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.
by Joaquin Lequerica Vasquez
I was born in Iquitos, Peru and grew up a little further up river from Yanamono II and then downstream. I am currently 72 years old. I grew up in a suffering type of life because my father abandoned me when I was little and my mom took care of me. When my father left, my mom moved from our village to Iquitos. My mom could hardly afford clothes and food and I had to work at an early age to help provide for us. Because of that I did not have an education but I decided on my own to learn and study. When I was 14 years old my mom left me and went to Lima. I had to clean my own clothes. I had to cook for myself and I continued to work.
When I was fifteen, I left Iquitos and came to a village on the Amazon, in the rainforest. I met a friend, from Spain, who had a beautiful house. Together we decided that we would work with wood. I didn’t know that kind of work at the time. It took us four days journey to walk to a place where my friend knew that there would be good wood. We took our machetes and cut down a very big pine tree. It was a lot of work. We cut off the branches of the tree and cut in into pieces. After four months of preparation, we brought the wood to Iquitos to sell the wood for money. In Iquitos the people paid my friend and gave him the money. My friends mislead me and lied to me. Although we worked together we were not paid separate and He did not give me any of the money. He said, “I will pay you what I want and when I want.” That was a very bad thing that he did to me and we almost got into a fight. He said, “one day I will pay you.”
The next day he said, “Tomorrow, let’s go for a trip.” A group of twenty of us travelled about eight hours above Iquitos and then up a tributary in a large boat. We stopped there and then started walking through the mountains cutting our way through the Jungle. We finally reached a big lagoon. The water was very pure, very pretty. It was sparkly and shiny. For thirty days we panned for gold in the pretty waters and found many small pieces of gold that weighed a kilo in total. We left for Iquitos to sell the gold. The total trip took four months. The Spaniard gave me his address where he lived in Iquitos and said, “Tomorrow I will pay you.” The next day the twenty of us in our group got together to have him pay us. We went to his house and knocked on the door. The Spaniard was not there. We returned in the afternoon. He still was not there. The next day we went and we called for him. He still was not there. We looked for him for a whole month – we wanted to get paid. All twenty of us grouped together to see what we could do to try and get him to pay us. We went to his house and we broke down his door. A man came to the door that was very big and very strong. He asked us what we were doing. We told the man that this Spaniard had been cheating us and he told us to “go tell the authorities.” A secretary wrote down our statement as we explained what happened to the authorities. The Spaniard finally came but the authorities couldn’t make the Spaniard pay.
When I was 22 I came to Yanamono. I began to grow agriculture here – plantains, yucca and corn. I met my wife during a fiesta. We were married one year later and we have lived here ever since. I have thirteen children. All thirteen of my children have left Yanamono except for two. Some of my children are living in Lima.
When my children were young I worked in a convent for four months cleaning it. The convent was large with two floors. The boys were on the bottom floor and the girls were on the top floor. It also had a school in it. At night we locked the doors to the convent. One night a nun told me to come with her. Some Indians had kidnapped one of the nuns. They were looking for her and noticed that the doors were unlocked. They said that I was the one responsible and they blamed me and told me I couldn’t work there anymore. The nun never returned to the convent.
People of many colors live in Sudan and speak more than 300 languages. My father’s people were from Egypt and Turkey. My mother was from Ethiopia.
For 25 years, my father and his family owned a famous bakery in Ethiopia. He made baklava, kunafa and other Middle Eastern desserts for the Italian community there. My father was very smart, and he spoke seven languages. He had a can-do attitude, and he loved me.
By the time I was seven years old, I could crochet, sew and embroider. In elementary school, I received a basic education. Everyone studied the Koran, reading, math and several languages, including English. At home, we spoke Arabic, Amharic and English. Our family believed in Islam and practiced our faith.
In 1962, when I was nine years old, my father moved our family to the capital city of Sudan near the juncture of two rivers, the Blue Nile from Ethiopia and the White Nile from Kenya. My father baked in our house, and everybody helped. My mother became well known for making delicious sambusa and falafel, and I learned to do everything.
In a geography class in my country, we learned about America and other countries in the world. “Today, we’re going to visit a friend in Australia,” our teacher said. We got to know friends across the globe, like Harry from America, John from Australia and Gretchen from Switzerland. It was a very positive class, and I learned that we have a world family.
I was twelve years old when I married in 1964. In our culture, a daughter’s family chooses someone for her to marry, and she can’t say no. Islam says the young woman has a choice to marry, but in practice, she just is not asked.
After I married, I went with my husband’s family and lived in their house in the capital city near the Nile River. In my country, the married sons stay at home to help their parents, and the daughters leave home to be with their husbands. My first child was born when I was thirteen years old.
I couldn’t go to school again because I was married. I read a lot and bought story books like Robin Hood, history books, Egyptian books and mysteries by Agatha Christy. I gathered a small library of books in my house. (Nowadays, technology has taken the place of reading books. The young people just stay on the Internet or play video games. They don’t like to sit and read. Times are changing.)
My husband was a teacher in the elementary school. We had nine children born in Sudan, three sons and six daughters. After I married, I did what I had seen my family do. I sewed for my children, washed clothes by hand, fed the chickens and cooked food for my family. We went to market every day to buy fruits, vegetables and fresh breads. The farmers have small shops. They kill the cows or chickens in the morning, so the meat is very fresh.
We were not rich or very poor, and everybody worked hard. I didn’t have much freedom, but it was my life, my destiny. I taught my children to get a high education, finish school, be good and help one another in their marriages and neighborhoods.
In Sudan, there is a university, and I longed to go to school. Many times after I was married, my father told me he wanted me to be a doctor or something to have more than this. He was sad for me.
My children are very smart. My dream was for all of them to get a high education, but that didn’t happen. After my oldest daughter married, she couldn’t go to school. I had hoped she would become a doctor. Now, she is a mother with three children, still living in Sudan. Her oldest child is attending the university.
Things were going down in Sudan, and sometimes the government didn’t have money to pay teachers. There was not enough opportunity for education for our children, and my sons had trouble with the government. In my country, you can’t say no to the government either.
My oldest son fled to Ethiopia and then Egypt. My husband and I left Sudan and went to Egypt for a year with six of our children. We left two daughters and one son in Sudan. Then, someone sponsored my oldest son. He went to America as a refugee and settled in Salt Lake City.
Two years after my husband came to America, I came with our four daughters. We arrived here in 2003. We got housing in an apartment complex. Our life in a new country was okay for me, but it was difficult for my children. I saw possibilities, and it made me aware of many things.
My husband and I studied English and took a computer class one day a week. It helped me to speak the language. When the UNP school opened in 2005, I was the first student. When we graduated from a class, we got a certificate. The program is very good, and it even helps new mothers get to class by taking care of the children.
At the apartment complex, I became one of the leaders. We have people from more than 20 countries such as Burma, Turkey, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. We help people to learn English. We knock on doors and encourage them to come to class.
Every year at Hartland, we have a party where refugees cook their native foods. Five years ago, I brought baklava like my father made. After people tasted it, they said, “Please, Muna, will you bake for me?” That gave me the idea to start a catering business.
At the age of 64, I’m not young. My children are married and gone, and I have 22 grandchildren. If I just stay in the house and my mind has nothing to do, it will close. I apply for jobs, but I am not hired. So, I take business classes, and I save $65 a month to get a grant to start my business, the Blue Nile Community Kitchen.
After I came to America, I was more free, but this is not my country. I don’t have money to start a business, and I don’t have an education. Still, I try. We don’t have many problems here, and life is easier. I am helping my children and helping my community.
“Education is most important,” I tell them. “You have to study what to do in this country and learn the language of the country, so you can help yourself and get a job. After finishing school, then you can do what you want.”
Some refugees are afraid of the white people, but if you hide in yourself, that can’t help. You have to think how you can learn and grow. God made me and made them with two eyes and two feet. We are the same, one color or another. God made us all.
I am from Sudan, and I have found my place here in America. “Why did you come here?” is not a good question. Ask Columbus why he came here. It is my destiny. Once, my dream was to graduate with my children. Now, I hope my children can have a better life and get a high education, for that is the way to freedom.