My name is Eric. I am twenty-five years old. I came to the United States in 2016. I was a refugee. I was born in Congo and then moved to Rwanda when I was two and I lived twenty years in a refugee camp. It was very hard and different there, difficult for refugees without food and clothing and other things that people need. It was especially difficult to get education. We were limited in being able to go to school because you can only go to school up to ninth grade and then if you have a family member to support you, you can graduate from high school, but it was not easy. The school was by the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
My family moved to the refugee camp when I was two because of civil wars. There was a genocide in Rwanda, Hutus were killing Tutsis. We were Tutsis living in Congo, speaking Kinyarwanda, the same language as Rwandan. The Hutus that were killing Tutsis in Rwanda, after killing those people, they came to Congo and found the people who spoke the same language in the same ethnic group. They started killing our people and by then it was safe in Rwanda, so we moved to Rwanda. But we lost many many people in our family and community due to the genocide in 1994.
The five remaining members of my family moved to the refugee camp: my aunt and her husband and my two cousins and me. I lived with my aunt and her family in the refugee camp for twenty years. We all moved together to Knoxville, TN, and I moved to Portland and they moved to Louisville, KY. When you are going to be resettled to the US they just choose a place for you. You don’t have a choice. They say that we have this place for you, so you go there. But if you have a friend or a family member, you can ask if you can go close to my family. But we didn’t have any family members to be close to so they just took us to Knoxville. Because there were no other people who could speak our language they moved us after three months to Kentucky. There are so many refugees there.
I moved to Portland because I wanted to focus on school. There were some people who were supporting my studies in Rwanda. They were my sponsors and they are located here. They have a non-profit organization called These Numbers Have Faces. They help students in Rwandan refugee camp, and students from Burundi and South Africa to go to college. I moved to be close to them so that they can encourage me to go to school. I was a junior in civil engineering back home but when I came here I had to start over.
My first impressions of the United States was that the house had everything that we were dreaming about having: electricity, power, water running, hot showers. We had a caseworker, she showed me how to use things in the home because I was the only one able to talk to her in English. She showed me how to use the kitchen and bathroom and everything.
Hey, I have a funny story. By the time we moved my aunt had ten kids, but we had only one bathroom. One morning we had to go the office, had to take showers. I took the youngest in to take a shower and he spent like an hour taking a hot shower. “It’s beautiful! It’s super good! I can’t believe it!” Everyone else was saying “Hey, I want to go in there.” The first week we were enjoying the life, spending most of the time in the bathroom.
The shower was super special because we usually only took outside showers at night when it was dark. Our room was so small, a small room for eleven people, so we used to divide the room. There were three beds and we would sleep with boys and girls in the same room. Shower time was outside in the night. We had a small kitchen. The toilets were public toilets. Everyone was unhappy about it.
When we came here, we just enjoy. We will get a job, but we’ll just enjoy. But we also have to make sure how to learn to do everything right in the house so that we would not burn the house down. We have to learn how to work the kitchen, the shower. Of course everyday we had trouble because of the kids, so many kids. I was the only one who could speak English, but I was not that confident. My English was not that good. We were in a British system, so it was different. First we were in a French system and then they changed to a British system. I speak four languages: French, English, Kinyarwanda and Swahili, from Congo. My family were not happy because they didn’t have anybody there to talk to. They were always using me, saying “Hey, I want to do this.” In the first week we had an accident. The youngest made trouble in the kitchen and he burned his face. We had to go to the hospital in Knoxville, then they transferred him to Nashville. I had to be there to translate. They asked the parents, “Where were you?” But they didn’t know how to use the stuff in the kitchen. Then it happened, like that. We had so many challenges in the first month.
The food. At home we only had rice and beans, they were our favorite. Chicken, we didn’t know how to make it, because back home because people who eat meat are the rich people. We only eat meat on New Year’s. It is a great, great day. Here Christmas they celebrate Christmas more than New Year’s, but back home New Year’s is the best day. On that day everyone tried to make their kids happy, to buy meat for them once a year. Then we get here in the US and we can buy all of this stuff everyday. We didn’t know how to make it. We had some people from the refugee camp who came to visit us and they tried to teach us how to cook. It was not easy for the case manager to teach us.
Another thing which impressed me was the technology stuff. I was in Knoxville and a friend called me from Kentucky and said, hey, can you send me your address? I send it to him. Within three hours he was knocking at my door? “Hey, how did you get here?” He said he used GPS. “What it is it? How does it work?” Another thing that was hard was the difference in climate. It was summertime and it was still sunny at nine pm. How come it was still sunny like this? My aunt used to say that she would start to cook at night, so time changes were a challenge for us. We used to sleep in Africa with the outside light. Because we have small kids they just learned new culture easily. What we call in sociology, assimilation. My cousins, now they are safe and they have jobs and the kids go to school. They pay their rent and they are able to do whatever they want.
My family came under a refugee program. The process took nine months, once you are selected. It is a random selection. You don’t apply. The UN prints a list of refugees. If you pass the interviews you will start the process to come. At the first interview the whole family comes and presents. Then the UN call your name and they ask you why you are here, why did you flee your country? Do you want to go back to your country. Everyone says no. No! Why not? Because there are all these wars. In Congo there is no peace. The peace which is there is not permanent. It is just for a short time. You see refugees come every year from Congo to other countries. You can’t be safe there. They will take your money, or your house, or your cows, whatever. You are not safe. They will kill you. It is because of the corruption and the bad leadership.
They ask you those things and you say no. Then they ask do you want us to search for you another country to go to live in? There are some people who just want to go to the US, or Australia, Europe, Denmark, Finland. We have so many refugees that went there. Then if you say yes, they start asking you questions. If you are over twenty-one they ask you the questions by yourself, you are an adult. You have to match answers with your family. If you don’t match you fail. Then there is a second interview with the US Immigration, same questions. You have to answer them the same.
If you pass it you go to medical check-up. After a month or two months they send you an approval letter, because of the answers in the interview. The interview takes about one hour. They want to make sure that you want to go to the US, that you really don’t want to go back to your country, that you are sure about what made you come to the refugee camp. If you get to the medical check-up, you are almost done and you are waiting for the date to go to the US. Some people fail the medical exam. They look for sicknesses that are in Africa that can’t come here. They look for cholera and those ones. If they find that you have one of those ones they take care of you first. You are not disqualified. The disqualification is if you have been in the army, in Congo or Rwanda. If you say yes, that is failure for those people.
You start to take US culture orientation classes for one to two weeks. How to go on the plane. It was the first time for all of us. How to go to airports, they show you the travel path from Africa to here. They show you videos so that you can have an idea about that. They tell you about the food and how to take kids to school and the things that you can do that you can’t do here. If you always fight with your wife, you better stay here! Your kids have to go to school if they are under this age. If they still have time, they give you another two weeks classes for adults for English. They teach you “Hi” and how you can say your name. For us it took only one year and two months.
There were twenty-two thousand people in the camp, there are five refugee camps for Congolese, probably one hundred and twenty thousand Congolese refugees in Rwanda. Other countries have so many many many Congolese. I remember on our promotion they selected three thousand people. They are not all here yet. Some people failed the interviews, some people have medical stuff which is not good. They have to wait until they get better. If you are about to go to the US and you are a girl and you are pregnant you have to wait. There are some people who are not here yet. Right now we have three to four thousand people who have left to US, or Europe or Australia. It is not even ten percent.
I would make the interview process easier because they all deserve to come here because they are all suffering so much. President Obama was the president at that time and he was making things easier to come to the US but when Trump came to power it was tough. It started to change. The officials need to understand that ninety-five percent of them didn’t go to school so their way of responding to the questions are different. Some of them are scared and nervous to talk to people. Sometimes people would say, “Muzungu is coming!” Muzungu is the word for white man, but we don’t differentiate between white or Mexican or people from China, whatever. I didn’t even know how to see differences.
I would give a chance to everyone who wants to come here. Some of them, like the old people, they do not want to come here because they don’t understand English. Maybe my kids can go to school but me, I can’t. Sometimes they don’t want to come. I would like to make it easier for people because they all deserve the beautiful life I am living right now.
The process is that you come as a refugee you get a work permit, which is called an employment card, which is good for only one year. When you get all the documents, like ID, after one year you get a green card, permanent resident. After five years total you apply for citizenship.
I may go to Rwanda, I want to go back soon to a visit. I am allowed to apply for a travel document and then you can go. My friends are saying I should visit and come. I can’t promise that I can go back to Congo. I would be killed there, anytime. I remember I went to the border of Rwanda and Congo and they said, “Hey, see that guy, that Tutsi guy, he is so tall!” Tutsis are tall. You can tell that he is a Tutsi. In Congo there are so many ethnic groups, like two hundred and fifty-something and they all know Tutsis and they all hate them. You can be killed on your doorstep there. They say go back to Rwanda, your country. And when you get to Rwanda, they say you are not from Rwanda that you are originally from Somalia or Ethiopia or whatever. I can’t think about going there or having a business there, but I can think about helping people there.
Some people who supported me used to come to visit the refugee camp, they were always crying. They were seeing in the small house we were living in and we were living on twenty-four cents a day. Twenty-four cents. Those twenty-four cents is seven dollars a month. You don’t have a work permit. You are not allowed to work in Rwanda. Even if you go to school, you may graduate from high school or college, but what would you use that degree for? The UN might be hiring, but they hire Rwandan people because they have the work permit. You may be qualified for that job, but they can’t hire you. That sucks. Living on twenty-four cents a day, living in a small small house where everyone is not free in the house and the way you go to take showers, go to the bathroom, the way you just walk forty-five minutes to go to charge your phone. You walk twenty minutes to go bring water. That life is so so so hard. Boys used to wake up in the morning to go bring water at six am. If you go early there aren’t as many people there. You have to go in the morning so you can beat many people there. Waking up at five am, then go to get water, then you go to find firewood in the rural areas, which is not in the camp. You are living in the camp, but you are going to find firewood outside of the camp and you are not safe. You are going on someone’s land to bring firewood. If he catches you he’s going to do a bad thing. But you don’t have any other option. You might look at your mom and you may cry. She doesn’t have anything to cook for me. Boys would go there and bring that wood. The girls would help to wash the clothing and take care of the kids and cook. After lunch, if you get some, you used to go to play some. If you come to the camp, the first thing you see in those people is they have happy faces. Everyone is laughing. You cannot imagine they are living that kind of life. They are happy, they are the same people. The same ethnic group, they have the same mission. They have happiness and hope.
New people who come in cry at first. They used to come to visit us and give us some money for lunch at your house. But it is so much money. It is enough for the lunch, but half of the money is food for the rest of the week. We are happy to have guests to have money to cook for them. After that, what if the guest wants to use the bathroom? She would go, take a taxi or a bus to a hotel which is nearby, twenty miles. Can you imagine? Because she can’t use our bathroom. We have so many public ones, which is shared stalls, twenty people, sometimes they are broken and you can see each other. That sucks. If you had guests the first thing you think is, what if my guests want to sleep? Want to go to the bathroom? What can I do? I am not happy about that. That’s when you start thinking about how you are living.
Otherwise, people are happy. They go to church, sixty percent are Adventist, they go to church on Saturday, and forty percent are Catholic and Pentecostals go to church on Sunday. If you see those people on the weekend, you would think those are the good people. They try their best to look smart. Even though they might not eat for two days, they have clean clothes and looking perfect. Sometimes if you have the chance to go to school, people cannot tell that you are a refugee because people try to look good. They know that they have the identity of being a refugee so they don’t want to look like that.
If you have a chance to go to high school you have to go outside of the camp. In ninth grade you have to pass the national exam in order to go to high school because they have a different system from here. If you are in tenth grade you are already in a certain major, like I might be in construction, in accounting, in science. I was in science. It was called PCM — physics, chemistry, and mathematics. That was for genius people, the people who want to go into engineering. There was this American here who was from Brazil. She was leaving, but she wanted to support a few kids. She took five boys and ten girls because she wanted to support girls. At that time girls were not getting people to encourage them to go to school. These were the fifteen top students. I was among the best ones in the country. I got a prize from the minister of education of Rwanda. I scored ninety-seven percent in math and they awarded the best students in that year a laptop. I didn’t know how to use it so I sold it. She paid the school fees for the tenth grade. I met a friend who was a friend of the headmaster of school, who paid the school fees for me for the eleventh grade. And then in twelfth grade, after three years, they gave us kids who did well in the ninth grade a laptop. I sold it and I paid my school fees for the last year.
I couldn’t work in Rwanda. But people who went to school in Rwanda were the only ones who were helping others in the camp. We had a community project in the camp of graduates from high school that founded a school in the camp which we called Hope School. We had some meetings and said, “Hey, I’m able to teach math, I am able to history or geography or whatever.” We had MEG (math, economics and geography) and HEG (history, economics, and geography). I was a teacher of math. Because I went to school I knew what to teach. I would make some copies of my book and use them in the school. We just tried to do that because we went to school, to help those other kids. You never know what tomorrow holds. We went to school, we have no hope to have a job, but hoping that we may change community.
After graduating from high school I was among the top students in the country in my major — physics, chemistry and math. There was a chance for students in the sciences to get scholarships to go to the US. Obama gave President Kagame thirty-five scholarships every year for students in the sciences. I was among those students. Top one hundred students in the country, then you have to go to pass the interview. But they have to see your ID. I didn’t have that. I have only refugee status. I lost my scholarship. That’s when I started to realize that my status stopped me from getting somewhere.
I met the people from These Numbers Have Faces in the camp. They were supporting people from South Africa and other places. I met this one Rwandan girl who said, if you are working to help people in the camp, there are some people you should meet. If you go there you can see if they can help. That’s how my school journey ended.
In May 2016 I came to the US. I was in the final exams of my junior year. My buddies graduated last year and have bachelor degrees. I had that dream that one day I may graduate from an American university. The first chance I lost, but the priest of the University of Portland is giving me a chance to go to do my remaining years at the University of Portland. I already had my admission from PSU. I was going to go but after getting the scholarship to the other one, I will go there. I love this school. I want to get a master’s degree. I need to go to school first to get my bachelor’s degree. If I get a job right away I may work for two years and then go back to school, but if I get a scholarship right away I may just go to school first.
Of those people who came to the US as refugees, I’ve only known just my friend who went to University of Portland. I live in his house with my friend’s family. His family is my family, his parents are my parents. They take care of me. I help them pay for rent, but his siblings are my siblings. We love each other. It is a good family to live with. He came to PCC for 1 year and then transferred to the University of Portland. They knew a guy who had a company in Beaverton, where I am working now. He gave me an internship. The CEO of the company knew the president of the University of Portland and they connected my friend. They had a meeting and offered him a scholarship. And then he was taking an ethics class and mentioned me in a paper, his best friend. The Father was reading the paper and asked, “Who’s Eric?” “He’s my friend, my brother, he’s at PCC.” “Ok, can I meet him?” I went to meet him. He asked me, “What is your dream?” I said, “I want to graduate from any US university. I like this school but I know it is expensive. I will go to any school, any school. I want to have a degree in the US because I have lost one.” And he said, “What if I make your dream come true? What if I give you a scholarship?” I said, “What? Are you serious?” He said, “I’m going to give you a scholarship for three years and you can come here.” I didn’t do any application or anything. I went home and he sent me to admissions counselor and I met him.
And my friend, he graduated last weekend. He is the only refugee from our community who graduated from university. Some other people went to school for two years and get their associate’s degree. They were working at their same jobs they were doing but he was super hardworking. At PCC he took reading and writing classes and then he went there. He only works in the summer. He works at the same place I am working right now. When he was a junior the same boss, he became friends with our family. He worked at Intel for twenty years. After he left that job, he went to start his own company. He started an internship for people that turns into a full-time job. So now he has a full-time job making very good money. He went to school for electrical engineering. And everyone was waiting for him to be able to support the family and now he is going to be able to support the family.
I have an internship that doesn’t pay good, but I aspire to have an office job like that. I am choosing to go into computer science. I didn’t have any idea about the computer, but he just gave me the internship and said, “I know you will learn.” He gave me some people to train me for the first two months and now I know everything.
Most Americans have the idea that we are here taking their jobs and they think that we are getting profit from being here. I may apply for financial aid and I may get it because I am a low-income family. I think that some of them if they don’t see the benefits from the country, those immigrants are taking our things but they don’t know. I wish they may know just how hard our life was before. Maybe they can just refresh their mind and say those people are good, they deserve to be here. I like that American people have different ways of thinking and they are free to say whatever they want.
More on the history and culture of Rwanda and the Congo by PCC student Ashley Kreps: