Country of Origin: Burundi
Current Location: Portland, Ore.
Wilson Kubwayo knows what it’s like to live in a house with no bathroom, no lights, and no electricity. He knows what it’s like to walk barefoot for miles to get water.
“I had to go through a lot of healing to be able to admit that I came from a refugee camp,” says Kubwayo, 24, who fled his home country of Burundi during its civil war with his family.
Most people don’t want to talk about being a refugee, but he doesn’t want to forget.
“When you lose those values [of acknowledging one’s past] as a refugee or an immigrant, when you lose that, it’s almost like you’re losing your self identity,” he says. “You’re losing everything you have… That kind of experience is still what builds me.”
Kubwayo and his family were granted asylum in the U.S., but resettlement came with significant culture shock. He described one vivid memory from middle school, when he was eating an apple in a hallway after lunch. It turned out he was breaking school rules, and a teacher told him to throw the apple away.
“I was like, how could you tell me to throw food away in the garbage? There are thousands of students my age who don’t have food around the world. And the teacher didn’t think about that,” he says. “Nobody tried to understand why somebody was doing what they were doing.”
Kubwayo wonders if things would have been different if he had role models who were refugees. To him, the power of having refugee role models is immeasurable, for both the refugee community as well as others.
“[Refugees] have to have enough confidence to be able to embrace where they are coming from so that they can educate the other people,” says Kubwayo. “It’s all about sharing who you are at the end of the day so that they can understand.”