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Mkunji’s Journey to Citizenship

Each year, on September 17, Americans celebrate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. To celebrate, KRM would like to share a little about the path to citizenship for one of our former clients in Lexington.

When Mkunji Etoka and his family learned they would be coming to America, they had only ever seen pictures of the country on social media. When he closed his eyes and dreamt of his new home, it was all the skyscrapers and concrete in places like New York City.

“I was very excited we had gotten our case approved to come to the United States of America because I had been living in a refugee camp for seventeen years struggling with many problems,” says Etoka.

His waiting grew even longer when his flight was delayed by hours and arrived late into the night. Although KRM provides a culturally appropriate meal for new arrivals at their home, it was so late that night that his caseworker ordered pizza so the group could eat right when they landed.

Etoka reflects on his earliest memory in the United States, “They provided for us pizza and, I mean, I never saw pizza before and I was like ‘What is this?’ I tried to taste it, but I could not figure out what was on top. Was it tomatoes? Meat? So I was just not able to eat it. To be honest, I thought it was such a bad day because I was so hungry.”

While the night was rough, the morning brought a lot of promise for Etoka. He started learning what kinds of things would now be possible for him in his new home.

“I thought I could not go back to finish school, but I am so thankful for the people at Kentucky Refugee Ministries that helped me to go back to school in 2016. I got my high school diploma at Tate’s Creek High School and then decided to continue with my education and went to Bluegrass Community and Technical College and got my Associates degree in Art. I could see America is a nice place to make your future. It gives opportunity to everyone,” he says.

After living in the United States for five years, refugees can apply for citizenship. As that time crept closer, Etoka started to prepare for the next chapter in his life.

“Before I came to the United States, I thought you get there and then automatically become a citizen, but it was not like that at all. You have to apply and study and take a test,” he says.

Etoka attended a citizenship class with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for over two months. He studied his course materials morning and night. Preparing for the interview was particularly nerve-wracking for him as it tests both written and verbal English.

“The interview was hard because for most refugees, English isn’t their first language or even second language, third language…most people, it might be their third or fourth language! You want to make sure the interviewer knows what you’re saying.”

All of Etoka’s hard work paid off, and on July 8th, 2021, he traveled to Louisville for his oath ceremony. Certificate in hand, he was now a U.S. citizen.

“For me, being a citizen of this country was important to me,” he says. “I wanted to vote and be able to travel to other countries. Voting is very important because it’s an opportunity for citizens to choose a leader who can make a better future; especially for our children.”

Etoka’s passion for youth is evident in his future goals.

“I am planning to continue with my school. I want to get my Bachelors in Social Work or Human Resources. I also love to help the community. For example, me and my younger brother opened an organization to promote youth power. In Swahili, ‘youth’ is vijana so the organization is called Vijana Power Tv on YouTube. Our main purpose is to help and support immigrant youth and give them advice about how they can live in the United States. We want them to know there are people here to help you and who have done it before,” he says.

Etoka also has a message for his fellow citizen ‘brothers and sisters,’ as he calls them.

He says, “Home, to me, is a place where you live in peace. A refugee is a human being like you. They are someone who was forced to flee their country. Refugees don’t just want to come to a new country, they need to come so they can find peace and have a future for their families. So as a fellow citizen, I can say God has blessed us to live in this country so we should bless others to come in when they need help.”

There is one more important aspect of citizenship Etoka jokes about, “Oh and nowadays, I call pizza self-care so you could say I am in love with pizza now.” He reports that his favorite is pepperoni.

If you are interested in helping a refugee on their journey to citizenship through tutoring, mentoring, or many other ways, please visit our volunteer page on our site and sign up for an informational session to learn more. You can learn more about immigration legal services and citizenship education online, too.