African refugees build community in Columbia

Sunday, June 7, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Niyonzima Etienne plays with his younger siblings, Esiron, right, and Jeanine. "If you are brothers, you have to help each other," Etienne said. "When someone needs something, you do (it) for them. . . . I help them because that's what brothers are for. Brotherhood is to help each other."

COLUMBIA — It’s a Friday evening, but school isn’t over for Niyonzima Etienne. The 18-year-old simply shifts from his role as student — a junior at Rock Bridge High School — to teacher. Etienne holds regular English classes in his living room for other refugees from his family’s native Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Tea-cher,” Etienne says slowly, emphasizing the first syllable. He repeats it several times before translating it to Kirundi, the language of Burundi. The class members repeat after him: “TEEEEACH-err.”


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Etienne is the youngest person in the room, and his father is one of his pupils. He refers to a notebook and an English dictionary for his lessons, sometimes writing them on a whiteboard. On the wall behind him, above the television, hangs a map of the United States — a sign that this is now home.

Etienne is one of about 300 African refugees living in Columbia. Less than two years ago, when he moved here with his father and six siblings from a camp in Tanzania, he spoke no English. As recently as last fall, he was unable to communicate complex thoughts and seemed to have few goals for the future.

Since then, he has rocketed through the English Language Learning program at Rock Bridge, skipping over a level. He has become popular with teachers and fellow students, a standout in math and a frequent translator for other refugees at his Bible study. He gets A's and B's in school and has a career goal to become a construction engineer and help build houses. And he can now tell stories of his past — what his house looked like, how the refugee camps smelled, his mother’s death.

Etienne’s adjustment to life in America has been aided by an extended community of government programs, social service workers, teachers and volunteers. It is braced by a strong connection to family and church.

But much of Etienne’s success can be traced to his own work ethic and eagerness to learn.  He attends two different church services each week — one American, one African — and Bible study. On Tuesday nights, a friend from church drills him in English. Wednesday nights are reserved for family and friends, but, so far, he has declined invitations to parties or dates.

“I don’t have time to think about that,” Etienne said.

His evenings are spent studying or preparing for the English lessons he teaches every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night to a small class of refugees.

“I want them to have at least a little English so they can get jobs,” he says.

Etienne is an example of the effort it takes a refugee to succeed by drawing on all the resources available, both from the community and from within, says Caritas Habimana, who came to Columbia after escaping the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She now helps new refugees through the Imani Mission Center in central Columbia.

“I love that boy,” she says. “His last name, Niyonzima, means ‘God is alive.’ It’s beautiful.”

Arriving with few possessions

Etienne came to the United States in September 2007 with five T-shirts, three pairs of pants, three pairs of shorts, three pairs of shoes and two sweaters. He had packed some Kirundi, Swahili and French books in a backpack, but he lost it at JFK International Airport. His other possessions were given to friends at the refugee camp so they would remember him.

He lives in a red brick duplex on Trinity Place with his father, Yoronimu, and five of his siblings – Venant, 21, Eliezel, 14, Desire, 11, Jeanine, 8, and Esiron, 3. His oldest brother, Vincent, 23, lives nearby with his wife, Chantal, and their 6-month-old baby, Victoire, who is nicknamed “Mizzou.”

Trinity Place is at the center of a growing African refugee community that has settled in Columbia’s First Ward. Several families of Burundians live within a block of each other; they watch each other’s children, share rides and meals, and pop in and out of each other’s homes as if they were back in their villages in Africa.

“We don’t ask if we can come in,” Etienne says. “If we are friends, we just go inside.”

Columbia Refugee and Immigration Services pays rent for refugee families for the first six months they are here and utilities for one month. The program also provides furnishings and bus passes and processes paperwork as refugees work their way through the steps of immigration. Refugees are eligible to apply for permanent residency, or green cards, after a year in the U.S. and citizenship after five.

Etienne’s father made his living as a fisherman in Africa. But with no such work available here and his very little English, he now stays home to watch the younger children while his older sons work and study.

Venant is the family’s primary breadwinner. He paints houses, seasonal work that has suffered in the recession. He picks up some extra work power washing and window washing with Shepherd’s Co., a Fulton-based building maintenance and cleaning business.

Venant, Vincent and a family friend — Burundian refugee Simon Nduwayo —  were recommended to Shepherd’s by Phil Schaefer, senior pastor of Columbia Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational church that works closely with the refugee community. All three have proved model employees, says John Walker, the company’s general manager.

“They are always on time; they’ve never had drug or alcohol problems; they have perfect attitudes,” Walker says. “I couldn’t ask for anyone better.”

Much of last year, before the refugees learned to drive, they relied on another member of Christian Fellowship for a ride to work each day. Church member Nickie Mack would drive them to Fulton early so he could make it to his job at the Callaway nuclear plant.

“They got to work an hour before they had to be there,” Mack says. “I would drop them off at 5:30 in the morning, and they never grumbled or anything. They were just glad to be getting a ride, I guess.”

While his older brothers try to bring in some money, Etienne concentrates on chores at home and on his studies.  He and Venant take turns helping their father with cooking, cleaning and watching the younger children. Etienne has the best English in the family and is, therefore, the first one called to help the younger kids with their homework, to tutor the elders in English and to translate for the rest of the Burundi community.

Vocabulary lessons and five-card draw

On a Tuesday evening in late winter, Etienne is huddled in his living room, being drilled on vocabulary words and pronunciation by Derik Stott, a friend from Christian Fellowship. Heaters blow air into the room, and the smell of fish and kidney beans fills the air. Etienne’s father sits on a light-blue corduroy armchair, 3-year-old Esiron on his lap, and watches the entire lesson.


“Track.” Etienne repeats the word after Derik, his mouth stretching into a smile as he pronounces the word. Then he says “truck,” and Derik explains the difference between the sounds of “a” and “u.”


“CUUUURE,” says Etienne. He repeats it several times, shaping the sound until he says it almost perfectly.

“You got it!” Derik says.

After an hour of this, the two young men pull out the playing cards. Derik has been teaching Etienne to play five-card draw — a fun way to practice numbers. Etienne fumbles a bit in early rounds as he shuffles the cards but soon deals like a pro. And though Etienne’s just started to learn the game, Derik says he picked it up quickly.

Math is Etienne’s favorite subject at school, but it's not the only one he excels at.   

Peggy White is Etienne’s English Language Learning teacher at Rock Bridge. She says his English has improved so rapidly in the past year that he was able to skip the second level of classes and go straight into the third. It’s likely he’ll graduate from the program next year.

Eleven of the 30 ELL students at Rock Bridge are African refugees who came from Liberia, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda. The others include international students whose parents work at the university, exchange students and refugees from other countries including Iraq and Yemen.

Algebra teacher Angel Renick says Etienne is popular with his classmates and has helped bridge the gap between the American students and the refugees.

White agrees and says Etienne stands out because of his intelligence, strong work ethic and hunger to learn.

“He is very polite, and he is very contemplative," White says. "He also helps other students and is patient with other students. He remembers where he came from and is loyal to the other refugees."

He has taken full advantage of the opportunities available at Rock Bridge.

“His motivation is intrinsic, and he learns a lot on his own,” White says. “Yet he’s very respectful of his heritage and appreciates his family and the cultures that he came from in Burundi, Congo and Tanzania. He is very lucky to be alive in many ways.”

Making a life in a refugee camp

Etienne’s life was shaped by civil war long before he was born. His father, Yoronimu, left Burundi in 1972, when the tiny east African nation was rocked by the first of two genocides in which the minority ruling Tutsis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Hutus as punishment for a failed rebellion. Yoronimu, a Hutu, was 18 when he fled west to the Democratic Republic of Congo, never to return to his homeland.  Etienne was born in the Congolese village of Mboko in 1991, the third of Yoronimu’s children to survive.

Etienne was just 5 when his father packed up his family and fled again as rebel forces, backed by forces from Rwanda and Uganda, launched a civil war in Congo. The family settled in a refugee camp in Tanzania, bordering Burundi, along with tens of thousands of other refugees fleeing the waves of war and rebellion sweeping through central Africa.

Although Etienne and his siblings have never been to Burundi, all have citizenship there through their parents. For them, especially the younger children, the giant camp that came to be known as Muyovozi in Tanzania was what they knew as home.

The camp sat at the base of several mountains. With the help of other refugees, the family built its own house, using wood, sheet metal and bricks made from dirt and water. During school vacations, Etienne went to different villages to make similar bricks for other houses and sold them to pay for school clothes and stationery. Etienne shared a bedroom with his two younger brothers. They were far from rich but didn’t consider themselves poor. His father fished, and the family raised goats and ducks to sell and eat.

“We were in the middle,” he says. “We would share food with other families in the refugee camp.”

The first time Etienne left home, he was 15. He and three friends went to a nearby village looking for summer work. They found a job on a farm and were offered tents to sleep in at night. But the boys decided to sleep outside in the bush with machetes at their side, ready to protect themselves against the abanyonyi, mercenary killers who stalked the area.

On the first night, Etienne dreamed the killers had found them. He woke with a scream and found an antelope nuzzling his head. His friends laughed, calling him a coward. They moved to another part of the bush the next night in case the abanyonyi had heard his scream. Etienne was frightened and miserable. He had blisters on his hands from hoeing all day and bites all over his body from the mosquitoes at night. After two weeks, he went home.

His favorite memory of life there is playing soccer with his friends. Every day after school, they would play until the sun set.

His saddest memory is of his mother’s death. It was just six months before the family learned it had been granted refugee status. Etienne’s mother was doing housework and stopped to add oil to the paraffin lamp for better light. But the hot lamp exploded, scalding the entire left side of her body. She lay in pain for two weeks before she died.

“She was so small, and she knew she was going to die,” Etienne says. “We planted crops a month before it happened. She told me, ‘We are farming this land, but I will not eat from it.’ I remembered this later and realized she was telling me she was going to die.”

Not long after that, the family was selected out of thousands at the camp to be sponsored by the International Organization for Migration and was given refugee status in the U.S.

“We thought it was a joke,” Etienne says. “We didn’t think we were really going to go.”


Help from the community

When Etienne’s mother died, friends at the Muyovozi camp stepped forward to help the grieving family and even contributed money to pay for the burial.  The family has found a similar support network here.

Various government welfare programs continue to cover some costs, supplementing Venant’s $10-an-hour wage.  Other refugees from Burundi help with the children, especially Jeanine, the only girl; a neighbor braids her hair.

But much of the stability in the family’s life comes from volunteers at Christian Fellowship, whose congregation has informally adopted as many as 50 of Columbia’s African refugees.

Shelley Arri was one of the first members of Christian Fellowship to meet newly arrived refugees from Burundi back in 2007.

“Two of the families had come to our church,” she says. “We then discovered they had been (in Columbia) for six weeks and their kids weren’t in school yet.”

Arri, a former teacher in the Columbia Public Schools, contacted the Columbia Refugee and Immigration Services about the children’s enrollment. She was told the agency was aware of the issue but too short-staffed to handle all the needs of incoming refugees quickly. Arri formed a small army of volunteers who provided a range of assistance, including driving refugees to medical appointments and the grocery store and teaching them how to use the bus system.

“People are people,” Arri says. “Our differences are a lot less than our similarities. The language barrier does kind of inhibit people from being able to communicate well, but that’s one thing that is very fun because they become more proficient in English, and some of our American members have become more proficient in their languages.”

Over time, the help offered by volunteers has extended to driving lessons, car shopping, job references and helping pay for health care.

“After six months, they get very little help from the immigration services,” says Christian Fellowship member Jen Wheeler. “Some of the parents were scared and thought that they’d be homeless. That’s when we stepped in to help. We give them the kind of help we would want if we moved to Africa. They really are like family.”

Wheeler’s husband, Adam Wheeler, is a pediatrician at University Hospital. He cares for many of the refugees, including Etienne’s younger brother Desire and nephew, Mizzou. The costs are covered through Medicaid.

Wheeler says the refugees have taught him a lot about the value of community. For example, Etienne called him at home late one night and asked for help with a term paper. At first, Wheeler says he thought it was a little strange, but then he realized that Etienne’s request for help was a sign that he trusted him. And working with the refugees has caused Wheeler to think about what his own ancestors must have gone through when they first came to America. He says he’s glad his children, ages 2 and 4, are getting to know people from other cultures at such a young age.

“We’ve taught them how to drive, and they’ve taught us some Swahili,” Wheeler says. “We show them how to eat burritos, and we’ve learned about their food.”

The Wheelers host Bible study every Monday night at their house, where Etienne and his brother Venant are regulars. They start the evenings with a buffet — including taquitos, chips and queso, and chocolate-chip cookies — then gather in the living room to read, discuss and pray. There are often as many as 25 of them, a mix of American college students and refugees from Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, and the discussion moves from English to Arabic to Swahili to Kirundi.

On a recent night, the topic is was Galatians 2:18: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (English Standard Version). Etienne translates from English to Kirundi for some of the other refugees, then poses his own questions:

“Is God still happy with me if I commit a sin?”

“How can you put faith in Jesus if you don’t follow the rules?”

Sundays filled with worship

Sunday mornings find Etienne at Columbia Christian Fellowship with his family and friends. Hot chocolate and glazed donuts are put out before the service. A large map of the world on a wall near the entrance allows them to trace their journey from Burundi to Congo to Tanzania to Missouri.

When the service starts, Etienne sits with his family in a room adjacent to the main auditorium and watches the service projected on a screen. A Columbia College student from Kenya translates in Swahili, and Etienne sometimes whispers a second translation in Kirundi to his father. After the service, the congregants — American and African — mingle, catching up about jobs and school and families.

Schaefer, the senior pastor, says the refugees have given his church as much or more than the church has given them.

“It has helped us to see more clearly a picture of what a church is supposed to look like — multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational, including people of the world,” he says. “We’ve created a diverse atmosphere that represents more than just middle-class, white America.”

Sunday evenings find Etienne back in church. But now it’s “Church Afrique,” held at the J.W. "Blind" Boone Community Center. The nondenominational service is conducted in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda, with songs also sung in Swahili and Kirundi.

Etienne arrives early to set up chairs throughout the auditorium and make sure everyone has a seat. He is one of the last to sit down and quickly gives up his seat as more people arrive. About 50 people attend, mostly Africans and a few Americans. The youngest children sit together in the first row, their feet swinging above the floor.

“It’s just like church here, but in Kinyarwanda, and there’s more singing,” Etienne says.

Drumbeats, played on an electric keyboard, fill the room. Four small choirs lead the worshippers in song. Etienne’s oldest brother Vincent plays guitar in one of the choirs, Paza Sauti, or “amplifier.” Chantal is one of the six women vocalists. The women all wear traditional long dresses called bubus, made of boldly patterned fabric in rich colors. Their heads are wrapped in matching kitambalas. They use no hymn books and hit all the right notes.

“They are traditional songs we sing at church in Africa,” Etienne says.

As they sing, the congregants sway and clap to the rhythms of home.

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Rachel Brekhus June 10, 2009 | 4:49 p.m.

What a heartwarming story. Etienne sounds like a real leader and a wonderful person.

I hope the refugees are learning about the resources the public library has to offer for learners of all ages, too.

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