Refugees find success at Capital High School

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Refugees find success at Capital High School
Success at CHS

Zawadi Kezia and Sinafasi “Faith” Imani say it’s difficult to put into words how they felt as they stood in front of the mirror in their caps and gowns on graduation day.

Excited? Yes. Proud of their accomplishments? Absolutely.

But it was more than that, they said.

“It was the day I was waiting for all of my life,” Faith said. With an affirming smile, Zawadi added, “I thought, finally life is giving me a second chance to achieve my dreams.”

Zawadi and Faith, refugees from Uganda and Congo, are the first in their family to graduate from high school. They are cousins, but think of themselves more as sisters.

Only four years earlier, the two girls were seated with their mothers and four younger siblings on an airplane taxiing to the runway at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. They were among the lucky ones from the tens of thousands of families living in the Kyaka II refugee camp to be chosen to come to America as part of the U.S. refugee admissions program.

As the plane lifted high into the air, the girls looked out the window and watched as the countryside grew smaller and smaller until it gradually disappeared from sight.

Growing up in the refugee camp
Uganda is one of the largest refugee-hosting nations in the world, with more than 1.4 million refugees in February 2020.

Both Zawadi’s and Faith’s mothers fled to Uganda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape impoverished conditions, including lack of food, and increased fighting between ethnic groups. Faith’s father was among many in their tribe killed in the conflict.

Zawadi’s mother was pregnant when she made the dangerous boat trip across Lake Albert to the shores of Uganda. She gave birth to Zawadi in Uganda, and the family moved to the refugee camp when Zawadi was 2 years old. Before her father could join them, she said, he fell off a boat and died.

When Faith was 8 years old, she and her mother, Adrianna, and her younger sister boarded a rickety fishing boat with a small motor on the back for the day-long trek from Congo to Uganda. The boats are built for about 80 people, only they usually carried several hundred desperate to flee to safer soil. The memory of that trip across Lake Albert is as vivid now as it was 12 years ago.

“It was early in the morning when we left, because it takes a full day to get to Uganda,” she said. “It was crowded, and I was hungry because there was no food. The children were put in the boat first and there were so many people on top of me. It was really scary, and it smelled bad like fish. It felt like there was no air to breathe.”

She continued, “Many people died during these trips because the weight of the boat caused it to sink. And if the other tribe saw you on the water, they would kill you.”

Family photoOnce Faith and her mother and sister arrived at the refugee camp, Zawadi and her mother, along with three orphaned children taken in by Zawadi’s mother, reunited with Faith’s family in the refugee settlement. Kyaka II is one of many settlements managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Uganda.

Refugees are given plots of land to build homes and try to grow crops. Their mothers learned to farm, and both girls helped harvest crops including potatoes, beans, corn, lemons, mango and cassava — a nutty-flavored, starchy root vegetable native to South America.

Water was in short supply. The girls described how they would often walk 30 minutes from home to a water pump, where they stood in line to fill several gallons of water in a plastic jug. They carried the jugs on their heads during the walk back home to use for cooking, drinking, washing dishes and bathing.

There were lines for everything, they said, including food, water and health care. Faith required urgent medical help several times for a sinus issue that required three surgeries in Uganda and two more in America.

Zawadi and Faith became fluent in Swahili while at school in Uganda. Their mothers, who could speak but not read or write Swahili, did not have enough money to pay for their children to learn English. Faith and Zawadi made that a priority when they arrived in America.

Leaving their homeland for America
When refugees are selected to leave the refugee settlement for another country, family names are posted on a tree outside the camp office. The selection is often based on need following a series of interviews with government officials.

Their hopes were dashed several times over a 5-year period when they were contacted, but not selected, to leave the camp. Once, they thought they were going to Sweden, but plans fell through. Then, after they had mostly given up hope, word arrived they would be leaving for America.

“Our moms could not read, so a neighbor told us our names were on the tree,” Faith said. “They said we had to be at the office the next morning.”

Zawadi described the moment she first heard the news, “The neighbor came to my school to tell me ‘Zawadi, you are going to America!’ I felt so happy that I ran out and forgot my school book, forgot to say goodbye to my friends. I was just flying home so fast after I heard.”

After spending a few weeks in a hotel in the capital city to finalize details of their departure, including making arrangements to get visas, they were finally ready to embark on a new life in Washington state.

Arrival in America
The family had brief layovers in Dubai and California airports before arriving in Seattle. While they had seen photos and heard from others about America, they were still in for a few surprises.

“When we walked into the airport in California we were shocked,” Zawadi said. Faith added, “We shielded the eyes of our younger brothers and sisters. In Uganda, women only wear skirts, and we saw women all around the airport wearing shorts. We couldn’t believe it.”

Once off the plane and inside Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Zawadi said she became very shy. Faith began to cry. “It was scary,” Faith recalled. “We couldn’t speak English, everything was so different, and I missed my friends.”

Things did not go smoothly at first. The family of eight moved several times between University Place, Tacoma and Kent in the first two years, switching apartments and schools. Not speaking English was difficult, and both Zawadi and Faith immediately started immersing themselves in the language. In 2019, the organization tasked with providing support for refugees during their first three months in the United States reached out for additional help from the United Methodist Church in Olympia.

New Beginnings
Welcome to OlyBecca Brandt, who leads a United Methodist Church committee that supports refugees, visited the two families at their crowded 2-bedroom apartment in Kent and invited them to relocate in Olympia.

The church helped furnish a more spacious 3-bedroom apartment so the mothers and all of the children could live more comfortably together. Faith and Zawadi enrolled at Capital High School. Their four siblings also enrolled in Olympia schools and will attend Capital High and McLane Elementary this fall.

About this same time, the name “Faith” became a common nickname for Sinafasi. The teen chose the name because her birth name, given to her when her mother was suffering in Congo, means “I have no chance.”

“My mom loves that name, and it was true at the time when she struggled and felt hopeless,” she said. But I am ok with the nickname because I believe, especially now, that I will succeed.”

Becca and her husband, Kim, as well as other committee members, helped the families get acclimated. They took them sightseeing at Mt. Rainier, horseback riding at the beach, and bike riding in Olympia. They have helped them understand laws pertaining to taxes and dependents related to their work paychecks, introduced them to American food, lined up tutors to help with schoolwork as necessary, and read to the parents to help them learn English.

Before long, children in both families started calling the Brandts Grandma and Grandpa. “I feel like they are my real grandparents,” Zawadi said. “I never saw my own.”

It was only fitting, then, that on graduation day, the Brandts drove the graduates, their mothers and their siblings along the Capital High graduate parade route in separate cars, one for Faith and another for Zawadi. They invited them to decorate the cars with balloons, write their names on the windows, and watched proudly as they received their high school diplomas. Zawadi wore a red, yellow and black bracelet — the colors of the Uganda flag — as a symbol of her homeland.

Success at Capital High School
The cousins arrived at their new high school in January 2019, mid-way through their sophomore year. They were determined, they said, to earn all of their course credits and graduate this year. They connected with the school’s English Language (EL) program and spent most of their waking hours attending classes and doing homework. They also landed after-school jobs in 2019 serving residents meals and helping in the kitchen at Capital Place, a senior living community in Olympia.

EL teacher Jill Johnson described Zawadi’s and Faith’s contributions to Capital High School.

“Zawadi's positive attitude was infectious, and her joy for learning and being in school is inspiring,” Johnson said. She described Faith as “one of the most motivated and driven students I have ever worked with.”

Choir teacher Leah Dowers added, “The growth and transformation I have seen in them has been phenomenal. They worked hard despite the language/cultural barriers that they faced, and today you would never know those barriers existed! The two of them have truly left a lasting impression on my heart, and I'm sure many other students in our school, as they are NEVER without joy.”

Math and P.E. teacher Bryan Keister said, “Math was a struggle because our curriculum has a ton of reading and new definitions to learn. English not being their primary language made math much more challenging compared to their peers. Faith and Zawadi took on the challenge with great attitudes and a determination to succeed ... I think I will miss their smiles and good sense of humor most of all. I cannot wait to see what their future holds.”

Awards earned in senior year
AwardsZawadi and Faith are among a handful of Capital High students who earned the Washington State Seal of Biliteracy this year. The seal, earned by passing a test, is stamped on a gold metal medallion and attached to a red, white and blue ribbon that both girls hung around their necks on graduation day. The seal signifies that both students demonstrated proficiency in two languages — Swahili and English.

Both girls also earned a special Capital High School recognition: the “Achieving by Believing” award. The honor is awarded by school counselors and was given to only 13 graduates this year.

“It is to recognize students’ perseverance and tenacity throughout high school,” said counselor Nicole Sande. “I wanted to recognize their dedication this year in finishing their schooling. This was a hard year, but they both did everything they could to succeed.”

What’s next?
Faith and Zawadi plan to learn to drive, become U.S. citizens, and continue working to save enough money to afford a house where their two families can live together comfortably.

They also plan to attend South Puget Sound Community College this fall to study medicine. Zawadi wants to become a medical doctor, and Faith aspires to be a medical assistant.

Graduation day“We want to give back,” Zawadi said, “after living in a place for so many years where there weren’t enough doctors to help people.”

Both of the young women also say they aren’t ruling out the possibility that one day they may return to Uganda to visit family members and friends left behind in the camp.

“We did it,” Zawadi said. Faith added, “We really did it.”


Photos from top to bottom:

  1.  Sinafasi "Faith"  Imani on graduation day (photo courtesy of Kim Brandt)
  2. Faith with her mother, sister and an uncle in Uganda
  3. Zawadi and Faith with Becca Brandt
  4. Washington State Seal of Biliteracy
  5. Zawadi Kezia on graduation day (photo courtesy of Kim Brandt)