Nigerian Refugee's Dreams Come True In Traverse City

Blessing Ovie wipes tears while giving her speech during Traverse City High School's commencement on Friday evening, June 4, 2021, at Lars Hockstad Auditorium in Traverse City, Mich. Ovie, who was born in Nigeria, came to Traverse City from Morocco through a United Nations refugee minor program, and will attend Western Michigan University in the fall. (Jan-Michael Stump/Traverse City Record-Eagle via AP)
Blessing Ovie wipes tears while giving her speech during Traverse City High School's commencement on Friday evening, June 4, 2021, at Lars Hockstad Auditorium in Traverse City, Mich. Ovie, who was born in Nigeria, came to Traverse City from Morocco through a United Nations refugee minor program, and will attend Western Michigan University in the fall. (Jan-Michael Stump/Traverse City Record-Eagle via AP)
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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Blessing Ovie’s wings weren’t just clipped. They weren’t just broken.

No, it was much worse than that.

The world took Ovie’s wings from her. The world convinced her that she didn’t have wings, that she never had wings — that she never would.

Ovie, who is now 20 years old and lives in Traverse City, believed she had no wings. She believed it for years. Ovie resigned herself to a flightless life, one without dreams or goals or hopes or even a tomorrow.

She left Nigeria at 9 years old, bound for Morocco with no parents to look after her. Life was no easier there. It was worse, and Ovie numbed herself to the pain to survive each day.

She doesn’t talk publicly about the details of her ordeal between the ages of 10 and 17, but to hear her speak in generalities of the damage done spares the listener from the brutality Ovie faced.

“There was no hope. Nobody believed in me. Nobody cared. Everything went away. Everything just died,” Ovie told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “I was just living for this day. If there’s today, there’s today. If there’s food, we’ll eat. We’ll sleep — and if there’s a tomorrow, then there’s a tomorrow.”

Ovie talked to God. She prayed for a better life.

Nearly a decade passed before God started answering those prayers.

The United Nations in Africa and Bethany Christian Services in the U.S. got Ovie out of Morocco as an unaccompanied minor refugee. She was put on an airplane to Chicago and eventually made it to Traverse City, where she has lived with her foster parents, Steve Baumgartner and Danielle Beauvais, since 2018.

Ovie calls Baumgartner her dad and Beauvais her mom. They’re the only parents she’s ever known.

“She is a remarkable person,” Baumgartner said. “I would be dead 15 times over (if I went through what she went through).”

Those wings Ovie thought were gone forever? Well, she started to feel a little flutter when she came to the U.S.

“You know when something dies and you feel like this thing is done for, but all of a sudden you turn around and you see something rising up? At that point, you’re not sure what you’re seeing. That’s what happened when I came here,” Ovie said. “I was trying to secure the half part of my heart that was remaining or the part that wasn’t broken — I was trying to save it.”

Just as Ovie finished talking about her heart, her 2-year-old daughter Mirabelle — who did much to heal Ovie’s broken heart and make it full again — ran up to Ovie and nestled into her chest. Ovie wrapped her arms around Mira and hugged her tightly as the toddler worked to writhe free, sparking smiles and eliciting giggles from both of them.

Ovie held Mira and brought her in even closer. If they got any closer, they would have become one. But Ovie and Mira already are one. The love and bond between them is singular and unbroken, strong and unquestioned.

Ovie had no idea she was pregnant with Mira until the day she left Morocco for the U.S. She received a call from her doctor telling her they forgot to give Ovie a pregnancy test during her physical. When the test came back positive, Ovie was afraid officials wouldn’t let her go to the U.S.

Fortunately for the expectant mother and the baby growing inside of her, Ovie’s pregnancy was not an issue. All it meant is that Ovie had more company on the plane.

“Mira was like, ‘You’re not going to America alone,’” Ovie said.

Once Ovie arrived and settled in Traverse City, the 17-year-old needed to be enrolled in school. She hadn’t been in a classroom in nearly eight years, and she wasn’t getting much of an education outside of the classroom when she was in Morocco.

She began at Traverse City West Senior High School in February 2018, but she soon transferred to Traverse City High School. TC High is the district’s alternative high school that provided the services, such as the Generations Ahead program, Ovie would need as she navigated being a student while also being pregnant and eventually a mother.

Teachers and staff helped her as her belly grew, and they almost needed to help when Ovie went into labor.

She said she became used to ignoring pain during her time in Morocco because no one ever cared about her pain. She got so used to the pain that she ignored the contractions she was having while she was in class on that September day. Ovie figured it was just a stomachache, a stomachache that kept happening throughout the day and started to happen more frequently. Beauvais rushed to the school and told Ovie it was “showtime.”

“I was like, ‘Showtime for what?’” Ovie said. “A few minutes later, the pain was crazy.”

Ovie can laugh about it now, but the pain she felt while giving birth to Mirabelle was the kind that she said made her promise God she would never sin again.

Although the TC High staff said Ovie could take three weeks off before coming back to school, the new mother took just two weeks and continued to do her schoolwork while caring for Mira with the help of her mom and dad. Mira started coming to school with Ovie and staying in daycare at TC High when she was a month old, allowing Ovie to take breaks from class to feed and change and just be with her daughter.

Finding the right balance to stay on her feet was not easy, but Ovie managed. She said is eternally grateful to the TC High staff for everything they did for her and Mira. That is why Ovie has such a difficult time understanding the stigma that TC High students face or why anyone would ever say anything negative about the school.

“Every time I would try to see what was wrong with TC High, I found there was nothing wrong with TC High,” Ovie said. “That is where I felt the most welcome. The teachers are really amazing. They care. They understand. They listen. They help the best way they can.”

Jen Ciolek, a science teacher at TC High, cared and understood. She listened and she helped. Ciolek also watched Ovie blossom into the person she is today, growing from shy and quiet to a true leader.

“She is truly one of the hardest working students I’ve ever seen,” Ciolek said. “She wants to learn. She wants to understand. She wants to take on every opportunity that is available for her.”

Ovie saw opportunities at the Career-Tech Center and took them. She saw opportunities to dual enroll at Northwestern Michigan College and took those, too. Ovie even had a job outside of school, which she held down while also caring for Mira.

“It has been an awesome journey to watch her grow into a confident young woman who will continue to own that going into the future,” Ciolek said. “Her past will not determine her future. She is shaping her own future. She has taken control.”

Some of the dreams that died while Ovie was in Morocco started to reemerge while she was at TC High.

Ovie always pictured herself on TV when she was a child. She imagined what it would be like to be a TV host or a presenter. She always wanted to tell stories through a camera.

That dream came true for Ovie through the CTC’s Film and New Media program. Ovie said she immediately felt accomplished just being accepted into the program. Simply being a part of a film, holding a camera and editing footage was enough to make her dream feel realized.

But she gave back to the program as much as she got from it. She was the benchmark the other students had to meet and now have to uphold after she graduated from TC High on Friday.

“She set the standard for the whole class,” said Christina LaMie, paraprofessional for the program. “She has made an impact on the next group of kids, everyone looks up to her and respects her so much. She is one in a million.”

The next few months will be busy for Ovie. Now that she is a high school graduate, Ovie will begin work at the Children’s House Montessori school this summer while Mira attends there. She’ll also prepare to go to NMC full time with the intent of transferring to Western Michigan University to study to become a physical therapist.

Although so much good has come to Ovie in the past three years, she still has a difficult time accepting it as her reality. She’s felt her wings get stronger and she knows they’re stronger because of the people surrounding and supporting her. But part of Ovie is still unsure what will happen if she makes the leap.

“I wanted those wings so bad to fly. Now that I have them and I have people telling me I can fly or that they’ll hold me up or that they’ll be down there to catch me if I fall, I’m scared to fly,” Ovie said. “I tried to fly before, and I fell so bad that I couldn’t stand and I just lied down flat.”

No one would blame Ovie for staying on her perch after what she went through. But she didn’t have a mom then. She does now. She didn’t have a dad. She does now. She didn’t have sisters. She does now. She has friends and so many others who love her.

And she has Mirabelle.

With all of that, Ovie has strength — and she has her wings.

“I know when you pray to God and you ask for something, but this is too much. I know I asked for it, but it was just ... wow,” Ovie said. “It feels so flawless and so perfect, everything I’ve experienced here. Everything is a miracle.”

A miracle and a blessing.