Growing up, Paola Benefo thought of herself as a proud adopted American, benefiting because the U.S. is a melting pot of people from different countries, races and religions.

She was born in Italy, the daughter of Ghanaian parents. When she was 5, her family moved to the United States for a life with more education and work opportunities, and they embraced their new home.

Then the Sept. 11 attack changed everything, and Benefo and her family were unable to renew their legal residency. They stayed in the U.S., living in the shadows, fearful of being found out.

Instead of letting the family secret hold her back, Benefo worked harder in school to prove she had something to contribute. Her future seemed brighter until her mother was laid off from a longtime job at a local nursing home in 2011 and had trouble finding new work.

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