When Safalani heard that her family would be traveling to Madison, Wisconsin, her biggest dream was, “I’ll be able to go to school!” Schooling is often interrupted for refugee children, first by their home country crisis, then by a series of moves to neighboring countries and neighborhoods where they might encounter interrupted curriculum, crowded classrooms, or no chance to go to school at all. The time it takes to leave each place wrecks the stair steps of schooling that local students are able to climb. Safalani was only four years old when her family fled Uvira, a city on Lake Tanganyika in the South Kivu Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and ended up in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.
“I want to save people’s lives; it doesn’t matter where.”
“We never lived in a refugee camp,” she explains, “but we lived in a part of the city where most people were refugees.” At age 15, she and her mother, brother, and sister heard they would receive passage to the US. But it wasn’t until she was 19 years old that she actually set foot in Madison West High School as an 11th grader. While she was a few years behind her age-mates, she felt luckier than her older sister who had rarely been able to attend school during the same years.
What was different about Safalani’s new school? She laughs. “Oh so many things!” She was surprised from her very first moments to see how students dressed – ordinary street clothes, not uniforms, and hoodies and tight fitting pants and tops. “I thought, oh, my god, what’s this? I was used to uniforms. Uniforms help others know ‘this is a student. I should respect her.’ “
“It was so hard to make friends,” she says, remembering her first days in the new high school.“ Many of my friends now are also African – they came to Madison from Uganda, the Sudan, Gambia, Burundi, and countries where people speak Swahili and French.” Most of them knew little about the African American experience. Their history teacher talked to them about the meaning of the Black Lives Matter protests. He told them, “You shouldn’t participate in the demonstrations just because other kids are doing it. It needs to be something you believe in.”
“So we did join the first big demonstration. I didn’t know what to write on my placard. In the end I chose to write, instead of ‘Rest in Peace, George Floyd,’ I wrote, ‘Breathe in Peace, George Floyd,’ because he hadn’t been able to breathe.”
When asked what she wants people to know about her, Safalani replies, “I’m very bilingual. I have a lot of confidence. I believe I can do anything as long as I have support. Going through so many different experiences gives you self-confidence. Because of all my family has been through, I think I’m calm and understanding and can take things easy.”
The whole family has worked hard to adjust to living in Madison and make new friends. Safalani’s mom and her sister have worked full-time, Safalani and her teen brother have worked part-time to provide income for their household of six, and all of them share in the care of the baby and toddler. Nonetheless it’s usually with energy and enthusiasm that Safalani and her brother juggle work, school, home commitments and extracurriculars.
What effect has the COVID crisis had on her family? “Well, first of all, our income is much lower. My brother and I lost our part-time weekend jobs when the restaurant closed. About the same time as COVID, my mother lost her job because of a work injury and had to have surgery. So I took a job recently at Goodwill to help.”
More mature than many high schoolers, Safalani has pitched in to make a difference at school as well as home. She helped start a new First Nations Club, and she helps other new, Swahili-speaking students get oriented to West High. Safalani has enjoyed support from her high school counselor and many teachers who suggested opportunities to try. She participated in the Commonwealth business program after school and attended a pre-college academy at UW-Platteville, meeting college students and faculty and other first generation, college-bound students.
As for the future, Safalani would like to go into medicine as a nurse or doctor. “I want to save people’s lives; it doesn’t matter where.”
With great pleasure, ODFR welcomes Safalani and her family to Madison.
By Madeline Uraneck with Margaret Brauer