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Hear My Story: Celestine

Stories of tragedy, courage, and hope reborn: these are the voices of the refugees served by Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.   Learn more about the refugee experience from those who have lived it first hand.

What is your name?

Celestine, Rozalia, Alphonsina and Diani

Can you tell us about where you’re from?


Where were you living before you came to the United States?

Celestine: I lived in Rwanda before fleeing to Uganda

Rozalia: I lived in Congo before fleeing to Uganda

Alphonsina: I was born in Uganda

Diani: I was born in Uganda 

What was life like before coming to the US?

Celestine: The life in Uganda was not good, and that is why we always wished to come to America because there were many challenges in Uganda being a refugee. Also, if you wanted to teach your school-going children, it was not easy. Feeding them was not easy.  Following how we lived in Uganda, even the security level we had was not that good because it was possible that people can come from the country to steal from the refugee camp, and many were stolen from.

Did you come to the US with family?

That is my first born, Mutesi Alfonsina, the second is this one Mukamusoni Diane, the next one is Mukarukundo Sarah, the next one is Tuyisenge Secile, the next one is Kyuzo David, the next one is Uwamahoro Oliva, the next one is Harerimana Victor. 

There is one we gave birth to here in America called Pacific  Segahutu. We are all together 10 in number here: 8 children and then me and my wife. I have got five girls and three boys.  

What was your first impression of Columbia? 

Celestine: Upon reaching Columbia, it was my first time in America. I was first scared and worried. Will I be able to survive here not knowing the language? The way I was received was good and I started liking it here. Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigration Services took me to the office and advised me. I felt so happy. I am still happy with Columbia. Even the rental house they provided for us  upon arrival is the same one I still live in and rent because I like the place. In short, it has been a good place for me, and I’m liking it here. I have had no challenges with family, and we have had another child here. I still like it here.

Also upon arriving in America, I did not know the language and I used to wonder how I will be working not knowing English. But I got here and started working. Although I did not know English, I got a job. I still work together with white people, and I work in America with no problem, and it makes me happy.

Rozalia: We appreciate Columbia. We are able to get food, our children are happy, they study and go to school.

Celestine: They study well, there is no problem. They have been learning and improving in English. At times I come along with one of my children here at the office with no challenges, and I can now understand a little bit, making me feel that America is good.

Another thing I like in America, no one is better than the other, we all are at the same level, whether someone is white or someone who were called refugees. We work and make the same money regardless of where you are born. We are refugees no more now here in America. Also there is peace and security, nobody can stop you along the way, or maybe if you leave your door open when you sleep, nobody is expected to come kill you. 

What surprised you most about life here? 

Celestine: One thing that surprised me and made me happy, is the leadership. Compared to where we lived, we had village chairmen. But since I got here, I have no leader yet. The only leader in America is the police, which is also when you do wrong. It is not like a chairman will come to your home, no.  It is the police that leads the country, if there is anything wrong, police come in to solve the problem. This is one other thing I have noticed in America, here in Columbia. I have not seen any leaders chairmen like in the refugees camp or like where we came from, here you find police involved in all programs.

There is a lot we can talk about. Even when you go to the grocery store, they follow set procedures, follow lines, it doesn’t matter who they are, they will not step ahead of you. They let you finish first and they come next. They follow the procedure. 

Take another example, back home where we came from, you cannot just go and get a car on loan. like how here in America, you go to a given company and ask for a car and pay gradually over time while you still run your programs.

Diani: When we went to school, we made new friends, and when we took exams, it was free, but in Africa you have to pay money first.

What do you think of Columbia now?

Celestine: There is a lot I think about Columbia. Personally and as a family head, I like it, I find the place good to begin with. I personally feel like I will not want to leave this place. If I find the means, I wish to at some point buy a house in this area. Also what has made me happy, when I’m seated at home, I hear my children speak good English that they did not do before, because now all my children speak English, even the young ones do speak English. I hope that what the future brings will also be good.

Rozalia: Columbia is good. I was treated well when I went to the hospital giving birth. I brought no clothes, [RIS staff] brought me some clothes, brought me to a bed in the hospital.  I did not have to buy them first. [RIS] also brought me diapers, and that is why I appreciated it.

What’s your favorite thing about Columbia? 

Celestine: The first thing I like is peace and security. We hear about shootings of people in other places because we listen to the news. Now, we live by the road, in other places houses are looted at night, but I have not heard of such in Columbia. So it is peace and security, something I liked is that there is peace and security.

Diani: School, because when we were in Africa, we didn’t even know how to read, but now we can read.

How has Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services helped during your transition to life in the US? 

Celestine: When we got here in Columbia, an important thing the RIS did was having someone assist us, our case worker.  They tried to help us, which might have been a challenge to them because we did not know English. Communication was not easy but they still tried and made it work out well for us. We moved on with life, and whenever we had challenges they picked us up, or came here at the office to talk about the challenge. The office was welcoming, there were no problems and we were coping with life here. The first help we got upon reaching the office is getting food for our children and the family.  They also helped with means of communication so we can connect with them when needed, but mostly when there is a challenge, we come to the offices and explain to them.

Another challenge we face as people coming to America has to do with getting legal documents required when you visit offices, going to work, or you might get money to get a car, but getting documents like permits gets hard because you don’t understand English. It gets more challenging for us.  They helped us with all of these things.

What was your first job within the United States? 

Celestine: I work at a factory. It’s where I started working and am still working to this day. I have been working there for a year and a few months. My wife also works there.

What is your greatest accomplishment? 

Celestine: Life was bad, until we got to America when it got better. I had another baby after getting here. While in the refugee camp, providing for my family was not easy, but living here it’s easy to provide for them. I got a job, my wife is also working. Because we work, our children get enough to eat and go to school. Another thing that made me happy in this year I have here in America, I was able to buy two used cars by myself. I have completely paid for one and am almost done paying for the second car.

Rozalia: I am happy that I get enough to feed and shelter my children, and I am happy that I had my child after getting to America.

What is your dream for the future? 

Rozalia: We hope to buy our own house to live in. 

Diani and Alphonsina: To be a nurse.

What is your favorite thing about your home country? What do you miss the most from your home country? 

Rozalia: All African foods that I could have missed are also available here. There are beans, potatoes, rice, and that is really good.

Celestine: I should miss my family but I have no family back in Africa; there are no more family members for me to miss. There is nothing left there that feels good for me. I feel like I do not miss anything from back home. 

Are there any family or cultural traditions you keep? 

Celestine: Coming from Africa, we still follow some of our culture, values and traditions. We still respect each other like we used to. First of all is to live together. In America, people live together but we have some values, such as respect between husband and wife, that can vary from that in Africa. We still follow our traditions, and also the eating habits, like food that we were used to eating in Africa is what we still eat and use the most at home. Here we still get much of the food that we traditionally eat, including porridge, roasted potatoes, Cassava, yams, most of these African stuff. We also use some local products here but not as much.

What does being American mean to you? 

Celestine: Being an American is when you fully get the required documents. Just like any other country, until you get documents, you are not yet an American citizen so. I do wish to study and get this document.  So I hope to become American once I get the required documents.

What does being a refugee mean to you? 

Celestine: Being a refugee? No one desires to be a refugee, but one becomes a refugee due to circumstances faced, due to little or no peace and security.. If the world had peace, there would be no refugees. What it means to be a refugee, is being forced to leave your country because of given circumstances. Being a refugee is a long process, it’s not for everyone. You must get through interviews to give you refugee status depending on the challenges you met.

Rozalia: We became refugees because we had to flee our country.  We  were interviewed on pretty much everything to make sure we were really refugees before we could come to the United States.

Do you feel like there are misconceptions about being a refugee? 

Celestine: What I would say is, being called a refugee for many people may lead to fear that a person will treat them differently just because they are a refugee, but there is nothing bad or different about them. A refugee is a human just like any other. Apart from the challenges they might have faced trying to get to a country, it depends on how a country treats us as refugees. It feels like being a refugee is leaving one’s home country to another.

Do you feel like there are misconceptions about your home country?

Celestine: I think what Americans think about how refugees are treated is pretty much true. Because for Congo and Uganda, generally refugees are not treated well. There is negligence of rights of refugees in refugee camps. In Uganda for example, there are instances of unnecessary imprisonment of refugees. If you are in your home country you hope for a better future, but it is hard for people to get access to good education. Others cannot go to school because parents are unable to support them.

There is also dishonesty regarding the refugee aid, including food and money that are meant to help refugees. It ends up benefiting and developing  those that work in those positions yet it was meant to help refugees in the first place. That should be the reason why American organizations choose to build offices in the refugee camp so they can deal with refugee challenges directly. All the interviews are done in the camp, and houses built for workers of the American organizations are meant to follow refugees’ programs and challenges.

What do you want the community to know about your home country or culture?

Celestine: The values of the people in our country, first of all in living together, that gets everything moving on well. I was born and raised to be respectful and I still do the same. I never changed that. Maybe if not for that character, I would not have been able to get here.  Most importantly is we like to live with others. 

What would you tell yourself when you first arrived in Columbia?

Celestine: The first thing should be learning to speak English. That would have helped make it easy for me in life. 

Rozalia: it is a lot that a person might need, for me I have learned more upon reaching here. I even used to go to school for English till I got a job and then I stopped. Even now, given there is a teacher to learn from, I want to learn more English.

Diani: I would tell myself to learn and drive a car, so I can help take my mom to work. For myself, I can start working and then help them pay for the house.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Celestine: The first thing I was excited about here in America, is being lucky and being able to drive, that makes me happy. I came here to the office by myself, I do my bills by myself. I never expected that I could ever drive, let alone buy a car, but here I bought one.