Kibiriti Majuto ’21 ate his first apple in Tanzania.
Majuto was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but fled as a refugee with his family due to violence in the country. Majuto and his family traveled from Congo to Cape Town, South Africa, and eventually they were granted safe passage to the United States. He spent time in a number of different countries during his family’s journey.
When Majuto picked up a green fruit in Tanzania, partway through his path to safety, he didn’t yet know the English word for it.
“It felt foreign, it felt very strange,” Majuto said. “I just ate a random fruit, and I never knew what it was. … I liked it.”
Only when Majuto reached Cape Town, where English was more commonly spoken, did he learn the English name of the fruit he had eaten — and encounter an abundance of it.
“When I arrived in Cape Town, there were so many apples that we couldn’t believe it,” Majuto said. “Then, the word apple came to my vocabulary.”
Majuto’s father had to flee Congo when Majuto was very young due to violence in the country; Majuto did not see him for several years, until he made the journey with his mother and siblings to Cape Town in 2008.
“The whole journey, in a way, was to reconnect with our father,” Majuto said. “When I was really young, we got separated with our dad, and then we found out he was in Cape Town. He sent money for us to come, and then we started our journey.”
Memories of Majuto’s journey are colored by the crossing of borders; his family passed through Burundi, Tanzania and Mozambique to reach South Africa. He and his family hitchhiked, bused and walked, searching for places to stay and sleep along the way.
“It can be very dangerous; we stayed out most of the time, sleeping out,” Majuto said. “Some places, we had people we knew, so we could stay with them, but some places, we didn’t.”
One experience in particular jumps out at Majuto: his family was stopped by border patrol while crossing from Mozambique into South Africa.
“We were so close to crossing the border to enter South Africa, but we got stopped,” Majuto said. “They were telling us to go back; we’d come so far, and we were like, ‘No, we can’t go back, why are you telling us to go back?”
In Majuto’s situation, the kindness of a stranger ended up being his saving grace. A man also passing into South Africa intervened, telling the border patrol that Majuto and his family were allowed to go through.
“This random person was like, ‘No, these people are with me, they can come with me,’” Majuto said. “He took us to his village, where we stayed for a couple of nights, and he fed us everything. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Reuniting with his father after several years was an interesting experience for Majuto since he had very few memories of their relationship.
“I didn’t know him, so I don’t know how I would describe the feeling,” Majuto said. “I just didn’t feel any form of emotion, like when you see a stranger. But I could tell it was my dad because he looked just like me; it was definitely my spitting image.”
Once in Cape Town, Majuto and his family went through an interview and medical exam as part of the resettlement process. Then, they participated in cultural training to learn about life in America.
“That’s how I knew that Americans drive, American kids take the bus to go to school, that’s how I knew about snow in America,” Majuto said. “This was all in Swahili; you learn about your typical American culture things — like, if you are trying to come to America, here are the things you would have to be aware of to resettle into this country.”
Majuto spoke to the importance of perseverance throughout resettlement.
“People who are refugees have patience,” Majuto said. “If you’re going to go through this whole process, you need to stand in line for a long time. Standing in line at the Department of Home Affairs in South Africa, the line stretched for miles. People were just waiting in line to see if they could get through the gate, not even having an appointment with an immigration worker. You need a lot of patience to be a refugee, and determination.”
A representative from the International Organization for Migration was present on the day of Majuto’s flight from Cape Town.
Majuto and his family were given a bag from the IOM to carry during the flight so that representatives could identify them at each stop on their journey and bring them to the next gate. After flying from Cape Town to London and then to New York, Majuto’s family met representatives from the Department of Homeland Security who completed their paperwork for them.
The next day, they flew from New York to Charlottesville, VA — their new home. Majuto and his family resettled in Charlottesville in November, 2012.
Majuto thinks that Charlottesville’s smaller size made his family’s transition to life in America slightly easier.
“I feel like Charlottesville is a really great size where you can build or find a community,” Majuto said. “I really feel like being resettled in Charlottesville is not the same as being resettled in Seattle or New York for so many reasons. I’m sure you can find that community in New York, but it would be much harder in a massive city.”
The International Rescue Committee helped Majuto’s family once they arrived in Charlottesville, providing aid with schooling and answering any remaining questions.
Most importantly, they played a pivotal role in creating connections between Majuto’s family and other Congolese refugees.
“The first day at the airport, they had a Congolese family come that welcomed us at the airport,” Majuto said. “Just being able to have that family that greets you at the airport and can also connect you to different members of the community and can help you find things that you might need, whether it’s trying to find a mosque or just trying to find a place to buy food … that was very important.”
Joining a community of Congolese people in America allowed Majuto to find a sense of familiarity in a new environment.
“Finding that community of Congolese people who can speak Swahili was really helpful and beneficial because it allowed for, you know, somebody who can relate, who has been in the same shoes,” Majuto said. “When you can speak a language, and you move somewhere, and somebody can speak that same language, it’s much easier to transition and understand what you got yourself into.”
One of the largest shifts Majuto experienced in Charlottesville was the change in language. Due to the amount of time he spent in Cape Town, Majuto can speak English, as do some of his siblings, but he had to help his parents with some of the translation work.
“Helping translating papers, being at doctor’s meetings and helping them with that, … trying to help your family navigate institutions as a whole was always challenging,” Majuto said.
Majuto noticed differences in the education system once he began middle school in Charlottesville, particularly when it came to standardized testing.
“I wouldn’t say it was hard compared to many of my other foreign friends who came to the United States, but things like the SOLs, just getting used to the way the institution worked was, at the beginning, very challenging,” Majuto said. “I guess that’s with everything, when you move from one place to another.”
Majuto attended Charlottesville High School and went to Piedmont Virginia Community College for two years before transferring to the College of William and Mary. Similar to the city of Charlottesville, the size of the College appealed to Majuto, motivating him to apply.
“I wanted to apply here because of the academia, but it was a small school too, and I wanted to go to a small school,” Majuto said. “I didn’t want to leave the state, and a lot of the state schools are massive.”
When asked if he feels that the College provides a welcoming environment for students who are refugees, Majuto says he isn’t sure, because his refugee status isn’t an aspect of his identity that is openly visible to others.
“That’s a hard question for me to answer, because in a way, being a refugee is not an identity that is shown; you cannot see it,” Majuto said. “It is not the first thing that you would know about me when you see me. You can be visibly Muslim, and people can see that identity, whereas being a refugee, you can hide that identity, and nobody would ever figure it out.”
Majuto says that people he has talked to on campus about his experiences as a refugee have been very supportive. He wishes that people understood that becoming a refugee or asylee isn’t a choice; for many people, there is no other option.
“I didn’t decide to become a refugee; my parents wanted me to be safe, so they moved me out of an unsafe situation,” Majuto said. “It’s not a choice that most people make; you have no other option but to leave, so what can you do?”
Majuto feels that the current political climate has led to the spread of misconceptions and misinformation surrounding refugees.
“Especially under the time we’re in, I think one cannot hide the fact that there is a lot of anti-refugee, anti-asylum-seeking sentiment going on and especially at the federal level,” Majuto said. “That’s something that cannot be ignored, when this administration is killing the asylum process for people to come to the United States through the proper channels.”
The current administration recently changed the application process for the diversity visa—a program that makes a certain amount of immigrant visas available annually for countries with low immigrant numbers in the last five years—, now requiring applicants to submit a passport in order to apply for the diversity visa lottery. Majuto feels that this new restriction sets limits on the immigration process.
“That’s literally saying, ‘We don’t want specific people to come to this country,’ because so many people do not have access to a passport,” Majuto said. “Just imagine, if you are Congolese living in Uvira, it’ll be nearly impossible to get a passport, because one, how are you ever going to find transportation to go to Kinshasa? Having a passport, that’s a very privileged thing for many people around the global south especially.”
Majuto says that students looking for ways to support refugees should donate to grassroots organizations that work with migrants to provide aid, as well as support the William and Mary Refugee Student Support Fund. He also encourages students to advocate for refugees seeking asylum.
“Being on the frontline, in solidarity, with people who are either being deported or not gaining access to the proper channels when the proper channels are made impossible to be accessed, and voicing that anger that that shouldn’t be the case, is a very important thing,” Majuto said. “Supporting migrants, whether it’s on the southern borders or abroad, is very critical.”
Majuto emphasized the importance of support for refugee and asylees at an institutional level, especially because of the power dynamics that exist in many large-scale organizations.
“Somebody in the street telling me to go back home or somebody in the shop telling me that I don’t belong here does not have as much power as an institution, where there’s a lot of power relations at play,” Majuto said.
At an administrative level, Majuto feels that the College can support refugee students by taking a more public stance of support, particularly in the case of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.
“Advocating for in-state tuition, for instance, for DACA recipients, is something that I could see the administration being active players in,” Majuto said. “When the school is backing something, that’s very, very powerful. I could see the administration playing that role.”
Majuto feels that issues regarding immigration are highly current and it’s important for both students and institutions to take a firm stand.
“There’s kids being locked down at the southern border — what’s the school’s stance on speaking against injustice like that, when it’s happening right at our backyards?” Majuto said. “These aren’t things that happened a century ago; this is happening now.”