Finding refuge: Olivier Mandevu

Olivier Mandevu

This week we're sharing the stories of a handful of refugees who have found new homes in the Capital Region.

Olivier Mandevu came to Albany ten years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo via a refugee camp in Burundi. In Africa, he went to college and became a teacher. But a horrible ethnic conflict forced Mandevu and his family to seek asylum in the United States.

Today, Mandevu lives in Albany with his wife and five children. Since arriving here, he has gone to school and worked his way up from a hospital file clerk, to a bank employee, to his current job in finance for a New York State contractor.

Five years ago, Olivier Mandevu was sworn in as a US citizen and he is passionate about civic engagement and helping other immigrants and refugees.

Why did you come here?

My country has been going through different kinds of political turmoil starting from the colonial and post-colonial period -- some warlords fighting over power over minerals. That war turned into an ethnic conflict. In 1998 we were kicked out of the area. We were forced out of our homes and into a country called Burundi where we were housed in a UN-run refugee camp.

A couple of months after, the camp was attacked by gunmen with grenades and other terrible tools. The camp was put on fire. Babies were killed -- their heads were smashed down -- and other people were burned alive, gunned down, and other people were killed by machetes. It was a most horrible scene which is still haunting us. In that single night we lost 166 people including my own mother and brother. My wife lost her parents and her siblings. My own siblings were wounded but by God's grace they are all safe and here in Albany.

Three years after we were accepted to come to the US for safety and some of us came here for medical reasons.

How do you function after something like that?

That's a good question, but not an easy question to answer.

Sometimes it is not easy to deal with this, but the only way we deal with it is, number one, putting our trust in God because we definitely find solace in God's word.

Number two, trying to improve our lives and not just be sunk by the past and also moving ahead and asking ourselves what should we do to better our lives.

Number three, trying to keep that sense of community. Even though we are so busy in America and a lot of stuff to do, we can be exhausted, and we still try to get together and find comfort from each other.

"I am an advocate against atrocities, against killings, against genocide ideology, because I don't want to see it happening to any other human beings. That is another important thing in finding healing, because we find healing by trying to reverse the situation by helping other people and working hard and spreading the awareness about what is going on in that region of Africa so that it doesn't happen. I'm sure we won't find healing, that will never happen. We only have to find a way of living with it."

And last, but not least, I am an advocate against atrocities, against killings, against genocide ideology, because I don't want to see it happening to any other human beings. That is another important thing in finding healing, because we find healing by trying to reverse the situation by helping other people and working hard and spreading the awareness about what is going on in that region of Africa so that it doesn't happen.

I'm sure we won't find healing, that will never happen. We only have to find a way of living with it.

How did you end up in Albany?

UNHCR decided to end that campsite and wanted to move us to a different campsite, but we decided to move to Rwanda instead. We felt a little safer there. In Rwanda we were not in a camp. I was able to get a teaching job and rent a small apartment where all of us were squeezed in. I had friends in Burundi and my friends got a hold of me to say our applications to come to the US came through. They ask you to decide where you want to go. We said we don't have anybody, we have never been to the US, so you choose.

And Albany was a good pick. We love Albany.

What surprised you when you came here?

A lot of things were a surprise. Number one was weather. When I got here in April it was still snowing and I had never seen snow in my life. I was just looking, and I was perplexed. I said, "What is this?!" People were just laughing at me, but for me it was terribly cold. I had never seen snow and the cold... that was a shock.

The other shock was language. I can speak a little bit of English, but people here talk with heavy accent and we also talk with an accent -- so they talk and you don't understand, and you talk and they don't understand. And it takes a while for people to be able to understand you.

And food. We didn't know any African food stores here. I don't know if there were any African food stores here.

Employment is really different. It is more strict here. And the business culture is different. And in Africa, not as many people are using computers. If you are lucky enough to get an office job here you have to use the computer. And people are moving so fast and the standards are set pretty high here verses where I am from.

"I remember in the beginning, when I just start my job I was using the bus to go to work and the bus seemed to be taking so long and I was really much more concerned about my job -- I really wanted to keep my job because losing my job is like losing everything. I thought, 'I don't have many connections, I don't know many people here. What if I lose this job? Oh my God, if I lose this job I will be dead.'"

I remember in the beginning, when I just start my job I was using the bus to go to work and the bus seemed to be taking so long and I was really much more concerned about my job -- I really wanted to keep my job because losing my job is like losing everything. I thought, "I don't have many connections, I don't know many people here. What if I lose this job? Oh my God, if I lose this job I will be dead."

I wasn't familiar with how to take the bus and one day I decided to use my bike. We had snow and it was slippery and then I fell in the snow on my way to work. And I didn't go back home to change. I went to work, and I was wet and my supervisor looked at me and I think she was thinking, "Oh, this poor guy. Trying to learn how to survive in America." But she was very helpful.

Sometimes you make poor decisions simply because you are not familiar with how to navigate the environment and system. Sometimes when I look at things I was doing -- oh my God -- I start laughing at myself.

What do you want people to know about the lives of refugees?

I would really call upon our community to really pay attention. People define the American dream differently but I think everybody would agree the meaning of the American Dream is a decent home in a safe neighborhood, decent employment -- six figure employment probably -- to be healthy and have a good school for your kids.

When immigrants come to America I ask myself, "Why do we choose to come to America? Why do we apply and sometimes it takes ten years to get to America?" We are fighting for it, everybody wants to get to America. Everybody is hunting, is chasing the American dream.

"But I feel like people who have been able to reach the American dream they become dream holders. We start collecting a lot for ourselves -- bring it close to myself, holding it close to myself and preserving it for myself, for my kids. And we get swallowed by that. And that can really steal every attention from what is going on in the world."

But I feel like people who have been able to reach the American dream they become dream holders. We start collecting a lot for ourselves -- bring it close to myself, holding it close to myself and preserving it for myself, for my kids. And we get swallowed by that. And that can really steal every attention from what is going on in the world.

We forget there is other things to pay attention to -- my neighbors. So if I am collecting for myself and for my kids, are my neighbors OK? Are they trying to do the same? Do they need help to do the same? And if they need help, how can I help? Because if we keep being dream holders, collecting more for ourselves, I believe down the road our dream may be affected -- because for my dream to be sustainable it has to be shared. If it is not shared, then down the road it may be affected.

So I am really inviting my fellow Americans to really pay attention to your neighbor and try to learn more how you can help and there are many more ways you can help.

What could people do to be more helpful to refugees?

When refugees get here we help them find an apartment and we sometimes help their kids get into school and we take them to the store to show them how to use the food stamp once and that's it -- bye. But that is just the beginning and once we leave them by themselves they get lost and there is more. Teaching them about transportation and helping them find jobs. When you try to find a job they say go online and apply... but not everyone is able to do that. Or people ask if you have a resume and I say, "What is a resume?"

I think neighbors can help with the education system. Parenting isn't just bearing a child. That is not parenting, that is one piece, but it doesn't end there. If a child comes home with a lot of homework -- you would be surprised that a lot of immigrant kids go to school without doing their homework. Parents don't even know they have homework. Even those who are aware that kids have homework, they don't know what to do to help. Some parents didn't even go to school at all. They didn't learn to read or write. How are they supposed to be helping their kids? So that is one way that neighbors can help.

"American culture is closed. I am from an open culture. My culture has taught me to get out and work on my neighbor's house and introduce myself and say, "Hey guys, what are you up to? What is new? What's your name?" I find a way of sharing what I have. If I have a meal, I can knock on the door and offer to share the meal, but here people would be suspicious. And immigrants sometimes get really afraid and they decide to close themselves inside."

But the American culture is closed. I am from an open culture. My culture has taught me to get out and work on my neighbor's house and introduce myself and say, "Hey guys, what are you up to? What is new? What's your name?" I find a way of sharing what I have. If I have a meal, I can knock on the door and offer to share the meal, but here people would be suspicious. And immigrants sometimes get really afraid and they decide to close themselves inside. And the more they close themselves inside when they are supposed to be learning from their neighbors and one of the things they are supposed to be learning is the education system.

Another is the policing system. Many people, where they come from people are afraid of the law enforcement people. Like where I grew up people would hear them coming and find a way to run from them. People are afraid because if you meet with them, they will beat you, and they will find a way to steal your resources and belongings, or they will kill you. People are transitioning from that environment to the American environment. Here you have to run to law enforcement and police officers. And the other thing is learning how to interact with law enforcement folks, police officers. If they are pulling you over, how are you supposed to be behaving. They might not know. They might run away and that could cause accidents.

And the financial system. You'll see credit card companies calling you, selling you stuff, and some immigrants really fall in traps. They find themselves with a lot of credit cards. For them English is limited and they don't understand fully what they are signing for and they find themselves in trouble. So helping folks better understand the American financial system .

And last but not least is leisure. Life isn't just work, but for some migrants, let me tell you, it is work, home, work, home, work, home. That can be frustrating and that can be stressful. They are not familiar with recreational places. One day I drove some kids and their parents to one of the parks here and, oh my God, they were marveling at the beauty of the parks here! The Crossings, Washington Park! These beautiful parks. Recreation. People are in prison while resources are available and that really has a big toll on their productivity even at work. When they go to work they are stressed and not so productive and the supervisors don't know how to help them and they are just pushing them and they are right, you have to work to be productive.

So, finding ways to connect immigrants to what exists in the community.

One of the suggestions I have is connecting people. Creating an occasion... bringing members of the community together. It can be very hard for me to come to your place or you to come to my place. We are Americans -- we might be suspicious. Who is this guy? Why open my home to this guy? But creating one of these events -- you can come and I can come and maybe we can connect. I am working on it, but I haven't become successful yet. I'm working on a proposal.

You may be here for 40 years but you may not be fully included. You become a US citizen and you can vote, but you are not involved in political life. You may vote, but you don't even know what you are voting for because you're not involved. When they say the mayor is meeting folks somewhere you may not even be aware of where that event is taking place.

We need to start building leaders from these communities, immigrant communities. We need to start creating the environment that will allow them to have their own leaders and their own leaders can help connect them with the American system.
____

Earlier
+ Finding refuge: Ni-Lar Way, Besa Paw, Christer-Say, Christer-Htoo
+ Finding refuge: Tafsela Hashimi
+ Finding refuge: Haeneypew Sey
+ Finding refuge: Amgad Abdalla
+ Finding Refuge: Niebiha

Comments

I am really enjoying reading all of the refugee interviews. Keep them coming!

Thanks, Olivier, for your message of openness and love. What a leader.

Really wonderful to be introduced to our new neighbors this way. Thank you.

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