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Hours after Denise Luke was born in Togo, a west African nation, her family thought they were looking at her for the last time. She was born a bit overdue, and had swallowed some bodily fluids during the birthing process. A man passing by asked what was going on and the family told him that she was dead. The man looked at her, then made a cut under both of her eyes and applied some material on the wound. Seconds later she was awake.

Denise's journey

story by Shaban Athuman

As Denise Luke walks a narrow bridge toward home, a school bus stops and the door pops open.

“Bon jour! Ça va?” the driver shouts.

She turns around to see who it is and then responds, “Ça va bien!”

The door closes and the bus pulls away.

“See, I told you everyone loves me!” Denise says with a laugh.

Denise is far away from her native land, but she has found community in Morehead. People know her from school, from volunteer work, from her singing and from her gardening — especially her hot peppers.

“Those peppers almost killed me,” says Matt Reeves, system manager at Community Recycling Center, where Denise volunteers. “We love having her here."

Nine years ago, Denise uprooted her family and moved to the United States. Despite having only a fourth-grade education, she enrolled in an adult education class at Bluegrass Community and Technical College the day after she arrived in Lexington.

She was able to come to America in 2008, almost three years after her husband, Anku Djassayor, was poisoned in a refugee camp.  He was the person who helped them escape their native Togo as war erupted, took her to Ghana and helped her finish her last year of school. He also had been the person who encouraged her to "embrace cosmetology" as a career after she earned money in the refugee camp doing hair.

As a girl, Denise says she was spoiled. "My mom had a housewife who helped her," she explains. "I did nothing growing up."

After she found the love of her life, she says he told her: "If I die or if something happens, I want somebody to marry you and that person will say, 'I have a good lady,' so he trained me like the military."

After six years in Lexington, Denise decided to move to Morehead to be closer to her second son, a Morehead State University student. She enrolled in the Rowan campus of Maysville Community and Technical College to finish her cosmetology degree. She worked two jobs to support three of her four sons — her oldest was married and working — and volunteered at the recycling center.

"She is a very joyous person to be around,” says William Collin Alexander, a manager at the center. “She’s very vocal, she likes to sing a lot.”

"Everybody welcomed me here," Denise says. "When I had a health issue and I didn’t finish a semester, everyone asked about me, everybody wanted me to succeed. That enthusiasm helped me."

Denise is a licensed cosmetologist and wants to open her own hair salon someday.

"I said if you want to do that, you need to take the correct steps," William says. "I want to be here for you if you need advice."

At age 50, Denise attends general studies classes at Morehead State with students less than half her age. Two of her children also attend Morehead: Emmanuel, 23, and Vaillant, 19.

"We get old, but education will never get old," Denise says. "That’s why we need to rush our time, because the time will come and you will never be able to study. That’s the reason why I say I know my career, I know my skill I need to move on and learn the language."

William understands her struggle.

"She’s funny, inspirational," William says. "I think everyone deserves someone like that in their life, and I am happy to have Denise in mine."





Denise receives photo printing advice from her professor, Robyn Moore, during a photo lab. "The first project was not easy," Denise says. "I put all my photos on the wall and [Robyn] was crying."


As they gather for dinner, Denise asks Vaillant (right) to lead prayers. Denise along with Vaillant are devout Jehovah's Witnesses. Emmanuel continues to watch television, she asks him to turn it off and he refuses. Seconds later, Denise tells Vaillant to grab the remote and turn it off.


Denise plays with Daxter at home before attending a photo lab class at Morehead State University. She adopted Daxter from a former convict she worked with at the Community Recycling Center. Daxter was one of three puppies.


Denise enters the darkroom during her photo lab class at Morehead State. "It wasn’t easy," she says. "Everyone was ahead of me but the professor is amazing." Denise is scheduled to graduate in May 2018.


Denise greets William Collin Alexander, manager at the Community Recycling Center, where she volunteers. "She’s a strong individual, but I told her that she needed to stay in school," William says. The two have become close friends after Denise supported William when his son was born premature.


Denise speaks about fleeing Togo to the neighboring country of Ghana. While in a refugee camp in Ghana, Denise helped support her family by styling her neighbors' hair.


Denise pauses in her doorway before leaving home for her photo lab. "The only way I can help people is to be educated," she says.

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