|Editor’s Note: Places of Refuge is a series focusing on refugee students and their journeys, their new lives and hopes for a future in West Michigan, and the many ways schools and community organizations are working to meet their needs.|
By Erin Albanese
Sixth grade teacher Rebecca Bing remembers a particularly tough day at school. She walked down the hall, feeling a little tired and pensive. Suddenly, Toussaint Melchsedek passed by, a big smile on his face, and said, “Jambo!”
“All of a sudden I felt so happy,” she told Toussaint, a sixth-grader, and Tito Ekundat, a fifth-grader, of the memory. “Whenever you guys talk to me it reminds me of home, and it makes me feel so thankful that I get to work here and that I get to speak with you guys.”
At Wyoming Intermediate School, “Jambo!” brings about lots of smiles. Whenever Bing sees Toussaint or Tito, they all wave with two hands and yell the Swahili greeting. Bing often has candy on hand for Tito, who has a sweet tooth.
“It’s candy, hugs and ‘Jambo!'” said Bing, with a laugh.
Toussaint and Tito are refugee children from the Congo region, which is made up of two war-torn countries along the Congo River in Central Africa. They immigrated to the U.S. with their families after living in refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania. This is Toussaint’s second year as a Wyoming student and Tito’s first. The boys speak Swahili and tribal languages, and have found a connection with Bing, who was raised in Africa by missionary parents.
Bing, who still calls Africa home, speaks Swahili, recently honing the language she had set aside for 17 years to help Toussaint and Tito. While they all speak different forms of the language, the trio is able to converse about school, sports, family life and much more.
“We make it work, don’t we?” Bing said to the boys.
Bing helps provide communication to the boys’ parents. She led the effort to have the families fill out Christmas wish lists that led to many donations of toys and clothes from staff members. Toussaint, who speaks much more English than Tito, also helps translate for his younger friend.
“She’s so helpful,” said EL teacher Marissa Bliss about Bing’s work with the boys’ parents. “We’ve been able to communicate with the families. Having her experience and background builds the trust with them too. We’ve had a lot of success getting communication to the family. It makes a big difference.”
Bonding Over ‘Home’
Bing, who has taught in Wyoming Public Schools since 2014, was raised in Maryland until sixth grade, when she moved to Africa with her parents, Dale and Carol Linton, missionary teachers at an international school in Ethiopia and Kenya. Africa became Bing’s home until she returned to attend Hope College. “My memories are so rich… I loved the culture; I loved interacting with the people and all the friends I made. I really acclimated well to that being my home.”
Tito and Toussaint are getting used to their new home in the U.S., and share lots of good news with Bing. Toussaint recently learned to ride a bike, a skill he talks about with pride. He also likes being able to take hot showers, the changing seasons and that “we have money,” he said. He has learned to speak English and to read.
“I like America because you always have food and there’s no hunger. In Africa you have hunger,” he said.
Tito loves soccer and his house, and is clearly adored by his classmates, some of whom are also working to learn basic Swahili.
Bing remembers experiencing culture shock when she returned to the U.S. in 2000. She didn’t know what the internet was, hadn’t learned to drive and had forgotten about everyday American particulars, like that stores have automatic doors. “I was so out of tune with my age group,” she said.
At Wyoming Intermediate, Tito and Toussaint’s peers are happy to spend time getting to know the boys. “Students are very welcoming and eager to learn about your culture and to share,” Bing said. “It’s a great place to have that initial school experience…It welcomes that diversity.”
Tito and Toussaint remind Bing of her own childhood and the friends she made across the globe years ago. “I think it is just the biggest blessing to be able to work here and it’s so neat to see how it all comes together. It’s such a joy for me to come to school and see how little bits of that prior life come into my work life. I get to use (a language) I haven’t used in such a long time and interact with people from my homeland.”