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Rolly: From unschooled refugee to college-bound scholar, this Utahn is raising her siblings while pursuing the American dream

First Published      Last Updated Jul 03 2017 10:53 pm


Teen girl who came to the U.S. with her family after a year in a refugee camp is bound for college.

As Americans celebrate the 241st birthday of their nation's independence and the United States' emergence as a melting pot and haven for millions worldwide, don't forget the potential of immigrants and refugees still crossing our borders.

Take Amandine Akimana, for example. She came to the United States as a 9-year-old after spending a year in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where her family members had fled to escape the brutal civil war in their native Burundi.

Life was tough and uncertain in the camp, whose inhabitants were separated from much of the world — and the dangers surrounding them — by a large fence.




Because of the brutality caused by the murderous feuds between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi, Amandine could not go to school and had no formal education when her family of eight arrived in Utah.

"We didn't know which city we were going to go to," she told me in a recent interview. "We were assigned to come to Salt Lake City."

She had received some math and other basic learning at home, but when she entered the fourth grade at Hawthorne Elementary School, she didn't speak a lick of English.

Thanks to her hard work and support from her teachers through special programs, she advanced through school and mastered English by the time she entered East High. There, she was placed in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, a global nonprofit that trains instructors how to work with disadvantaged students who would be the first in their families to attend college.

After her arrival in the United States, Amandine would face the biggest challenge of her life: losing her mother in 2010 and her dad in 2016. Still, she persevered.

The six children have remained together — four of them are still minors and going to school. They are getting by with Amandine and her older brother, Mugisha, holding down jobs to support the family.

"Her parents wanted opportunity for their children, and Amandine honors their sacrifices with her hard work and dedication," said Cate Praggastis, the AVID instructor at East High who became a friend and mentor.

"In AVID," Amandine, 19, said, "they give us the tutoring we need, teach us how to apply to college and work with our other teachers."

Her best class in her senior year was college-level math, she said, although she fared well in all her subjects, graduating with a 3.66 GPA.

Praggastis nominated Amandine for the Salt Lake City Exchange Club's Accepting the Challenge of Excellence Award, which she won, earning a $500 scholarship. She went on to earn the club's Rocky Mountain District competition, which gave her another $1,000 toward college.

With the help of Praggastis, Amandine has received modest scholarships from the Rotary Club and other sources as well.

Amandine is working at a telemarketing firm this summer and still trying to save enough to attend the University of Utah, where she plans to major in business and, eventually, go to law school.

Praggastis says she has financial sources lined up to get Amandine through the first year at the U. After that, it's uncertain. Amandine's backup plan is the more-affordable Salt Lake Community College.

Either way, the young scholar started out an uneducated child in an African refugee camp and is now a college-bound achiever, the result of her own drive and the help of dedicated teachers.

She IS the American dream.

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