Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild…
The song was brought to a close with a pause for prayer. It’s Christmas Eve and we are crammed in the back of the church. Grandma is by my side, in her Christmas sweater, decorative pin, and holiday earrings. Always the fashionista. Dimmed lights adorn the walls and we are surrounded. People are entering every corner, it seems, and soon Pastor is having us greet our congregants. To the left, to the right. I turn around. Two young children are staring at me with a girl, around my age, by their side.
“Hi! Merry Christmas!”
“What’s your name?”
“What is it?”
Umutesi?!?!? A Rwandan name, if I ever knew one. I pressed further.
“Um….wow. Are you…Rwandan?”
The young girls’ eyes became wide-eyed and jolted like an alarm ringing on an early Monday morning.
The woman with them pulled me out of the service later and explained everything. She works with Lutheran Family Services and had been assigned as a mentor to this particular family that had moved to the United States about 3 months prior.
Well, the family had been living in a refugee camp for many years in Rwanda. The family is Congolese in blood, but identifies also as a Rwandan – as is the case with many people on the border. The mother finally received the “lottery” – the ability to gain asylum in the US and was placed in Denver – as many refugees are. Outside of New York and Washington D.C., Denver is becoming a major immigration hub because of location, climate, and resources. Two of the three children are in school (one child is just around the age of two) and the mother is looking for work. It’s difficult, however, as she doesn’t speak English, read, and can only write very little. The job she has been offered is a night-only job; from about 8pm to 4am. This presents a major issue: who would watch the little one?
As I was briefed on their situation, the agency worker invited me to come to her next home visit. I enthusiastically came aboard.
I have entered many Rwandan homes in my life. Hundreds, probably. But this was only the second time doing so stateside. I was full of adrenaline and excitement. This is fun to me. We herded into the doorway and greeted the mother. When she heard me actually speak a Kinyarwanda word she looked at me in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Could this be?
I glanced around. TV, couches, chairs. By the looks of things, American. Yet, I smelt Rwandan food. I saw Rwandan flip-flops. I touched Rwandan igitenge (fabric). This was a Rwandan family, indeed.
I continued to greet her, digging up all of those Rwandan phrases I have buried somewhere in my brain, heart, and memories. She was taken aback and didn’t know what to say initially.
I showed her a couple of photographs of my home in Eastern Rwanda on my phone and she grinned.
“Eh babe we!” (Oh my goodness).
A proverbial door or gateway to make some headway in her case, I broached her for information.
How were things going? Were the kids getting to school? What did she do all do? What were some feasible job options the agency could help her find? Did she have enough medication available?
Another one of the agency volunteers brought a calendar and stickers to help her identify certain dates with certain colors. Doctor appointments? Use yellow. Agency meeting? Use green. Church? Use blue.
As I was explaining this in Kinyarwanda, I couldn’t help but flash back to my own moments of fear, uncertainty, and confusion.
I’m lying in my mosquito net with no electricity and no clue where in the world I am. The radio hums and I don’t know what it is saying. My family speaks to me but I don’t understand what they are showing me. They provide food, but I don’t know what I am eating. I have clothes but I don’t really know what is appropriate to wear. Mud cakes my legs, urine stenches in my room from having to use a bucket, and I wonder when my water purifier will start working so I have clean water to drink. What the hell am I doing? Why did I come here?
You see, Rwanda wasn’t all sunshine and sunflowers for me at times. At many points, I was stuck with this grappling sense of ISOLATION.
I come back to the present moment and am more determined to help. Countless friends, colleagues, and villages welcomed me into their lives and so certainly, I can pay it forward and do the same. In many ways, that’s what we are called to do.
I went back two weeks later.
Fear swept aside, the mother not only successfully wrote her name, but we discussed the process in how to call in her child “sick” for school should that be an issue. The school hotline was expectedly annoying, “please press 1 if you would like English, 2 if you would like Spanish,” – it’s like. Um. Do you have Kinyarwanda?…Please?
All of this requires patience, cultural understanding, and linguistic ability. There isn’t a Rwandan context for about 90% of things that this family is currently encountering. Yes, yes, as they get more settled I think the family will find a lot more similarities, but in the beginning it will feel so starkly different.
Life as an American Immigrant is hard. Intensely difficult. Truth be told, it is probably better than the life they have come from. But, because we are so engrained with our own cultures, stories, and histories, it’s hard to not have those carry through wherever we go.
One dream I have is to help people carry this through. I think that’s why I like writing so much. Like with this Rwandan woman, yes, she’s moved to America. But can she still be Rwandan? Yes. And she should be. I was still American when I moved to Rwanda and a bit Rwandan when I moved back to America, so there is always room for our stories. Always.
Here are some great stories & resources regarding African immigration and new life in the United States.
New York Times Article on Immigration Influx: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/nyregion/influx-of-african-immigrants-shifting-national-and-new-york-demographics.html?_r=0
Lutheran Family Services – Refugees: http://www.lfsrm.org/refugee-asylee
NPR: Becoming Americans: http://www.npr.org/2015/02/23/387536454/becoming-american-immigrants-tweet-their-stories
Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition: http://www.coloradoimmigrant.org/