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Hope in the Clouds for Refugees 3 Years On

Even in Africa, the worst part of traveling for work, wasn’t the arduous transportation or the power outages. It was saying “good-bye” to my kids. I’d tell my daughter that when we missed each other we would look up into the sky. I would blow a kiss into a cloud, and it would be carried over to her in Kenya, where she could reach up and pull it out of the sky.

We went to Kenya for two years so I could head up Cultural Orientation for refugees from throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, who were approved to resettle in the U.S. From time to time, I’d take trips across the region.

But, this trip to Rwanda was different. For two weeks in Gihembe Refugee Camp, I’d have a rare opportunity to set up a pilot project to teach Congolese refugees basic English. It’s a brilliant idea really. In the camp, while refugees are just waiting for security clearances to come through, time is the one thing there’s no shortage of. The resettlement community had fought long and hard for a chance to provide overseas English. This pilot project was our big shot to prove it’s a worthwhile investment.

Our list of students was culled from the massive database that holds information for the hundreds of thousands of refugees whose cases are still waiting in the pipeline. Our main criteria was the lowest level of English proficiency amongst approved refugees in Gihembe. On the ground in Rwanda, when I finally meet the students in person, I see a good number of older women.

Now, old in a refugee context is like your 60s. Malnutrition, hard physical labor, trauma.. well, it ages you. And for the Banyamuelenge women of Congo, there is a particular brutality to the way sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. The persecution stories are not for the faint of heart.

In Rwanda, we begin with an information session to explain the project to our students. One grey haired, cloudy-eyed woman, named Evangeline, raises her hand and, in her native language, Kinyarwanda, says: “I have an old man at home. Shouldn’t he be here rather than me?”

I say, “But you’ll need to know English, too, once you get to the U.S.” Amazed by such a preposterous idea, she just laughs.

Our classroom overlooks the water spickets in the center of the camp. The water’s turned on only twice a day, so the women and children form long lines, waiting to fill their yellow plastic containers. Girls as young as five or six haul 5-gallon water jugs on their backs, secured with a long piece of fabric around their forehead and underneath the bottom of the container.

I take a break from work and watch camp life at the spickets. Some girls spot me. They wave and giggle with excitement. Other children run up the hillside to greet me. I smile and shake their little hands, and they are overjoyed. Evangeline and the others are amused at my indulgence.

We have to leave every day by 3pm, before the men gather in the nearby camp center. Once they start drinking, it’s not safe. Those not chosen for our English project, have little escape from the desperate monotony of camp life. So, every afternoon we drive out of the camp to the smile and happy waves of the children. And, every afternoon, I hope the women who couldn’t leave, would be ok.

With the classrooms set and teachers in motion, I leave for Nairobi with high hopes. At the end of the four weeks, I return to Gihembe for final assessments and graduation. The English gains are extraordinary. Evangeline is one of a handful of students who get a certificate for perfect attendance. She looks at me, a sparkle coming through her cloudy eyes, & says in slow, but clear English, “Good Morning. How are you? My name is Evangeline. Nice to meet you.”

We left Kenya three years ago today, and there was real hope that most of the refugees in Gihembe would depart. There was hope we could establish ongoing overseas English, at least in Rwanda. And, back home in the U.S., I recommitted to spending more time with my own children.

But, I wonder whether Evangeline and those girls by the water spicket ever did get their chance to depart. Are they in Lexington or Denver right now, using English to buy maize meal and collards? And then I look up, and I blow some hope into a cloud, that it may be carried across the world to the hills of Rwanda.

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