Are you happy with your job? Are you learning a lot?
Erneste informs me that he couldn’t be happier. Gervais is a very quiet man, even in his home environment; Erneste elaborates upon his three-worded answers and eyebrow expressions to carry the conversation.
He says the only thing he needs now is more hours, more work! I ask if he has any wishes, any goals, for his family’s life here in Providence. He says that of course, as a father, he wants the best for his family – and in order to have that, he must work and earn a better living for them. So, more hours!
I seize upon the family topic. Are the children in school, and do the enjoy it?
Yes, all but the youngest. They are all learning English, the results of which are mixed in with their continued Swahili and Kirundi behind me. At this point, I try to offer a bit of myself to help make him feel more comfortable with this stranger asking him personal questions. I confide that I was often a new student in school, having moved several times in my childhood because of my own father’s employment. The end of my sentence almost concluded with “So I know what they’re going through;” but I stopped myself short. In all likelihood, our two situations, while appearing similar at first, couldn’t have been more different when it came to growing up.
This became more apparent to me as I ventured into more touchy subjects. I asked where he was from, and after a gentle nod from Erneste, why he is now in Rhode Island instead. He slowly answers that his family is from Burundi. The country's ongoing civil unrest made it unsafe to live there any longer. I ask where they went when they left; he tells me Tanzania, where they lived in refugee camps. Then, without prompting, he goes on to say that they spent the next ten years there and had two children, and that they had had two children in Burundi before they left. Gervais found working in a refugee camp difficult, because as a refugee, they were not allowed to leave the campsite; if they did, they risked being sent back. The confined space of the camp meant that working and sustaining any kind of living, especially because of the lack of food, was hardly a life at all.
After years of stagnant and bare living, they moved again. They couldn’t return home, but they also couldn’t stay any longer. Their only option was to find another home, and they found it – temporarily – in Mozambique. There, they spent another seven years and had two more children. Conditions were better than in Tanzania. They could leave the camp and he even found a little bit of work. But their lives could never improve more. The ceiling of progress was unyielding and abrupt. Citizenship was impossible in Mozambique, and so they could not start to build again. Refugees they stayed, and after seven years of scarce work, education, and food, they departed in search of a more permanent shelter.
Why did you come to Rhode Island?
They had no choice of placement. What I had been trying to understand was how a family from a tiny country in Africa found their way across the globe to one of the smallest cities in our considerably larger country. This was lost in translation, however, so all I got was, “we had no choice of placement.” Perhaps someday I’ll understand better the way that families choose our far-off country of unknown opportunities, or maybe how we choose them. To cover our miscommunication I moved on to another question.
If there was a way to improve your current living situation, here in this Providence neighborhood, what would it be? How can we, as a host community, do better to make you feel more included and welcome?
They’ve only been here since October. They’ve had time to settle in (though they brought nothing with them), enter schools, and find Beautiful Day. Erneste gives me a speech about how everywhere in our country offers the same standard of living for refugees, so there would be no point moving somewhere else. But Gervais then cuts in, with hitherto unseen enthusiasm, that he doesn’t think anything needs improvement. The words that came through Erneste were, “if I wanted better, the only place I might move to” – and here he gestured upwards – “would be heaven.” Of everything we’d shared, this moment was most significant to me. At first I was truly touched; what a fine answer! I’m not sure how genuine it was, as part of me suspects that he said it in a way that was meant to please. Our relationship as interviewer and interviewee had been a strange one so far. Cultural differences could have been at work as well – maybe I have misinterpreted a sarcastic response. Maybe he is saying so because they haven’t been living here for very long. Or maybe he really means it, and is hopeful for his family’s future. Perhaps he feels, as I do, that there is untold potential in the world, whether from the eyes of a wary refugee or from those of a nervous college student in his first internship.
Either way, we seemed to grow closer after that. I realized that I should have done a better job explaining why I was there: so that Americans can learn about unique families living right next door to us. So that we can break from what we know, and what we think we know, to brush against the sometimes-miraculous knowledge that there are people in the world whose triumphs and challenges we know nothing of. Would that I had been able to record our conversation; though, I remember my shaking voice well enough as it is. At the end of our interview, I think it was shaking less from nervousness and more from awe – the things in my life I take for granted, when faced with the journey of Gervais, are many and large. Asante sana, and I hope to have more stories soon.