Living In America 101: When Refugees Arrive, What Do They Need To Learn?
I was standing by the airport exit, debating whether to get a snack, when a young man with a round face approached me.
I focused hard to decipher his words. In a thick accent, he asked me to help him find his suitcase.
As we walked to baggage claim, I learned his name: Edward Murinzi. This was his very first plane trip. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he'd just arrived to begin his American life.
Beside the luggage carousel at Washington's Reagan Airport, he looked out at the two lanes of traffic and the concrete wall beyond. "So this is America?" he said.
From finding his bag to finding his apartment and finding a job, there was a lot for Edward to learn.
Later, he acknowledged that while he was standing in the airport looking for his luggage, he felt the magnitude of the task before him. He says questions were zipping around his head: "How will I start? You get scared. How will I manage?"
After he found his bag and I called his caseworker to come and pick him up, we parted ways. He thanked me for being his "Airport Teacher."
But, it seemed to me, he needed a teacher for the rest of America.
That might as well be Claire Mukundente's job description — not in Edward's case but for many other refugees.
Halfway across the country, in Chicago, Mukundente works for the Pan-African Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit, and spends her days visiting new refugees and helping them adapt to a new country.
How Does The Stove Work?
Today, she's headed into a well-worn apartment building on the city's north side.
On the second floor, Alexia Mukambalaga and six of her family members share a two-bedroom apartment. They arrived two weeks ago from Congo — by way of Rwanda and Niger.
The family crowds around a folding table for lunch – some standing, others sitting.
Within minutes of meeting them, they ask Mukundente why the food in America tastes like pineapples. It's so sweet, they tell her.
Mukundente says food is always one of the first lessons: How to get it, how to cook it and what's healthy.
She helps the family figure out what goes in the freezer and fridge, and how to use a stove.
Mukundente says many Congolese have spent more than a decade in refugee camps, so a lot of the stuff in a kitchen is brand new to them.
Grocery stores, too.
"Shopping can be a big deal, especially for your own food," says Claire Mukundente. She often accompanies new arrivals to the grocery store, explaining how to evaluate dozens of different cereal brands and why it's important to avoid the sugary drinks.
Then she moves on to other lessons: the banking system and bus routes, social norms and gender dynamics.
Mukundente says they talk about "almost everything."
She says these families have learned a lot shuttling between countries and refugee camps, but when they come to a place like Chicago, many of those skills don't translate.
But Mukundente insists that she's not their teacher. Instead she says, "I see them as myself. Like me, when I came."
Claire Mukundente fled Rwanda in the 1990s during the genocide. And after traveling through seven countries, she arrived in Chicago.
She cleaned hotel rooms, tried to learn English and scrambled to find daycare for her three kids.
Ten years ago, she decided to start teaching other refugees what she'd learned.
But not all refugees have someone like Claire Mukundente.
Three months after I met Edward at the airport, I visited his one-bedroom apartment. It was about 30 minutes outside Washington, and he shared it with several other refugees. (He has since moved to Louisville, Ky.)
Sitting in the living room that doubled as his bedroom, he told me that soon after arriving he realized he needed to be his own teacher. So, he started observing everything.
"I tried to observe very silently," he said in the room that functions as his living room, bedroom, kitchen and dining room.
He learned to read a map and a bank statement. But Edward says there was more; he called them "invisible lessons — ideas." The biggest one?
"Time was paramount to every success in America."
Edward said that, during his 20 years in a refugee camp in Uganda, time had never before been linked to money. Just being a person meant you got a food ration, he said. But here, he got a job – as a line worker – and he was paid hourly.
"Time was important. Important!"
He told me that things have been hard during his first three months – America hadn't quite been the Promised Land he expected.
"I remember the story in the Bible: The Exodus."
Back in the refugee camp, Edward said, he always thought life would be easy in America, akin to the Biblical land of milk and honey.
But now, he finds himself having to remember that the Israelites struggled, as refugees and newcomers.
Eventually though, they learned to adapt to life in a new land. Edward says he hopes he will too.
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