Antoinette Mpawenayo, 18, a Burundian refugee from Tanzania. Photo by Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

This story is copublished by Borderless Magazine and The TRiiBE.

More refugees came from Africa to the United States in 2018 than from any other region. Fleeing conflict and unstable governments, they come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and other countries. They are by and large young — nearly 60 percent of all refugees who came to the United States in 2018 were under the age of 25.

When they arrive in cities like Chicago, young African refugees carry with them the trauma of having fled their home country and living in refugee camps for years in many cases. 

“Most of these kids have experienced trauma at each level of their journey here,” said Rebecca Ford-Paz, a clinical child psychologist at the Center for Childhood Resilience. “These kids are now no longer surrounded by their social support network and they’ve been relocated to a new country with new language and new customs, new medical system and new school. They’re pretty isolated. And they now may be experiencing discrimination and racism for perhaps the first time.”

In the case of African refugees in Chicago they can find themselves grappling with some of the same challenges that other young Black people face here, including racism, inequity, gangs and gun violence.

“Issues of incarceration and lack of access to jobs impact our youth,” said Nancy Asirifi-Otchere, executive director of the United African Organization, a coalition of African community-based organizations that promotes social and economic justice, civic participation, and the empowerment of African immigrants and refugees in Illinois. 

“Some of them, especially our boys because of peer pressure, end up being in the company of the wrong people and find themselves at the center of other issues that impact the larger Black community,” Asirifi-Otchere said.

Borderless Magazine sat down with three African youth in Chicago to hear how they are navigating the challenges of being a young, African refugee in the United States.

Antoinette Mpawenayo, 18, Burundian from Tanzania

Mpawenayo came to the United States with her family in 2008. Today she is a senior in high school in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. In her free time, she teaches circus and tutors elementary school students. 

As told to Nissa Rhee

My first memory of coming to the United States is the welcoming hands of the different people in Chicago, especially my Refugee One community. I noticed a lot of buildings, cars and different faces. In my country you just have one color. But in Chicago, you see all different sorts of colors, all different sorts of cultures and races. I honestly found it very beautiful.

When I first came to America, I got bullied a lot. 

It really changed me. They didn’t want to get to know me as a person. When I was getting bullied in elementary school, it made me stronger. It made me want to become a better person because the way I was treated was not a good feeling. So I want to do good for others. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of people in this world who are going through the same things I did and I just want to be there for them.

With my family, it’s really hard because my mom and dad don’t speak English, [they speak Kirundi and Kiswahili]. They don’t know much of what goes on in this world because a lot of things are being said in English and in a culture they’re not used to. 

It hurts me because they have this big idea that Black and African people are to blame for this gun violence. And as much as I would like to explain that no, we’re not the fault of this, they have these stereotypes. 

But gun violence is happening. I came to this country to get away from the gun violence that was happening back home. To escape from the violence and then come into this violence, it was just like there was no point. I might as well have stayed in my country. 

My sister and I were walking to an Ethiopian restaurant on Wilson Avenue last year and I just got a really bad feeling that something bad was going to happen. I told my sister, “Speed up.” So we started speeding up and we got inside and two minutes later there was a gun shot in front of the restaurant.

And I was like, “Wow, wow, wow, wow.” What in the world? How did I get that instinct that this was going to happen and tell my younger sister we should speed up?  

My sister experienced it too. She was at a store and a guy with a gun happened to be in there. She texted me, “I’m scared, I don’t know what to do.” And she finally walks out and she’s like, “They’re following me!” I was really scared that I could lose my sister. It was very scary.  

A lot of Africans have been influenced into joining gangs and getting into drugs after coming here. I’m trying to keep my little brother close so I can show him that I love him. I want him to stay strong and be himself. Sometimes it’s hard to be yourself.

Hiermiela Tesfayonannes, 15, Eritrean

Tesfayonannes is originally from Eritrea. She and her family got stuck in Ethiopia while trying to visit her sick grandmother and were unable to return to Eritrea. They came to Chicago from a refugee camp in Ethiopia when she was 12 years old. She goes to school in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and lives in West Ridge.

As told to Michelle Kanaar

Hiermiela Tesfayonannes, 15, an Eritrean refugee. Photo by Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

American food was so surprising to me. We don’t eat that kind of food. But now, I just love it. You have to be like others so you’re like, “Let me try a new thing, let me fit in.” You just do things to fit in and I did just that. I used to hate pizza, like really bad. Like every time I smelled pizza I wanted to throw up. But now I’m obsessed.

When I first got here I went to public school. I didn’t really know how to speak English at that time and there was a group of girls who used to make fun of me. I could understand what they were saying but I couldn’t speak out. 

I get it, you know? They were surprised that I was different. I used to bring food and they used to hate the smell of it and they used to complain. Every time I wanted to go to the bathroom I was just like “Me. Bathroom. Me. Bathroom.” I didn’t really know how to talk.

They were laughing at me and stuff. When I told my mom, she was really sad about it. Then she heard about this really nice Catholic school and I went there.

When I went to St. Thomas, I learned English really fast. I was like, “From now on, I’m going to show the kids that I am smart, I can say things.” You know what I mean? They think that refugee kids are really dumb because they don’t really speak English. Not all people, but most people.

At my [current] school, I just love it there. I have a lot of friends. There is a whole table of my friends at lunch and we’re just laughing and we can’t be quiet. 

I remember the first report card was like, “I know your kid is smart but she talks in class.” And then my dad was like, “You need to stop talking.” And I was like “I can’t.” I mean I’m speaking English, this is a miracle to me. I just love speaking in English. 

I hear in the news about a lot of violence happening. But it never happened to me or my friends or the people who are close to me. So I’m grateful for that. I hear a lot of bad things are happening and I just wish it could all end. 

I am worried for the people getting hurt and for the people who are hurting them. I’m worried they will go to jail for it. I’m worried that the people who are getting hurt might die and leave a mark on the people who love them. Their family. Their friends.  

When I first heard I was coming to America, I was so excited. We used to think America was like heaven. When we saw films they’d have really good houses, really good pools. We were like, “When we go to America, we’re going to have those.” But the funny thing is we did not.

We liked our house at first but then when winter came we realized that there were leaks in the ceiling and that we did not have control of the heat. Our next house was nice and big. But it was in a different area of the city. My mom felt like she needed to move us because people were telling her that it was not the safest place to live. Now we live on Devon and like it more. Even though it wasn’t like what the movies had shown us, I am grateful for what we have.

Hafashimana Obedi, 24, Burundian from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo

Obedi was born in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His family, who is originally from Burundi, fled to Tanzania when he was three years old. His father was a religious man and did not want to take part in the ethnic war in Burundi. Later, when war broke out in the DRC as well, the family fled to Tanzania. Obedi lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania until he was 13 years old and then came to Chicago. Currently he works full time at O’Hare Airport as a cook and part time as an interpreter at the Marjorie Kovler Center. He lives with his mother and brother in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. 

As told to Michelle Kanaar

Hafashimana Obedi, 24, a Burundian refugee from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

The moment that I got here there was snow. That was the first big difference for me. In Tanzania it’s very, very hot. Things are totally different. In the refugee camp you really live on the basic necessities of life. You just have tents and it’s a waiting process, so you don’t have that much. In the refugee camp we were in, you were not allowed to really go out. When I came here I saw all these buildings. It was just a huge difference. The dogs, too. In Tanzania people don’t like dogs. When you see dogs you run away from them. But when I got here that’s the first thing I noticed. Everybody on the street had dogs and everybody wanted to pet them. 

At first I couldn’t understand a thing. Back home we learned French in school. Here it was totally different. I didn’t know a single thing in English. Chicago Math and Science Academy [where I went to school] is a very friendly place to immigrants. They have a lot of immigrants so it’s nothing new. The ESL program is huge and they put a lot of effort in making sure that non-English speakers succeed. Most of my teachers were foreign. They were either Turkish or Hispanic so they knew what it was like to be an immigrant. They also spoke another language. That helped us as well. 

You go to school and you don’t know anybody. You don’t have any friends and you try to do the best you can and that’s it. Sometimes my brother and I got into fights with the other students when they picked on us. We couldn’t really defend ourselves so we always ended up in trouble. Because you just admit fault even though you didn’t start anything. You were just defending yourself. We understood and it wasn’t anything against the teacher, but we just couldn’t explain ourselves. 

Sometimes things were misinterpreted. Like the guys who were trying to be cool with us and understood that we were going through a difficult time tried to be buddies with us. They would be like, “Oh, what’s up dog?” But then to us that would be offensive. Because a dog in Tanzania is like the lowest thing in society. The lowest thing you can be called. But here, people want to be called dogs and it’s like “Ah, no.” But it’s something you tell your buddy or your friend, right?

Just being in a new country is stressful by itself. And our parents, they’re really just as lost as we are. You can’t really ask them for much. They don’t know the culture or the language and they can’t really support their kids the way they want to. So kids are kind of figuring out life on their own and trying to do what they think is right. Most of the time, they just follow their peers. And their peers are as lost as they are and they don’t know any better. 

I know a lot of the East African youth that I used to hang out with took a different path in life. I think it was because they did not have mentors. [There is] peer pressure to join gangs and peer pressure to be their friends. They want to be cool. They want to fit in. Especially if you don’t speak the language and you see that these people have this brotherhood and they’re willing to defend you and you won’t get bullied. You feel relieved. Other guys would want to do the same because they’re like, “This man is getting all the protection.” So they join gangs. 

Some of them have gotten in trouble with the law and now they are in jail. Those things are just not things that I want to be a part of. I said, “Yeah, you can call me whatever. But that’s not something I’m going to take part in.” I’m glad none of my brothers joined or became a part of that.

Gun violence is for sure a problem for youth in my community. My mom doesn’t want us to even go out because there was a time when there was a shooting right behind our house in the alley. It is happening more and more now. It’s scary. One of my classmates got shot in his house. Another person got shot by the school.

Imagine coming from far away. You wait five years to come to the United States so you can be in a safer place. You escape a war or a war zone just to come and be shot by a bullet in a non-combat environment. It’s very scary. It’s always on the news and I don’t want my mom to watch that too much because she experienced two wars. I know that can be very traumatic. You escape two wars just to come to be in a place where you have to worry about shootings.

My family has had mentors since we got here: John and Joe. Those mentors have really helped us a lot. They have shaped the way we see the world. They’re really good guys. When my father passed away a while ago, that’s when John and Joe came in. And ever since they’ve always been around us. That really helped a lot.

You’re a guy. You’re a boy and you’re going to be a man one day. My brother and I would say, “One day, that’s what we want to be.” We want to be like John and Joe. I want to be a youth mentor. That’s what I really want to do. Either a youth preacher or a pastor. I want to do something with youth mentoring. Especially for those who are raised in single-parent homes. 

My father’s idea of a church was very different than the mainstream idea. To him, serving God was more than just teaching people on Sunday. He hated this gospel of condemning people and just telling people, “You are going to hell.” He was more of a service man. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, he adopted many kids and brought them home. He felt like that was what service was about.

I used to hear that it takes a community to raise a child. When I look at myself and I look at my brothers, I’m like, it’s really true. Having mentors and people in the community who stepped up, it really helped. They would help me and direct me in the right way instead of me going to my friends when I had a problem and my friends being like, “Oh, you got a problem? Here’s weed. This will solve all your problems for the moment.” They made sure I had somewhere where I could go and talk about the issues that I was facing.

Are you a high school or college age youth of color interested in connecting with other young people about what matters most to your community? The United African Organization is hosting its annual African Youth Forum in Chicago on March 28 at 11 a.m. Learn more here

This story was reported with support from the Chicago Headline Club Foundation.

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