conversation, I felt empowered to say what I’m going through, and what I’ve had to live through all my life.
“When we’re talking about empowering women, it’s great to get politics involved,” she continued, “because of the fact that I can’t apply for the same jobs, can’t get financial aid to help pay college tuition, and I haven’t seen my family [in Croatia] in seven years. It’s just my mom and I here, and so all of that is why I felt the need to share my story.”
The event drew widespread media interest for an entirely different reason— Chelsea Clinton announced she was expecting a baby, which drew about the same level of applause as Bajamonti’s remarks.
After the forum, Lyn Pentecost, founder and executive director of the L.E.S. Girls Club, said she had no idea that Bajamonti was going to declare her status publicly that day, but felt proud of her for doing so.
“I was moved,” said Pentecost, beaming. “How could you not be moved by that? And it was really the most appropriate venue to come out about this very important issue.”
Pentecost explained that she learned Bajamonti was undocumented about four years ago, while the teen was enrolled in education programming at the Girls Club. A group of girls in her program were scheduled to take an annual trip to Chiapas, Mexico, but Bajamonti wasn’t able to go because she couldn’t get a passport.
“So we knew about it, and we’ve known about the struggles Nova and her mother have gone through,” she said.
A Girls Club staff member, Annette Rodriguez, who teaches sign language and dance at the organization, said she’s friendly with Bajamonti and knew that she’s had a hard life, but didn’t realize she was undocumented until her announcement at the forum.
“It was heartwrenching,” Rodriguez said of the teen’s speech. “It made me tear up. Because all the girls that attend here, and especially if they become employees, we treat them as if they’re our girls. So it feels like she’s one of my daughters.
“The fact is that a lot of our girls have had their share of struggles,” she continued, “but that’s part of what makes the Girls Club so wonderful. Bcause these girls are able to come here, to come together, and we help each other find ways to overcome those obstacles. We’re like a family.”