When Agnes walks into the room, the first thing you notice is her acute awareness of her surroundings. She doesn’t seem nervous, but instead very aware of what objects and people are around her, like a security camera that never talks, but watches without interruption. Then you notice how she is dressed: far more like a businesswoman trying to make sure that she is taken seriously by everyone she meets than a Congolese refugee preparing to attend a job fair for her first job in America.
You greet her with a warm handshake and she smiles the small smile of a studious person accustomed to making the smallest impression possible. You turn on the recorder and ask her name. She says her name with very little accent, but so quietly that you have to ask her to repeat it, and it is obviously a blow to her confidence. You reassure her you ask only because you are hard of hearing.
The two of you share a laugh and you begin asking her about her story.
“Why did you leave the Congo?”
“Because of the war.” She says it matter-of-factly, the brevity seeming to owe entirely to her expectation that this information would convey everything a sane person needed to know about the situation rather than any inability to express more. So of course she is surprised when you ask, “What about the war.”
She assumes you are simply uninformed. “The war between the Baladu and Bahema,” she says, to clarify your confusion.
“You thought you were in danger?”
“Was there a specific moment when you realized you were in danger?”
“Will you tell me about it?”
She strikes as contemplative for a second, even hesitant. “The Baladu attacked our village. We tried to protect our home, but had to flee.”
You’re silent a moment, but you realize its unnecessary. She’s stronger than you are and has dealt with the trauma of losing her home with more grace than you can process the sunburn you got on Saturday. She looks at you, anticipating the next question.
“Where did you go?”
“Were you in a refugee camp? What was life like there?”
“Yes. Life was hard. There wasn’t much food. No work. No money.”
“You asked to go to America.”
“Someone told me ‘America is good.’ They said you can work and study there.”
The sketch of Agnes in your mind begins to be fleshed out and be filled with color. On instinct you ask, “Did you go to school in the Congo?”
You’re initially disappointed when she says answers that she didn’t, but then she continues on that she did in Uganda. You have a hunch. “Were you a good student?”
She smiles shyly, as if she’s been embarrassed. She nods.
“Do you want to go back to school one day?”
She lights up and you see a bold flash of determination and hopefulness, of the kind of boundless enterprise that you used to associate only with the space race and American Revolution. You doubt that anything could stop her from the halls of learning that so many of your friends couldn’t care less about.
“Yes. I want to study economics.” It makes sense enough. In her skirt and blazer, she looks like a economist on CNN, foretelling of a rapid recovery or record-low unemployment. If there had ever been such a thing as American optimism, it had to be embodied in her.
Eric the Job Developer walks into the room and lets her know she has ten or fifteen minutes before the group heads out. She and other refugees had gathered at the office that day to go to a job fair for a catering service. Of course you knew that this was why she was dressed up. It had seemed so beautifully irrelevant for a moment, though.
“Is there a particular job you’re hoping to get at the job fair?”
“Any job will do,” she says with her meek smile, the same smile of someone accustomed to leaving a big impression, perhaps, but also the smile of someone with a plan and a story to tell. This story was interrupted by losing her home when she was twelve and entered a new phase of self-development and independence when she arrived in Lexington thirteen years later. A story of a survivor, a scholar, and now a patriot.
You thank her for her time and wish her good luck at the fair. As you look at your sheet of notes and let the story form, you decide that she will probably not need a great deal more of luck. People like Agnes make their own.
Top photo: Agnes and her son Kelvin at a community meeting in early June. She spoke with KRM intern Logan Hurley for this story. Photo by Steve Pavey.
- Written by Logan Hurley, a summer 2015 communications intern at Kentucky Refugee Ministries.