NY Times: Mentors help refugees transition into a new life

Written by Margy Rochlin

OAKLAND, Calif. — Pascal Serugendo was only 7 when he first fled his violence-torn village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Separated from his family, he followed a group of grown-ups also escaping the deadly war over the country’s gold and diamonds.

They arrived at a refugee camp, safe from the fighting, but he was now on his own. It was 1998. His family had spent almost every year of his life trying to outpace death, beginning when his parents fled marauding groups seeking revenge for the genocide in Rwanda and later as conflict raged in Congo over valuable minerals. At 15, he settled in Kyaka II, a 32-square-mile refugee camp in southwestern Uganda.

At the camp in his early 20s, while working as a motorcycle taxi driver, he stopped at an open market to pick up a passenger. But his eyes were fixed on someone else there: a short, pretty woman with large, cautious eyes. Mr. Serugendo, with a warm, open smile, did not mince words.

“I love you,” he told the woman, Christine Uwamahoro, who had lived at the refugee camp with her family since she was 3. “I’m a proper girl,” she replied. “You’re going to have to meet my family.”

They did meet, and after marrying, Mr. Serugendo and Ms. Uwamahoro began filling out the paperwork to resettle once again, this time to the United States. The process took four years, during which a son, Alfa Serugendo, and a daughter, Asante Zainbu, were born. Mr. Serugendo was no longer on his own.

The family arrived here in Northern California in September, leaving behind staggering poverty and bloodshed for one of the most expensive regions in the United States. It brought with it a small bag of summer clothes, the dream of a new life in America and little else. It also had the advice given by Ms. Uwamahoro’s older brother, who had moved to the area in 2014: “In America, you have to work very hard.”

Mr. Serugendo and Ms. Uwamahoro had the physical strength and the will; both had toiled as day laborers in the corn and bean fields of Uganda. But they lacked the language skills or the experience required for most jobs. Ms. Uwamahoro, 23, had a fourth-grade education and knew only a few English phrases; her husband, 25, could not read and spoke only Swahili.

They also had more pressing needs. How do you use a door key? What foods require refrigeration? How do you retrieve money from an A.T.M.? What is a dollar worth?

Since September, the family has leaned on the assistance of the Oakland office of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief and development nongovernmental organization. Founded in 1933, the I.R.C. was added this year as the newest beneficiary organization supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, the only one of the eight groups whose work extends beyond the New York area. It operates in 29 cities in the United States and in more than 40 countries.

As part of the family’s resettlement, the I.R.C. provided health screenings, vaccinations and Social Security cards. Mr. Serugendo and Ms. Uwamahoro took classes in basic English and how to acclimate to American culture, and counselors helped them sign up for additional government assistance. The organization also found them a two-bedroom apartment.

The I.R.C. also introduced the family to Joe Welsh; his sister, Lindsay McConnon; their spouses; and Mr. Welsh’s parents, Carol Welsh Gray and Don Gray. Together, they formed a team in a new I.R.C. pilot program, Housing Outreach Mentorship Education, or HOME, to assist immigrant families for six months.

In late October, Mr. Serugendo and Ms. Uwamahoro began the next phase of the I.R.C. program: working toward financial independence. It weighs heavily on Mr. Serugendo and Ms. Uwamahoro.

“Christine is very into it — what’s expensive and what’s cheap,” said Ms. Welsh Gray, who has accompanied her to the supermarket and has been teaching her how to comparison shop. Ms. Welsh Gray’s son has used fake bills and coins to familiarize Mr. Serugendo with American currency.

Through an interpreter, Ms. Uwamahoro spoke about seeing people sleeping on the streets here. She worries that will happen to her family. Her brother, she said, assured her that homelessness was the product of debt or drinking too much.

“But what if I don’t get a job? What will happen?” Ms. Uwamahoro said. “How will we afford the rent?”

Her English vocabulary has blossomed after classes at the nonprofit Refugee Transitions. Ms. Uwamahoro said she would like to find a job caring for older adults.

For now, Ms. Uwamahoro is making sure Alfa and Asante are cared for during the day.

“Alfa cries a lot,” the teacher told her. “Can you teach me a few phrases? How do you say, ‘Mommy’s coming back’ and ‘Are you hungry?’”

Eventually, Alfa’s stay at preschool will be extended. Thanks to the help from Ms. Welsh Gray, whose mentorship officially ends in March, Asante has been accepted into a day care program for toddlers. Ms. Uwamahoro will then be able to look for employment.

Not long after she and Alfa returned home after school, Ms. Welsh Gray and her son arrived with the apartment building manager and a handyman, all of them busily assessing a leaking refrigerator, a clogged sink and a broken heater. As day turned to night, the living room filled with the noise of playing children and the smell of white rice and cassava root boiling in pots on the stove. In the corner of the apartment stood the family’s first Christmas tree, decorated with red ornaments, a gift from a woman whom Ms. Uwamahoro met at a laundromat.

With the apartment brimming with life, Mr. Serugendo talked about one of his earliest experiences in Oakland: Once, after exiting a bus, he took a wrong turn and found himself hopelessly lost. He approached a pedestrian and showed him a card with his home address.

“In Uganda, you’d go to the police station — it’s too dangerous to ask a person on the street for directions,” Mr. Serugendo said through an interpreter.

The man did not give him directions. He drove him home. “People are so nice here,” Mr. Serugendo said.


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