Faziri Ndahiro loves America- he’s just frustrated by how little it seems to love him and people like him back.
He came to America as a refugee in 2001, just weeks after 9/11 with his family, unsure of what to make of the country but knowing it had to be better than his war-torn nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the refugee camp he’d stayed in for eight years. In the 15 years since, he’s worked avidly to not only improve his own life, but help countless other refugees as well.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “I know the need. So I asked myself, ‘What would be the best thing?'”
As a full-time student at SUNY College at Brockport, with a full-time job, helping refugees locally full-time through Rochester Global Refugee Services Inc., his time is stretched. However, he has made himself readily available to people whenever they need him, meaning his phone is constantly ringing. And he tries to take every call, helping mothers with language barriers, families find services or simply connect new Rochesterians. He also works to improve community relations and raise awareness of conflict abroad and the state of refugees here. He organized an event to mark World Refugee Day in late June, bringing noted politicians to speak about their commitment to the community. He’s also spoken at the People’s Solidarity Rally and a number of other engagements.
Ndahiro recounted over coffee some of the main issues refugees face:”There are three types of barriers: language, jobs and culture,” he said, explaining that often when families come here, they can face a generational difference in how they acclimate to America. Children are more likely to adopt American principals, while parents may stay more traditional. However, he said overall, the main frustration is employment.
“Back home, you have to work to live. There was no welfare, no unemployment. None of this. If you wanted to eat, you worked,” he said. However, this is where the language barrier comes into play. In addition to posing a hurdle when seeking medical or health services, or even simply shopping, it also can be a hurdle when looking for a job. Most bosses want someone who can speak English. For this reason, refugees often must take lower-paying or lower-skilled work, despite their employment background back home. Qualifications like previous work history, even education can be discounted totally if employers don’t think the candidate is intelligent or able to speak well.
However, there is frustration in American communities all over the nation- particularly against refugees and other immigrant and migrant communities. For the past decade or so, many Americans have struggled with joblessness and have been looking for a scapegoat. This isn’t new; for decades when communities of people are out of work they look for people to blame. Italians and Jewish migrants were blamed in the mid-1900s, blacks for “breaking up unions” and lowering wages and Mexicans when work outsourced out of the country around the 1990s and 2000s.
Like communities before him, Ndahiro stressed they often work jobs nobody else wants. One of his first positions was at Rochester Regional Hospital where he cleaned. Despite this, they’re often still blamed for the joblessness other communities see, which Ndahiro takes issue with.
“We want the jobs you don’t want,” he said. “Some people don’t want to take some jobs. They’re like, ‘ah, I don’t want that.’ We don’t say that. We want the job, we want money, to support ourselves.”
Then, there is the added recent fear of terrorism. Within the past two decades, fear of terrorism has settled into America’s bones and some worry that refugees and other migrants and immigrants can provide a direct channel into the nation.
The result? More hate. A study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism confirmed that there has been an increase in the number of hate crimes committed since 2016.
“Myself, as a person, I’ve heard so many things from people, saying, ‘you foreigners, go back to your country. You’re taking our jobs. Why don’t you go back to your country.’ They don’t know the reason we’re leaving our countries,” he said.
“Some people may ask, why did you have to leave your country? Why not fight to get peace in your country?’ I understand it’s a good question. It’s because you fight when you know you have a chance, maybe a possibility of winning but if you don’t see the possibility why do you put yourself at risk?”
Back home, his tribe, Banyamulenge, are considered a “stateless people” meaning they have no rights to land though they’ve lived in the Congo and neighboring countries for centuries. They’re even listed as a tribe, but that didn’t stop the systematic murdering of them and in August 2004 there was one of the bloodiest massacres yet: the Gatumba Refugee Camp massacre, where 166 people were killed. According to the Gatumba Refugee Survivors Foundation, “These 166, the 116 others who were maimed and injured, and their traumatized families, were almost exclusively members of the ‘Banyamulenge’ tribe, who had earlier been forced from their homes in the southern Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
“We are not the army,” he said. “We are the people, citizens. We are not armed people to fight back with these rebels. It’s not like in America how everyone can buy a gun. I’d love to buy a gun if I could bak home in my country and protect myself but you can’t fight with someone who has guns if you don’t have anything.”
Now Ndahiro is in Uganda, working to help create a corn mill (which is still taking donations), and work to improve what he can in just six weeks. He’ll be there until mid-August but when asked about moving back home permanently, he said it wasn’t an option. Messaging me past midnight as he adjusted to the time difference, Ndahiro told me plainly: “I don’t see myself returning. I love my country and if I get my citizenship, I plan on visiting it next year but staying is too soon and possibly impossible for me.”
Ndahiro is a man on a mission. He may not be able to save his home nation but he can help other refugees seeking security here.