When other kids were in school, Gladys Mwilelo recalled, she was standing in line for water or out selling patties so her family could have enough money to eat.
Mwilelo was living in a refugee camp at the time, in the African nation of Burundi.
Now she and her family live in New Haven. She came to her younger sister’s class at Truman School Wednesday to tell them what it’s like to live in a refugee camp.
“Everyone’s dream is to come to the United States. I spent three to four years out of school because my family couldn’t afford it. Sometimes I know that you,” Mwilelo said, turning to address the students, “don’t feel like going to school when your mom tries to get you out of bed in the morning. But when you’re not in school and you know that you can never go to school it feels horrible.”
Instead of going to school, Gladys and her siblings often had to find other activities to preoccupy themselves — by playing cards, for instance — but it was also important that they found ways to support their families.
“My siblings and I often spent the day selling patties on the side of the money so that we could pay for food. We ate food like cassava, but we couldn’t afford fruit because it was too expensive,” Mwilelo said.
Mwilelo, who now studies communications at Central Connecticut State University, addressed a group of seven Truman fourth and fifth-graders in Mary Lou DiPaola’s ESL class. Truman offers an ESL program to students who didn’t grow up speaking English at home. The ESL program is integrated with the rest of the school, so the students in the program are able to take classes in other subjects with students who aren’t in the program.
Emmanuella, Gladys’s sister, is also in DiPaola’s ESL class. She is currently in the eighth grade.
The students in DiPaola’s class had recently read an “Education for All” article in Time for Kids magazine about a refugee camp in Kenya, so Mwilelo came in to talk about her own experiences living in a refugee camp.
“I knew Swahili and French before I came here, but I didn’t know English. I had to learn English here, ” Mwilelo said.
Mwilelo is a graduate of Wilbur Cross High School and a refugee originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; she and her family left because of an ongoing war. After Gladys and her family left the Congo, they stayed in a city in Burundi called Bujumbura for 12 years as urbanized refugees — meaning that they lived in a city and not a refugee camp — until her father lost his job and they had to relocate to a refugee camp. She spent two and half weeks in a refugee camp in Burundi before coming to the U.S. in 2013 after her father had waited for 18 years to have his immigration application approved.
“You need to prove to the UN that you need help. You need to have a strong reason why you should leave. There is a lot of corruption in Burundi, and every time he tried to apply to leave he would fail. But he kept trying and we were eventually able to come here,” Mwilelo said.
Mwilelo’s experiences in the camp were very different from those that she had in New Haven. In the camp, Mwilelo had to live in a tent with her family. The UN gave them food and patrolled the borders of the camp. Her family was only allowed to get water once a day at around 6 p.m. and there was only one water fountain in the camp.
“Women would carry the water in a jug on their head in Burundi. It’s the tradition there because you can more equally distribute the weight when you’re carrying the water. The women are using their hands all day, so it’s better to carry it on top of their heads. Water is necessary. People would try to cut the line in order to get ahead. If you didn’t get water when they allowed you to, then you wouldn’t have water for the day, ” Mwilelo said.
Water wasn’t the only scarce resource: School cost money, so Gladys wasn’t able to go to school for around three or four years.
Mwilelo tried to explain her experience living in the camp to the students by pointing out some of the pictures in the Time article and writing terms like “urbanized refugee” on a notepad in the classroom. The students asked Mwilelo pre-written questions and shared their own thoughts on refugee camps. Some of the students in the class had similar experiences to Mwilelo: A couple of fourth graders in DiPaola’s class, Nasserullah Fnu and Razia Assadi, are also refugees although they emigrated here from Afghanistan and only knew a little English when they arrived in the U.S.
“We also had camps like those. We made toys out of clay because we didn’t have electronics. We sat around and did nothing or we played sports. My family came here from Afghanistan in 2016, so it’s my second year in New Haven. I have a brother and a sister, ”Fnu said.
Now that Mwilelo is living in the U.S. she wants to help other refugees adapt to life in New Haven.
“New Haven welcomed me. I want to help New Haven residents because it’s my community. My family does a lot of work with refugees, and I do work with IRIS, helping kids like Nasserullah. My goal is to help everyone,” Mwilelo said.