Life Begins in a World of Gunfire
By Methusella Rwabose
Methusella's story is the featured selection from USA for UNHCR's annual Refugee Storyteller Celebration, an opportunity for former refugees under the age of 30 who are now living in the United States to share their courageous journeys, passions and inspirations.
My life began in a world of gunfire, but I’m determined to build a more peaceful path forward.
As a child, my life was chaotic — there was little peace or safety. I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a violent time for the country. Our small village was embroiled in a violent conflict between rival militia groups and the national army and due to my father's involvement in politics, our family was frequently targeted by militia groups, causing us to flee our homes in the middle of the night to seek refuge in the woods or neighboring villages.
My parents tirelessly worked to keep me and my siblings safe. But in the chaos of that environment, nothing was certain. In 2008, as the violence and conflict intensified, my family fled our village and sought refuge in Uganda. We would live in a refugee camp for seven years.
Although I was young, I remember the moment we arrived at the camp. We were given a small plot, where we had a tent and a small area of land to farm. Life was not easy there and I soon recognized that things that I loved, like going to school, were no longer a guarantee.
When classes were offered, the classrooms were always overcrowded and under-resourced. For children in a refugee camp, there are other barriers to going to school even when it is available. Many parents rely on the help of their children to farm and help run the household because it is difficult to make ends meet in the camp. Sadly for other children, they may not have had enough to eat.
I always wondered how different my life would have been if I had been afforded the privilege of a viable education. I realized that what should have been a fundamental human right was a luxury beyond my reach. It left me yearning for the chance to go to a school where I could actually be taught how to read and write like anyone else, but this was something I could only dream of achieving.
In 2015, after seven years of living in the camp, a remarkable thing happened; my family was resettled to Denver, Colorado.
I knew there were challenges ahead of me, like learning English and becoming part of a new community. From day one, I was resolute in my pursuit of education and relished the comfort of sleeping soundly without the fear of being displaced.
The moment I arrived in Denver and stepped into South High School, I was so amazed. I felt so happy. In my first year, I was a student in a class with other refugee and immigrant students from all over the world. Our experience in that class was documented by Helen Thorpe, author of the book, The Newcomers. We all learned English together and despite not being able to communicate with each other at first, we became friends.
With a lot of hard work, and help from teachers and volunteers like Ruthann Kallenberg, who helped me learn to read and write, I thrived in school. My English steadily improved, I made the varsity soccer team, joined student government and began doing community service on weekends.
Each step of my journey continued to reinforce the idea that education must be a human right, and is something that every child should have access to. This idea continued to inspire me throughout high school as I began to envision where I wanted to go to college and what I might want to study. In my senior year of high school, I earned a scholarship to the University of Denver. Four years prior, I lived in a refugee camp and didn’t speak English. I’m still in awe when I think about how far I’ve come.
Inspired by my father, I studied Political Science with the hopes of one day working in politics and positively affecting policy and bringing change in my community. In college, I was active in student government and further supplemented my education and aspirations of working on public policy through internships with Colorado state representatives Leslie Herod and Joe Neguse (the son of refugees himself, who later went on to serve in the U.S. Congress) and U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper in Washington, D.C.
My father and I have often talked about the future and about how we might help people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One thing I’ve learned throughout my journey as a refugee is that those with lived experience are often in the best position to help bring about positive impactful change. While I hope for a peaceful future for those back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I know that my knowledge, energy and opportunity to make positive changes are here in my community in Denver.
In 2021 I put this idea into action. With my friend Hridith Sudev, I helped found the non-profit, Colectivo de Paz, with a mission to create communities of action that empower working-class immigrants, refugees, people of color, veterans, unhoused community members, at-risk students and other historically marginalized peoples and families in the greater Denver area. I know my experience can help others but I also see the work of Colectivo de Paz as a way for me to give back to the community that welcomed me and gave me so much.
Last week I graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in Political Science. I’m the first college graduate in my family and earning this degree only reinforces those thoughts I had as a child in the refugee camp in Uganda — education is a human right and every child should have access to one.
On graduation day, I was thinking about the kids in the Congo, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and now Ukraine, and how I want to tell them that living in peace is not a dream and that going to school is not a luxury.
The path I take moving forward is full of choice and it’s because I was able to find a life with safety and a chance to pursue an education. I’m grateful for that. But I'm also mindful that my story should not be extraordinary, and that all refugee families deserve peace, dignity and a future.
How can you help
USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency supports the full journey of refugees like Methusella. Not only do our donors help refugees in their greatest time of need, but their support builds awareness for resettled refugees living in the U.S. With your help, more refugees will have the opportunity to build a peaceful life and safely pursue their dreams.