From refugee to graduate

22-year-old to help those who didn't escape

Sun profile

May 10, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporter

St. Mary's City -- Nezia Munezero and her 10-member family spent years running from one East African refugee camp to another, staying one step ahead of death in a world torn by ethnic warfare and genocide. In 2002, they were resettled in Baltimore.

At age 16 and with no knowledge of English, she enrolled at the now-shuttered Southwestern High School and lived in a grim neighborhood beset by urban crime. It was a stepping-stone to a better life, but also another place to flee.

"Students at Southwestern weren't friendly toward immigrants," said Munezero, 22, a slight woman with a lilting accent. "I've always lived in small, tiny places where people had nothing, but still had each other. Southwestern wasn't a community."

Today, Munezero graduates from St. Mary's College of Maryland, a tiny, public liberal arts college best known for its championship sailing team. But it was as a student on this sylvan campus on the St. Mary's River that Munezero was able to reconnect with fellow Burundian refugees and take the first of what she says she hopes will be many steps to pay back the international humanitarian community for sparing her family from the uncertain future that still awaits her childhood friends in Africa.

For her senior project, Munezero returned for the first time to the Mtabila refugee camp in Western Tanzania where she lived for six years, accompanied by a St. Mary's professor, to film a documentary about the community she left behind. The most common refrain throughout the 34-minute movie, The Faces of Hope, which was culled from about 15 hours of footage, is a desire for education beyond the high school offered in the camp.

"We finish secondary school and might be smart enough to continue, but there is no way to move up," says Fidele Ndayisenga, a teacher in the camp who would like to become a sociologist. "I think about where I am, where I'm going to end up." He glances away from the camera and out onto the flat, brown grasses. "It is just problematic."

In Baltimore, Munezero was surprised to find students who appeared uninterested in opportunities that would have been the envy of Mtabila's children. "The teachers at Southwestern were great, but they had to limit how much they taught because the students were not willing to take the challenge," she said.

The fortress-like building notorious for violence was shut down by the state in 2007 after years of poor academic achievement. Munezero is sympathetic to problems of poverty and social dysfunction that disadvantage so many Baltimore youth, but admits she is "biased" about the plight of America's inner cities. "I have a very different definition of being poor," she said. "We have food and a place to sleep. We can eat and have clothes. So I don't think we're poor."

A hard life

Munezero was born in a former Rwandan refugee camp in 1986, the sixth of eight children to ethnic Hutu parents who in 1972 fled the genocide in Burundi that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. The decades of violence between the Hutus and Tutsis eventually engulfed adjacent Rwanda in the 1990s, which forced the family to flee again.

Along with thousands of Burundian refugees, Munezero's family embarked on a months-long trek by foot from Rwanda to the current Democratic Republic of Congo in 1994. They walked all day and slept by the road, with nothing to eat but the rice they could carry on their backs, said Dieudonne Bamboneyeho, Munezero's 27-year-old brother, who now works as a parking garage attendant near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"People got sick" on the journey, Bamboneyeho said. "Some people died. Sometimes there were barricades on the street ... and sometimes there was violence."

War followed the family to the Congolese encampment, and so two years later they fled again to Tanzania, which was until recently home to nearly 50,000 Burundian refugees, according to the U.S. government. Munezero is reluctant to detail her childhood trials in Africa or the dangers of the Mtabila camp, where women were sometimes raped when they foraged for wood and where children were recruited as soldiers for regional armies and militias. She says because her family largely escaped harm that she does not want to "sound dramatic" or benefit from any unearned sympathy.

But Munezero is less reticent when it comes to discussing her and her family's difficult integration into Baltimore society. In her first fall semester at Southwestern, fellow students threw water bottles at her and another recent immigrant from Morocco. A female student tried to chop off Munezero's older sister's finger with a paper cutter, she said.

Sharne Street, one of Munezero's classmates, said Munezero and her sister were singled out for "cruel" and "remorseless" treatment by some in the student body. "She wore the same clothes to school a couple of days in a row, and girls would talk about her and yell slurs about her," he said. "The children talked about the way she smelled."

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