"If God Gave Me This Opportunity, I’m Going to Use It"
by Elyse Herrera, Media and Communications Intern
The work of gratitude is powerful, and within the context of Jeanine Kayitesi’s Congo-to-Spokane story, the impact of immense gratefulness and opportunity is impossible to ignore. Jeanine, in her bright, fun, intelligent, and peaceful presence holds all of these characteristics and more. Alongside being a student, a nursing assistant, a sister, friend and daughter, Jeanine is also a valuable member of the Spokane refugee community, representing one of the 10,000 refugees in the Spokane area.
Jeanine was born and raised for several years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation, she says, is filled with risk and civil war. After the death of her father, Jeanine’s mother knew “there was no point in staying.” After making the decision to leave the country, the Kayitesi family became first of many to live in a newly established refugee camp in Rwanda—a nation which now houses over 170,000 refugees. Within the environment of the camp, Jeanine describes, “the only thing that gave us hope” was the possibility of “one day going back” to the Congo. Despite the lack of basic needs and resources, Jeanine remembers how easy it was to “just accept what life you had there.”
In the Rwandan camp, they found “a sense of community” in the collaborative work it took to survive. Everyone’s differences disappeared. Jeanine says there was no room in the camp for anyone to say or think, “I’m better than you,” because everyone “lived in the same place and ate the same food.” They were bonded by their equal need and shared persecution, a kind of community from which many wish to escape, and which less than 1% globally are rescued from. Looking back on that time, Jeanine remembers how unexpected, if not unimaginable a future, somewhere safer seemed.
When the opportunity came for Jeanine’s family to move to a safer place, they took it. Interviews to qualify for international resettlement were available “once every couple of years,” and were intensely held. More than having to answer tough questions, the interview experience, Jeanine says, “brings the memory back” of the war and danger in the Congo; the hardship and tragedy of the past. Still a point of reflection for Jeanine, she says “it’s so hard to open up,” throughout the entire process. Jeanine said “it was a shock” finding out that her family had been chosen to come to America. The Kayitesi’s were among the first families in their Rwandan camp to leave, and Jeanine describes that it was “because of the grace of God” that her family was given the opportunity for a safer life.
In Jeanine’s eyes, America was a paradise, but the unknown of a new country was scary and difficult. On their “confusing,” “huge,” and “overwhelming” journey from Rwanda, through New York to Spokane, Jeanine’s family was surrounded by foreign customs and languages. However, as soon as they landed and were welcomed “with open arms,” Jeanine says, they “really felt safe and really felt like this could work.” Thinking back on her story and the process of coming to Spokane, Jeanine shared, “It’s been a long journey so far, but I’m not complaining. I’m just grateful for everything. This is a home now. It became home. It took me a little while. Now I can be open to new things that happen, and you know, just keep living.”
Something Jeanine is continuously grateful for since coming to Spokane is her education. Jeanine describes her college education as being “the most rewarding thing for me here,” and her success in school has been incredible for her. Never having thought she could go to college, let alone finish high school, Jeanine remembers the normal trajectory for girls her age in her home country. Most of Jeanine’s friends from the Congo, and Rwanda “would go get married or pregnant straight after eighth grade.” Thanks to her hard work, Jeanine’s educational successes and experience has gone far beyond what she ever imagined could be possible. When her teachers in high school encouraged her to apply for college, she knew, “if God gives me this opportunity, I’m going to use it.”
Jeanine will graduate this spring from Eastern Washington University with a degree in Communications, an area of study she describes as requiring “tons of research” and as being “a good way to practice my communication in English.” More than a rigorous work load, her college career has created academic and social communities for her. Experiencing a university education and being able to “go through the same things” as her fellow students has been a wonderful way for Jeanine to get involved in her surrounding communities.
Even though she does not know exactly what the future holds, Jeanine is “grateful [she] made that decision” to go to school and tries to live “moment by moment,” taking advantage of every opportunity God gives her.