CAMBRIDGE SPRINGS — In a time of powerful political rhetoric regarding immigration, a local teacher recently brought some immigrants to America into his classroom to allow students to attach a face and a story to the terms refugee and immigrant.
“With a current wave of Islamophobia and fear of immigrants, I felt it was important to put real faces and attach real experiences to those who seek to become Americans,” said social studies teacher John Werkmeister, a 30-year teacher currently at Cambridge Springs High School. “I’ve read some disturbing comments even suggesting the use of violence against refugees who want to enter our country. It’s easy to form opinions about a culture when you just hear or read things, but this experience humanizes that.”
Werkmeister’s World History and American History classes each got the opportunity to hear stories and ask questions of two young immigrants who came to America less than two years ago. Both of the guest speakers in Werkmeister’s classes are high school students living in Erie who each followed a different path leading to where they are now.
Jeff Brooks, a preferred communities case manager at the International Institute of Erie (IIE), brought Chrinesse Mpunga and Ridwan Aidid to the high school for a day of sharing their lives with students close to their own age. “As we drove here the differences of their backgrounds really stood out,” Brooks said. “Chrinesse is used to the city, so driving through the country made her a little bit uncomfortable, but Ridwan enjoyed the openness and lack of buildings.”
Brooks helps build relationships between the IIE and community partners, speaks to groups about the agency and helps build understanding about refugees in general in the community. “When refugees get to Erie we assist them in establishing basic needs such as shelter, food and medical appointments and they attend classes that teach them what life is like here in America and improve their English language skills,” Brooks said. “From there most refugees go on to get jobs, buy houses, become citizens in five years and help build the community they are resettled in.”
“When you come to this country they give you a loan so you can get things you need,” Mpunga said. “Refugees don’t get a handout. You have to work hard to stay here.”
Mpunga left Zambia on June 9, 2014. She is currently a sophomore at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie. Mpunga played basketball last year, but isn’t playing any school sports right now. “I wasn’t very good at basketball,” she confessed. “Sports are good, but I want to do well in school, go to college and become a lawyer.”
Mpunga said the laws in her country are not good and her goal would be to return and volunteer her services. “I would like to help the Congolese with cases like unsolved homicides,” she said. “Then I would come back to America.”
Mpunga’s family fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was young girl. Her father was a lawyer working on a case that had political ties. When the government wasn’t happy with how the case went, the family fled in fear for its safety. Mpunga and her mother lived as refugees in Zambia, while her sister fled to another location in South Africa and her father went elsewhere, she said.
Mpunga had to learn several languages in an attempt to fit in while she lived in Zambia. “In Zambia they would discriminate against the Congolese,” she said. “Sometimes they would burn houses of the refugees from the Congo.”
Going to school each day was a struggle for Mpunga. “You had to walk for an hour to get to school, sometimes in pouring rain,” she said. “We had to wear white stockings. Many times the stockings would be brown by the time I got to school.” School in Zambia is not free and there’s a lot of pressure to do well, according to Mpunga. “They post your grades in the hallway for everyone to see,” she said. “If you don’t do well, people laugh at you and say you are dumb.”
Mpunga and Aidid, a freshman at East High School in Erie, agree that their education in America has been the biggest change for them, and one of the best changes they’ve made. “We don’t have good schools or teachers in my country,” Aidid said. “At my school now I can use an iPad, and I can get help from a tutor if I need it, instead of being punished,” Mpunga added.
Ridwan Aidid’s family fled Somalia due to violence. His father worked in construction. They fled after an incident where his father and another man were standing on a wall, working on a building, and the man next to Aidid’s father got shot. “There was fighting every day, all day,” Aidid said. “We were trying to escape so we wouldn’t get killed.”
“When we left, we had nothing, no money, no food, nothing,” Aidid told the class. “We walked for two months until we got to a refugee camp, where they separated us into groups of 200.” Aidid lived in the camp for five years. “They gave us a card so we could get food,” he said. “It was good just to have food. I was not hungry and my life was not threatened.”
Aidid was one of the fortunate ones who passed an interview and got the chance to come to America. “When I saw my name on the paper hanging on the wall that said I could come to America I was so happy,” he said. “It was the first time I thought I might get to be somebody.”
Aidid’s plan is to work hard in school, go to college, become a doctor and go back to Somalia to help people in his country.
Werkmeister noted that both Aidid and Mpunga, different people with distinct stories, see themselves as being part of the solution. “They don’t desire to get rich and just help themselves,” he said.
Werkmeister asked the pair what advice they would give to those who subscribe to anti-refugee sentiment in our country. “Terrorism can’t be used as an excuse to turn your backs on refugees,” Mpunga said. “Terrorism can happen between anyone, even Americans. Refugees are just trying to escape something. They want peace and a life that anyone wants and deserves. Closing doors to refugees denies them that opportunity.”
“You never feel at peace as a refugee,” Aidid said. “Our dream is to change the story of our lives.”
“We didn’t choose to be refugees. It happened to us,” Mpunga said. “It can happen to anyone.”