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After surviving African conflict, student finds a home in America

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By Lizz Vensas
Collegiate Staff Writer

Bikorwa Adelaide sits in Winchester Alley with her head in a book working on a summary article for a class. Finding the who, what, where, when, and why. The what and when were easy — two people had been injured when a car hit them yesterday, Adelaide understands that. It was the rest of the Ws that aren’t so clear to Adelaide. The Where was in Oakland, California, a place completely unfamiliar to Adelaide. The who were the Occupy Wall Street protestors, a group of people protesting something she doesn’t understand. The why was another complicated subject that she also is not sure about.

Her questions are simple: why are they protesting? What is the march for? What is Wall Street? How can they occupy it?

Most college students would scoff at this, claiming to have the answers in a “know it all” attitude. Adelaide on the other hand understands that she needs to ask these questions. As an English as a second language (ESL) student she has to work hard not only on her academics, but has to also learn a whole new history about the country she plans to make her home.Bikorwa Adelaide is petite, but has a personality larger than life-with a smile to match. Although her laugh is quiet, it can be heard in any conversation you have with her. Her is laugh is infectious. She is doing very well in her first semester at GRCC. As an ESL student she makes up a small, but diverse portion of the student population. Currently her life consists of taking classes part time, spending time with friends, eating dinner with her family, and a full time job. She is an average college student, except she does claim to actually like math.

This reality is a far stretch from where she was six years ago. Since the age of 2, Bikorwa had been living in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Although she does not seem to show it, her life there was difficult. The weather was unbearably hot and she had to work hard to survive.

Bikorwa and her family had to farm all the food they ate.

“We only had what we were able to grow, it could be difficult,” she says. Lack of food was not the only harsh conditions Bikorwa faced, crime was often a side effect of the situation.

“We would have to be ready for anything in the refugee camp,” she says. “If you got a lot of extra food you would have to be careful. Other people would come with guns and try to rob you.”

Bikorwa had to keep her guard up like this until she migrated to the United States when she was fourteen.

Before she was born Adelaide’s parents lived in the small African country of Burundi. In 1972 they were forced to relocate when a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi erupted. The Tutsi committed mass genocide against the Hutu.

Her parents, being Hutu, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost their home in Burundi. Adelaide was born in the Congo in 1992, the first girl in her family.

Unfortunately only two years later her family was again forced to move.  Authorities in The Congo started to displace any refugees that had come from the neighboring Burundi.

Her family ended up moving to a UN refugee camp in Tanzania where she spent her childhood. She shared a hut with her entire family and worked together to survive.

However that was not the end of Adelaide’s story. Once again she and her family would face uncertain times when the UN started to shut down refugee camps in Tanzania. Forced to relocate again, her parents had two choices, come to the United States or go back to Burundi. Since they had lost all their property and feared for their lives, they ended up making the trip to the states.

When she was 14 the newly immigrated Bikorwa started attending east Kentwood high school. In the Refugee camp Bikorwa had only learned a little bit about the English language. High school in the United States proved to be another challenge for this resilient young woman.

“It was hard to ask questions in class,” she says.  “I didn’t know English very well. I had to ask the same questions many times.”

Whatever difficulty she may have had she triumphed. Last May Bikorwa became the first member in her family to graduate from high school.

“My parents were extremely proud of me,” she says.  “Everyone was very happy.”

She went on to say how her family was also excited that she has started working towards a higher education. Although Bikorwa is modest she does not discount her hard work.

“I had to motivate myself,” she says. “No one checked to see if I was doing my homework. It was all on me.” Adelaide explained that in her culture her parents aren’t as forceful with children’s academics as Americans are.  They ask questions, but leave the work up to you.

Adelaide hopes to inspire her sisters in academics.

“I help them with their homework after school, and try to encourage them,” she says.

This fall semester at GRCC is Bikorwa’s first.

“I wanted to go to GRCC because all of my high school teachers said it had the best ESL program,” she says.  Her classes include reading and vocab and speaking and listening.  Bikorwa is very happy to report that she is doing well.

“Grammar was not something I was good at, so it feels good to do well,” she says.

She has also made friends in her classes.  She met Ata Anfo in her reading and vocab class.  They like to hang out before class, helping each other with the assignments and getting lunch.

“We met in class this semester,” Anfo said. “She is just a good person.  She is good to do homework with.”

Her professors also seem to enjoy her presence in class as well. Professor Jewell, an ESL instructor, is one of Bikorwa’s teachers

“She always has a smile,” Jewell said.  “She has this magnetic personality!”

Professor Jewell went on to praise Bikorwa’s progress.  “She fully participates in both my classes and that really makes a difference,” Jewell said. Jewell has been with the ESL department since 2010.

“We hope we are making a difference for our students,” Jewell said.  “It’s a successful program. We really prepare our students for higher learning and real life.”

Most people would say that moving to a new city is full of impossible challenges.  When asked about moving to a new country Adelaide just smiles, and maintains a relaxed attitude about her travels.  She explains that being close to her family helped her.

“We are very close,” she says.  “I love family dinners.  We all come to the table that is very important.”

Currently Bikorwa lives with her mom, dad, brother, two sisters, her cousin, and her cousin’s child. The dinner table is very full.

“My siblings and I love to joke around when I get home from school. There is always a lot of laughter,” she says.  Bikorwa is closest with her sisters.

“Now that I have my license they want to spend even more time with me,” she laughs.

Adelaide is enjoying her first semester at GRCC.  She hopes to become either a nurse or nursing assistant through the programs here.

With a gentle personality and kind features she really only has one request: “Be patient,” she says. “When talking with an English as a Second       language student don’t get frustrated if we ask questions more than once.”