York, ME, USA

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A Refugee Woman Shares Her Advice to Americans for 2017 : An Interview with Esperance Gikundo

January 3, 2017




Date: New Years Day 2017. 6pm. 

Location: York, Maine. Small Home Office.

Me: Brunette. Old Gloria Steinem T-shirt. Bright Orange Cardigan. New Bangs. 


I sat down at my little wooden desk with a cup of black coffee on New Year's Day. It was raining outside my office window. Immediately, over the sound of the down pour, my phone began to ring. 


Esperance's cell phone number stared back at me on the screen.  I jumped around excitedly, sending coffee flying onto the front of my orange sweater. I placed the cup back down on my desk and brushed coffee drops onto the hard wood floor. 


Smiling, I answer my phone. 


Me: "Hey lady! I'm so happy to hear from you!" 

Esperance: "Me too. You've been so busy. Busy, busy! Miss you." 

Me: "I miss you too. How is Ohio?" 

Esperance: "It's ok. I'm back in school." 

Me:" I thought you just finished school?" 


Esperance laughs playfully.  I can sense her eyes twinkling alongside these contagious giggles. 


Me: "What's so funny?"  I start laughing too. 


Esperance: " Don't you know? I'm addicted to education. I love it. I'll never stop seeking education. You know? Never!" 


I adore her. Last time we were together was in New York. We reminisced about our times in Kenya, mine as a pair of hands and an open heart traveler, and hers, as a strong refugee woman rebuilding and reimagining what was to come next for her life. 


She has never once made me doubt that she is meant to be here, meant to be a light to others and most importantly, meant to be my friend. 


Me: "Ok, let's start this interview you education addict! I really want people to hear your voice as they navigate the coming months, both in the USA and abroad. You ready for this?" 


I can sense her mouth shift to become straight and precise,  serious -looking, on the other end of the phone. 


Esperance: "Ready." So proud, so calm. "What will you ask me?" 




Alyssa: "You told me recently that we must all nurture, protect & empower refugees this year. I love that. What exactly does that look like? Especially for Americans?" 


Esperance: "Yes. Here is what it means. It means finding & knowing the refugees in your community and stopping first to say, 'What do we have in common?' instead of 'How are we different?' I think we must say that out loud to each other today. Be aware of the fact that we judge each other, even when we show up to help. We must show up, ask questions, listen and learn about who we each are. I think Americans can do this better, I think I can do it better, I think you can do it better. And we must." 


Alyssa: " You're completely right. I learned recently that we make seven judgements about someone in the first 11 seconds that we meet them. Isn't that crazy?!" 


Esperance: "Yes and no. We are so use to being each other as 'different' and it is what continue to keep us from being close. We must seek what is similar and we must believe in how that moves us forward, together." 


Alyssa: "Can you talk a little bit about how you have moved forward? Both as a refugee woman but now, as an American here in Ohio?" 


Esperance: "Yes. I can. I came here and I was sewing firefighter's clothing. I did that as a job but HeshimaKenya taught me that more than a job, I need to do work that leads to who I am now and who I am supposed to become. So, I would be doing that job, still, if I were meant to be a seamstress or a designer. But I do not feel called to do that. I feel I know who I am. I have my dreams. I know you get to your dreams with education so I keep getting more education and moving to my dream, which now, is being a social worker to help all displaced persons in the USA." 


Alyssa: " So, first, you're incredible. And I adore you. And second, if someone were to know or meet a refugee who was at that entry level position, just surviving as best they could, what can they say? What can they encourage them to do, if they want to help them find their dream?" 


Esperance: "Encourage education. And not just by nodding your head and agreeing that 'of course, education!'  but by offering resources, knowing what your local resources are and by funding and advocating for it yourself. Also, it's simple but find what you have in common with a refugee or displaced person, love that you have that in common with that person. Nurture it. If you both like art, make art together, If you both like song, sing together. Find opportunities and nurture them. That displaced person could be you at any time. And you can only be, like I was, without family, friends and survive it, if you know a stranger's love." 


Alyssa: "That's really powerful. Thank you for saying that. I feel like we don't say 'love' enough in society." 


Esperance: "I agree! Oh, and I love you." (laughing) 


Alyssa: "I love you, too." (More laughing.) "Ok, so what advice do you give to Americans as they move to get more involved with refugee and immigrant populations this year? We all know the election has put a negative lens on these populations and it is causing many to want to become more supportive to refugee and immigrants." 


Esperance: "Treat them like human beings and be more human yourself. Stop acting like you are not human either. Say what you want to say and be who you need to be. Do not put on airs or act smarter than anyone. Practice kindness and if you work with an organization, ask first what they need, don't say what you want to do. Just show up and be helpful, kind. Also, be humble. I need you and you need me. We are in this together if it is going to work. Let's treat each other, all, the same and just give each other the leg up we all need here." 


Alyssa:" Why do you think Americans, or anyone really, fail to do this well so often?" 


Esperance: " We look for what is wrong or different first. Perhaps it is human nature but we must change that. Be confident in yourself and be confident in being open & vulnerable. Surprise yourself with how good it feels, because I know how good it feels, to build a unexpected friendship. Look at you and me. How would I know you if you never cared enough to know refugee women & girls and how would we still be friends if you shut me out because of how culturally different we are? We are unexpected and right. I think everyone should build new relationships this year that are unexpected and right." 


Alyssa: " Honestly, I just hung out with because you had good fashion sense." (Smirk) 


Esperance: "Be quiet! No you did not. Although, you should. Maybe you need it." 


(Explosive laughter.) 


Alyssa: " Last question: three things someone can do in the next year, both direct or indirect that help refugees here or abroad." 


Esperance: "Say out loud your own struggle. If you have trouble being around displaced persons, immigrants or refugees, name it. Say "I have trouble seeing what we have in common. Can we find what we have in common?" Be strong enough to do that and take what comes next. Risk will guide you as to how you should honestly connect with other human beings. Second, know that we struggle so much due to language. Teach English to refugees or, try to learn a new language yourself this year and appreciate how difficult it is. Refugees whole future depends on this and often, we have little to no support. All my extra money, after I pay for my daughter's needs, goes to this. It matters deeply to me. Lastly, when you talk to a refugee, or in fact, anyone, talk about tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Help others to see a bigger picture and work to see one for yourself too." 


Alyssa: "Any closing comments before this goes to press, my sister?" 




Esperance: "Sure. I ask you, when we talk about the refugee crisis, what is land in it all? I see humanity now, not land. I see human beings, one. I see Kenya, Syria, America, Canada, one. We are all human beings. Doing what I have done for myself, it takes so much courage. But I will courageous and always love humanity, mine and others. I do not love a place or a land. There will be war, rape, violence in certain lands and we must work where we can to change our lives, all of our lives, in a togetherness like never before seen. My inspired place is in my heart, my mind.  So, I will give my love and I will education my mind, it makes me connected to us all, it makes me see us as one.  I will hope that the governments & organizations supporting refugees right now can be brave as I have had to be brave. I hope they do their good work whether or not they ever know more than one story of one life changed. I give of myself to change one life and that one life, or even if it were dozens of lives, does not need to know me. I just do. I do, I make, I love, I learn." 


Alyssa: "Thanks for letting me interview you tonight. I will keep your words beside me all year. I promise." 


Esperance: "You had better! And you had better come hear my words in person in Ohio too." 


Alyssa: "You just want Maine clam chowder from me."  


Esperance: "Yuck, I like chicken. Only chicken." 


Alyssa: "I know. And Coca Cola." 




Esperance: "Yes. Coca Cola." 


Alyssa:" Goodnight my sister. I will call you soon. Stay healthy and out of trouble!" 


Esperance: "You too, sis. Love, love, love." 




I hang up my phone gently.


My thumb barely graces the button and tears begin to well up in my eyes. Although not a refugee myself, I know what it feels like to be unloved and displaced. I pick up my warm coffee cup with both hands and stare softly at the rain outside my window.


The American flag is whipping hard against the winds of the downpour. Although harsh, it reminds me of firm hand clapping. I think about clapping alongside it, offering up a powerful applause to a phone call with a young refugee women in Ohio that gave me a whole new definition of bravery and freedom. 


I place my coffee cup down. I pull down the shade. I stare at my yellow pad filled with quick, wild handwriting. As I look down at each glorious written line of Esperance's voice tonight, a few words stand out powerfully. 


"Surprise yourself with how good it feels to build a unexpected friendship." 


I know this next year, there will be a need for many of us to call out hate & bigotry as it crosses our paths but I also know, that we will often take the high road, building unexpected friendships, doing good no one will ever see and taking phone calls with refugee women who just might remind us that we're probably better off as activists than fashion designers.


Thank you, Esperance.


It's a gift to know you. 

















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