The three sisters, refugees from Rwanda, share experiences good and bad about getting used to life in America: Making friends was difficult; American food was hard to get used to; and being part of two cultures can be conflicting, they tell younger peers, for whom they tutor and provide translation.
They also tell them ways to have a successful future, like going to college, working hard and being respectful.
The girls, Jacqueline Uwimeza and Yvonne Uwimana, a freshman and junior at East Kentwood High School, respectively; and Chantal Uwimana, a seventh grader at Crestwood Middle School, devote their Monday evenings to volunteering at the Learning Café , a place where volunteers of all ages mentor African refugee children and adults at 235 Sheldon Blvd. SE, next to St. Andrew’s Cathedral.
They say they are giving back in ways others gave to them. Seven years ago, the girls arrived in the U.S. unable to speak English and unfamiliar with American culture.
They now speak English fluently, are excelling in school, and tutoring, translating and interpreting for other refugee children who speak Kinyarwanda and go to schools in Grand Rapids, Kentwood and other districts.
“It gives you a feeling like you are important,” Jacqueline said. “It feels like you are giving back. A lot of people helped us, and sometimes you don’t feel like you are doing enough to help others, but with this, it makes you feel like you are paying back and paying it forward.”
The center bustles with laughter, singing and children chatting, busy with school work and academic activities. The sisters are there to help, and encourage the students to learn all they can in English and school, while holding onto their African culture. Devout Catholics, the girls also help tutor and translate for adults after church on Sundays.
Home in Refugee Camp
The sisters remember life in a refugee camp in Rwanda, where they were born. They jumped rope, played with rocks, picked fruit from the forest, sang, danced, went to school and fetched wood and water. It was home.
“Because we were kids, we didn’t know about the conflict,” Jacqueline said. “It’s a different story for the parents. For us it was fun. It’s all we knew.”
“It was a good place,” added Yvonne.
The girls were shielded from the conflicts that led their family members to flee to the camp. They still have only general knowledge of the first Congo War and other conflicts that displaced people in the region.
Still, they couldn’t believe their luck seven years ago when they were chosen through an immigration lottery to move to the U.S. with their mother and grandmother.
“It was like paradise, to be honest,” Jacqueline said. “The refugees would always tell us about America, so it was a dream come true. We never thought it would happen to us, because it happens to very few people. But as we got older we started to miss where we came from.”
A Knock at the Door
After arriving in the U.S., they moved into an apartment in Grand Rapids, and started the journey of becoming acclimated to the U.S., going to school and learning English. But it was intimidating and scary, they said, starting over in a whole new world.
“It was a challenge for our mom to learn how to drive and take care of all of us and work,” said Yvonne, who remembered her mother, Claudette Nyrasafari, would leave for work at 4:30 a.m., return in the evening and then attend English-language classes.
One winter day, someone knocked at their door, but they recalled being afraid to answer. The knock came again and again, until finally, the girls’ mother opened it to find Lisa McManus, co-founder of the Learning Café. She had learned about the family from neighbors.
McManus soon connected them with resources such as clothes, furniture, English tutoring and other help navigating life in Michigan.
Yvonne also needed medical attention. When she arrived in the U.S. she was deaf, due to an infection that had damaged her eardrums. She learned English by reading lips, and underwent several surgeries. She now hears well.
Chantal also has overcome speech difficulties.
The sisters have big dreams for the future: Yvonne hopes to become a surgeon. Jacqueline is interested in everything from medicine to law to public service. Chantal also wants to go into the medical field.
“I’m very proud of these girls. They are very smart girls,” McManus said. “They are wonderful role models because they were where the other kids are. They’ve done it. They’ve been able to be successful.”
She continued: “They have very strong belief in their the ability to do things, make things happen. They know how to work really hard. That is very good for the other kids to see. From a tutoring standpoint, they are able to communicate. It’s not just about speaking another language; it’s understanding what the other person needs because they’ve been in their shoes.”
Yvonne said she wants fellow refugees to be brave, to believe in themselves.
“I want to encourage the people who came from Africa to not be afraid,” she said. “If they need help, ask a teacher. Don’t be afraid of anything.”