"I am from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. I am the eldest of 5 children. As the oldest girl, I was not able to go to school in Uganda because like many girls in different parts of the world, I cared for my younger siblings while my mother provided for our family. My mother began the resettlement process when I was very young and it took so many years before we were approved to come to the United States. I was 14 when we finally came here.

 

When I arrived, I was so happy I cried with joy. I thought this must be heaven, was I living in another world? I thanked God. Other people are dying, but I am being given a chance to live. We were reunited with my grandmother and my uncle, who were already in Memphis. It was so good to be together.

 

Now that I was in America, I could finally go to school! I was so excited to learn. I didn't know any English. I heard other people talking but I couldn't understand them. I was able to go to the Newcomer School, and it helped me a lot. I was shy at first, but when I saw other kids who were nice, it made me so happy. One of the teachers, Ms. Hannah, was so kind to me. She could speak Swahili and had been to Uganda. She made me feel welcome. I also found other kids who grew up in Uganda and heard them speak my language, and it was good.  I loved learning in school, and I pushed through to learn and do my best. And I loved the food at school! So many different foods. I really like pizza. 

 

After two years at NCI I went to Frederick Douglass High School. My favorite subject is science. I also love to dance. It makes me so happy! I am on the Dance Team at school. Now I'm a Senior! After high school I would like to keep dancing, but I would also like to be a doctor. Being a doctor is everything. You help people and it is so important. 

 

Through all of this, my mother has been my inspiration. She doesn't give up easily, she is always so strong. She didn't give up when we were in Africa, trying to figure out where we would sleep or what we would eat. And she is still so strong. 

 

For other new students, I would say don't be shy, just be you. I know it's a new school to you, a new country, but it's going to be fun. Try to find somebody to help you."

 

Rachaell Kibalonza

 

As interviewed by Karen Spencer

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June is #ImmigrantHeritageMonth and #RefugeeAwarenessMonth, and as we count down to World Refugee Day June 20th, we will be featuring stories of courage, resilience, and hope among our refugee and immigrant community. Some of our stories will be in collaboration with SCSK12 en Espanol. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at @wrmemphis.

To contribute to our work, visit worldreliefmemphis.org/covid19.

Learn more about Shelby County Schools' Newcomer International Center here

For more summer reading on this topic, we recommend these books: