From conflict to commencement: African refugee finds success through perseverance

College-bound and hoping to help others

Jeanette Mukampabuka has come a long way during her time at Godwin Heights

Jeanette Mukampabuka doesn’t like to talk about what led her to flee Africa as a child refugee. But she will talk about what it’s like to arrive in a foreign country and start school when everything is new and different.

“It’s so hard here. It’s so hard,” Jeanette said. “When you come here you don’t even know the culture or how to approach people. You don’t know where to start from or what you have to to say to people. Most of the time I was quiet.”

Jeanette Mukampabuka had to learn to navigate life in America and complete two years of high school at once

She said things have gotten easier since she arrived in Michigan in 2015 without her parents, whom she also declined to talk about. She’s made friends, gotten help from teachers. She’s also learned that other people are unsure of how to approach her, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to get to know her.

It took a while to get used to verbal and non-verbal cues in English and feel comfortable enough to interact with other students. “Coming here and learning everything new is so challenging,” she said, noting that she came from an African tribe that is very close-knit.

In the fall, Jeanette will begin studying for an engineering or nursing degree at Western Michigan University and wants to eventually pursue her master’s degree.

To get through high school in three years, she completed 10th and 11th grades at the the same time, taking some courses online. She graduates with a 3.3 GPA.

Tish Stevenson, Godwin Heights guidance counselor, said Jeanette has shown amazing perseverance.

“When I first met her everything was difficult and, through time, by doing the right things working really, really hard, she has opened so many doors for herself,” Stevenson said. “I see a spectacularly future because of her hard work and character. Many people who have been through such difficult things would be crushed, but it’s just made her strong and vibrant.”

Jeanette Mukampabuka points to her name on a board celebrating seniors. She’s going to Western Michigan University

Finding Her Way

Jeanette, who lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo until age 9 and then in Kenya for five years, graduated from Godwin Heights High School May 23. It marked a significant milestone for a young woman who came from a troubled homeland.

In the DR Congo, displacement of people has occurred due to widespread militia activities, unrest and violence fueled by ethnic and political conflict affecting many areas. She speaks generally about the conflicts that uprooted families in Africa. “It was a war between tribes,” said Jeanette, who is from a tribe that was being attacked.

She arrived in Michigan three years ago with her sister, older brother and niece. She started ninth grade in Bloomingdale, Michigan, and came to Godwin Heights last year. She was supported by two refugee programs: Refuge Point, formerly Mapendo International, which focuses on saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people; and Heshima Kenya, which specializes in identifying and protecting unaccompanied and separated refugee children and youth, especially girls, young women, and their children living in Nairobi, Kenya.

Jeanette lived in foster care for two years and has lived independently with her sister, Mamy Ganza, 27, for a year.

“I like it here but I still miss my country. I miss it a lot,” said Jeanette, who speaks English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and several other tribal languages.

While she has excelled academically, Jeanette said she now sees the benefit in becoming involved in other ways. Advice she gives other newcomers: “Join clubs and sports because then you make friends.”

While her strength in math draws her to a career in engineering, Jeanette said she also is interested in nursing so she can help others.

Stevenson said she sees Jeanette in the future giving back to others, “because that’s just the kind of person she is.”

“I see her having a spectacular life full of friends and love.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. Besides covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network, she writes freelance for the travel industry. Read Erin's full bio

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