Student, Teacher, Wife, Mother, Volunteer….Refugee

The Flag of Uganda

Fawzia Riji came to America as a refugee at the tender age of eight. Due to this, she has a unique perspective on the struggles of the refugees who are trying to adjust to the Fargo community-she has personally seen the fears and challenges that must be gone through in order to find safety in America. In an effort to give back to the Fargo community and help refugees, Fawzia has found a passion volunteering for the Wellness & Empowerment Center. Her compassion is shown through patience when helping the refugees do tasks such as learning to speak English. She reassures them that “they will get there eventually” when they are struggling to grasp the language. Fawzia gets a great sense of happiness and accomplishment from the small victories she see amongst the refugees. When looking to the future of the WE Center she couldn’t highlight the need for volunteers enough. Fawzia gives as much of her time as she possibly can to volunteering but still wishes she could do more. She says she wishes there were more volunteers to match the growing number of people wanting to learn and that even a small amount of your time could make a huge difference for those who are struggling. It was inspiring to hear about her gratitude for those who are willing to help and work with those coming in from different countries. Fawzia insisted that there are a lot of people who are kindhearted in the Fargo area and they are paving the way for a welcoming community. As she stated, “Giving back is always important, but I most enjoy the connection I have with the people.”

This compassion and need to give back likely developed as Fawzia made her own difficult journey to the United States as her family fled from a war torn country.  Her story begins in 1991 where she was born in Sudan. Unlike most small children who begin their childhood playing games and discovering new things, Fawzia’s was wrecked with turmoil.  At a very young age her country became violently affected by civil war. During this chaotic time, Fawzia’s father was taken by the war in the Sudan never to be seen again, “My father died in the war..Well actually we just never saw him again but when that happens in the civil war it’s just assumed that they died,” Fawzia says with the straightforward assertiveness.  It is this attitude that served her well as she made the transition from Africa to America. The start of this transition began when her family moved from the Sudan to Uganda. Fawzia was too young to remember the Sudan but Uganda became her home. She recalls the warmth of the sun and family gatherings, the delicious food and wonderful friends.  Unfortunately, her brief oasis was short-lived her family again had to move, this time to Kenya.  Fawzia’s older sister had made it to the United States for her education and it was during this same time that the rest of her family had relocated to Kenya.  It was becoming evident that the family needed to leave the country and so it was up to Fawzia’s sister to make that happen. This process is much easier said than done and takes many resources to accomplish.  First, Fawzia’s sister was faced with the task of finding her family in a war torn country before she could begin tackling the countless other challenges she faced on the long road to getting her family to safety.  Not only is transferring refugees a heavy financial burden but those responsible must also navigate through mounds of paperwork full of complicated governmental jargon. This would prove to be a difficult challenge for a native English speaker, let alone someone who does not share it as their first language.

Once the finances and paperwork were complete, Fawzia and her family still had to undergo rigorous interviews, health exams and background checks before being allowed into their new country. Finally after 2 years of challenges and setbacks young Fawzia, her siblings and mother were on their way to Fargo, North Dakota. Imagine coming to a new place far from anything you knew that was familiar.  Now imagine that place was Fargo, ND in January. She looks back to that new and scary time in her small 8 year old life when the plane first touched down, “when we first got to Hector airport they gave us heavy coats I didn’t know why but they told us that we would need them.  When I first saw the snow I held onto my mother and asked “is that sugar?”  The bleakness of the traditional North Dakota white out winter scared Fawzia most, but it wasn’t long before she was making new positive memories in her new home. Due to the unstable atmosphere of her home country, Fawzia had not yet started school when she came to America.  Nonetheless she was permitted to enter the 1st grade halfway through the term and from there continued with her class as normal, graduating high school easily despite starting her education late.  From there Fawzia continued her education, receiving her bachelor’s degree and soon after entering graduate school to earn her master’s degree in composition.

The Ugandan Landscape
The Ugandan Landscape

Today, Fawzia’s life is filled with a different kind of stress. The man that would later become Fawzia’s husband remained in Africa, going through the same arduous process that she did so many years before. Being on the other side of things was no less stressful for Fawzia. Working long hours to earn enough money to bring him over to America to be with her was not an easy task while at the same time she pursued a B.S. in English and Human Development and Family Science with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. All the longs hours paid off, with her husband eventually immigrating to the United States. They married in 2011 back in Africa. In May of 2014 she graduated from North Dakota State University. Shortly after graduating she gave birth to a baby boy.

Her main concern is no longer safety, but rather time. Like most Americans, especially college students, Fawzia juggles a lot of roles. She is a graduate student and teacher, mother and wife, and a practicing Muslim, all while also trying to find time to give back to the Fargo refugee community. When asked about what she does for fun, Fawzia was unable to give an answer. Fun is not a word Fawzia uses to describe her own life. Her grueling course load as a graduate student–she is taking ten credits despite conventional wisdom telling her not to–leaves little time for fun. Add in grading papers, exams, and preparing lesson plans, and you have what many people would consider a busy life. However, life does not stop at just academia for Fawzia. She is also a loving mother to a little boy and devout to both her husband and her faith. With everything Fawzia is involved with jockeying for her time and effort, she says that if she can get “One or two hours of sleep” then that will be enough. This all makes it ever so special when she is able to sit down and eat breakfast with her son on the weekend. This simple moment, a moment most Americans would overlook, is something she cherishes.

Written by North Dakota State University English students Jensina Davis, Jessica Heuer, and Zachary Liu

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