When Ishara moved from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to its southern neighbor Zambia in 2008 to escape violent tribal wars, she thought that her family’s struggles were coming to an end. In her hometown of Bukavu, near the D.R.C.’s eastern border with Rwanda, she said she had faced daily violence.
Interviewed in her family’s East Rock apartment, she described — in slow, occasionally stumbling English — her two peaceful years in the refugee camp followed by an abrupt move to New Haven.
Why New Haven? Ishara had a clear, resounding answer: “We didn’t choose,” she said in retort, eyes glimmering. “They chose for us.”
About 200 refugees from various countries move to New Haven every year. Ishara, who did not share her last name and declined to be photographed because of the sensitivity of her story, said she is part of the minority that finds little community from similar backgrounds. Still, only a year after arriving in America, she and her family — three older siblings and two younger nieces — have started to rebuild their lives.
In the camp in Zambia, Ishara said she enjoyed newfound peace. She fell in love for the first time but said she never could obtain the necessary documentation to attend school or find work. Soon after the U.S. immigration officers selected her family to relocate to the United States, they moved rapidly through the process.
As excited as she was to move to America, she said, she had no idea of how to start a new life in a place so different.
Ishara said language has been the largest barrier to finding community in America. Since she could not fluently speak English when she left Zambia, she said her language skills were not yet sufficiently developed to follow all of her new classes. At home, Ishara still speaks Swahili.
“I love learning, but the work is really, really hard,” Ishara said. “I used to want to become a doctor, but that’s less possible now because of my English.”
The language barrier is just one of many factors that have made it difficult for Ishara to relate to her peers, she said. Since she speaks English with a quasi-British dialect, she also worries that her classmates are unable to understand her due to the difference in accent.
“I don’t always enjoy school,” she explained, disappointed. “It’s really hard to find friends — I’m alone and uncomfortable.”
But in just a year, Ishara has become significantly more confident using the language, said Kelly Hebrank ’04, deputy director of a local nonprofit called Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services that works with the government to resettle refugees like Ishara. The federal government financially supports IRIS and sends refugees to New Haven because the organization exists to support them.
Last June, Ishara starred in a play titled “Stories of a New America,” which IRIS helped sponsor to portray refugees’ challenges in adapting to life in America.
“It was very powerful to see her acting and talking about issues affecting her life,” Hebrank said. “Even if the words weren’t hers, I’m sure it represented some of what she’s gone through and gave her the confidence to advocate for herself.”
HOPE IN A NEW COMMUNITY
Ishara said she had hoped her family would be assigned to move to Miami from Zambia. There, she said, a community of people with similar experiences to herself exists.
But Ishara no longer dreams of moving there. Now she dreams of moving to California, since, as she said, “everyone is nice to everyone there.”
Hebrank said that Ishara is currently 19, an age that normally qualifies for adult education, but Ishara remained determined to attend high school because she wanted to pick up with her education where she had left off. In an interview with the News, she still said that she is 17.
“We were having trouble getting her into [high] school,” Hebrank said. “We were told she should go into adult education, but she fought for her right to go to high school on her own. It was incredible.”
After inquiring at several public high schools in New Haven, she enrolled last fall at Wilbur Cross High School in East Rock as a 10th-grader, the level at which she had paused her schooling in the D.R.C.
Despite letting go of her dreams to become a doctor, Ishara said she still hopes to be a nurse one day. Because learning English is so difficult, she cannot imagine spending the necessary years in school to become a doctor, But nursing education is shorter.
“I’d still be able to help people like I wanted to,” she said.
Ishara said she hopes to attend Quinnipiac University or the University of Connecticut. Maybe even Yale, she added with a little laugh.
Since moving to New Haven, Ishara has taken a part-time job at Dunkin’ Donuts. The extra cash, she said, helps to support her family and will aid her in her plans for the future.
Back in her apartment, Ishara watched as her nine-year-old niece and the niece’s best friend, an American, played in front of her, seeming to understand each other completely.
“When you move here that young, you have all those chances, those opportunities at friendship,” Ishara said, watching them interact. “It’s not that easy for people of my age, but one day, I’ll learn too.”
Click here for more information about Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services and its work in New Haven.