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Refugees in Utah celebrate graduation years after escaping violence at home

First Published      Last Updated Jun 09 2017 11:32 pm


Teens transplanted amid war and violence make their own way and earn their diplomas.

For the first 16 years of Eric Mugisha's life, he lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda.

Mugisha was born there, after his parents and grandparents fled their home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in wake of mass genocide and political unrest. Now, he's graduating from high school in Utah and has dreams of furthering his education and getting a good job.

As he joked and played with friends at Salt Lake City's Jordan Park on Friday night, he looked like a typical American teenager, donning a shimmering gold hat with confidence. The gathering was put on by Catholic Community Services of Utah to honor Mugisha and 13 other high school graduates, along with one person graduating with an associate degree — all of them refugees living in foster homes around the state.




They're thinking about the future, motivated to work even harder by the harsh circumstances of their past Mugisha said.

Mugisha's parents died in the refugee camp, and his grandparents tried to care for him and his two younger sisters. But they were poor, and the amount of food divvied out in monthly rations was really only enough to last about two weeks, Mugisha said. Water was also scarce.

Before he turned 12, he said, he was working to try to earn extra money for himself and his sisters. He'd sneak out of the camp — which was against the rules — to try to earn extra money, knowing those who left the camp ran the risk of being killed or raped if the wrong people caught them. Many of the people who left never returned, he said.

But "we had nothing," he said, so for him, the risk was worth it.

Mugisha's family came to the U.S. in 2014, but his aging grandparents could no longer care for him and his sisters. They were placed in a foster home by Cathtolic Community Services and were given the chance for a future.

Jolly Karungi was another graduate at Friday's celebration. She was 8 or 9 when her family fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and lived for years in a Ugandan refugee camp.

Circumstances at the camp were uncomfortable, she said. She spent her days looking for firewood and remembers seeing rich people who weren't held accountable for their actions because they had money. The roof over the area where refugees slept had holes in it and leaked when it rained.

When she and her siblings got onto a plane almost three years ago, Karungi "had no idea where [she] was going," just that it was "somewhere safe."

She remembers thinking it was "so cold" — she'd never seen snow before. Everything was different in Utah, Karungi said, but she loves it.

She and her younger siblings were placed with a "really nice" foster family. Going to school made her feel more comfortable and confident, Karungi said, and she worked hard to complete four years of work in less than three years — ultimately earning herself a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of Utah.

Because of her background, she said, she hopes to become a judge someday to promote justice.

"Having had to flee their home countries and leaving so much family behind seems like it really helps the kids to focus on their future," said CCS spokeswoman Julianna Potter. "They all have so much hope, but it's because they've survived so much. If they're able to survive that, then what can't they do?"

Most of the children come to CCS as refugees, but some have been victims of human trafficking or have crossed the U.S. border without a guardian and can't return to their home country.

The group graduating this year included teens from Eritria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Berma, Afghanistan and Honduras.

Reza Hussaini fled Afghanistan at age 14 and developed a strong bond with the other children at a refugee camp in Indonesia. He enjoyed the environment and said it was difficult coming to the U.S. alone knowing no English.

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