By SCOTT MERZBACH Staff Writer
Published: 2/4/2019 11:41:21 PM
AMHERST — A few days before millions of Americans gathered to watch the New England Patriots win a sixth Super Bowl, the 10 members of a recently arrived family from a Rwandan refugee camp didn’t have plans to tune in.
Claude Kagironeza said he and his eight sisters, who range in age from 9 to 27, and his 67-year-old father, would be more interested in seeing a soccer match, or a basketball game, than the “big game.”
“I know about Michael Jordan, and King James,” said Kagironeza, demonstrating his knowledge of the retired six-time NBA champion Hall of Famer and the current NBA superstar, LeBron James.
On a recent afternoon, members of the family huddled close together in the living room of their warm and sunny rental home on Sunderland Road in North Amherst, where a sign on the fireplace mantle welcomes them to Amherst in English, French and their native language, Kinyarwanda. Joining them was Ibrahim Nuru, a caseworker for Catholic Charities.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the family of Berchmas Buseruka, a widower, spent the past 10 years in the refugee camp with about 15,000 other people, having left their home country to avoid conflicts and to find more peace.
Accepted into the federal government’s refugee program, the family arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport Nov. 20. From there, the family took a van to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, meeting a caseworker and members of their “circle of care,” volunteers from the Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, before heading to their new home.
The family is the first to come to Amherst as part of the Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Charities in Springfield, which previously has placed families in Northampton. Catholic Charities had set a goal of having 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Congo and other countries with refugee crises by the end of 2017, but a travel ban put in place by President Trump interfered with that timeline.
On this wintry afternoon, Buseruka was sharply dressed, with a colorful sweater and black bowler hat, while his children wore puffy coats and beanies, which they mostly continued to wear, even inside the warm home.
Each of the children has a unique first and last name given to them by their late mother, reflecting something that was important to her. In the case of 21-year-old Gentille Mukobwajana, for instance, her name, roughly translated, means “100 cows.”
The other adult sibling is Mukamugema Uwamahoro, 27. Three younger sisters, Tuyishime Mugisha, 19, Chance Nyiramahirwe, 17, and Mutoni Masengesho, 14, are enrolled in the local high school and middle school, while Jeanine Ingabire, 12, and Sandrine Uwase, 9, are in elementary school.
Dealing with winter
One of the most striking changes for the family is seeing snow. Kagironeza has just one English word to express his thoughts of the winter wonderland outside.
“Amazing,” Kagironeza said.
While all marvel at the snow-covered landscape, the conditions can be overwhelming and stand in stark contrast to the climate they had known.
“It’s too much,” Kagironeza said, chuckling. “Snow is looking good, but walking in the snow is bad.”
Umulisa Batamuliza, 25, also laughed as she considered that New England weather is just one among many new experiences for her family. “I’m excited for everything,” she said.
Winter boots given to the family by their circle of care are allowing them to cope with the climate, though as soon as the children come home at the end of their school day, they quickly take off their boots and slip on sandals, which they’re more accustomed to wearing.
Getting a job
For the adult children, one of the first tasks of resettlement is to find jobs. Each has received employment authorization cards, Social Security cards and Massachusetts IDs allowing them to get employment.
For the work that they’re seeking, “Most employers want just basic understanding, not fluent English,” Nuru said.
Most of the family speaks only Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda, though Buseruka is fluent in Swahili and the older children have beginning English language skills.
Nuru said he has been talking to the family about cultural norms in advance of applying for jobs, such as teaching them how to do a firm handshake, and when being interviewed how to make eye contact with a potential employer.
So far, Kagironeza filled out an application for a job, but did not get called back for an interview. “I am waiting for their call, but nothing happened,” Kagironeza said.
Batamuliza said she would like to work in an office if she lands a job.
Laura Robertson, who oversees social services for Catholic Charities, said hospitality, including housekeeping, and manufacturing work are possibilities for the adult family members.
Even the 67-year-old patriarch of the family, Buseruka, who worked professionally as a farmer, would like to get a job, possibly at a local farm doing something with cows. “There’s no other work I’m experienced with,” Buseruka said through Nuru.
Learning the language — and the culture
Many Thursdays, the adults attend cultural orientation at the Annunciation School in Florence, where over a period of weeks they will cover more than a dozen topics.
Robertson said one topic is paying bills, including for the family cellphone plan. She added that they will also learn how to be responsible tenants, how to get health care and how to care for their children in a new land, the United States. They will also get information about American laws, such as learning that drinking a beer on a public street in the United States could lead to a fine or arrest.
The family also has to learn about the parts of a home, such as a stove and a refrigerator in the kitchen and the radiators in all the rooms. Kagironeza said that one of the more frightening aspects for the family is determining what each appliance does.
Laura Bellusci, coordinator of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program, said that the school-age children will all develop English-language skills in school, and have one-on-one tutors. The adults in the family, she said, are receiving further English instruction through the language and conversation circles program at the Jones Library and at the Center for New Americans at the Bangs Community Center.
“My focus will be on how to coordinate their learning, especially with tutors,” Bellusci said.
In addition to helping teach English, along with an Amherst College student from Rwanda, the circle of care volunteers drive the family to school, to medical appointments and to grocery stores. Kagironeza said he hopes to buy a car after landing a job and get a driver’s permit and license to be less dependent on the volunteers.
Dreaming of college
Although jobs are a priority, both Batamuliza and Kagironeza would like to continue their educations.
Batamuliza said she hopes to go to college, “if there’s an opportunity.”
“I want to attend college if I improve my English,” Kagironeza said. “If I have finished college, I’ll get a better job.”
When they are at home, the younger children have homework to complete, but also watch television, which Nuru, who himself came to the United States from Tanzania several years ago, said can help with both language skills and a better understanding American culture.
The family has largely lived off potatoes, though they also enjoy rice and beans. It’s mostly up to the women to cook, though one of the girls prefers to dine. “Chance is the best eater,” Kagironeza said to laughter from his siblings.
Robertson, of Catholic Charities, notes that this period is dubbed “the honeymoon phase,” and more challenges could come in the near future. But, after one year in the United States, the members of the family will be able to apply for green cards, and after five years they can seek citizenship.
Nuru said the first three months are critical to the family’s long-term success. They will continue to get support for several more months, possibly longer with aid coming from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“This agency works with the client until they become completely self-sufficient,” Nuru said.