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‘Sandals in the Snow’: Book recounts Nigerian family’s entree into American life, via Amherst

  • Rose Ihedigbo arrived in the United States on a snowy day in 1979. She writes about the experience, and her life in the U.S., in her new book, "Sandals in the Snow."
  • James Ihedigbo with his first NFL team, the New York Jets
  • James Ihedigbo, number 7 on left, brings down the quarterback of the U.S. Naval Academy team during a 2006 game when Ihedigbo played for the University of Massachusetts Amherst Minutemen.

When Rose Ihedigbo arrived in New York City in 1979, she and her three young children Onyii, Emeka, and Nathaniel were astonished by a white substance they’d never seen, except in photographs: snow.

The Nigerian family had flown to New York’s Kennedy airport, where they were met by Rose’s husband, Apollos, who had been living by himself in western New York state for about a year, preparing a home in the new country for his family. By that point, Apollos was familiar with the cold of a United States winter.

Rose and her children were not: They stepped out of the airport terminal into the snow, wearing the sandals they’d worn from Nigeria.

That memorable moment serves as the title of the family history/memoir that Rose Ihedigbo has written about her family’s experience in making a new life in America — in particular in Amherst, where the Ihedigbos settled in the early 1980s.

“Sandals in the Snow,” by Tate Publishing & Enterprises, recounts how the family struggled financially at first, buying secondhand clothes, returning stray bottles and cans for the deposit money, working extra jobs. But the story is ultimately a successful one: Both Rose and Apollos Ihedigbo earned doctorates from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and their five children found success in their lives and careers.

The “baby” of the family, James Ihedigbo, has earned the biggest spotlight: A determined football and basketball player at Amherst Regional High School and at UMass, he’s since become a defensive back for the New York Jets, the New England Patriots, and most recently the Baltimore Ravens, who won the Super Bowl in February.

“I wanted to share our story with all the people who are struggling, with other immigrants, so that they know there is hope,” Rose Ihedigbo said during a recent phone interview. “I have worked with a lot of people who face hardship, and I wanted them to know that if they work hard, if they have belief and courage and resilience, that they can succeed.”

Ihedigbo, who now lives outside Baltimore, credits tight family bonds, a committed work ethic and a strong Christian faith with enabling her family to make a new life in America. Not that there weren’t difficulties along the way: Her husband, Apollos, died in early 2002. Ihedigbo, who worked for many years with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, has since remarried and now works as an early-childhood education consultant.

But a venture that Apollos Ihedigbo began with his wife has continued. The couple started a technical college in Nigeria that provides computer training and other skills to underprivileged students. Ihedigbo says she and her late husband moved their family to the U.S. to give their children a better chance for an education, and by establishing the technical college in Nigeria, they hoped to give something back to their native country.

“Education was one of the most important things in our lives,” Ihedigbo said. “That was something my husband and I always stressed for our children.”

The family also had a key connection to UMass. Both Apollos and Rose Ihedigbo earned doctorates in education there, and Apollos also served as associate director of the university’s CCEBMS program, which is dedicated to improving opportunities for black UMass students. Two of their children, including James, graduated from UMass.

Confused by hot dogs

But “Sandals in the Snow” explores much more of the Ihedigbos’ lives. It tells how Rose and Apollos grew up under humble circumstances in small villages in Nigeria, where families and neighbors had a close relationship. By the time they met as young adults in the early 1970s at a Christian camp, both were deeply religious. The camp had been started by Billy Roberts, a white missionary from Great Britain, to provide a sanctuary for young people from the bloodshed of the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War, which cost perhaps 3 million lives, mostly from starvation and disease.

The couple married in 1975. Apollos, a bible teacher, decided a few years later that his opportunities for furthering his education would be better at Houghton College, a Christian Liberal Arts College in New York state.

Looking back, Rose Ihedigbo says the family had to make many adjustments in their new home. “We had to learn the way Americans thought, the way they spoke, the food they ate,” she said.

At one point, she and her husband were flummoxed by looking at a cafeteria menu that included “hot dog” — since, as she writes, no one ate dogs in Nigeria. After an American friend explained what a hot dog actually was, Ihedigbo writes that she made a mental note to remember this incident: “There was yet a lot of learning left to do in this new land!”

After settling in Amherst in the early 1980s so that Apollos could continue his studies at UMass — Rose would enroll later — the family faced lean times, with Apollos working odd jobs such as delivering pizzas to make ends meet. But Ihedigbo says the family never felt poor: They had each other, they had Nigerian friends they met through an organization called the African Christian Fellowship, and they made American friends who helped them out in different ways.

At times, the Ihedigbo children — there were now five, with the addition of two younger brothers, David and James — were teased in school for looking, sounding and even smelling different. “Sandals in the Snow” also offers observations from the Ihedigbo children of how some American kids seemed disrespectful to their parents and elders, behavior that was unthinkable to them.

The family also eventually made a number of trips back to Nigeria, in part to see the work Apollos Ihedigbo had begun to establish the technical college. James was disappointed to miss part of his sophomore basketball season at ARHS during his first visit to his parents’ homeland, but the experience, he says in the book, opened his eyes to his own roots.

Following that, and his father’s example, James Ihedigbo set up the HOPE Africa Foundation in Boston, which provides scholarships to African students to attend college in the United States if they commit to returning to Africa to use their skills to help others there. He has also led trips to Africa with other NFL players to teach football skills to children.

“When you see kids with no shoes running drills with such enthusiasm and excitement, you can’t help but be changed,” he says in the book. “It was amazing to see what a kid could do with a little opportunity.”

Rose Ihedigbo says she’s proud of her youngest son’s success — the two have a longtime ritual of praying together by phone before each of his games — but she’s also happy to see her other children settle into productive lives, with families of their own and careers that include restaurant management, teaching and other occupations.

“That’s a big reason I wanted to tell all our stories, to honor their father and show what you can achieve in life if you are committed to your goals and you love one another,” she said.

Additional information about “sandals in the Snow” is available at sandals.tateauthor.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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