Temporary Freedom to Paradise Lake

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Refugee Camp, Moving to Benin

My family and I found ourselves living in a refugee camp in Benin. We moved to Benin after living in a secret refugee camp in Kinshasa, capital of Republic Democratic of Congo, for a few months. Benin represented hope, freedom and a chance for a new life. The refugee camp was located in the village of kpomasse, an hour drive from civilization and bigger cities. In general, Benin was a beautiful place. In the rural villages, fruits and vegetables grew everywhere. Benin was also a very mystical place. Voodoo is practiced there. In fact, Benin is the birthplace of voodoo.

The refugee camp was state of the art, with tin roofs and brick walls. For refugees, it was pure luxury, living the high life. The camp was divided into three parts. About 2,000 people lived there at the time. There was the Ogoni tribe from Nigeria (longest) and Togolese from Togo. There were also freshly-resettled Congolese, mostly Rwandans and Burundians refugees, who went to Congo after the genocide and were then being massacred by Congolese people because of the civil war. In the Congolese side of the camp, most people knew and looked out for each other. I started school with other kids in the camp attending a local elementary school with Native Beninese. At school, I learned about a secret paradise lake nearby. My friends and I plotted a plan to go see the lake and swim in it. For weeks and weeks, we discussed our plans. I was eight years old at the time. It sounded like the perfect trip to take outside of the camp. The day came when I and five of my friends decided we were going to find the secret lake. It was Sunday around 11:30 am. I told my mother I was going to play with my friends. My mother said that was fine. I was excited! I met up with my friends near the main camp gate and then ventured out.

Deo at the refuge camp with some of his friends

Deo at the refuge camp with some of his friends

On the Road to Paradise Lake

It was a hot day. We started our journey on a red dirt road heading east. Sometimes we stopped to eat. We didn’t bring any food with us, but the forest offered an abundance of things to eat—oranges, bananas and apples. After walking for about an hour, we reached the end of the dirt road and headed through the bushes. Our excitement about finding Paradise Lake kept us filled with energy. We were singing, dancing and telling stories about some of our favorite actors—Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Dame and Jackie Chan. Sometimes one of us would start demonstrating the fighting moves from one of their movies. The voodoo practices of Benin were visible once we started walking through the bushes. Claimed territory was marked and the first mark I saw scared me. One of my friends was climbing an orange tree to grab us some snacks. While I waited, I leaned back on another tree. Suddenly, another friend screamed and cried, “Deo! Move away from the tree!” Skulls hung from the branches. On another branch was a basket containing rotten mangoes, oranges and bananas. I thought it was either a territory mark or some kind offering. Either way, I didn’t like it.

Immediately, we helped our friend get off the orange tree. We started running. We ran so fast our hearts pounded and our chests hurt. We stopped to catch our breaths. Then we heard some loud cheering. The closer and closer we got to the noises, the more openings there were in the bushes. It sounded like chanting and drums. When we walked out of the bushes, we found ourselves in middle of a local soccer game. Music played loudly on the radio and people played drums and chanted for their team. The natives knew we were from the refugee camp. They were very friendly. We asked one gentleman if he knew where the lake was. The man pointed.

Reaching Paradise Lake

Paradise lake in Benin over seeing Togo.

Paradise lake in Benin over seeing Togo.

We had been walking for two hours. As the noise of the soccer game faded, we found ourselves walking on the property of local villagers. People would stop and look at us and smile. Benin folks were very friendly. We passed more voodoo displays. But now we were less afraid of them.

We came to a small town with cars and local market. People were selling fish and smoked meat. And then we saw it. On the right was the beautiful lake—Paradise Lake! I looked at with excitement and smiled. But before I could say anything, my friends ran towards the water, taking their clothes off on the way. Once in the water, we cheered, screamed and splashing each other. “Woohoo!” I shouted. “I knew we’d find it. This is awesome.” We sang, danced and messed around. I was very happy. At that beautiful moment, I had no worries. All my problems were washed away. The water was calm and clear. Being away from the refugee camp, I felt free.

One of my friends sat on the rock watching us play. He screamed out, “Hey guys, do you think anyone will be looking for us?” We had left the camp without telling anyone. My other friends told him to chill, that everything would be fine. We played for another thirty minutes. Then we headed back through the bushes.

Heading back to the camp

On our way back, we told jokes and sang and danced. Time passed quickly. Luckily, we make it back to the camp just before the sundown. I don’t know about you, but I was not going to be walking around the bushes of Benin with all the voodoo stuff around in the middle of the night. When we reached the front gate of the camp, we said goodbye and parted ways. Alone now, it suddenly hit me. I had been away from home for seven hours. And I didn’t tell my mom or my brothers where I was going. And my mother was not a type of woman to play around with.

Confronting my mother

My mother is in the front wearing the blue jeans. This picture was taken at the refugee camp.

My mother is in the front wearing the blue jeans. This picture was taken at the refugee camp.

My heart beat fast. I was sweating heavily. I thought maybe I should lie and say that I was at my friend’s side of the camp playing and I lost track of time. I arrived home still wondering how I could explain my seven-hour absence. But I could say something, my brother Vinny said, “Mom Deo a ye.” Mama Deo is here.

My mom said, “Deo!”

“Mama nazo ya, nazo ko kende kosokola,” I said. Mom, I’m coming. I’m going to wash first. Our shower was outside.

My mom said, “Yaka awa.” Come here.

I took a big breath and swallowed. I walked in the room and my mother shut the door behind me. She asked me, “Okendaki Wapi?” Where did you go?

I just looked at my mother. Again she asked, “Okendaki Wapi?” And when she added that I was not going to disrespect her, I knew the beat down was about to happen.

I looked around for something she might hit me with. If there was something, I thought that maybe I could distract her from picking it up. She said “Yaka awa” Come here. I prayed under my breath, Lord please help me. I took one and half steps towards my mother and anticipated a slap. But then there was a knock on the door and someone said, “Bernadette, kosimba yete.” Don’t touch him. Bring him outside. I opened the door and saw a group of people, including my friends, standing in a common area in front of my home. My head was down. I walked towards my friends. Some were crying. Others were just watching. I joined my friend in the center.

One of the elders said “ponpage,” which meant pushup position. We got down in pushup position. Some of our other friends, who had not gone to paradise lake, watched and laughed. It was very embarrassing. But this wasn’t the worst of it. Someone next to the elder held six belts. He handed one to the elder. Then it began. We all received fourteen lashes. For every lash, the elder gave a speech. One, I still remember. He said, “We did not make it out of Congo for you guys to die here in the village of Benin.” The lashes hurt. After mine, I heard my mother’s voice. She screamed in front of everyone, “Nasa na bmeli, kuta ye.”  I have a knife, let's cut him for disobeying. I was like, Oh hell no!!!!! Everyone screamed back, “No, no, no, Bernadette! He has learned his lesson. My mother retreated. As the crowd dispersed, I got up slowly from the pushup position. I walked away with my head down. My back hurt terribly. But the worst pain was the pain of shame and feeling I let my mother down.

Conclusion and Reflection

Perspective changes when you have your own children. This is a photo of my kids.

Perspective changes when you have your own children. This is a photo of my kids.

Looking back at this event as an adult, it means much more to me than when it occurred. I was one of the lucky ones, having spent only two and half years in a refugee camp. Most refugees today spend 10 to 15 years. It is important to understand that this took place in a different continent with different cultural practices. It is easy to be judgmental about these practices. In order to fully understand it, you must separate it from the context of your own life—the rules, regulations, moral standards and disciplinary practices you live by.

At the time, being eight years old for me felt like I was 18 years old in the US. I would say the same for some of my friends. We went through so much that forced us to grow up fast. We had a lot of responsibility given to us from our parents. At that age, I was taking care of my brothers and was the father figure of my house when my mother was not around. I washed my bothers, fed them, changed their diapers and protected them.

The discipline we received might rub you the wrong way if you view it in relation to your standards and your preference. Physical discipline was part of my upbringing when I was a child. It is not a right or wrong argument. It was part of my culture. It was how my parents and some elders instill respect, discipline and obedience. But sometimes when I was disciplined, it went overboard. I remember when I was in third grade, and I forgot my homework. A teacher hit me several times with a ruler on the tip of my fingers. This was normal in the society I grew up in. I would also say that it informed a lot of my behaviors as I was developing as a young child. I associated bad consequences with physical discipline. I am not a supporter of physical discipline, as a father of three today living in the most utopian nation in the world. I find the most effective way to discipline my kids is to take away things they really enjoy playing with. But the physical discipline worked for me as I was growing up. I feared the punishment.

The elders, who disciplined us, cared and wanted the best for us. And they actually lessened the intensity of the discipline we would have received from our parents. They wanted us to be safe and not risk our lives by leaving the camp on our own. We were all strangers brought together in this refugee camp by life and death situations with the hope of receiving a second chance to start over. We looked out for each other. We built relationships with each other and supported each other. If another parent saw you misbehaving and your mom or dad was not around, they would stop and confront you. This is very different than the US, people tend to mind their own business and keep moving. There are fewer shared community values for moving children forward collectively in their neighborhoods and schools. It is very isolated.

My mother is on the right with white shirt and hair down. She is standing with some of the elders and friends she made at the camp.

My mother is on the right with white shirt and hair down. She is standing with some of the elders and friends she made at the camp.

The discipline hurt and it was humiliating, but it was needed in order to instill character and discipline in us. When my mother screamed “cut him,” it was out of frustration. She was not going to really cut me with a knife. She was a single mother in her twenties with four children doing a hell of job trying to protect and provide for us. At times when we rebelled, it was overwhelming for her. I am not justifying my mother's emotional reaction. But it is important to keep in mind the context of this story: different culture, different environment and a lot of uncertainties.

How would you handle being in this situation?  

If you ask me today, “Would you still have gone to paradise lake if you knew what the consequences be?” what would my answer be? I’d say, “Heck, yeah. I still would have gone!” As an eight-year-old going on 18, living in that camp, I was fully aware of our situation as refugees. I did not have much time to reflect on the impact of what was going on. I focused on the responsibilities that were given to me, but I also pursued any opportunity for me to be a child. Venturing out to discover paradise lake was exciting and freeing. For a few hours, I did not feel like I was confined to a refugee in a camp in the middle of nowhere. I was free forever—at least for those few hours.

 

Confronting fear to stop hate

Video blog on the biracial boy who was strangled by his friends in New Hampshire. Our social system has failed to teach us how to confront our biases.

Confront your Fear to Stop Hate. We fear what we do not know because it is not what we are used to. The problem with fear is that sometimes it creates hate. In order to confront your fear, you need to confront biases and spend time learning from those who are different from you.

What I learned from coaching adult learners.

The importance of relationship building when coaching adult learners. What I learned from coaching adult learners.

Students who take control of their learning end up succeeding. Working with adult learners from all over the country in an Online Competency Based Education taught me this. I was very fortunate to be selected as part of a team of six educators to help design the coaching model for a new competency-based education program for a nationally recognized university. I never thought I’d be working for a University in that stage of my life. At the time, I had just completed graduate school and I was on a path to land a job with the Department of State. 

At the university, I was fortunate enough to work with innovative people who were very passionate about the learning model they were creating. Early on, I felt we were building something special, even though I did not know how it was going to play out. I was excited about the potential of building a student-centric learning model that empowered students to take learning ownership. I was intrigued by the different ways students engaged with their learning and how coaching helped them to modify their behaviors and boosted their ability to facilitate learning success.

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When my colleagues and I started to design the coaching model, we relied heavily on the student experience. When we launched our largest pilot in 2013, we scrapped 75% of what we put in place before the pilot. The students in the pilot behaved very differently from what we expected. We realized then that our students were unique with circumstances unlike traditional online students. Most had not considered traditional online universities before coming to our program. They were nontraditional adult learners for whom, at the time, the online learning model did not work. Credit-hours models did not fit their work schedule and commitments. Being in virtual or physical classes for certain amounts of time—without personalization and flexibility—was not sufficient or obtainable. Plus, the cost for online courses was too high to risk, given that they might be unable to finish. But with our program, they had nothing to lose. The first nine months of the pilot was free and, after that, most of our employer partners paid student tuition for an entire year. Tuition for a year in our entire program equaled the cost of two classes in a traditional online program.

When we were designing our coaching model, we thought offering our pilot program for free would keep students engaged. We were wrong. What attracted students and what kept them coming back were entirely different. Our program curriculum didn’t depend on teachers delivering content. This made the program super flexible for students to access and do their work. The courses were pre-designed. Each course had clear objectives and desired outcomes in a competency format that included all the course content and resources. The program provided opportunities for students to work on the learning deliverable anytime, anywhere, as long as they had access to a computer, tablet, smartphone and Internet access. The curriculum was project-based with subject matter experts who assessed student work. It placed students in real life scenarios. They had to come up with innovative ways to solve problems. Most of my students preferred this type of learning model. The program was solely competency-based with progress evaluation and binary grading scale—“Not Yet or Mastered.” The assessment relied on the rubric criteria of each competency to measure how well students demonstrated knowledge. Students had to master 120 competencies to earn an associate degree and an additional 120 competencies to earn a bachelor degree. The competencies were divided into 6-month terms. Each competency had a goal (equivalent to a course). Even though the program was self-paced, some structure was required to keep the students on a path for success and to promote graduation in a timely, cost efficient-manner.

In the first pilot, I learned quickly how the traditional, credit-hour based learning model prevented learners from fully taking ownership of their learning engagement. With the traditional system, students must work within predetermined structures to earn the credits they need to advance. What’s more, there are rigid timelines for taking exams and submitting learning materials. The competency model is flexible, allowing students to demonstrate learning at a personalized pace. Students could also choose from an all-you-can-learn buffet to earn as many competencies as they want within a term. Based on student academic satisfaction and financial aid, we did have to place minimum competency mastery requirements to keep students eligible. But most students—because of their prior work experiences as adults—had knowledge they could tap into for each project. Still, they needed to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise within the context of our program through our project-based learning model. In each 6-month term, students could decide when to submit assignments and projects related to their goal competencies.

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I soon realized that what our program provided was unprecedented. Most of the students I coached were not used to their new power and autonomy. It was overwhelming for some. I spent a lot of my time learning from students how they approached learning. My colleagues did the same and, through this practice, we were able to develop our coaching model. As a result, our coaching model was not simply academic; it was holistic. We realized that our students’ life responsibilities and personal perceptions of their learning abilities impacted their success in our program. We were very bold to take this approach—working with the entire person, not just their academic pursuits. To work independently in an online competency-based education requires a lot of discipline. Our goal was to meet all students where they were and to use their unique experiences with our ongoing support and coaching through the program. We started the pilot with 250 students. By the end of it, we were working with close to 900. The more people we guided through the pilot, the confident we became in our coaching model.

Coaching is popular in education today. It is very different than advising. It is also hard to scale without identifying the metrics with which you are coaching and measuring student success. You need coaching metrics unique to your program to streamline coaching implementation without losing quality. The goals of the coaching model—how it will help students become self-sufficient and take ownership of behaviors leading to their success—must be clearly defined. The better you understand the motivations for students’ success in your program, the more you can establish behavior personas to align with your coaching practices. These personas are used to label the students’ behaviors, not the student. And coaching adapts to those behaviors. In a personalized model, student behaviors change often. You have to keep abreast of current behaviors and not label the students based on the behaviors with which they begin the program. Your team has to identify the skills you want your students to acquire during the coaching sessions. Putting a structure like this in place is important to running an effective coaching model. I have often seen a support system, which is supposed to help students, becomes a barrier that keeps them from developing the skills they need to progress in their learning. And when students do not put in the time to the development of certain skills, they end up relying on tutoring services at their schools to cover the gaps. Under such circumstances, students get lazy. They choose not to carefully proofread their papers or to make sure their grammar is correct because they know the tutoring service will correct their mistakes. Such students never gain the ownership to improve their skills. In our coaching model we wanted to make sure that the students themselves were coming up with next steps and that the skills they needed were obtainable. In a sense, we wanted students to become mad scientists behind their learning by helping them better understand what contributes to their learning success and learning challenges.

The coaching model I helped developed was influenced by many different behavior practices. We took some best practices from academic advising, social work, therapy and executive coaching and fused them. I learned early that the success of our learning model relied on students being committed and resourceful, and embracing challenges. All the things I mentioned were intrinsic behaviors and non-cognitive behaviors that were hard to measure. Over and over in my experience coaching hundreds of students, I found dissecting behaviors to be the key identifier of learning success and challenges. First, students needed to believe that they can do it and be successful in the program. Second, students needed to reserve and protect time to give themselves a chance to engage with the learning. Third, students needed to identify learning strengths and learning challenges within the context of the project. Fourth, students needed to come up with a plan or tactic of how they were going to approach the resources and construction of the deliverable. Finally, students needed to be resourceful and identify a network of support to reach out to when they were stuck, or need to celebrate learning success. We wanted learning to be social even though the program was online and self-paced. We wanted students to invite people in their circle into their learning journey.   

I coached my students to be resilient learners. Many led complex lives, which made it difficult to commit substantial time to the program. I spent a lot of time coaching them how to create the discipline to honor the time they put aside for their schoolwork. I had to learn their most productive spaces— physical or mental. To validate it required real learning touch points from the projects they were working on. Whenever a student completed a project and submitted their work, I would ask them, “What was your approach in this project?” “What led you to complete the project?” “What space did you work in?” “Who was around you to help keep you engaged in your project?” The answers gave me everything I needed to better understand what environment my students worked best in. Then I made sure to validate those spaces whenever new milestones were reached. Of course, in personalized learning, things change very fast. What worked for the last project might not work for the next. Changes at home or work might prevent a student from doing new work around the arranged place and time that worked before.

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A positive relationship with a student is the foundation for a good coaching experience. Such a relationship is necessary to get to the root of the learning success and meet challenges. My students needed to know I was on their team and not there to judge them. They needed to know that I believed they could achieve their goal of obtaining a college degree. They also needed to know I viewed them as creative, resourceful and whole.

The secret to building strong relationship with adult learners is being a good listener, being credible and accountable, and respectful to them and their time. It also requires earning a student’s trust. Some of my students had their own gremlins. Often they had negative experiences with school. I needed to help them approach the learning journey as a new start. I did some research around the importance a “New Start” has on people. I felt it was important for students who joined the program to actualize and embrace that this experience was going to be different from their past experiences. This created a great expectation for them. After becoming more familiar with the various personas, behaviors and experiences of adult learners, I felt I had the tools to coach students effectively—provided they were open to discuss their experience.

By the second year of the program, our coaching department grew. The program had 2500 students. We had to train other coaches in our model. Modularizing coaching practices was challenging. The effectiveness of coaching relied a lot on a coach’s mindset. A coach needed to be accountable and be willing to work to earn the trust respect of the students. We had to simplify our process in order to train other coaches to have the same mindset and approach in their coaching practice. We had many educators nationally wanting to be part of our team. We recruited part-time coaches who worked remotely from all over the country. By year three the program had 4500 students and over 130 coaches. The coaching team worked very hard to help scale the model.

I worked closely with my colleagues to dissect the different challenges our students experienced. I was able to categorize the challenges as academic, personal, time management and accountability. Within each bucket I identified an effective approach, based on my student experience, which led to success. Based on patterns of my other students’ behaviors, I was also able to demonstrate to students ineffective approaches that might keep them from succeeding. I created preventive ingredients to my coaching approach relating to the categories. I found normalizing the experience ahead of time—with general examples and how other students experienced them—helped put some student at ease. When they eventually experienced the challenges, it made it much easier to coach the students through them. Sometimes the students would refer back to the examples I provided when they were naming the challenges they faced. That gave me the tools I needed to coach them through the process effectively. I started to see areas students were taking ownerships. With two other coaches I helped run Reboot pilot, which focused on working with students who had a slow pace and were not as engaged. It was a great opportunity to dig deeper and dissect all of the different moving parts that held students back. It was not about the intentions of the students. Instead we focused on how we could move students from intention to motivation to action. I spent six months running this pilot and, at the end, the team I worked with developed new coaching tools that revisited our regular coaching model. This helped equip coaches to better work with their students.

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Some educators feel coaching is only for students who are struggling. I disagree with that. Coaching is for all students. The relationship is there to elevate the learner to take ownership of their learning success. Part of taking ownership is also celebrating learning success. For students who experience more success than challenges, it is a great opportunity to help them dissect the cause of their learning success. Often some students do not know what contributes to their success. It is important to help them name the process they take to digest new content and identify what helps them retain and demonstrate new knowledge. This is a great step to take to help your students become aware of those success factors. I used to do this a lot with my students once they mastered or completed a project. I would have them reflect on each step they took to complete their project. If they used this approach several times with different projects and assignments, I attached the approach to their method of learning. When I coached them to use their approach to resource content, I brought up what I learned about their approach to see if it was validated. I had a student who used to read first, highlight second, and then go talk to someone about what she learned. Afterwards, she went back to what she originally highlighted before starting putting her learning deliverables together. If she missed a step in the process, I would know. During our coaching call she would bring it up how she was struggling with the content in the resource. I would walk her through her process and identify what threw her off in her process. Once we identify the problem, she had to go back and complete the step. After that, she was ready to move forward most of the time. She loved talking about what she acquired in the readings. I would ask her to explain to me what was interested to her.

There are many moving parts in learning. I learned from coaching adult learners that every movement counts. You have to always meet the students where they are. Let them drive the conversation first. Use your listening skills to prompt the discussion in order to have them reflect on the experience. Once they do that, you will have everything you need to drive the conversation and help them take ownership and identify the different touch points that are impacting their learning. You then have to explore ways they can take ownership of the process and help them become resourceful in addressing the gaps and encourage them to help others in the areas where they excel.

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Coaching hundreds of adult learners and helping design our model over three and half years taught me the value of relationship building and normalizing learning challenges. I was as much of a student in the process and as a coach. I learned that educators take the process of acquiring knowledge for granted. We focus more on outcomes through measurement of knowledge than the process it takes to learn. Learning affects student holistically and vice versa, our human holistics affect how we learn. I believe resiliency and self-efficacy are things you can teach and help others develop. The more breakthroughs I experienced with my students, the more I saw them activate the non-cognitive skills they learned to overcome from previous learning challenges. It was very cool to see them experience new revelations about themselves.

You cannot run an effective coaching model without making the intention/mission of your coaching model visible and alive. Our model valued building strong relationships with our students by treating them with respect and viewing them as creative, resourceful and whole. How we viewed our students dictated how we treated them. More specifically, it guided us when helping them become resilient and self-sufficient learners.

I am forever grateful for the opportunities that allowed me to be in a such an innovative learning environment where I could help people reach their dreams through education.

Identity and Self-Worth

Deo and his childhood friend Komot Gabriel 

Deo and his childhood friend Komot Gabriel 

How I identify myself greatly influences how I accept myself. Much of the influence my parents exerted on me as a child took on a life of its own and eventually grew into my own identity. In our modern society, our identity is often challenged by how others accept us and by the level of privilege we have based on our ethnicity or the color of skin.

Society creates an artificial social norm of expectations. It places people in categories that determines who they should be and influences how and when they are accepted. Race and ethnicity play a big role in this classification, especially in regard to the skin color. This is not just an American issue. It happens all over the world. I experienced this struggle growing up in the Congo and also after resettling in the USA. Ironically, in America, the progressive mentality seems to hide the reality of self-worth of minorities and the poor.

In this article, I will discuss the roots of my identity and self-worth—from living in the Congo through my early experiences in America —and how they influence me today.

Deo in the Congo

Deo in the Congo

Growing up in the Congo, my identity was heavily influenced by my father and mother. My father was a very determined and confident. He instilled those values and principles in my family. His approach focused more on the external presentation. He believed character building needed to be enforced by discipline and obedience to have meaning. Good character was not real unless it was displayed through action. My mother, on the other hand, focused on self-empowerment. To her, a belief of self-worth and perseverance were essential. My mother’s relationship with my father faced many difficulties, largely because she was considered an outsider by her family and, therefore, not accepted. But regardless of the difficulties they had, I was the beneficiary of the strong values they each possessed and displayed. And these values, injected in me in a very young age, influenced my perception of identity and self-worth.

Deo's father, Beauxdoin Mwano

Deo's father, Beauxdoin Mwano

My father’s military background influenced the expectations he had for my family and me. He cared a lot about how we showed up and presented ourselves. In this regard, he was particularly strict with me. I was fine with that. I admired his discipline and how so many respected him and trusted his opinion. He was our family’s patriarch and decision-maker for any situation. And we all benefited greatly from his influence long after he was gone. His legacy provided security for us because people trusted him and valued his character.

After my father’s assassination and turbulence erupted in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, people turned on each other to get by. But thanks to all the good deeds my father did for others, we were secure. No one ever ratted my family out. Seeing the impact my father’s strong character had after he was gone made a huge impression on me. My father did not compromise his personal identity, values or self-worth. He was authoritative but caring, and always had a sense of vision. He knew how to direct and to lead others. And he knew how to delegate. I admired those characteristics and because of the consistency with which he exhibited them, I later adopted them as part of my identity. Of course, consistently displayed values need not come from a parent to be adopted by others. People you are close in your community can have the same impact on you through consistent behavior. In that sense, your community and its consistent influences have a lot to do with your self-worth. As a young child, the complex environment in which I lived had a significant influence on my belief in myself.

Deo and his brother in the Congo

Deo and his brother in the Congo

After my father was assassinated, my mother stepped in as head of the family. It was a difficult time because my family was tested in every way. And the challenges we experienced determined our level of self worth and identity.  My mother is half Burundian and half Congolese. My father’s family did not approve. And it became easier for them to resent my mother after my father was no longer around.  At that time Burundians and Rwandans in the Congo were being massacred by the Congolese in a civil war that resulted from long standing ethnic divisions. In order for us to survive, my mother needed to rebuke her nationality and affiliation to my father. However, claiming her Burundian status kept my family together and helped get us out of the Congo.

Deo, his brother Vinny and mother Bernadette 

Deo, his brother Vinny and mother Bernadette 

When I arrived in the states, I was a 10-year-old boy trying to find my way. The American pace was very different. They were a lot of expectations I put on myself. My mother also had a lot of expectations for my family. Those were the only expectations that really mattered. My mother was still in her twenties at the time with four children and no relatives in the area. It was not unusual for others to view such a young woman with four children and no husband in a strange new country as being helpless. They meant well. They were just looking out for us. But the more people we welcomed into our life, the more pressure we felt by their expectations. Many of the other people we met when we settled in New Hampshire were other immigrants. They thought it was appropriate to impose their values on us. To their credit, most of their advice was aimed to ensure my family had the best chance to succeed. They were trying to help us fit in and play by the rules. The last thing you want to be as a new immigrant in a predominantly white community is unapproachable and to offend others by the way you present yourself. We were advised, among other things, never say no, or to disagree; to avoid being confrontational. All that sounds fine but when you look closer, you start to see how those other immigrants diminished their self-worth and character in order to gain favor with the native white community which then might be more inclined to help them. Not too long, we decided we were not going to take this approach. We were always appreciated what was given to us and grateful to those who wanted to help us, but we made sure we were honest about our feelings in order to maintain our dignity and self-worth.

I am not proud to share the next story because I do not support violence but in this case, it was needed in order to earn some respect.

I attended a local elementary school. I was in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class all day with other students who were new to the states as well. My clothes were probably not the hippest. At the time skinny jeans were not popular. Most of the donation pants I had were all skinny pants. Being so obviously different from other students, I was an easy target for them. There was this boy in the school who was a knucklehead. He used to call ESL students names and make fun of them. The kid was close to my height.  I was not scared of him. One day I was walking home with my brother. The kid and his friend were also walking home. He decided to start making fun of my brother and me.  I still remember this story as if it happened yesterday. I looked at my brother Vinny and told him to hold the dollar store sunglasses I was proudly wearing. I turned around and gave the kid a Jean-Claude Van Damme kick on the face and followed with a Bruce Lee punch to his chest. The boy was knocked out. Someone stopped their car and ended the fight. The next day at school the boy saw me. He said hello to me. Ever since that incident he never bothered my brother and I or anyone else that was in my class when I was around. Confronting prejudice and racism was nothing knew for me. I saw my mother do it multiple times in the Congo and in the U.S. She taught me to stand up for myself, be proud and not let anyone talk down to me.

Elementary School photo, this picture was taken a few weeks after Deo started school in the US.

Elementary School photo, this picture was taken a few weeks after Deo started school in the US.

It was very hard for my family to keep people close. Some African families that came into our lives wanted to take control and dictate how my mother disciplined my brothers and I. My mother was already very strict. She did not mess around. Since I was the oldest of four children, she often made an example of me to get my siblings to tow in line. Some of the families would tell my mother, please do this and do that, watch out for this and watch out for that. There were false expectations they wanted my mother to impose on us kids. These false expectations were the same ones they imposed on their own children. It was hard being a minority in a new country. You try to do whatever you can to make sure your family has an advantage or not experience the prejudice and racism you have. I get where they were coming from. But false expectations only make things worse because self-worth and identity suffers. False expectations would separate us from Black American lifestyle characteristics.

These “helpful” people were afraid that adopting these “negative” characteristics would minimize our chances of being accepted by the masses. They were the “Go Along to Get Along” people. The ones who thought it best to bend to the pressure of expectations. But it was hard for me to disassociate myself from Black American culture or minority groups. Black American culture was part of me. I loved rap music, dance, art and the lingo. Oh man, the grief my mother got when she started braiding my hair when I was in middle school! Shocked people would say, “What were you thinking braiding Deo’s hair?” Clearly, they thought my mother decreased my chance of being considered a good polite and respectful black male. My family lost a lot of friends as result of us taking ownership of our identity and self-worth. She told them to step aside and stop telling her how to raise her kids.

Mwano family time, Deo hanging out with his mother and his brothers

Mwano family time, Deo hanging out with his mother and his brothers

It did not affect us knowing we had to dissociate with some people in order to protect our identity and self-worth. My mother and I had several conversations during this time about the pressure she was getting from others. She knew it was not about how we looked and what we wore on our head or on body. What does a braided head or a Phat Farm, South Pole baggy shirt means about someone’s character? I saw so many families focus so much on the external that they forgot about the internal development. Some immigrant family’s children ended up going down the wrong path. They got caught up in street life, drugs and making quick money. But I would not blame the influence that lead to these failures solely on the parents of those kids. I would blame the immigration system that provides minimum funding to those resettling new immigrants. As it is, the system forces the resettlement agency to place new immigrants in low-income housing, which is often located in high crime neighborhoods. If you do not have enough self-discipline and if you are not exposed to examples of what success looks like for immigrants like you in a new territory, it is easier to accept the harsher way of life lived by those who share your skin color or income level. To confront combat the reality of an external environment, you need to have an internal power cultivated through positive self-identity and self-worth.

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I grew my hair super long in middle school and in high school. I wore baggy clothes and was heavily influenced by the hip-hop culture. My character never drifted totally away from how I identified myself. I was influenced by others but always knew when to steer back to whom I was. The foundation of who I was drove my ambitious to dream big and not allow my income constraints to hold me back. I operated in a way that maximized how I positively viewed myself. I was respectful to others, inclusive and always gave everyone a fair chance. My faith also played an important role in reinforcing my identity.

Deo with long braided hair

Deo with long braided hair

The two self-identifications that took over everything for me were pride in myself and never being envious. My mother instilled in me to never be envious of others. When we were younger, if someone gave her food, she would never share it with us. She wanted to make sure we did not develop an expectation of having other stuff handed to us. We would get punished if we cried about something that belonged to someone else. If we were playing with other kids and they did not want to share their toys and we complained about it, we would get punished. It got so I would not even play with someone’s toys even if they were offered it to me. That became the norm. The feeling of envy was non-existent growing up. That was an important desire not to have. And that helped me a lot.  I went to a private middle school. I had a full scholarship. I was very grateful. I needed to bring my own lunch everyday. Most of my friends bought the hot meal at school. I was completely content bringing my own lunch. I was proud of the food I brought. I never complained to my mother or asked her to give me money to buy lunch. I knew the reality and our limitations. I never pushed it too far. I rationalized everything based on the opportunity that was provided and not by what I did not have. I have noticed that in much of the work I do with different people, envy is always a big factor in what influences people to do certain things. They want to be viewed a certain way so they do whatever they can to depict that image so they can have the approval or acceptance of others. But once you compromised who you are in order to do that, you have left your true self behind.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Today as a father, husband and leader, I find what guides and keeps me focused, regardless of the challenges I face every day, is how I view myself. Access and privilege confronts me lot. I live in one of the richest countries in the world with basic amenities that 75% of the world does not have. This perspective along helps me to acknowledge my privilege and access. I also live in a community where I am connected by so many people who are ready to collaborate and support me on different things. I have trust and respect, which is something I cannot take for granted. Many minorities in America do not have the trust and respect of other cultures. Most maintain a respectful distance and do not want to cross-pollinate because of the preconceived notion of minority groups.

Deo, his wife and children

Deo, his wife and children

I identify challenges by those who accept and include me. Today the lifestyle of my personal environment, community and broader circle confronts my identity and definition of self worth. I tend to stay in the lane that represents me. Sometimes I take some detour. The reality of life for me today is very different than it was growing up. Today I have a little more access to become a little lenient in how I allow my identity to be defined. I am not saying the narrative has changed, although I admit that influences on me definitely change at times. But I am not concerned about that. What I am concerned about is not having the discipline in place to identify when I stray from my narrative.

Deo preparing his pitch as a top finalists 

Deo preparing his pitch as a top finalists 

I view wealth and access as a necessity but not necessarily the main focus. You can still make a big impact without being a millionaire. I find it that the more wealth you have, the more selfish you become. This selfishness comes from the obsession to possess more material things in order to gain a certain status and lifestyle. It is not for me to judge those who pursue that. Security is important. The problem I see is that the drive for material things becomes the main objective and people forget to live. The way you live your life should be an indicator of your identity and self worth. If you have to explain your intention more and more, perhaps people are not seeing the way you see yourself inside.

You have to find opportunities to make your identity come out and then live by it. You have to fight to have ownership of your identity and self worth. Evaluate yourself and identify areas where you can improve. Look for opportunities to uplift others and to help them find their inner selves and take ownership of their identities. Spend more time listening to yourself and take advantage of opportunities to change your behaviors if you see they do not represent you.  To encourage others, you must first make time to listen to them. Listen without judgment. When you identify areas where you can encourage someone to take control, seize the opportunity. Be courageous and tell them. You can always start that conversation by saying: “Here is what I am hearing. I could be wrong. Please let me know if I am.” And then tell them what you are seeing that does not align with how they identify themselves.

For communities that are different from yours, spend time getting to know them before you offer assistance. Your help is only meaningful if it meets the needs of the people you are trying to serve. And, finally, do not be judgmental. Once you are, you lose the opportunity to be helpful. Judgment, prejudice and racism only prevent you from seeing another’s true self.

 

The Artificial Reward of Social Media!

We all get sucked into the gamification of “likes” that is influenced by the algorithm designed for us based on the data we feed it. We forget that certain experiences we see do not accurately reflect the reality of people we admire, love, hate and envy on Facebook and Instagram. Our desire for acceptance and approval gets magnified by the emptiness of our reality.

Dad turns into a hip-hop Zombie

Happy Father's day!

Deo has been working as a coach for the E3 Teen Father program through the New Hampshire Department of Education. The program focuses on helping the teen father graduate from school, gain employment and learn fatherhood competencies through individual personalize success plans. Deo helped design the implementation portion of the program through a partnership with the National Center of Competency Based Learning. Below are the outcomes of this program:

Improved co-parental relationship with the mother of their child and the improved ability to co-parenting
Increased satisfaction with their co-parent and an awareness of their own parenting philosophy;
Increased parenting and co-parenting skills;
Increased their involvement with their child;
Earned their high school diploma and the capacity to apply to an institute of higher education if desired;

Gained the experience to obtain a ‘living wage” position.

    • Effectively reach their goals by learning how to set goals;
    • Plan and follow through on self-determined tasks;
    • Understand their unique learning approach;
    • Be capable of utilizing their knowledge to successfully meet their educational goals;
    • Discover how their efforts and values connect to their goals and learning approach; and,
    • Identify resources in their network and tap into these resources to achieve their goals.

What I learned from giving up sports to work in high school!

 

I was raised by a single mother and, as the eldest of five children, I felt a special obligation to help shoulder the financial burdens created by my personal expenses. So, at age 12, I became a boy on a mission—or, more accurately, a boy who needed to raise money to go on a mission. But how? Well, it turned out that our church’s membership included many business owners, one of whom, an electrician, graciously offered me an opportunity to perform small jobs for his company. At the age of 12!

In short order, I was hooked, thrilled to be able to earn my own money. I worked for this kind man whenever he needed extra help to demo products or to carry supplies and tools for his crew. I enjoyed learning from him and his team. Electricians work very fast. They don’t mess around. I saw how precise and committed they were and that work ethic inspired and grew in me. I wanted to prove I was part of the team and be recognized by the crew as a hard worker.

I made a minimum of $7 an hour, which was enough for me to feel accomplished. Most of the time, I worked weekends or during summer breaks. I remember always being super tired after work. I would go home, shower, eat and pass out. It was hard work by itself. But I was also in middle school at the time and very involved with after school activities. I was an avid soccer player. I played for the JV team in 7th grade and the varsity in 8th grade. My plan was to continue to play in high school.

Cleaning Company

In the summer after 8th grade, a church friend asked if I would be interested in working with him. He worked for another gentleman at my church who owned a cleaning company. Recently, an employee had left and the company now needed someone to help my friend clean college dorm rooms at a local college. I was up for it, because this felt more like a real job. I worked 8:00 am to 4:00 pm every day for a few weeks. It was great working with my friend. We developed a close friendship, even though he was three years older than I was. Like the electrician and his crew, my friend did not mess around. He took his responsibilities very seriously. Every morning, he’d go over our tasks. He knew all the different cleaning products and which one worked best for a particular chore. It always amazed me how fast he cleaned.

The work wasn’t fun, but we made the best out of it. The demands were athletic. You were always changing positions—kneeling, sloshing, climbing and moving things around in order to thoroughly clean them. Playing music on a radio helped the time go by and turned the whole process into a kind of dance. In fact, sometimes I would bust some dance moves while cleaning. I admired my friend’s work ethic. We both knew this was only a temporary gig and that we’d grow out of it. Most of the time my fingers were sore at the end of the day from scrubbing stickers and leftover poster board paper from the walls. But I was grateful for the job. For a 13-year-old kid, it was a good experience and decent money.

After the dorm-cleaning job finished, I was still contacted by the cleaning company whenever they needed extra help. I always accepted, but eventually, this led to conflicts. With summer came freshman soccer tryouts. I avoided getting a physical so I could continue to work and make money. When school started, I decided to stop by practice to speak to the coach about playing. He said it was too late and would have to wait until the following year. I was not that upset. For my entire freshman year, I was now free to work for the electrician and the cleaning company whenever my help was needed.

In the summer before my sophomore year, I was again asked to work part time for the cleaning company. It would be my friend’s last year because he was going to college in the fall. I jumped at the chance and said goodbye soccer. At times I thought about playing soccer but making money and providing for myself was more important. My responsibilities included two hospital locations and a music store warehouse. There was also lots of post-construction cleaning. Some of the houses we cleaned were really impressive.

Curiosity and Relationship Building

I enjoyed working with the owner. Not only did he run a good company, he was good company. He always liked to jam out to jazz music on our rides to the sites and back to the office. I learned a lot from him about business. Speed and precision were always key. But we also had to be friendly and patient with our customers. I learned how to be more responsive—a skill that would come in handy later in my life. I also developed relationships with some regular customers. I shared my aspirations with them. One man owned a chain of music stores. We became good friends and remain so today. We’ve even worked on some education initiatives together.

After my sophomore year, I played soccer for my high school summer team. It was a lot of fun. I had a great relationship with the coach. He was one of the assistant principals at my high school. His constant encouragement revived my love of the game. I was surprised that I was still able to keep up with the guys who had played during the time I missed. But once summer was done I continued to work for the cleaning company rather than pursue soccer. It was my junior year. I needed to make money and came to depend on the income. But I didn’t like the work any better. On Tuesdays, I cleaned at a hospital, which included vacuuming a very long walkway from the indoor garage. Not fun.

Most of my close friends played basketball for the high school team. I enjoyed working out with them, but I was not the best basketball player. Nevertheless, in November I thought of trying out for the team. The problem was I needed a physical. By the time I got it, there was only one more tryout—on a Tuesday night! So I asked my friends to bring me to the hospital to do my routine cleaning. I rushed the entire time and did not wear my work gear. Meanwhile, my friends were waiting outside. When I was almost done, my boss entered the building. Naturally, the first thing he said was, “Where’s your work shirt?” Then he said, “Doesn’t look like you cleaned the window right.”

Decision time

This time sports won. I told him I quit, which might not have been the best decision rationally. But I was sick of always missing out because of work and sacrificing everything else in the process. When I got into the car, I told my friends I quit my job. They were surprised and laughed. At the tryout, I demonstrated the required agility, but in the end did not make the team. Did I feel bad about it? No. How could I? I had only made it to one tryout; everyone else had attended all three. I was just happy to tryout with my friends. A few days later, my mother dropped me off to see my old boss. I needed to pick up my last check. He was very nice and even took the time to provide some extra mentoring. I thanked him for the opportunity to work for him.

Working for Mr. Tux

It did not take long before I got another job. By February of my junior year, I was working for Mr. Tux/Men’s Wearhouse as a sales associate. The company needed to hire high school students to push their prom promotion deals. My marketing teacher referred me to the job. I was ecstatic when I was hired. I was the youngest person in my location. I worked 3:30 pm to 8:00 pm weekdays and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on Saturdays. The work pace at Mr. Tux was faster than the cleaning company. Plus, I had to dress up everyday because the work was customer facing. And since it was a sales job, I always had to find opportunities to upsell our tuxedos.

Two managers provided training. One focused on relationship building; the other on the product. The one who focused on relationships was more effective. So I made that my sales strategy too. A good percentage of our sales came from booking weddings. Working with the groom and bride was always interesting. The groom never had much to say. It was the bride, mother of the bride, or mother of the groom who made all the decisions. Still, I made sure the groom had input. Even if it was only deciding the shirt style, or choosing between a conventional tie and a bow tie. I learned the backend of managing a retail store, closing, balancing the register, depositing checks and dealing with unsatisfied customers.

Mr. Tux/Men's Wearhouse stores were located nationwide. Sometimes folks would call in, fax, or email us their measurements. That caused some problems if the tux did not fit when they came to pick it up. But we always had a two-day window to make adjustments. I learned how to be resourceful. Sometimes we literally saved weddings by delivering the tuxedos ourselves the night before. Once we dropped them off on the wedding day! Those were fun times. I worked for Mr. Tux/Men's Wearhouse for several years, including when I was in college.

What I learned from my Experiences! 

Working has been a rewarding experience for me. I earned decent wages, but more importantly, I learned life skills—better communication strategies, conflict resolution and presentation skills among them. I started working at a young age for a singular purpose—to make the money I needed to go on a church mission trip. But what I eventually learned was so much bigger than one job and one event.

The jobs I mentioned here are just some that conflicted with playing sports. And I do regret that I was not able to find a balance between work and soccer. But what I learned from my early work experiences shaped the approach to my post-college career. I am very grateful for the business owners at my church who took me under their wing and taught me the value of hard work. I am also grateful for the relationships I developed—from the folks whose offices I cleaned to the customers I served at Mr. Tux/Men's Wearhouse. Abruptly quitting the cleaning job was not the best decision I ever made, but the eventual result was well worth it.

 

 

 

 

How a community embraced a family of refugees and changed its trajectory

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Our flight from Benin to New York City carried 250 refugees. We arrived at JFK Airport on February 17, 2000. Things were happening very fast. In two hours we would board a small airplane headed to Manchester, New Hampshire. All we knew about New Hampshire was that it was close to Boston. It felt surreal to actually be in America. There were five of us—my three brothers, my mother and myself. At nine, I was now the patriarch of the family. We had spent the last two years living as refugees in the small West African country of Benin. Of our fellow passengers, we were the only ones going to New Hampshire.

The airplane to New Hampshire had just 30 passengers. For the entire flight my mother’s arm was draped across the shoulders of my two youngest brothers, Destin, age two, and Gedeon, age three. I set next to Vinny, who was seven. I kept thinking about the vast cement and asphalt city of New York as we flew over a wilderness of trees covered with snow. I wondered if we would be the only African family going to this place.

A man’s voice over the intercom filled the cabin. He spoke in English and, since our grasp of the language was minimal, we did not know what he was saying. As the airplane descended, we saw roads and small houses.

“Is this it?” I asked my mother. She did not know. Snow covered everything and there were no tall buildings.

The airplane landed and we were the last ones to disembark. I was entrusted with our blue and white IOM (International Organization for Migration) bag. Given to us by the UN at the refugee camp, the bag contained all of our refugee documentations and destination information. Without it we would be lost—literally and figuratively. We were told to keep the bag visible throughout our travels.

A whole new world

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There was no passenger bridge, so we had to walk outside to get to the terminal. It was bone-chilling cold. Inside we were welcomed by Moraud, a specialist from Lutheran Services (now Ascentria Care—based in Concord NH). Originally from Morocco, Moraud spoke French. We felt more at ease thanks to his warm greeting and ability to communicate with us. He told us we would stay in temporary housing until our place was ready the following day.

Our apartment in Manchester had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. It was furnished with second-hand furniture in good condition. Our cabinets and fridge had food purchased by Moraud with funds from Lutheran Services. A few trash bags contained second-hand clothes. My brothers and I sorted through the clothes and picked the ones we liked. We were excited to settle down in our apartment.

So was my mother. She had no possessions to give us, but she had something better. “I have nothing to give you but guidance,” she said. And with that guidance, she assured us, she would help us find whatever opportunities this country offered us.

Sister Irene The Angel

Lutheran Services showed us around during our first few days in New Hampshire. They took us to hospital appointments, grocery shopping, immigration appointments and enrolled us in social welfare programs. My mother was enrolled in ESOL classes. We found a local Catholic church, Saint Anthony’s, a few streets from our home. We met some awesome people at Saint Anthony’s. By our second week in Manchester, many people had welcomed us.

The first person we met was Sister Irene. She visited us with a box of food and trash bags of clothes. She became one of our closest friends and introduced us to many people. She spoke French and helped my family very much. Every day we had people knocking on our door. Most of our new friends were French Canadian families who had lived in Manchester for generations. Among them were the Bessonettes, who basically adopted my family. We called the two grandparents Papa and Mama Bessonette. They had a vast immediate family in Manchester and the surrounding towns. Between the Bessonettes and Sister Irene, we felt welcomed and loved by the people of Manchester. Furthermore, we were fortunate to meet some other African families who resettled in New Hampshire. They came from Burundi, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia.

Mwano family

Mwano family

By the third week, my brother Vinny and I enrolled at a local elementary school which was one mile from my house. My two younger brothers started daycare. My mother continued going to the ESOL classes. But the excitement of moving to America began to dwindle the longer we settled in. And we began to experience the challenge of starting from scratch in a new country—with no family or money, unable to speak the native language, and not having a driver’s license or a car. While we lived in a great location, close to a Walgreens Pharmacy and Vista Foods grocery store, everything else was à la carte. For transportation we relied on taxis, friends, and sometimes the Lutheran Services. Public transportation in Manchester was not the best. When my mother realized the money she was getting from the social services was not enough to support us, she stopped going to the ESOL classes and, with the help of Lutheran Services, found a job at a local factory. She was able to coordinate rides with some of her co-workers and in return paid for the transportation.

Our first month in New Hampshire was not easy, but we were able to acclimate and find help when we needed it from a circle of about 50 people. Sister Irene was the angel from heaven who oversaw much of this help. She gave my mother strength and advocated for us in many areas when Lutheran Services support tapered off. During our first summer, Sister Irene coordinate with volunteers to drive my brothers and me around while my mother was at work. One family even took Vinny and me to a summer program. Another family took my two brothers to daycare. We were never alone.

Sister Irene was the impetus behind our first-year successes and breakthroughs. She spent a lot of her time getting to know us and customized her support based on what worked for us. By February of 2001, a year later after arriving in NH, we had a community of friends we called family. We no longer had Lutheran Services supporting us. Most resettlement agencies support new refugees for three to six months. Sister Irene taught us how to be resourceful.

The Bessonettes, the family who adopted us

We became part of the Bessonette family. They were strong and giving people. On most holidays and birthdays they brought us to their home and blessed us with gifts, love, and encouragement. On her 27th birthday, my mother was surprised with a celebration. Everyone brought her gifts, and she had a large cake. My mother was very happy that day. She had gone through a lot of trauma helping my family get out of the Congo, and was particularly grateful to have the Bessonette women for moral and mental support. Mama Bessonette always had her back. We were all overwhelmed by the Bessonettes’ kindness.

Bessonette family

Bessonette family

It took my mother four months to get her license after we moved to Manchester. This, along with having a car, was a major milestone for my family. It built our confidence and gave us encouragement. Now we had our own vehicle to go places. It meant more freedom and more access to the things we wanted to do. And it would not have been possible without the Bessonette family’s encouragement and support. They dedicated their time to teach my mom how to parallel park and risked their own credit by co-signing her loan. At the end of 2000, we spent Christmas at the Bessonettes. Their immediate family totaled 35.

The Bessonette family showed us unconditional love that helped us heal the many wounds we brought with us to New Hampshire.

Holidays with the Bessonette

Holidays with the Bessonette

I found Congo in New Hampshire through music

As our circle grew, we continued to make progress adjusting to New Hampshire life. We were also becoming more self-sufficient. The ability of my brothers and me to speak English improved tremendously. My first two years of school were spent in ESOL classrooms. Many of my friends were from Sudan, the Dominican Republic, Bosnia, Mexico, Vietnam and Uruguay. We were all trying to learn English and adapt to America. Extracurricular activities like sports, music, and performance allowed us to integrate with native students.

Deo and his classmates from his ESOL class celebrating a birthday

Deo and his classmates from his ESOL class celebrating a birthday

In fall 2001, I started sixth grade at McLaughlin Middle School. I was in an ESOL class for most of the day but was able to take other classes with native students. In sixth grade, I joined the orchestra. I enjoyed learning music and how to play the viola. Under the guidance of my teachers, we started a bongos percussion ensemble and performed at different school events with the orchestra. It was an awesome experience. I was able to utilize my drum skills from growing up in the Congo. I am grateful to my orchestra teachers for the opportunities they gave me. It was the beginning of my involvement in extracurricular activities.

Deo in his sixth grade ESOL class

Deo in his sixth grade ESOL class

Middle School at Saint Joseph—I don’t want to tuck my shirt in

When Sister Irene saw how I excelled in certain areas in my learning, she thought I should attend a private school. She worked very hard to advocate for me to attend Saint Joseph, a private middle school with students from all over New Hampshire. I was accepted and began in seventh grade. My mother thought Saint Joseph was a better place for me to study, but I did not want to go. At Saint Joseph, we had to wear uniforms and tuck in our shirts. And no jeans! There were no ESOL classes either and diversity was very low. There was only one other black student and one biracial kid—half black, half white. On the first day of school, I fought with my mother because I did not want to tuck my shirt in. She dropped me off, but wouldn’t drive away until I tucked in my shirt.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School event

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School event

But I misjudged Saint Joseph. It ended up being one of the best environments for me to learn and engage. I discovered a lot about myself in 7th and 8th grade. The school ignited my inner creativity. I felt very welcomed by the teachers and my classmates. I joined the soccer team and loved it. The administration encouraged me to pursue dance and music. I formed a dance team, and we performed at school events. I was not the best student academically, but I worked very hard. I spent twice the time doing certain assignments as my classmates. On the plus side, my English continued to improve. Even better, I made lifelong friends. My friends’ parents were very welcoming, too. They would always give me a ride home. Sometimes they even covered extracurricular costs my mother could not afford.

Deo's Saint Joseph Experience

Deo's Saint Joseph Experience

Overcoming Depression

Even though I had a great experience at Saint Joseph, middle school was a very dark period for me. I dealt with depression, anger, and suicidal thoughts. The more comfortable I was adjusting to America, the more my past experiences with the civil war in the Congo haunted and tortured me. I would share stories with my classmates about the atrocities I experienced. Some were open to learning, but others didn’t care or understand the magnitude of my family’s ordeal. Through prayers and focusing on things that built my confidence and kept me engaged, I was able to have some breakthroughs.

Deo and his brothers

Deo and his brothers

Church Family

Church always played an important role in my family’s successful acculturation. We ended up changing to a non-denominational Pentecostal church called Believers Christian Outreach Church. This church was more aligned with what we had known. It was critical to my emotional development during my resettlement. Believers treated us as family. In fact, my Pastor, John Fortin, and the elders—Nick Dager, Harry Shepler, Norm Hebert, and Ron Cote—treated me like a son. They mentored me. When I needed help, they stepped in and cared for me unconditionally. They even helped me develop a sense of responsibility by giving me work at their businesses and yard work. The extra money freed my mother from worrying about her inability to buy me the things she thought an American boy should have.

The pastor and church elders helped me to see possibilities I could not see on my own. I also met some awesome women—JoAnn Trombly, Michelle Dager, Barbara Shepler, Darla Freeborn, Anna Hebert, and Celeste Fortin—who were also very nurturing. It was like having a group of mothers who had my back. JoAnn Trombly was my youth group leader. She worked with my mother to help her see the value of my involvement with different activities. I remember calling JoAnn and crying to her about how depressed I was and how I could not escape my bad memories. She always had great words of encouragement and helped me find activities that cleared my mind of self-destructive thoughts.

At the end of middle school, I overcame many of my personal challenges. I came out a very different person than when I started. My church and Saint Joseph families were critical in building my confidence, encouraging my creativity, and making me feel like I belonged. I developed a strong self-confidence and drive. My community in Manchester gave me a seat at the table to be me. I felt grounded and knew I would have support in whatever direction I chose to go. And of course having the support of my own family during those first four years of living in Manchester provided me with a strong foundation for what I hoped to accomplish.

Deo at Saint Joseph's 8th grade Graduation Ceremony

Deo at Saint Joseph's 8th grade Graduation Ceremony

In so many ways I was lucky to come to America when I did. Today refugees and immigrants are marginalized. They feel—and are—unwelcome too often. People come to America because they want the opportunity for a better life. It’s not an easy process. Refugees must endure a long and tough vetting process. Case review takes a minimum of 32 months to resettle once selected. Refugees have less than a 5 percent chance to resettle in western countries. Diseases and sometimes blood types prevent people from being selected. For those who are chosen, it’s a dream come true. The average time spent in a refugee camp is ten years. By the time refugees move to their final destination, many are starting from scratch with nothing except the dream of a better life. It is our duty as American citizens to provide a welcoming community. This will not only increase the success trajectory of refugees. It will encourage refugees to contribute positively to your community.

I leave you with these thoughts: Your ancestors came to this country to find a better life. Along the way, they relied on help from their communities to succeed. That success trickled down to the privilege and access you have today. How can you get involved and contribute to a positive trajectory of refugees’ success in your community, town, city and state? Find out today.

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