Helene was only two years old when her parents and five-year-old brother fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002. She grew up in a town called Bujumbura in Burundi. Although Helene and her family did not live in a refugee camp, they still faced many struggles living in a country that did not welcome them. “We weren’t in peace with the citizens in the country. When we used to play outside, people would tell us that we are Congolese and that this is not our home. My dad struggled to find a job. He would change jobs so often, but he worked hard and never gave up. His priority was to find something for us to eat and money to send his children to school.”
“We went through so much. A lot of bad things were happening in Burundi, but my parents never told us anything. They always told us not to worry and that everything was going to be okay.”
Going to school in Burundi was not always safe, but Helene’s big dreams comforted her. She dreamed of one day going to college to major in psychology and elementary education to become a teacher. “I had to walk to school everyday. It was very far from my home. I loved school, but sometimes bad things happened. I remember there was a protest happening on my way to school and shootings started happening.”
Three months before graduating high school, Helene and her family received the news that they would be resettled in the United States. They could not believe it. “It was the best day of my life. It was also a sad day because I was leaving my friends. It is hard to leave the place you know the most, but we all knew that we wanted a better life for ourselves, so we were happy.” Helene and her family only had four days notice. They quickly gathered their few belongings and said their goodbyes. Their friends and neighbors threw them a goodbye party the night before to wish them well.
Helene knew that coming to the United States meant an opportunity at a better life. Better than the life she had before. “We went through so much. A lot of bad things were happening in Burundi, but my parents never told us anything. They always told us not to worry and that everything was going to be okay.”
On January 30, 2018, Exodus welcomed the family at the Indianapolis Airport, along with a Welcome Team of volunteers from Northminster Presbyterian Church. “My first impression of Indiana was that it was really cold. I have never experienced such cold weather.” The Welcome Team from Northminister handed out winter coats they had collected for the family. Helene also fondly remembers her first hot meal in the U.S. that a Congolese neighbor cooked for them.
Exodus immediately began providing resettlement services for Helene and her family, including helping her parents and older brother to find a job, helping her brother get a driver’s license, and enrolling Helene at North Central High School. Helene was excited to go to school, but her first day was frustrating. “The school originally put me in the ninth grade because I did not speak English. I told them that I had two months of school left in Burundi, and I can’t go back to the ninth grade.” After a few months, Helene’s dad was able to secure copies of her high school transcripts that had been left behind in Burundi. Once the school received the documents, they moved Helene up to the 11th grade.
“I am blessed because I never imagined this opportunity. This is a dream come true. I am going to college, and I am super, super excited. So many people in Africa do not even finish high school because school is not free or girls get pregnant and drop out. This is truly a blessing.”
School enrolled Helene in an English as a Second Language program and five months later, she was almost fluent. “The classes here are small and teachers are able to focus on all of their students so they can get better. The class size in Burundi was about 100 students and on a hot day, we could not concentrate.” She practiced her English by watching TV, working at the YMCA, and finding commonalities between the 5 languages that she is already fluent in, which are French, Swahili, Bembe, Kurundi, and Kinyarwanda. Thanks to support from her teachers and guidance counselors at North Central, Helene successfully completed all of her high school courses in May.
Although Helene is sad that her high school graduation celebrations and commencement ceremony have been cancelled due to the coronavirus, she is looking forward to starting the next chapter of her life. This fall, Helene will be attending the University of Indianapolis where she received a full-ride scholarship, including room and board. “I am blessed because I never imagined this opportunity. This is a dream come true. I am going to college, and I am super, super excited. So many people in Africa do not even finish high school because school is not free or girls get pregnant and drop out. This is truly a blessing.”
Helene plans to major in psychology and will be the first in her family to attend college. She is not sure what career she wants to have yet, but she is excited to get involved on campus. She is also grateful to the people who have made her dream of attending college possible. “A lot of people supported me. My family, my teachers, Exodus, and my church Northminster.”
We are just as proud of Helene as she is Panther proud! We are excited for her as she begins her next chapter, and we are grateful for playing a role in her success. Thank you to our volunteers and supporters who make moments like this possible.