In 1972, ethnic conflicts forced my parents out of their homeland, Burundi. It is a small, poor country located in central Africa. Our tribe spoke Kirundi, and family was very important to them. My parents escaped with other families and moved to a neighboring country, Rwanda. They lived a difficult life in a refugee camp, where I was born in 1986.
In 1994, my family was caught up in yet another ethnic conflict when civil war erupted in Rwanda following the assassination of President Havyarimana. Soldiers and militia forces targeted defenseless civilians and savagely slaughtered them with bullets and machetes.
Many people were killed in front of our eyes. Thousands were wounded and traumatized. I lost family members, uncles, aunties and friends. The infamous Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 people in only one hundred days of ethnic cleansing.
My parents fled Rwanda with their five children. I was eight years old. Escaping the gridlocks of Rwandan warlords and their death squads was a terrifying experience for us, but God and our strong desire for freedom guided us throughout the dangerous journey to Tanzania where we expected to find a safer place. It took us three weeks to reach Tanzania. We walked through the night, kept out of sight during the day and slept in the bush to protect ourselves.
When we arrived to Tanzania, we were tired and hungry. International humanitarian organizations, such as UNHCR, UNICEF, and ONU assisted us. They supplied food, clean water, and provided care for people who were sick and wounded. We lived in tents for shelter. We ate only once a day because food supply was rationed every two weeks. As a result, malnutrition was a serious problem.
I did not speak any of the local languages in Tanzania, so communicating with the host community and other refugees who were from diverse linguistic backgrounds was a challenge. I quickly understood that the resilience that my family had shown until then was not going to be enough.
It became clear to me that formal education was an important pathway to self-sufficiency and freedom. UNICEF provided primary schooling for the children with emphasis on French, Kirundi (my native tongue), math, history, and geography. However, instructional materials were very scarce.
We attended school under trees even if the weather was bad. It was usually extremely hot. We were hungry and thirsty most of the time. It was hard for me to focus, especially when I thought about the loved ones I lost. Yet, the pain and psychological turmoil I experienced were not going to discourage me from pursuing my dream for freedom.
I prayed hard to God to save our lives and give us a good place to live, a place where we could have peace, rights, and liberty. In the meantime, I pursued my education at a secondary school while also growing stronger in the informal education that my family and community were giving me around our cultural beliefs and practices, including the traditional Burundi drumming.
My family came to the United States in July 2007 through a refugee resettlement program. I was 21 years of age. I started my American journey in Arizona armed with the basic formal education skills I developed in Tanzania refugee camps and the invaluable informal education that my family instilled in me. This gave me values that allowed me to always hold myself to high standards and believe that no achievement is beyond my reach, if I set my mind to it.
I quickly learned that I would have to fight for my American dream of freedom, and prosperity. I knew it would not come easily. I was in a new culture, among new people, with a new language. Everything was so different here! My life was a continual struggle. It was like asking a right-handed person to write with the left hand.
Two ladies from the University of Arizona were kind to my family, and they taught us English. I asked them many questions, and I practiced reading, writing and speaking. They took me to the library and introduced me to basic books in English. I learned about life in America and how to get a formal education. I learned that America is a place with so many opportunities!
After living in Arizona for two years, I moved to Salt Lake City where my brother and his family lived. I took some tests and was accepted into SaltLakeCommunity College. Now, I am taking math, English, and psychology to fulfill the general requirements.
I became the leader of the Burundi Community in Utah that is about 500 people strong. I translate and advocate for them. I know how hard life is here in America, and some of the people are lost. Many are separated from their families and traumatized by living in refugee camps for sometimes 40 years. They have problems speaking English and getting a job because of no education. They fail to control their children, so some families are breaking up. Younger generations are joining gangs instead of focusing on education.
We work to bring people together to solve problems, and we organize meetings and workshops on how to live here. It is powerful to see people doing right and giving to others what they want to get back. I also teach our youth the Burundi traditional drumming and dance. We call ourselves the Burundi Drummers. Through this informal education program, I hope to help preserve and perpetuate some of our best cultural practices.
However difficult the struggles have been in my life, they have taught me important lessons. It takes courage to be a refugee. There is no success without pain, sacrifice and effort. When my people feel vulnerable and hopeless around me, I encourage them and remind them that they have freedom, rights, and liberty in America. By working together, hand in hand, we can learn to respect one another, share what we have and improve everyone’s life.
NOTE: Alex Ngendakuriyo now has a family of his own. He and the Burundi Drummers are in high demand as performers and speakers in their community. His story was first published in One World, Many Stories – Seeking Freedom and Dignity.