After she fled an east African refugee camp without her mom, knowing not a word of English, Janine Irokoze leaned on a new friend—and a love for music—to help find her way in New Haven.
Now she’s helping that friend, and her other Fair Haven classmates, discover the songs and rhythms that have carried her through a remarkable journey.
Janine, who’s 14, grew up in the African country of Burundi; her family fled during a civil war. Separated from her parents, she is now living in New Haven with four siblings.
She’s one of 32 refugee students at Fair Haven School, which serves as the city’s official “newcomer center” for students from other countries. One hundred of the 726 students there have been in the U.S. for less than a year.
Like the other immigrants at the school, Janine faced huge obstacles adjusting to a new country. And like some other immigrants she has already survived daunting, sometimes painful challenges.
Janine’s story begins in Burundi, a small country tucked between Congo and Tanzania in east Africa. She was born in the midst of a 12-year civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi that left some 300,000 dead. Continued civil unrest has helped make Burundi one of the poorest countries in the world.
“My time in Burundi was hard,” Janine said during a recent interview with her family in their Newhallville home.
She shared a few details: Her father left in 1998 to join family in America; Janine stayed behind with her mom. Over the years, Dad would send home money.
“I missed him so bad,” she said.
Janine and her siblings grew up speaking Kirundi and Swahili and dancing, drumming and singing traditional Burundian music. They kept the music alive through difficult transitions in their lives.
When Janine was 10, her family fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania. They lived in the camp for two years. At some point, the kids got separated from their mother. Janine said she believes her mom passed away. When her father sent money to bring Janine and her siblings to the States, Janine left Africa without ever knowing what happened to her mom.
“My time in Africa is kind of really sad,” said Janine. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
In February of 2010, Janine and her siblings arrived in New Haven, reunited at last with her dad.
“I was hugging him so bad,” she recalled. “I started crying.”
When they met him, they learned he had been in several car accidents. He didn’t tell the family because he didn’t want them to worry. He is currently separated from Janine and her siblings for reasons the family wasn’t comfortable speaking about publicly.
Upon their arrival to the U.S., Janine and her siblings connected with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), an East Rock not-for-profit that helps refugees settle in the city. IRIS helped them find a home on Nash Street in New Haven, where many refugees have settled over the years.
Janine’s family later ended up finding a different home on Nash—one that the city ended up closing down due to squalid conditions.
The apartment was covered in black mold, recalled Trazor Mushipu (pictured), Janine’s brother-in-law. A Congolese refugee, Mushipu met Janine’s sister Jenny in the Tanzania camps; they now have four young kids. He is now head of household to 10 family members in an apartment on Newhallville’s Sheffield Avenue. Janine lives there with her sisters Jenny, 27, Consolata, 17, and two younger brothers, ages 11 and 8.
Like many newcomers to New Haven, Janine and her siblings enrolled in Fair Haven School, a K-8 public school on Grand Avenue. Fair Haven Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings said the school inherited the city’s newcomer center from East Rock Magnet School three years ago. Since then, staff have learned to adjust to some common challenges among refugees.
For instance, young refugees who have seen significant adults disappear from their lives have a hard time when their classroom teachers drop them off at art class and leave the room.
At first, Gethings said, staff didn’t know why the kids were crying so much to see their teachers go. They learned that if the classroom teacher came back to show her face again—and illustrate she hadn’t abandoned the kids—the tears went away.
ESL teacher Michael Soares noted that many kids who are not refugees have been exposed to significant doses of trauma as well. Research shows childhood stress and trauma has a lasting impact on kids’ brains—it affects the prefrontal cortex, making it harder for kids to exercise self-control, rebound from disappointment, and pay attention in class.
On top of trauma, newcomers deal with major language barriers. Kids at Fair Haven School speak Spanish, Arabic, French, Swahili, Turkish, Portuguese, Tigrinya, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Mandinka, Dari, Bengali, Russian, Khmer, Polish, Amharic, Chinese and Serbian, as of the latest count. Over half of kids at Fair Haven School are English-language learners. Those who speak Spanish can join one of nine bilingual Spanish classrooms. Those who don’t get mainstreamed with other kids, receive modified instruction inside the classroom, and are pulled out from class for small group instruction in English.
Like many kids at larger neighborhood schools, Janine joined Fair Haven School late in the school year. She enrolled in June, with only a few weeks left before summer.
“I was scared” on the first day of school, Janine recalled. “The teacher asked me a question, I couldn’t even talk.” She didn’t realize she wouldn’t be able to use Swahili to express herself.
“I thought they would speak the same language,” she recalled. “They spoke English.”
On her first day, she found solace in the company of Jonna Bacote, a New Haven native a couple of years younger than Janine. The two became fast friends.
“Jonna gave me books,” Janine recalled, to encourage her to learn the language.
“I can’t even read these books!” Janine recalled protesting. But Jonna “forced me to do it.”
Janine said she learned English by reading about her passion, music.
“I only read books about songs,” she recalled. Books about pop stars like Beyonce and Rihanna.
Despite her struggles with English, Janine found a place to shine in music class.
Last year, she sang and danced before hundreds during an African heritage performance.
“I sang for the whole school,” she recalled. “I was scared when I started, but when I was going in the middle, it was nice.”
Janine also taught her peers a song in Swahili titled “Shule.” The song is about life at school, she said. The theme: “Don’t give up.”
On a recent morning at school, Janine provided the backbone for a lesson on African drumming in Dan Kinsman’s 6th grade general music class.
Janine kicked off the class by pounding out a rhythm on a tubano drum similar to the kind she used growing up.
She said she doesn’t know the name of the rhythms she plays; she just learned them by ear. She started drumming at age 4. Her brother crafted her a drum out of a fallen tree. In the U.S., she has kept up drumming, as well as singing and dancing, mixing new and old traditions. A recent performance she participated in mixed Burundi and Beyonce.
As she banged her drum inside Kinsman’s classroom, students watched cautiously at first. They joined in, slapping hands on knees. Then Kinsman handed out a few drums.
“What am I supposed to do?” asked a nervous classmate as she inched close to a large drum. She watched Janine and got into the groove.
Then students provided the beat as Janine belted out a solo in Swahili.
Click on the play arrow above to watch.
Janine also helped Kinsman lead the group in a drum ensemble piece he picked up during a trip to Ghana.
“I can play that, that’s easy,” she blurted out as Kinsman introduced the rhythm.
This time, it was Janine’s turn to teach Jonna. She put her hand on Jonna’s shaker and helped her tap out the beat.
Jonna backed up Janine with supportive smiles as she performed. And she spotted Janine as Janine tried to carry her drum back to the closet Burundi-style, by balancing it on her head.
Janine has emerged as a leader in the school, Kinsman said. She’s currently teaching a group of her peers a dance for the next African heritage performance at the school later this month.
“I can do a lot of stuff,” acknowledged Janine. “I can sing, I can dance, I can tell stories. I just need someone who can stand up for me.”
She said she’s looking for a venue, and a person, to let her talents shine on stage.
“If I have someone to support me,” she said, “I can do it. I’m ready for anything.”