My journey to find a home
By Esther Kanyua
“America is a beautiful country,” he says, as he stares at the wall.
Jean-Claude Kayumba, 37, traveled to the United States in 2004 to seek asylum from his native home of Burundi.
Burundi is a small country in East Africa with three main tribes; a majority Hutu and minority Tutsi and Twa. In 1993, a Hutu president was elected after the first democratic elections. However, his presidency was short-lived as he was assassinated a few months later allegedly by Tutsi rebels. This marked the beginning of the violence that later claimed over 300,000 lives between the years of 1993-2004.
“I was hiding for three days in the bush,” he continues as he recounts the genocide he witnessed.
“I had to go to the clinic,” Jean-Claude says. The school he attended was attacked while he was at the doctor for a medical checkup. When he returned, he could see people armed with machetes and guns invading the school.
His teary eyes are filled with sadness and a subtle calmness, “They set them on fire,” he says of how he had witnessed Hutu people setting classrooms on fire with students in them.
A towering six-foot four Jean-Claude says, “We Tutsi are taller, skinnier and have a different face from the Hutu,” One’s height and shape of nose are the ethnic markers that differentiate the Hutu and Tutsi people. Discrimination and colonialism built a lot of resentment between the tribes. Colonialists favored the Tutsi and they were given the better land to farm, making them wealthier than the Hutu or Twa who were perceived to be a lower class of farmers.
“If I go back there, they will kill me because of what I witnessed,” he says. Despite this very real fear, Jean-Claude is willing to go back home and testify against those who were involved in the genocide. The International Criminal Court was created to seek justice against those who commit crimes against humanity. Jean-Claude is hoping that those responsible for the genocide will eventually have their day in court and when they do, he hopes and prays that he will be able to testify against those responsible.
When Jean-Claude arrived as a refugee in Dallas, Texas, in 2004, he only spoke French but eventually learnt the English language as he took classes at a community college.
His application for refugee asylum status was denied, and in October 2008, the Department of Homeland Security arrested him for being an illegal immigrant. He spent 27 months in jail before his release in January 2011.
“It was a good time for me to get close to God,” he says. He attended church every evening and developed a closer relationship to God. He was determined not to become one of the people who end up on suicide watch and, therefore, kept himself busy; between the gym and law library, he had no time to get depressed.
During those countless hours in the law library, he learnt what his rights were as an immigrant and how to fight his case in court even without having a lawyer.
It has been a few months since he was released from prison. He tells me how a few days ago, he ate 12 pieces of chicken wings so fast that his friend told him to slow down. He replied to his friend “leave me alone and let me enjoy this, it’s been a long time.”
For the first time, he crack a smile still staring at the wall, he recalls the occasional piece of chicken he ate in prison.
He stops looking at the wall and turns to me “I want to have a wife and kids…that’s my dream.” He knows he has changed, the two years in prison have humbled him, he just wants to enjoy the simple things in life.
He hopes that one day he will be able to help other immigrants as he believes that he has a good understanding of immigration law. “We don’t know our rights,” he says. He has observed that most immigrants do not understand the immigration laws in America.
He turns and faces the wall again and says, “I have to stay and fight.”
The name has been altered to protect the identity of the storyteller