Marie Claire Kaberamanzi, now a college student in the U.S., fled a violent civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was just a child.

Eli Meir Kaplan for Scholastic Inc. (Marie Claire), Claudia Seyler (Stylist, Hair and makeup)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.3, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: People, Places, and Environments • Individual Development and Identity • Global Connections

THE BIG READ

Global Refugee Crisis

“I Had to Run for My Life”

More than 25 million refugees worldwide have been forced from their homes by violence or persecution. Marie Claire is one of them.

As You Read, Think About: What are some of the challenges refugees face?

Marie Claire Kaberamanzi will never forget the pounding at the door. The then-12-year-old and her family were getting ready for bed when they heard the mob approaching.

Outside, nearly a dozen men armed with machetes and knives were circling their small one-room house. 

As refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Marie Claire and her family were accustomed to being harassed in Zambia, the African country to which they had fled. People would shout at them in the streets, accusing her parents of stealing their jobs and draining the country’s resources. But rarely had they felt their lives were in danger—until now. 

As Marie Claire and seven of her siblings huddled in the corner of the room, their parents begged the men to leave. Ignoring their pleas, the mob burst through the front door, dragged her father into the street, and beat him. Then the men turned on her mother.

Paralyzed with fear, Marie Claire sat frozen, sobbing into her hands until the attack was over. It lasted only a few minutes, but it changed her life forever. “It was terrifying,” Marie Claire recalls years later. “And the worst part was that there was nothing we could do to help them.”

Marie Claire Kaberamanzi will never forget the pounding at the door. Marie Claire, then 12 years old, and her family were getting ready for bed. They heard the mob approaching.

Nearly a dozen men were outside. They were armed with machetes and knives. The men were circling their small one-room house.

Marie Claire and her family are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They were used to being harassed in Zambia. Zambia is the African country to which they had fled. There, people would shout at them in the streets. They would accuse Marie Claire’s parents of stealing their jobs and draining the country’s resources. But rarely had the family felt their lives were in danger—until now.

Marie Claire and seven of her siblings huddled in the corner of the room. Their parents begged the men to leave. The mob ignored their pleas. The men burst through the front door. They dragged her father into the street and beat him. Then they turned on her mother.

Marie Claire was paralyzed with fear. She sat frozen while sobbing into her hands until the attack was over. It lasted only a few minutes, but it changed her life forever. “It was terrifying,” Marie Claire recalls years later. “And the worst part was that there was nothing we could do to help them.”

Life on the Run 

For as long as Marie Claire could remember, her life had been consumed by violence. She was born in the DRC in 1996, shortly before a civil war broke out between rebel forces and the country’s government. The conflict, which killed at least 6 million people, has since ended—but the bloodshed has not. Armed clashes between rebel groups continue to take place there, leading to widespread instability and unrest.

Marie Claire and her family were among the civilians caught up in the violence. When she was just a toddler, the fighting spread to her town—and her parents realized their only chance for survival was to flee. 

And so, in the middle of the night, they packed up only what they could carry—some food, water, and clothes—and set out for the neigh­boring country of Zambia, where many of their friends and relatives were heading. Their journey would be a grueling 1,000-mile trek, about the distance from New York to Florida. But they had no other choice. If they had stayed, their lives would have been in constant danger.

For as long as Marie Claire could remember, her life had been consumed by violence. She was born in the DRC in 1996. That was shortly before a civil war broke out between rebel forces and the country’s government. The conflict killed at least 6 million people. It has since ended, but the bloodshed has not. Armed clashes between rebel groups continue to take place there. This has led to widespread instability and unrest.

Marie Claire and her family were among the civilians caught up in the violence. When she was just a toddler, the fighting spread to her town. Her parents realized the family’s only chance for survival was to flee.

In the middle of the night, they packed up only what they could carry. They took some food, water, and clothes. They set out for the neighboring country of Zambia. That was where many of their friends and relatives were heading. Their journey would be a difficult 1,000-mile trek. That is about the distance from New York to Florida. But they had no other choice. Their lives would have been in constant danger if they had stayed.

What You Need to Know

Boryana Katsarova/LUZ/Redux

Syrian refugees arrive in Europe in 2015.

Immigrant: Someone who moves to a new country with the intention of staying permanently. There are both legal and undocumented immigrants. 

Refugee: Someone forced to move to another country because of war, violence, persecution, or a natural disaster—and who is unable to safely return home. Refugees who come to the U.S. apply from abroad and are screened before arriving, a process that can take several years.

Immigrant: Someone who moves to a new country with the intention of staying permanently. There are both legal and undocumented immigrants. 

Refugee: Someone forced to move to another country because of war, violence, persecution, or a natural disaster—and who is unable to safely return home. Refugees who come to the U.S. apply from abroad and are screened before arriving, a process that can take several years.

For the next four years, Marie Claire and her family traveled on foot through the thick forests of the DRC, each step taking them closer to safety. They slept beneath thorny bushes or, if they were lucky, in abandoned houses. For food, they ate mangoes, avocados, guavas—anything they could find. Wherever they went, they kept their eyes peeled for armed fighters.

“I remember being hungry and tired,” says Marie Claire. “And also knowing, at such a young age, that if we were caught by the militia groups terrorizing our country, we would be killed. And so we ran.”

Marie Claire and her family traveled on foot through the thick forests of the DRC for the next four years. Each step took them closer to safety. They slept beneath thorny bushes or in abandoned houses. They ate mangoes, avocados, guavas—anything they could find. They kept watch for armed fighters wherever they went.

“I remember being hungry and tired,” says Marie Claire. “And also knowing, at such a young age, that if we were caught by the militia groups terrorizing our country, we would be killed. And so we ran.”

Luke Dennison/AFP/Getty Images

ESCAPING VIOLENCE: Unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has forced millions of people to flee for their lives.

“You Don’t Belong Here!”

At last, the family reached Zambia, where they settled into a refugee camp near the border. Tens of thousands of people were living there in tents made from plastic sheets. Many, like Marie Claire’s family, had fled the war in the DRC. 

After a few years, her parents found a house in the capital city of Lusaka and decided to leave the camp. It wasn’t much, says Marie Claire, just a single room with one small mattress. But finally, they had a home of their own.  

Best of all, Marie Claire was able to attend school. By then, she was 11 years old and had never set foot in a classroom. As a result, officials placed her in the third grade—where she immediately stood out. 

“I was so much older and bigger than everyone else,” she recalls. “All the other students laughed at me.”

Day after day, the kids would throw rocks at her and make fun of her for making mistakes in class and for not speaking the language. “Go back to the Congo!” they would shout. “You don’t belong here!” But she had nowhere else to go.

At last, the family reached Zambia. They settled into a refugee camp near the border. Tens of thousands of people were living there in tents made from plastic sheets. Many, like Marie Claire’s family, had fled the war in the DRC. 

After a few years, her parents found a house in the capital city of Lusaka and decided to leave the camp. It was not much, says Marie Claire. It was just a single room with one small mattress. But they finally had a home of their own.

Best of all, Marie Claire was able to go to school. By then, she was 11 years old. She had never set foot in a classroom. As a result, officials placed her in the third grade. She immediately stood out there.

“I was so much older and bigger than everyone else,” she recalls. “All the other students laughed at me.”

Day after day, the kids would throw rocks at her. They made fun of her for making mistakes in class and for not speaking the language. “Go back to the Congo!” they would shout. “You don’t belong here!” But she had nowhere else to go.

Years of Waiting

Meanwhile, Marie Claire’s mother had applied for a refugee visa through the United Nations (U.N.). The document would allow the family to permanently move to another country and give them the safety and stability they so desperately craved. But years passed by without word from the U.N. Then came the mob pounding on their door.

Miraculously, Marie Claire’s father survived the brutal attack. The mob beat him so badly that he was in the hospital for weeks. But he eventually made a full recovery. Her mother wasn’t so lucky. 

“She died in front of our eyes,” says Marie Claire.

Meanwhile, Marie Claire’s mother had applied for a refugee visa through the United Nations (U.N.). The document would allow the family to permanently move to another country. It would give them the safety and stability they so deeply craved. But years passed by without word from the U.N. Then came the mob pounding on their door.

Amazingly, Marie Claire’s father survived the brutal attack. The mob had beaten him badly. He was in the hospital for weeks. But in time he made a full recovery. Her mother was not so lucky.

“She died in front of our eyes,” says Marie Claire.

UNDERSTANDING 

The Refugee Crisis

More than 25 million people worldwide are refugees, according to the United Nations. About half of them are children. Experts say that more people are displaced today than at any other point in history, largely because of violent conflicts in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

In recent years, the international community has been divided over what to do about the surge of refugees. Many people worldwide sympathize with their situation and are in favor of helping them. Others, however, say refugees place too much of a burden on local communities. The United States has agreed to accept just 30,000 refugees in 2019, the fewest in decades.

More than 25 million people worldwide are refugees, according to the United Nations. About half of them are children. Experts say that more people are displaced today than at any other point in history, largely because of violent conflicts in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

In recent years, the international community has been divided over what to do about the surge of refugees. Many people worldwide sympathize with their situation and are in favor of helping them. Others, however, say refugees place too much of a burden on local communities. The United States has agreed to accept just 30,000 refugees in 2019, the fewest in decades.

Though the pain of losing her mother was sometimes too much for Marie Claire to bear, she did her best to concentrate on school. She was determined to succeed—in part to prove the other kids wrong, but also to honor her mother, who had always stressed the importance of getting an education. 

Eventually, Marie Claire rose to the top of her class, even skipping two grades. She learned to speak English and Nyanja, a common language in Zambia. Over time, the other children began to accept her. 

Then one day in 2015, her family received a call from the U.N. After more than eight years of waiting, their refugee application had finally been approved. When Marie Claire, by then in high school, heard the news, she felt a mix of relief and sadness. She was excited to start fresh in a new country—yet nervous to leave the only place she’d ever thought of as home. 

Her family was given a few weeks to pack up. Just days before they were scheduled to go, they found out where they would be moving: Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the United States.

The pain of losing her mother was sometimes too much for Marie Claire to bear. But she did her best to concentrate on school. She was determined to succeed, in part to prove the other kids wrong. Marie Claire also wanted to honor her mother, who had always stressed the importance of getting an education.

Eventually, Marie Claire rose to the top of her class. She even skipped two grades. She learned to speak English and Nyanja, a common language in Zambia. Over time, the other children began to accept her.

Then one day in 2015, her family received a call from the U.N. Their refugee application had finally been approved. They had waited more than eight years. By then, Marie Claire was in high school. When she heard the news, she felt a mix of relief and sadness. She was excited to start fresh in a new country. But she was nervous to leave the only place she had ever thought of as home.

Her family was given a few weeks to pack up. Just days before they were scheduled to go, they found out where they would be moving. They would live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the United States.

A New Life in America

When Marie Claire stepped off the plane in the U.S., she was amazed. Everything appeared new. She remembers being shocked by all the cars on the road and the rows and rows of houses.

Like many refugees, Marie Claire found it hard at first to adjust to life in the U.S. After all, she had to get used to new customs, traditions, and foods. Simple tasks, such as shopping for groceries or using a microwave, were overwhelming. Plus, Marie Claire knew from personal experience that refugees sometimes encounter fear or prejudice that can make them feel unwelcome—and she didn’t want that to happen to her again. 

As a result, she was constantly on edge, terrified that she’d do or say the wrong thing and embarrass herself. But over time, she began to feel more comfortable, thanks in part to a strong support system. 

Most important, says Marie Claire, was a woman named Jennifer who she now calls her “American mom.” Jennifer had volunteered through an organization called Church World Service to help Marie Claire’s family get settled in the U.S. 

With Jennifer’s help, Marie Claire learned to navigate life in a foreign country: how to cook on a stove, apply for a driver’s license, and enroll at the local high school.

“Having someone help us, especially in the beginning, was so valuable,” says Marie Claire. “It made me feel less alone.” 

When Marie Claire stepped off the plane in the U.S., she was amazed. Everything appeared new. She remembers being shocked by all the cars on the road and the rows and rows of houses.

Like many refugees, Marie Claire found it hard at first to adjust to life in the U.S. She had to get used to new customs, traditions, and foods. Simple tasks, such as shopping for groceries or using a microwave, were scary. Plus, Marie Claire knew from personal experience that refugees sometimes face fear or prejudice that can make them feel unwelcome. She did not want that to happen to her again.

As a result, she was always on edge. She was terrified that she would do or say the wrong thing and embarrass herself. But over time, she began to feel more comfortable. In part, it was because she had a strong support system.

Most important, says Marie Claire, was a woman named Jennifer. This woman had volunteered through an organization called Church World Service to help Marie Claire’s family get settled in the U.S. Marie Claire now calls Jennifer her “American mom.”

With Jennifer’s help, Marie Claire learned to find her way around life in a foreign country. She learned how to cook on a stove, apply for a driver’s license, and enroll at the local high school.

“Having someone help us, especially in the beginning, was so valuable,” says Marie Claire. “It made me feel less alone.”

How YOU Can Help

Support a Family: Volunteer with a local group that helps refugees get settled, such as Church World Service. You and your parents can greet a family at the airport, help them practice English, or take them food shopping.

Welcome Students: A simple smile or friendly hello can help refugees feel less alone in a new country. If there are newcomers at school, invite them to eat lunch with you and your friends or to hang out after class. 

Get Creative: Hold a bake sale or basketball tournament to raise money for a refugee advocacy group, such as the International Rescue Committee.

Support a Family: Volunteer with a local group that helps refugees get settled, such as Church World Service. You and your parents can greet a family at the airport, help them practice English, or take them food shopping.

Welcome Students: A simple smile or friendly hello can help refugees feel less alone in a new country. If there are newcomers at school, invite them to eat lunch with you and your friends or to hang out after class. 

Get Creative: Hold a bake sale or basketball tournament to raise money for a refugee advocacy group, such as the International Rescue Committee.

Looking Ahead

It’s been four years now since Marie Claire and her family first arrived in the U.S.—and she’s proud of how far she’s come. A few months after settling in Pennsylvania, she became the first person in her family to graduate from high school, a mile­stone she never could have imagined as a child. The following year, she was invited to speak at the U.N. about her experiences as a refugee—first in Zambia, then in the U.S. 

Today, Marie Claire is a junior at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, where she’s studying to be a nurse. Although she’s grateful for her life in the U.S., she often thinks about Zambia, her mother, and the friends she left behind. 

Above all else, she wants people to have compassion for refugees, to understand the trauma they’ve been through. Like her, many of them have lost their homes, their relatives, everything they’ve ever known. 

“Imagine if you were in that situation,” she says. “How would you want to be treated?”

It has been four years now since Marie Claire and her family first arrived in the U.S. She is proud of how far she has come. A few months after settling in Pennsylvania, she became the first person in her family to graduate from high school. That was a milestone she never could have imagined as a child. The following year, she was invited to speak at the U.N. She spoke about her experiences as a refugee—first in Zambia, then in the U.S.

Today, Marie Claire is a junior at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. She is studying to be a nurse. She is grateful for her life in the U.S. Even so, she often thinks about Zambia, her mother, and the friends she left behind.

Above all else, she wants people to have compassion for refugees. She wants people to understand the trauma they have been through. Like her, many of them have lost their homes, their relatives, everything they have ever known.

“Imagine if you were in that situation,” she says. “How would you want to be treated?”

Write About It! Marie Claire says: “I never wanted to be a refugee. But I’m proud I am one.” Explain how this statement applies to her story. How did she overcome the challenges she faced? Use details from the article to write an essay explaining your answer.

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