06.23.2023

My Story: An Inspiring Journey from Refugee Camp to Resilience

By Mapenzi Kinege

We only know the worth of something once it is gone. Growing up as an orphan, I was directionless, filled with emptiness and hopelessness. I felt like a lost child trying to navigate the world alone. By the grace of God, I was found as an infant in a combat area near Tanzania and brought to Nyarugusu refugee camp. In the refugee camp, I felt like I was trapped. Trees surrounded me with nothing else to see; isolation made me feel hopeless. Seeing older people in the refugee camp left me wondering if I would be just like them, stuck in Nyarugusu my entire life. I felt empathy for them since they couldn’t have a future – they had to choose between providing for their families or going to school. There were many days when I had to go to school without breakfast or lunch. There weren’t enough resources for everyone in Nyarugusu. In order to eat for the day, I had to walk 3 miles after school every day to work on a farm until sunset.

However, being in a refugee camp taught me many life lessons, such as not losing hope and staying motivated despite all the adversities. During my time in Nyarugusu, I learned the importance of having a community you can call family. The community I was a part of in the refugee camp supported and raised me. Therefore, I felt a mix of joy and fear when I was given the chance to come to America. I was leaving behind everything I knew and the people I loved to go to a foreign place for a better future. Before my journey to America, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) tried to prepare me for the new environment by giving me knowledge of the American culture and the American dream.

African family at airport

Mapenzi and his family (mom, two brothers and younger sister) at the airport in Seattle.

I arrived in Seattle in the summer of 2016 as an unaccompanied refugee minor, which was incredibly challenging and difficult. The majority of us are children and young individuals who have been forced to flee our homes due to war, conflict, persecution and various forms of violence. One of the biggest challenges we face is the journey to the United States. Personally, I have experienced this firsthand. Since coming to Seattle, I have struggled to communicate in English and have felt completely unfamiliar with the culture. These factors often leave many of us feeling isolated and unable to rebuild our lives.

When I initially met my American parents at the airport, I remember the first question they asked was, “What do you want to do now?” Going to school was the answer that came to my mind right away. Back in the refugee camp, I didn’t put much importance on education as there were limited opportunities. Farming was my only option. However, my African parents always forced us to attend even though the education in the refugee camp wasn’t sufficient. My perspective about school changed the moment that I arrived in Seattle. I now have the opportunity to achieve much more.

Access to education plays a vital role in the development of a child, but unaccompanied refugee minors frequently encounter barriers when trying to access quality education. Many of us need more documents and help with language, which makes it incredibly difficult to enroll in school. Since I arrived in the U.S. without speaking a single word of English, my American parents enrolled me in the Seattle World School, attended by students from various parts of the world who also did not speak English. This environment made it easier for me to learn English alongside my peers. I can’t even imagine how challenging it would have been for me to learn the language if I had attended a different school. I believe I would have fallen far behind in my studies.

Mapenzi with his American family, his foster brother from Guatemala and two beloved dogs.

Even though unaccompanied refugee minors may have unique experiences and challenges, we all require support, including access to education, healthcare and legal assistance, to rebuild our lives. This support is essential for us to heal, learn and thrive, just like any other individual. I have been involved with Treehouse since I first arrived to Seattle. The Treehouse program provided me with support and resources needed to overcome barriers related to being a refugee and learning English. This program has been instrumental in helping me achieve my goals and succeed in both high school and college. I’m grateful for the support and resources that Treehouse has provided me. My favorite part of the Treehouse is the community, where I’m surrounded by true mentors and peers willing to support and teach one another.

When I was in high school, an Education Specialist from Treehouse’s Graduation Success program checked on me every week. We would discuss my studies and set goals to help me do well in my classes and get better grades. At the end of the semester, my Ed Specialist would give me a present, which was my favorite part. I always asked for running shoes because I ran cross country and track in high school. Since I was a good student, my Ed Specialist told me it doesn’t have to be just about classes; it could even be racing goals. For example, if I run a 5K in 17:00, then next time, I can set up a plan to run 16:40. I had a fantastic experience with her, and we still keep in touch even though I’m in college. The Treehouse program has built a safe place where youth feel welcome and someone who cares so much about checking in on them, whether it’s about school or life outside of school.

group of high school friends sitting

Mapenzi with friends who give him hope.

Being a part of Treehouse now as a Fellow is a big deal for me. As Treehouse’s first group of Fellows, we proudly serve as part-time staff members who have personally experienced the foster care system. Our purpose is to positively impact the lives of young individuals who may be currently facing similar struggles. We actively contribute to developing the fellowship program and shaping its direction and purpose. We are deeply motivated to establish genuine and meaningful connections with individuals from diverse backgrounds within and outside the foster care system. We are a group of eight dedicated Fellows guided by an experienced mentor. Our mentor provides valuable guidance and support, equips us with essential resources and prepares us to become future community leaders. Together, we strive to create lasting and transformative impact and make a significant difference in the lives of those we serve. I learned so much about the importance of life and how to work with a team and develop a meaningful solution to change the foster care system.

Mapenzi with Treehouse Fellows, finding joy in working and making change in the community.

My goal is to go to school and work hard and one day give back to my refugee community. This summer, I will be returning to my homeland, a Tanzania refugee camp, for the first time since immigrating to the United States. The anticipation of reconnecting with my refugee community fills me with excitement and a deep sense of purpose. I’m determined to make a positive impact through my project, to bring our community together and impart a valuable skill: soap-making.

When I first came to the USA, I saw the difference between how common soap is in the states versus in the refugee camp in Tanzania. There, a bar of soap was not easy to come by. It was shocking how, in the US, people can take it for granted. Soap is such a basic human need for hygiene, and I believe everyone should have access to it. Soap is a small but indispensable detail in living a healthy life. Having access to soap preserves grace and dignity. Being clean gives a sense of self-value, a sense of potential, of possibilities. When you are clean, you feel more confident and secure about yourself. Confidence in yourself leads to confidence in your future.

My goal is to empower refugees by teaching them how to make their own soap. I want to create a project were people can help themselves retain their self-worth with the most basic of unmet needs — soap. Together, we can create an environment where individuals can take charge of their own lives, preserving their grace and dignity.

Bars of homemade soap made by Mapenzi.

Mapenzi’s African family visiting at the home of his American foster family.

Overall, I hope my personal story helps inspire people to not give up, never lose hope and to always believe in themselves, even when it feels like the world doesn’t believe in them. I am destined for greatness, and so is my community. Like Maya Angelou’s poem Still I rise, and still we rise.

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About the Author

Mapenzi Kinege was born near Goma, Africa. He attends the University of Washington and majors in public and global health. Mapenzi desires to use his degree to better people’s lives by being a role model for people from similar backgrounds. The Bible guides his lifestyle, motivating and inspiring him to always help others and better himself. Mapenzi plans to go to Tanzania after he graduates to help people in refugee camps get access to everyday essentials such as soap.


Comment (1)

Alex Inyani

April 29, 2024

I’m Alex Inyani a two months old South Sudanese Refugee finally resettled in Houston Texas United States.
I am so touched by your story young brother because my personal story has no difference with yours.
Much thanks for your passion and I prayed that the most High God brings to pass what your heart desires.

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