From Rwanda to Syracuse: refugee youth aim for success in university

After facing intense danger and fleeing their homes, refugees want more than survival; they want to lead fulfilling lives.

Melissa (right) and Mandy (left) Nomelle came to Syracuse in January 2014 (Photo provided by Melissa Nomelle).

Melissa (right) and Mandy (left) Nomelle came to Syracuse in January 2014 (Photo provided by Melissa Nomelle).

Mandy and Melissa Nomelle are twin sisters. They’ve supported each other through everything: together, they escaped persecution in Rwanda, lived in a refugee camp for five years, and traveled to Syracuse on their own when they were sixteen. Now they’re facing a new challenge, their first midterms at Le Moyne College.

“I’m really stressed about midterms!” Mandy said. She’s majoring in computer science with a minor in creative writing.

“I’m mostly worried about computer science,” she said. “I like it, but it’s in depth so yeah, I’m nervous.”

Most refugees don’t get the chance to be nervous about college exams. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 2011, 64% of refugees don’t even have a secondary school education.

The UNHCR estimates that 59.5 million people are currently displaced by war, more than ever before. As hundreds of thousands of them have fled to Europe, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa, the global refugee crisis has gained renewed attention.

Since 2001, over 7,000 refugees have been resettled in Syracuse. They often face difficulty in accessing higher education due to cost and a lack of familiarity with English.

The UNHCR Education Brief explains that giving refugees access to higher education is one of the best ways to push back against the ongoing refugee crisis. Educated refugees are in a better position to adopt leadership roles and improve the conditions for other refugees.

Melissa and Mandy are able to go to Le Moyne because of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), which helps disadvantaged youth with good grades go to college. HEOP covers most of their tuition, and the New York State Tuition Assistance Program covers the rest.

A therapist who works with unaccompanied refugee minors said that not all refugees get these services. She spoke under condition of anonymity, as a confidentiality clause prevents her from speaking about her cases.

“Unaccompanied refugee minors are eligible,” she said. “That isn’t representative of what the other refugee youth are going through.”

The Nomelle sisters never knew their father, and their mother died of meningitis in a refugee camp in Kenya, leaving them to make their journey to the U.S. alone. Even though Melissa and Mandy get help with their tuition, they both have to work part-time to support themselves.

“I want to stay on campus and study for longer,” Melissa said, “but I don’t have a car and I have to catch the bus, and I also have to do homework and make a living at the same time.” 

Melissa, who is now 18, works as a translator for an organization in Syracuse that helps refugees. Our interview is during Melissa’s short break from work. Though we are in a room that’s closed off, spouts of Arabic, French, Kiswahili, and other languages float in from the reception area.

“My mom was an interpreter for the UNHCR,” Melissa said, her eyes lighting up. “I saw how she could help people who weren’t able to say what they needed to, and I loved that… that’s definitely a part of why I do this.”

Keeping up with work and study may be tough, but many refugees even have difficulty with the application process.

“It is so hard for them even to apply,” said Sheikhnoor Adan, director of the Immigrant Refugee Youth Association. “They don’t know the system at all.”

Without help with the application process, Melissa admitted it would have been tough to get into college. She said refugees need help with almost everything when they first get here, from looking for a place to stay to buying winter clothes.

While basic necessities like food and shelter are the obvious first thought when it comes to helping refugees, many don’t realize that refugees don’t just want to survive; they want to develop themselves and grow.

Mandy is writing a book about her experiences, and said that’s one of the reasons she is pursuing creative writing in college.

“It’s about my life, my transition to the U.S., life here and how it’s affected me,” Mandy said.

“The last chapter I’ve written was actually about my mother,” she said. “Going back to the happy moments, and all the good memories, and how she impacted me.”

She said the ultimate goal of her book is to use her life experiences to inspire other people to get what they want out of life. And certainly, she has experienced a lot.

The Rwandan civil war pitted two groups of people against each other, the Tutsi and the Hutu people, and led to a massive genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994.

“Our grandmother was Tutsi and our grandfather was Hutu,” Melissa explained. “Our mother was both… so we had to hide, and not show ourselves… That was the hardest part.”

Though they lived in Rwanda for 11 years, they were unable to go to school because of the dangerous situation. When they fled to Kenya, the sisters were able to study English with the help of local churches. After five years in Kenya, they left for the U.S.

“I remember the day we came to the U.S.,” Mandy said. “Just the two of us in the plane, so close to each other, supporting each other and excited about the experiences we were going to have…

“I want to graduate, have a stable career, a nice home… a car!” Mandy added with a laugh. “I just want to be happy with my twin sister, to be stable… We see ourselves here.”