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Learning from Real Life: Refugees Speak with 9th Graders about Overcoming Hardships

Posted on September 30th, 2014.

Zaina and Nyame even smaller

By Roni Breite, Solana Beach, CA.

The two Congolese women walked into a classroom full of neatly dressed fourteen year olds in crisp khaki uniforms at Santa Fe Christian School in Solana Beach. They were only four and eight years older than the students, but their lives were a world apart.

That’s exactly why 9th grade English teacher, Luke Leatherman, invited Zainab and Nyame Danso to speak at his two classes on September 11. His students had recently finished reading Of Angels and Beatles,an account of an Ethiopian refugee’s struggle to flee civil war and eventually come to the United States. Leatherman reached out to the Alliance for African Assistance because he wanted the private-school youths to connect with refugees in their own community whose paths they might not otherwise cross.

Zainab and Nyame, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), moved to the United States only two and a half months ago. The sisters began explaining that before war broke out in the DRC, “Life was good. We grew up in a community . . . families grew up together;” unlike in the United States where “you stay in your own house,” in the DRC, “we’d get together, dance, tell stories.”

Educating the students about the history of war in the DRC, Zainab noted that ethnic divisions, gold, and tensions over government leadership all played a role in escalating violence. Zainab offered the class an eerie description of their first–hand experience with rebel groups:

The rebels used to take young kids — LIKE YOU! — (to be) rebels.  They paint themselves so you can’t recognize them.  They look like monsters!  If you see them, you have to pretend you don’t recognize him, or he will have to kill you.

Nyame spoke up quietly, “And they killed our father, these rebels.” The students listened in silence.  Zainab and Nyame went on to describe fleeing from the DRC across the border to neighboring Uganda. On the long journey to the border, the sisters depicted the arduous trip:

People were displaced from their houses.  The clothes you put on?  That’s the only clothing you have.  We left our mom; we didn’t know where she was.  Then we were so happy, we found her (later) across the border to Uganda. In Uganda, we went to a mosque — we grew up Muslim — and they took care of us, and they found a Good Samaritan to take us in.  

In Uganda, Zainab and Nyame’s family was able to apply to come to the United States as refugees. It took them seven years to receive permission and process the required paperwork. In San Diego, the Alliance has assisted Zainab and Nyame’s family with getting adjusted to life in America. Zainab was relieved because when they arrived she explained:

We had good people. Patrick, our case manager at the Alliance, received us at the airport. The Alliance gave us accommodations, food; Patrick told us how to apply for Social Security, food stamps; here’s the library, here’s the hospital, this is how you cross streets, this is how to go shopping.

As the class ended, each of the students shook the sisters’ hands; each had some words of appreciation to share. And here was a mark of the sisters’ moving on to a new life; in Zainab’s words:

We reached a time when we have to forget all the trauma, leave it all behind us.

Talking with Students even smaller

Want to get involved in helping refugees like Zainab and Nyame overcome the challenges of adjusting to life in a new culture? Become a Family Mentor or donate to help supply refugees with necessities for starting their new lives in San Diego!