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College of Education

Alain's Message for Teachers

Alain, a high school newcomer student who is featured in the film, explains what it was like to live in a refugee camp so that teachers can better understand what students have gone through (additional video not in the documentary film):


So, you and I have been sitting here talking about reading and writing and listening, kind of the fundamental aspects of being a student in a school, but I know you're from Rwanda and I know a little bit of the history of Rwanda going back 20 years or so is about what I know. I know that you you're 18 right? Yeah. I know that you're 18 and I know – how many years have you been in the United States? We talked about that our first dinner. Yeah, we came in 2014 so its three years. So I know that we have American – students born in America, that also deal with difficult things in their lives, but I think that our newcomer students and students that are designated refugee families – I know that that the story isn't easy that brought you here. I just wondered if you would just share what you feel comfortable sharing in an effort to help teachers here understand that not all ESL students have had the same story.

Something that I would say that might be different is like when they flee their countries, like they were from Congo, they came in different times like me. Something I can say is that all of my whole life I lived in the refugee camp. And did you feel safe in the refugee camp? Oh, yeah, because we did like I was born when we're going down to the refugee camp I never had like cancer anything. Yeah, I was safe, but just for the worse I was safe because we fled to Rwanda and I did like maybe my mom's and my dad's they're the one who saw wars but I felt safe in the refugee camp. Something that was wasn't safe, it's half because we have to share the public restroom for many and there were twenty thousand and we had that like… Twenty thousand people sharing a public restroom? Yeah but not just one they did like different… Yeah, still a lot of people… And yeah like people are not like washing their hands and they shake so then it might be… Spread germs… Or yeah, to spread germs… so people could have the bacteria spread… so that wasn't safe. Okay…

Yeah but about wars, we were safe. Okay, what about when you came to Wichita and you had lived almost your whole life in the refugee camp right? What refugee camp did you live in? It's called the Gihembe refugee camp. It was in a northern province of Rwanda, district was Gihembe. And how many years did you live there? Uh, I lived there – because when we came here, I was 15 or 16, so I lived fifteen years. Okay, were you born there? No, I was born when they were coming, so I was like months. Um, does… has your family shared any stories with you about what they went through in Rwanda? Was it… they lived in Rwanda right? Yeah, they lived in the Congo. Congo. Okay, so… When the war happened they fled to Rwanda… They fled to Rwanda. Yeah. Okay. Had they tried to protect you from the stories of what happened in Congo or have they been open and shared with you what happened to them? It's hard to tell us because maybe they waiting for us to grow up because they don't want to make us scared. But all they say is that like our grandpa grandma… they were killed.

Mmm, have you made friends with any students here that are from Congo? I know we interviewed some that had come here from Congo? Yeah, I see them but I don't… for sure I don't talk to them too much. I just see them, I know them and they know me, but it's not like… at least to have many friends. I have many people from Rwanda, but here we have different cultures, so here is not so much like… Um… so when you, so growing up in the refugee camp, did you feel… you felt fairly free in the refugee camp to move around? Uh yeah, we were free to move around. Could you leave the camp? Yeah you could… Could you go into a nearby village or something, could you do that? Yeah you could do that, like to watch the movies. It wasn't in the camp, so we had to go outside of it. It was a like… it's not too long, like four miles.

And did you live in a tent? Yeah, it's a tent. First time it was like a tent, like all of the house, and now they changed it. They have to find mud and trees and like making mud it's… Mud. Mud. Mud… I've seen a lot of photos of refugee families huddled in tents and the rains that would come and just their tent was full of mud and… Yeah, it's full of mud and then at the top they put the tent. It can come from sand or rain. So, if you compared growing up in the refugee camp to living here… It's a huge difference because there it was hard, like finding food, finding clothes… It was hard and nobody could help you if you can't help yourself. But here you can get anything, like if you have a problem you can talk to someone, they can find something to help you and there is refugee agencies that you can talk to, like finding a job. but they are with jobs… like the whole family, we will be waiting for the food assistance, like they have from WFP – world food program.

Okay, and that's here, the World Food Program? No, that was in Rwanda… Yeah… Yeah, and I'm sure with 20,000 people in the camp, it was a little bit of food. Yeah, just a little bit. It was a little bit and then you shared it according to your family. Like if you would want, you just take a little and if you're like, there's some people that have in their family 13 people, saying they get huge, but if they shared it, was it was enough for them, like they could finish a half a month.

Did you go to school in the refugee camp? Yeah, we did. Do you remember where your teachers were from? Were they from Rwanda or Africa or Congo? Or were they refugees themselves that had been teachers in the countries they came from? Yeah, some of them, they were already finished with their schools in the Congo and then they started to help their brothers and sisters. Okay… And then after that, they hit like agencies that could bring many teachers… Teachers… If they take some of them from camp and then add them from outside of the camp, like Rwandans. Okay, a little bit of both then. Yeah. Did you have books and pencils and paper and supplies? Books, like books was for like, first time it was for teachers only, but the students didn't have the books, but there was an agency called the JRS it’s a… JRIS? No, JRS. JRS. Yeah, they called it the JRS and they helped us like, bring in notebooks and pens for writing. What was that like? Was that exciting? Yeah, it was exciting when they started to your class, you feel like good, you're gonna take books and uh the notebooks. You were happy to see some books, huh? Yeah, we were really happy to see some books and there was like the prizes for the first and second and third in the classes, or maybe to the fifth and they give them like notebooks and pens, yeah, just to collect it.

So, I'm sitting here with you an 18 year old boy who's smiling so much being excited about getting books and paper and pens and… at the refugee camp, and now you're here at Wichita North… do you think that… well I know the answer to this question… Do all the students here appreciate having books? Yeah, you think so? Yeah, cause it helps them… like I'm saying to myself, I don't know if they appreciate it because they will maybe grow up and see everything, but for me, I'm happy to… that like having a book, having a computer, like that. Alright Alain, you're an amazing, amazing young man and I know that you've been through a lot and I think you must have a pretty amazing family that's helped you through all of this and I'm gonna try to follow your career a little bit and see what you do with your life. I want to encourage you to keep going, keep pushing, don't settle, okay? Yeah, thank you so much.

Journey to Refuge ebook cover

Download the eBook at New Prairie Press

Published April 2019

Recommended Citation: Harlow, Trina D., "Journey to Refuge: Understanding Refugees, Exploring Trauma, and Best Practices for Newcomers and Schools" (2019). NPP eBooks. 26. https://newprairiepress.org/ebooks/26

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

See the full Refuge in the Heartland documentary

For more information about the eBook or film, please contact Dr. Trina Harlow, Book Editor and Film Co-Director, at drtrinaharlow@gmail.com.