Life in an unfamiliar place has brought the blessings of safety and friendship along with the trials of isolation and adjustment for 40 people who began arriving in Chattanooga three months ago from their homes a world away.
"The beginning is always hard," said Isaac Toyi, an African refugee, through interpreter Monira Gicakara. "But I'm grateful to be in America, and I want to study really hard to speak good English."
As many as 10,000 Burundian refugees from a Hutu camp in Tanzania are being resettled in the United States this year. About 40 of them, 14 families with 17 children, have moved to Chattanooga, according to resettlement officials.
"Considering that they didn't know any English when they came to the U.S., or modern technology, I think they are doing great in resettling," said Angel Berry, case manager with Bridge Refugee Services.
The refugees have had to learn how to use things most of them never had seen before such as a television, a stove and a refrigerator. Ms. Berry said finding employment for the refugees has been the biggest challenge so far, "but it seems to be getting better."
Some of the families will celebrate their first Thanksgiving today in their adopted home with their co-sponsors, church members and college students who have been tutoring them.
"I've had a bad childhood, a bad life, but God has protected me," refugee Saleh Imfura said. "I never thought I would live in America."
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Isaac Toyi and Fabiola Niyonzima, two of the Burundi refugees, met in the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport three months ago and fell instantly in love, they said.
When they first met, Ms. Niyonzima, 35, said she felt butterflies in her stomach.
Mr. Toyi, 23, said he had seen Ms. Niyonzima in Africa, but they had never actually met or spoken to each other.
"Although we were from different camps, people would sometimes visit each other and I knew her because she is a gospel singer," he said through Ms. Gicakara, the interpreter.
The couple said they've only known each other for a short period of time, but couldn't wait to wed. On Saturday, they married at the East Ridge Presbyterian Church with the help of church co-sponsors and the other refugees who prepared a traditional African meal.
Shonda Caines, case manager with the Bridge Refugee Services, helped the couple organize the wedding.
"The first thing they told me was that they wanted an American wedding," she said. "So we had the white dress, the tuxedo, red flowers, and the whole deal."
Now that they're married and living in Mr. Toyi's apartment, they said their main goal is to work to support the children God will eventually send them.
"Living in America is not cheap," Ms. Niyonzima said. "We need to work really hard to buy the things we want and hopefully save enough money to buy a small home to raise our children."
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Lucie Senga and Saleh Imfura, who arrived in Chattanooga in August, have learned some English, have their own furnished apartment, and Mr. Imfura has found a job.
"At first the weather was too hot, and not speaking English was very hard, but we're adjusting now with the help of them," Ms. Senga said, pointing to their tutors.
Mary Jane and Pat McKinsey, retired educators, started helping the couple in September.
"We wanted to help in some way ... but they (Ms. Senga and Mr. Imfura) have become our friends," Ms. McKinsey said. "We have them over for dinner, take them grocery shopping, to the bank ... I have never known anyone to learn as fast as these two have. They're amazing."
The refugees' apartment at the College Hill Courts public housing development is neatly decorated with pictures of themselves and the McKinseys, two couches, a television set and a coffee table.
Ms. Senga said she hopes to someday buy a house.
"This is beautiful, is good, but I want my own house," she said.
Her husband recently began working at McCallie School in the maintenance department. After Mr. McKinsey helped Mr. Imfura learn to drive, he obtained his driver's license and received a car donated to Bridge Refugee Services.
Ms. Senga wants to continue English classes and go to nursing school. Mr. Imfura said he eventually wants to be a bus driver, since he used to be a mechanic and taxi driver in Africa.
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Veronica Niyibigira was the first refugee to arrive in Chattanooga on July 4 with her then 4-year-old grandson, Eric.
Ms. Niyibigira, 38, has settled in College Hill Courts and is attending English classes.
Eric started school this year at East Side Elementary when he turned 5, but his grandmother said he wasn't ready for kindergarten. She enrolled him at Newton Child Development Center.
During the orientation, Ms. Niyibigira put her hands on her face and smiled as she told the center's director, Madeline Swanson, through an interpreter, that she was very grateful to the center for accepting her grandson.
Tamu Nash, Eric's teacher at the center, said he's doing very well so far.
"He usually repeats what the other kids say in English and even tells me when he needs to go to the bathroom," she said. "I think he'll pick up everything pretty fast."
Ms. Niyibigira said although she likes life in America, she feels lonely because her husband stayed behind in the refugee camp. She said her husband is a fisherman who was lost at sea when she started processing her refugee paperwork.
"I didn't know if he was still alive or not," she said through Ms. Gicakara. "...When my papers got processed, I found out he was coming back, but it was too late."
Marina Peshterianu, a caseworker with Bridge Services, said the organization has requested that Ms. Niyibigira's husband be allowed to come to live with her, but it could take up to two years before U.S. immigration officials make a decision.
Although she attends English classes, Ms. Niyibigira said she still has a long way to go and is frustrated at times because she still doesn't have a job.
Ms. Peshterianu said finding a job for Ms. Niyibigira has been challenging because of the language barrier and because of her grandson.
"We also have to find her a job that works with her schedule ... she has a kid she can't just leave home at night," Ms. Peshterianu said.
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Evode Manirakiza, his wife Rosemary Nyabenda and their four children moved to Chattanooga on July 10. Since then, school officials say the children are adapting well, and Mr. Manirakiza was one of the first refugees to get a job.
Mr. Manirakiza has worked in the cafeteria of the Girls Preparatory School for about three months baking cookies and bread and doing kitchen chores.
He said through Ms. Gicakara, the interpreter, that it's a great feeling to be able to provide for his family, although at the beginning he said it confused him to receive a paper check and not actual money, as he did in Africa.
Ms. Peshterianu said refugees' first employers are essential to their development in the United States.
"More than an employer, they need someone who's going to take the time to teach and explain to them the job and the American ways," she said. "We need for them a dedicated person who's not going to be only an employer, but who's going to help them."
GPS Production Chef Rick Wright said it was a big commitment to hire Mr. Manirakiza since he didn't know what the basic tools were, such as a dishwasher and the potato peeler, "but when you train someone everybody benefits from it, especially when the person needs the skill to survive."
Mr. Manirakiza still finds the language barrier difficult.
For example, he said his boss had asked him once for garlic bread, but it took him three trips to find that particular type of bread.
"There are so many types of bread, it's hard to know which one they're asking for," he said, "and it's frustrating."
GPS Cafeteria Chef Tom Goetz said he would like to know what his employee is feeling, while Mr. Manirakiza said he wishes he could express himself and tell them what he's thinking.
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When refugee Alphonce Kinyata Habonimana arrived here is July, he felt like he would never learn English. Now, the ninth-grade student at Red Bank High School hopes to learn the language in five years.
When Alphonce started school, he felt completely lost.
Now the 16-year-old has a few friends in school, among them a Hispanic boy who doesn't speak English, either.
"I use the little English I know and hand gestures to try to talk to them," he said through Ms. Gicakara, the interpreter.
Although he still has a long way to go to be completely fluent in English, Alphonce has received As and Bs in his English as a Second Language classes. He gets help with his homework at an after-school program run by the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga.
The arrival of three other Burundi refugee teenagers, who now attend school with him, has helped Alphonce to better adapt to the new system.
"Sometimes I help them because I've been here longer, and sometimes they help me," he said.
Michael Schulson, a senior at Baylor School, has been helping Alphonce at the YMCA.
"I try to talk to them (Alphonce and the other three refugees) and help with their homework, but it hasn't been an easy task," he said. "It has made me think a lot about English and how hard it is (to learn it) coming from a different country."
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...