Clementine Sikiri is a 21 year old student at Grand Valley State University. She arrived as a refugee to Grand Rapids when she was nine years old with her family. She is a hard-working student who works two different jobs and still manages to find time to visit her family regularly, stay involved with her church, and have a boyfriend (who is equally busy with his education and work, so she says it works out.)
“I am 21 years old and I moved here when I was nine years old. My family lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda before coming here and we lived there for a few years. I lived with most of my siblings, and my grandma and my dad. My mother and two of my siblings were missing. We didn't know where they were.
While we lived in the refugee camp we received our basic needs from the UNHCR. They provided food while we were there. I remember everything, where we lived, everything. They say it all looks different now.
We applied to come to America and it was a long process. It's not a guaranteed process either. My family was lucky enough to be selected to come to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Well at first we didn't know exactly where we were going to go. They just tell you, 'America'. But basically anywhere outside the refugee camp was called America. So some people went to Europe and some to the United States, but my family came straight to Grand Rapids, Michigan on June 23, 2003.
We all have this memory of when we landed in Chicago. The airport in Chicago is huge. And the skyscrapers in Chicago were amazing because we'd never seen anything like that in our lives. It was like, 'wow. America is beautiful.'
We saw girls wearing really, really short shorts. And we were SHOCKED. We were like, 'is that normal to dress like that?' So that was something strange, to see that, because back home women can't even wear pants so it was really weird to see people basically wearing underwear. We were just sitting in the airport like (Jaw drops.) There was a lot of culture shock but that is what we remember from the first things we saw.
I was 9 years old and my mom was pregnant with my brother, she was 9 months pregnant. Three days after we arrived she had a baby. She was probably scared, I don't know how she processed it. We didn't speak a word of English but my dad spoke French so he was able to get around; he had just a tiny bit of English. Our neighbor helped us out. He understood a little bit of French, so the neighbor drove her to the hospital. He was a really nice older guy. He helped us out a lot.
We liked it and we loved our house because it had a toilet, carpet, and a fridge.
A refugee camp is hard to describe. It was really hard and sometimes when we talk we're like 'how did we survive?' It was so horrible.
So for the first 9 years of my life we lived with no electricity, no running water in the house, none of that, it was hard. So that's why my dad complains to us kids now, 'You didn't wash the dishes? You don't have to go fetch water, we have water in the house!' 'You didn't cook? You don't have to go to the forest to get wood, we have a stove," she laughs.
"We didn't know anyone here in Michigan so it was really hard. We attended Palmer elementary those two years. We took ESL classes there and learned English. It was really hard because we didn't speak English and it was really frustrating sitting in that class when you didn’t know what the teacher was saying, everybody looks different, and nobody understands you.
It was hard to transition to new schools after that, too. It was already hard, because I guess I stood out, so it was hard to make friends. I started at Palmer, then went to Iroquois, then Gerald R. Ford, then Ottawa Hills, and graduated from Grand Rapids Adventist Academy.
I had to learn to overcome fear, because I didn't want to think about what I wanted to do because of the language barrier. I was like, okay, it's going to be weird because I have an accent, people aren't going to understand me.
I think it's because every time I say something the first thing people ask me is 'where are you from?' and I was like, okay I'm strange. Now I think it takes people a while longer. You can see people bring their ear closer and watching you before they ask, 'where are you from?'
I really hated my accent and didn't know what I wanted to do when I grow up because everything requires speaking.
I decided to go to community college because I didn't know a lot about colleges and never really had the opportunity to have anyone in my family go to college, so I didn't understand how it worked. When I was at GRCC I started thinking about what I wanted to do in life.
I remembered back home when my dad was a teacher, I liked that he was a teacher because that was the only job available; that's the only thing you could do there in the refugee camp. Nobody is certified to be a doctor or a nurse because we're all refugees living there. It's people coming from the outside. But the teachers were refugees, and my dad was one of the teachers so I really admired him for that, that he had a job and could provide for us, and we could get more than what UNHCR provided for us."
“After high school I got a job at the YMCA working in the Child Development Center and it was my first job. I was really proud of myself because I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can get a job! I'm working!’ And the kids loved me and my bosses were really nice. I discovered that I really like kids. So when I worked there I decided to teach.
I told some people in life that I care about, or people that care about me, and they encouraged me to do that and they saw that in me. And part of the reason why I decided to do that is not because I actually thought that I could do it, it's because people believed I could do it. People like Bruce and Dana who encouraged me. (Bruce is the founder of Mars Bros, a mentoring program in Southeast Grand Rapids, Dana is her mentor.) I think a lot of life decisions that I made are because I had people like Bruce and Dana who encouraged me and told me how it is; this is how it works. I didn't know there were scholarships. Or just little things like making connections. I learned so much. Knowing someone and having someone you know help you out, it's okay.
Even Bruce giving me a job when I was sixteen helped me out a lot, for him to do that. He would link me up. He would prepare me for every step and he got me to a point where it was like, 'Okay, now I can do this myself.' And now it's crazy because I'm just now seeing it. I'm like, 'oh my gosh, he helped me out a lot.’ Having mentors, it's the biggest thing that got me where I am today.
I feel like having a mentor is really important. It’s something I want to do and it's one of the reasons I chose to be a teacher because I want to affect people, especially young people because, I feel like young people are just waiting to learn. I feel like that's what I want to do. I want to impact lives, and change at least one person's perspective on life. And make them feel like, 'wow, this is possible.' Ya know? Because if my mentor or Bruce or my teachers or friends, if they hadn't looked at me that way and just gave me hope, I don't think I would've been able to do this, be on this journey that I'm on. And I'm really thankful for that. I'm so grateful.
Ever since I got here I've always felt supported by Americans. I'm starting now to understand that my story is inspirational and it's not a barrier, because it was hard for me and I looked at it like being different is a setback because I stood out."
"Being a Christian has served a big role in my life, and my family as well. It's what got us through everything—the refugee camp, the war, family separation. Faith is number one, and it's really interesting because when we got here my family kept that.
It's hard to be a Christian here. There is just so much to do and I feel like America is so structured. Be here at this time, and do this. It's just so in order, and it's hard to live like that. It’s difficult to find that time to spend with God and it's really hard because you'd rather be sleeping. It was hard to find that balance for my family, my dad having to work two jobs.
God kept answering our prayers too because we prayed for a very long time for my family members to be alive—for my mother, my sister, and my oldest brother, my dad’s firstborn.
We lost faith sometimes and thought they were dead, especially my dad's firstborn because he was taken away during the war to fight, so we definitely assumed he was dead but we weren't sure so we had that little hope he could be alive. It’s really interesting. God works in mysterious ways, because he was found alive and my dad couldn't believe it so he had to fly to Rwanda to see him with his own eyes and he's okay.
And before that, we heard that my mom was alive and my sister was alive and my grandma was able to come to America, and my two cousins were able to come to America. And my sister just came to America. It’s so cool and everything is working out. We felt so alone at first, it was just us. No family members at all here. And now we have a huge family and they're growing so it's really nice.
Kim (Volunteer/Friend of Family)
Kim is basically a family member. We consider her part of the family, her and her parents. She went and told her parents about us and it was just a relationship that grew over time and now they're family. We call her parents grandma and grandpa. Grandma would come visit us and she'd bring us stuff. We've spent every Christmas together every year for the past 12 years. They invite us over for Christmas or they come over. Kim went to Africa with my dad, she's basically part of the family. She is so awesome.
Her mom will call us and check up on us. She's always saying she wants to come visit me and have lunch and that I need to call her, so she's basically like a grandma. It's really nice. When you go in their house they have pictures of us from 2004, 2005, old pictures all over the house. It's really nice. And when their dog died we felt like we lost a family member. We loved their dog. We used to think we hated dogs, until their dog died and we were crying!
Advice to Newly Arrived Refugees
“I think that most of us come here and just work and not think about our future, because we're working for money and just having a job; it's life. But, do you realize you can get an education too? That's possible.
You have to think about yourself in the future too. Take a class or two here and there. You have to work hard. It's not going to be easy. My advice would be, go to school. It sounds so cliche, but go to school. Even take one class. Just stay in school and don't take a break. The only way to be successful is to work hard. Nothing is easy. Once you feel like your life is easy then you're probably not working hard enough. Especially if you're my age."
For West Michigan Community
"I think it's hard when people hear about refugees. First, imagine yourself going to a different country and not speaking any of their language, and you're expected to survive there on your own. It's hard, and sometimes we don't really truly process that, how it would feel.
I think that some of these refugees are looked upon as, I don't want to say dumb people, but not smart. Like, something went wrong in their life or they weren't successful so they came here. I think some people see it that way. When they look at them and say, 'oh, you don't speak English, you must not be smart.' English is not the only language in the world. That is another misconception. A lot of people look at English like it's the only language or its better than others and its not true.
Looking at a refugee, some people automatically think that, 'oh they might not be as smart because they're refugees', but if you truly get to know them, they ARE smart people, they just didn't have the same privilege as you did. I've witnessed a lot of moments where Americans will mistreat refugees because they are refugees, like they don't know anything.
Even my dad, we go to places together and he'll be so polite but because he has an accent, he’s treated a certain way and that breaks my heart. It drives me crazy. I also notice that people with really strong accents are not treated the same as most Americans and that's sad. They're belittled because they're not Americans. Once you sit down and actually talk to them you can learn so much from them, so much."
“I am going to Grand Valley right now and it's my junior year. I'm studying elementary education with an emphasis on language arts, which is really interesting, having English as my second language and studying English. I like it though.
I feel like an adult because I actually have to budget and limit myself from wasting money or food or any of that stuff. So I am a full time student and I work 33 hours a week so I can pay off my car, buy groceries, pay my bills and utilities and other expenses. It's been hard working and being in school but it's paying off. Seeing that I'm not taking so many loans, because I really don't want to take loans, and just paying for my own stuff and not having to ask my parents, it makes it worth it. I'm really glad that I'm able to do that, to provide for myself.
I'm really glad and blessed to have nice jobs, too, that are not too stressful or emotionally or physically draining. I'm really thankful every day for having a job where I can go and be happy, and a job that's going to benefit me in the future, like working at the Y.
I'm so thankful to have a car too, like, every day I pray, 'Thank you so much for giving me a car', because even though it's old and crusty, I don't know what I would do without my car!
Next year I'll be a Senior and the following year I'll be doing my student teaching. At the end of next school year I have to apply to the College of Ed which is really scary to think about. Once I get in, that will be the happiest moment of my life, and when I graduate that will be the happiest moment of my life, and when I get a job, even happier.
I kind of want to do mission work for a year after I graduate. It sounds crazy but I really do want to teach abroad maybe, or a mission trip to another country. I prefer a refugee camp but I don't know if that's possible. I always wanted to do it and I put it in God's hands. But that's what I want to do for a year or two and then come back and find a job here and settle and work and be a good teacher."