By Alicia Harding
When I work out in the area overlooking the pool at the Portland YMCA I notice Nolasque Israbahenda, the swimming instructor. He greets each child coming into the pool area with a smile and big hello that says, “Hey, special person, happy you’re here.” I watch him going out of his way to help adjust a life jacket or to make sure each swimmer’s needs are being met. He radiates a cheerful friendliness.
On first meeting I would never have guessed that here is a man old enough to have a son in college. Everything about him–his slender physique, nearly beardless chin and, of course, his terrific smile–suggests a much younger man. When I had the opportunity to speak with him I revised that first impression to include a man of substance who has led a complicated and full life.
He readily agreed to talk to me. As with any American, my first question (after struggling with the spelling of his name) is “Where are you from?”
Burundi is a small landlocked country in the heart of Africa with a population of 10 million. It was once part of what was called the Belgian Congo, as was Rwanda. Both countries suffer from similar problems. They share similar languages, the same tribal groupings, and the legacy of a brutal imperialistic ruler. (Quite possibly King Leopold gets the award for being the most inhumane sovereign in colonial history–a not-much-coveted award for which their were many contenders.)
Burundi is a poster child for all the problems that beleaguer Africa today. It has a one-crop economy dependent on world prices of coffee and tea, out-of- control population growth (almost half the population is under the age of 15), an infant death rate of 6.9% (Germany .034, U.S. .06, England .04), and a per capita income of $900 per year. That’s about .43/hr. based on a 40-hour workweek. Burundi’s ranking is 180 out of possible 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index (U.S 5, Norway 1).
Mr. Israbahenda came here seeking sanctuary from war. While he says there are no conflicting ethnic groups in Burundi (“one Burundi, one language”), the continuing violence counters this optimistic view. The first democratically elected president was assassinated after only 3 months in office, throwing the country into a prolonged civil war between Hutu and Tutsi peoples. The current president thwarted the constitution when he was elected for a third term. Assassinations continue to plague the government.
While we who were born in the U.S. tend to see all immigrants from Africa as having the same experiences, that is not the case at all. Mr. Israbahenda’s situation is much different from that of many Africans. He came here three years ago with his wife and three sons, not as a refugee, he said, but seeking political asylum. Many immigrants have spent long years in refugee camps and had very few educational or economic opportunities. Mr. Israhabenda has a university education and once held a good job in the financial office of a multinational nonprofit company. He brings with him strong computer and math skills.
His job here is of a very different nature. He is likely the only lifeguard in the state who has a degree in economics. Mr. Israbahenda speaks three languages–Kirundi, French, and English–but limited fluency in spoken English is an enormous barrier to getting a job. Few immigrants are able to work in the field for which they were trained in their native countries. Building on what had been his volunteer interest in Burundi, Mr. Israhabenda took the job at the Y.
He does not dwell on problems of adjusting to a new country, possibly because he lived in a city, the capital, Bujambar, and cities tend to have a universal similarity. Burundi has a rural economy so it is not surprising that, as Mr. Israhabenda says, there was more natural food available, but it is similar to what we eat, although prepared differently.
He is very interested in the neighborhood and would be open to being involved in the Bayside Neighborhood Association when his work schedule permits. His concerns are the problems of young people smoking and not giving their full attention to school and of the lack of parental involvement in their children’s education. His advocacy for the Y–“They have lots of good programs”– as a valuable alternative for these kids and for all children might be one solution
During the course of our talk Mr. Israhabenda repeatedly told me how kind people are in the U.S.. His answer when I asked what surprised him about this country? “There are so many dogs.”
If you see Mr. Israhabenda out and about, take a moment to say hello. You will be well rewarded by meeting a person worth knowing.