Meet Natalie.* Natalie is a basket maker, an English as a second language student, and mother of four. Here in Cincinnati, Natalie sings in St. Leo’s Kirundi women’s choir (the native language of Burundi) and is a Kirundi lector. Natalie emigrated from Tanzania as a refugee, someone who has fled his or her country based on a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, or membership to a social group.
Natalie’s story begins in Burundi. In 1972 there was a genocide in Burundi that forced 150,000 citizens to flee their native country in search of refuge. Natalie’s parents, like many Burundians, migrated to Rwanda where they acquired U.N. refugee status and remained for over ten years and during which time Natalie was born. Still unable to return to Burundi due to civil unrest and unwanted in Rwanda, young Natalie and her family were forced to migrate once more to a refugee camp in Tanzania. After nearly twenty years in the camp, and still unable to return to Burundi, the U.N. decided that Natalie should be one of the fortunate 1% of the world’s 10.4 million refugees who are permitted to immigrate to a new country for permanent residence.
Natalie and her young family arrived in Cincinnati five years ago. Like all refugees, Natalie and her family received assistance from a nongovernmental agency, in Natalie’s case Catholic Charities, for five to eight months before being expected to reach full self-sufficiency. In Cincinnati, Catholic Charities has settled over 12,000 refugees from Burundi, Nepal, Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more.
I began working with refugees two years ago as a member of Xavier’s Summer Service Internship program. I have always found friends in the international community at Xavier and thus thought that a job working with immigrates would be a good fit. I soon fell in love with the refugee population. Since refugees have lived through such tremendous hardship they are immensely grateful people. The simple task of driving a new arrival to the doctor would unfailingly result in an invitation to tea or a small gift of fruit, a gift from people who had very little to give. These small gestures touched me and caused me to question all that I had come to take for granted. Moreover, because refugees often come from impoverished areas that have little contact to the global North, many refugees have a very strong connection to their native culture and are proud to share it. I came to treasure the savory taste of Burundian food and the rhythmic sound of the Arabic language. But more importantly, thanks to my Jesuit education, I came to question what post-colonial forces and U.S. policy created the situations that caused refugees to leave behind the cultures that loved so much.
Each Wednesday, Natalie and I meet to study English and U.S. government for her upcoming citizenship test. We discuss her rights and responsibilities as a U.S. resident as her children dance in an out of the room to American pop songs. Natalie describes adjusting to American culture as a challenge and a blessing. She is grateful for her opportunity to live in peace and security in America, but if given the choice, would have preferred to be given protection and opportunity in her native land.
*Name has been changed.
Becky Seipel is a senior history major. She has worked for Catholic Charities for two years and enjoys volunteering with the Burundian community at St. Leo’s Catholic Church where she teaches citizenship and children’s liturgy. Becky spends most of her spare time cooking, biking, and hanging out with her neighbors in Over-the-Rhine.