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Refugee works towards success in America

<p>Nadine holds her one-year old cousin Senada close in the family’s living room.</p>
Nadine holds her one-year old cousin Senada close in the family’s living room.

Nadine holds her one-year old cousin Senada close in the family’s living room.

Nibimenya Nadine lifts a painting from a shelf in the small white house off of Summer Avenue. It’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and the senior at Central High school is speaking about some of her artwork.

“I like painting things from Africa, like the elephants and the sunset,†she said. “Africa has a beautiful sunset.â€

Nadine would know, as she spent the first eight years of her life at a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Of course, if you look at her resume today, you’d never guess she spent the first half of her life near a war-torn country.

In addition to her paintings, which she has both sold and donated, she is also involved with her school. She is a former player on the soccer team, and an active member of the international club. She serves as a translator for refugees coming to Central, and volunteers at Asha’s refuge, which aids refugees coming to Memphis.

Nadine has, for the most part, acclimated to American culture. But this wasn’t always the case.

It was Dec. 12, 2007 when Nadine and her family arrived. Her parents had previously fled a civil war in the Congo and ended up in a Tanzanian refugee camp, where they lived for the next 12 years and raised their children. When Nadine was eight, the family was informed they’d be flying to America.

The young Nadine was excited about traveling to the U.S., and, upon arrival, was amazed by what she saw.

“There were so many lights,†she said. “So, so many lights. That’s what I remember. Looking outside and seeing so many. I was like ‘what? Aren’t people sleeping? Don’t people sleep in America?’ It was surprising.â€

As the lights faded, though, Nadine found other surprises. Surprises that weren’t so radiant.

“I didn’t think there were going to be poor people in America, or homeless people,†she said. “That, I had no idea was going to be there.â€

She also discovered that, for a recently arrived refugee family, making a living would be difficult, if not impossible.


Nadine keeps her one-year old cousin Senada close in the family’s living room.

This is something that Jamie Jones, the founder of Asha’s Refuge, learned quickly when she started the organization.

“Depending upon a refugee’s educational and English level, finding a well-paying job that will allow them to rise above the poverty level is extremely challenging,†she said. “It is hard on an individual’s pride.â€

An inconvenient truth, it’s one Nadine’s parents can personally attest to.

“It was hard,†she said. “It was really hard for us because we didn’t speak English. And it was really difficult for my parents because they had to work.â€

But, as Jones said, the language barrier kept them from finding stable jobs. Nadine’s father, Pasikari, ended up washing dishes at restaurants, and the 13 person family found itself cramming into a tiny three bedroom apartment in a dangerous Binghamton neighborhood. They’ve since moved to a safer area, but the experiences left a mark on Nadine.

“It was really scary†she said. “Binghamton was great, but it was scary.â€

Gunshots were heard at night, and at one point, someone was murdered in the apartment complex. Doing their best to stay safe, the family rarely left its quarters.

And while her parents struggled to make ends meet and keep the family protected, Nadine fell behind in school.

“When you go to school where everybody’s speaking English,†she said. “You’re just like ‘What? What are you guys saying?’â€

Determined to make it in America, Nadine focused on learning the language. Over and over again, she wrote her name and the alphabet. 

Through hard work, she learned to speak and write English, and after three years, was able to grasp it.

But it wasn’t easy for her. When she was in eighth grade, she was informed that she was reading at a third grade level.

Nadine persevered, and today, she takes honors courses at Central, where she consistently makes good grades.

Still, the road ahead will not be easy for her. She was denied admittance to the University of Memphis due to her ACT score, and she’ll likely have to take a gap year from college.

But Nadine isn’t worried. She’s overcome a lot in her life, and she’s not about to stop now.

“I believe that whatever happens in my life is part of what God wants me to learn and experience,†she said. “I have hope and faith that God is working in my life.â€

In her home, Nadine takes one last look at her artwork. After a pause, she puts it back on the shelf and heads outside.

The painting rests there, its glowing sun setting slowly over Africa and the sea.  


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