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Blaise Bigabwa, the unlimited potential of a person

Blaise Bigabwa works with IRC Wichita as a French, Kiswahili, and Kinyarwanda interpreter. On weekday mornings at the IRC office, you can find Blaise sitting behind the front desk on his laptop, ready to assist and interpret for clients who just finished ESL (English as a Second Language) class or accompanying caseworkers to appointments to help with interpretation. Blaise is patient, listens intently, and glides smoothly between speaker and listener as he assesses the situation and paraphrases.

“I like to work with people and to help people. I get to learn something new every day.”

The office environment suits Blaise well, he is able to identify professionalism when he sees it,

“How people are treated at work - there is much respect. If you want to talk to your supervisor, you can just go to their office and talk to them. In Africa, you have to make multiple requests, write letters, submit, and wait- just to ask a question.”

The differences between living in Wichita and where he has come from, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Burundi (Central Africa) are not just limited to concrete aspects like workplace environment. Blaise considers more abstract concepts such as freedom and peace, which he has experienced here. Blaise was only twelve years old when war in the DRC broke out. He was with his mother, three sisters, and brother when they all had to run from their home and were temporarily displaced, traveling on foot for refuge until they were in danger again.

“At night time, we slept. In the morning, we walked. One day, we were outside, and it was between eight and ten at night when there was suddenly a lot of shooting, and everybody ran. We lost three family members, my two older sisters and my brother. Suddenly, it was just me, my sister, and my mother. When we came back to Congo, we still couldn’t find them.

“The whole time, my dad was working [in construction]. He sent a letter to someone, it said, ‘Hey, I’m in Burundi, I’m alive, but I don’t know how I can come back to Congo, because everywhere is closed.’

“At that time, Congo had closed its borders and killed anyone who tried to come in or left. The situation was very bad.

”So my mother said, ‘Let’s go to Burundi’. But we didn’t have documents, so she paid Coyotes to take us. We met them at a river, where they brought us on boats, and onto a river that connects Congo to Burundi. That’s how we left to Burundi. Every morning, we would walk to a construction company and wait outside the gates, looking for my father until all the workers left. It took us a month until one day, we found him. When we found him, we were so happy, but he had asked, ‘Why is there only 3 of you?’ And we told him the situation.

“We stayed in Burundi with my father and started a new life there. In 2013, some people called us and said they saw our brother and two sisters in Congo. But we were already in the UNHCR process. When we tried to add them, we were told it was too late. So, now they are in Burundi with my father, and we just have to hope. Maybe our family will be reunited someday.”

Blaise displays a quiet strength and resilience when he tells his story. Perhaps this resiliency is what led him to carry out his charitable work in Burundi as a leader in the Association des Scouts du Burundi, a national scouting organization of Burundi. Blaise led twenty-five people on mission trips paid through monthly contributions from members. The group coordinated donation and recycling programs for shoes, clothing, school supplies, and more. They would dedicate themselves to an area each week, and stay on-base to build houses with their collective expertise.

“When we didn’t have money, we used our ‘force’ to build houses. Some people are homeless, with no place to sleep, nobody to help them, or money to pay rent. We had engineers in construction. Myself, I am skilled in electrical engineering. We built probably around fifteen houses.”

Will Blaise’s apparent resourcefulness and ingenuity be maximized for his and his employers’ benefit? Time will tell, but there’s no doubt Blaise could use all the support he can get.

“I didn’t finish my degree in Electrical Engineering in Burundi, because I left and was not able to finish. But I hope to get my GED, and continue to learn about Electrical Engineering, while working as an interpreter for IRC. I have a wife and nine month old daughter in Burundi; I am working to bring over.

“It is a challenge, refugees struggle to find balance between work and school. They go to work, but then they have no time to learn English, or to get more education, and further career.”

Blaise is up for the challenge. He’s in it for the long game, seeing the way forward not just for himself but others.

“I want to continue helping refugees here in the U.S., I think skilled or more experienced refugees can help new and incoming refugees learn things like English, computer literacy, to help them get connected and get a job.”

Blaise sees himself as a part of the equation to solve the opportunity gap for refugees, serving as a reminder for IRC staff and all those who meet him of the unlimited potential of a person for multiple impact, and of why we do the work we do.