From Refugee To Runner: The Story of Minnesota Teen Florance Uwajeneza
A Congolese refugee looks back on the path that sent her to America, and how running has helped shape her experience
Florance Uwajeneza, a senior at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, won the girls maroon race at the Roy Griak Invitational on a brutally hot day in September.
Like that’s hard.
Hard is doing your six-person family’s laundry in a refugee camp. Without running water. Or a washing machine. At age 10.
In her brief 18 years, Uwajeneza has been a refugee twice, fleeing violence in the Congo for a refugee camp in Rwanda when she was 5, and settling permanently in St. Paul when she was 14. On of her arrival in this country — August 1, 2013 — she didn’t know a word of English, had never seen a refrigerator, had never used a smartphone. Yet within three weeks, she was navigating public transportation and her freshman year of high school—think: learning algebra in a foreign language—while also cooking, cleaning, and helping her family.
Which is to say, hers is the typical, incomprehensibly difficult experience of refugees worldwide. But as a young woman, her challenges were even greater.
“A woman has a lot of responsibility, so there’s no time to do sports,” Uwajeneza said, speaking of her early indoctrination at Nyabiheke refugee camp in Rwanda. “Even though you’re 6 years old, you’re considered a woman, and women do all the cooking, cleaning, going to get water. Boys just go play.” She explained it’s the cultural norm for African girls to put away childish things like sports; sports are for boys, a waste of time that could be better spent taking care of the household.
African girls learn that lesson by heart, and it’s hard to unlearn it, even when they no longer have to collect water.
That’s what makes Uwajeneza truly remarkable. Like hundreds of thousands of other refugees -- Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the U.S. -- she’s learned about malls and Instagram and the ACT, but she’s also learned that sports — the confidence, the empowerment, and the fun sports provide — is not just for boys. That’s a cultural hurdle few African girls have overcome.
As we watched the conference cross country meet recently, I noted the significant number of newly-Minnesotan African boys running, and the lack of African girls.
Uwajeneza laughed, “I know. At first, I thought cross country was just for white girls. I tried to get them [African girls] to run but they say it’s too hard, or they have things to do at home.”
Born in 1999 -- school records show her birthday as January 1 because the actual day is unknown -- in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uwajeneza fled the violence there in 2004 with her mother and four siblings to Nyabiheke, a United Nations-run refugee camp in neighboring Rwanda. One older sister went to live with their grandmother, and her father left the family and returned to the Congo. Uwajeneza lived at Nyabiheke for nine years.
Carved out of a densely forested hillside in eastern Rwanda, Nyabiheke was brand new when Uwajeneza arrived there. It’s one of six refugee camps in Rwanda and is now home to 15,000 Congolese fleeing the same ethnic violence that’s been roiling there since the late 1990s.
Most can’t return to the Congo safely, but resettlement to a third country, usually the U.S., is like bailing a flooding basement with a teacup. It’s slow and inadequate.
She took out her tablet as we sat on the bleachers in Como Park’s gym, Uwajeneza scrolled through images of Nyabiheke to illustrate what sounded like life on another planet.
Her family of six lived in a one-room structure with a corrugated fiberglass roof, walls of plastic sheeting nailed to a wood frame, and a floor made of packed dirt. They built wood bed frames and put mattresses on top, Uwajeneza said, but some residents built a platform of stones held together with concrete to sleep on.
“Here’s the kitchen,” she said, pointing to a massive metal pot over a fire outside the house. There were communal pit toilets, dirt roads -- which became mud in the rainy season -- and, “Oh, here’s my elementary school,” she said, pointing to a picture of children sitting outdoors in the grass under some trees.
There were no walls, no desks, no chalkboard. The school hadn’t been built yet, she explained, but there was a mud-walled structure by the time she left the camp.
A woman’s most important task was getting the day’s supply of water. That included girls almost 6 years old. There were wells in the camp, but pumps were only turned on from 7 to 8 AM, so it was important to arrive early and secure a place in line.
“You can get water from the river but it’s a long walk with the buckets,” Uwajenza said.
She admitted the danger to women who venture from the camp.
“People can attack you, but what are you going to do? You have to get the water.”
Because it was so arduous, laundry was done once a week.
“You have to get up early before everyone gets to the well. Usually I brought two [five-gallon plastic jerrycans] but if we were washing the clothes we brought 10 containers and carried them back to the house two at a time,” she said. “You have one bucket with soapy water and you scrub the clothes with your hands. You have another bucket to [rinse] and then you squeeze them out and hang them up.”
Uwajeneza, like most girls, also earned money for her family, walking to outlying farms to buy bananas and avocados and reselling them in the camp. Again, though, even as an 8-year-old businesswoman, she had to factor in the brutal calculus of time, effort, money, and personal danger.
“It [fruit] was cheaper the farther away from the camp you walked but then, it’s a very long way…”
Lots of girls in Nyabiheke “got pregnant,” Uwajeneza said. Some, she said, were raped. Sexual violence, even in refugee camps which were designed to be safe havens from conflict, was treated more as an accident that befell women rather than a crime perpetrated by men.
Two years after Uwajeneza left the camp, the U.N. Refugee Agency established a sports program for girls in Nyabiheke. The program was set up “with the purpose of helping refugee girls to overcome childhood traumas, to promote social inclusion through play, as well as to break the stigma of girls and sports. In a break with tradition, UNHCR in Gihembe and Nyabiheke Congolese refugee camps are offering more opportunities for girls to play sports instead of just boys.
“Throughout the camp, women are routinely found collecting water or at home taking care of the household chores. But through sporting activities, girls have the chance to make new friends, learn new skills, and just be children without worrying about their current situation.”
The girls interviewed for this article -- schoolmates and neighbors that Uwajeneza recognized -- said they practiced only when household duties and “livelihood activities” allowed. They mentioned that in the past their parents would have preferred that they go to church rather than play soccer.
Uwajeneza explained that going to church meant a girl was virtuous and of good moral character, while sports were associated with “playing with boys” and “being in a gang.”
The virtue or moral character of boys was of less concern.
Uwajeneza said the school in Nyabiheke started to teach French, then stopped and switched to English, but she didn’t pay attention because she didn’t think she’d ever need to use it.
Sporadically, family names would appear on a list to be interviewed for permanent resettlement, but she said it was three years after their first interview, without result.
“One day, they said, ‘You’re leaving in four days. Pack your things and go.’”
“I didn’t know how to say ‘hi’ when I got here,” Uwajenza said of her first days at Harding High in St. Paul, where she and her older brother, Innocent Murwanashyaka, were told to appear three weeks after they arrived in the country. “I was so quiet; I thought if I say something, people will be like, ‘Who’s this?’”
Reeling from culture shock, the family — her mother, an older sister, Innocent, Florance, and two younger brothers — were physically and mentally drained by the hot weather, blown away by the refrigerator (she mimed them all gasping at the cold bright light of the open fridge), and reliant on hand motions to communicate. But the hardest thing to adjust to? Snow.
“On the first day there was snow, I wanted to see it but it was freezing cold,” she said. “I had a coat but . . . it’s so hard to go outside.”
The Congolese community in the Twin Cities is quite small, and few if any teachers or students spoke Kinyarwanda, Uwajeneza’s first language. The family moved, so the next year Uwajeneza and her brother Innocent started school at LEAP High School for English Language Learners.
“We didn’t like it because no one was speaking English,” she said. “How are you going to learn?”
She and Innocent transferred to Como Park a few weeks into the school year. Innocent wanted to join soccer, but the season had already started so a friend suggested cross country.
“It was the section meet and Florance and her mom came to watch Innocent. They were really dressed up, like they were going to church. Their hair was done,” said Tim Kersey, Como Park’s head cross country coach since 2013. Kersey eventually coached Innocent to third place in the Minnesota State High School League’s cross country championship and second in the 3200 meters (9:21) in track.
“In the spring, Florance came out for track—long jump and triple jump,” he said.
The next fall, Innocent urged his sister to come out for cross country too.
“I didn’t like it at first because it was so much running,” she said. “Too much running. I was so tired I couldn’t even do my homework.”
As if she didn’t have enough to do, why add cross country to the load, especially when no other African girls -- refugee girls -- were on the team?
“I wanted to be busy,” Uwajeneza said. “In America, everyone’s busy, everything is scheduled — you get up, go to school, go to cross country, at a certain time every day. If you want to be American, that’s what you do. And I thought I could make friends and learn English, too. When I decide to do something, I stick with it.”
She did not have immediate success.
“Florance did not have a ton of fitness, but she’s a hard worker and she buys into whatever we’re working on, 100 percent,” Kersey said. “And, she was having a good experience, gaining confidence being part of the team.”
With a self-deprecating laugh, Uwajeneza said, “After a while, the team was ready to hear my broken English.”
At first, she had two talented sisters to chase in workouts — Mary and Kathleen Miles — but over the course of three years, she progressed and the Miles sisters graduated. Como Park’s boys and girls work out together, divided into three groups by pace. Uwajeneza runs in the first group with the top boys.
She’s been Como’s No. 1 female runner the last two years on fairly low mileage. She runs less than 30 miles a week.
Como Park fits the profile of an urban school. Of the 1,365 students, 34.2-percent are African American, 30-percent are Asian, 22.6-percent white, and 9.2-percent identify as Hispanic. Seventy-four percent of the students get free or reduced lunch.
The most visible reminder of the school’s large Somali population is girls fully covered in flowing hijabs, long sleeves and long skirts. Most Minnesota coaches, Kersey included, don’t actively recruit Somali girls because sports seem somehow against their Muslim religion.
Imam Asad Zaman, of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, says that the Quran encourages physical activity by both men and women. But while women are expected to dress modestly -- covering hair and wearing long enveloping clothing -- it’s also a cultural norm that sports are not very important for girls. It’s in the same way that girls in Rwanda are expected to cook and clean and leave sports to boys.
There are a few outliers like Uwajeneza, independent thinkers, those brave enough to disregard those norms.
What this means in practice, though, is that her responsibilities are heavier than her brothers’, greater even than those she shouldered as a girl in Rwanda. She hasn’t substituted American culture for her African culture — she fulfills the requirements of both. She cooks and cleans and contributes to the household income as African girls are expected to do, but she’s added the schoolwork, college prep, sports and social life that fills US teenagers’ days.
It was dark at the bus stop, a few minutes before 7 AM.
Uwajeneza was thinking about the day ahead: tests in English, pre-calculus, and chemistry, then a dedication of the school’s new football field. There was also College Possible, the city bus ride home, and preparing dinner for the family — maybe meat and rice or spaghetti — then homework.
But no running.
After the last meet, the outside of her foot was suddenly so painful she could barely walk. Peroneal tendonitis. She sat out the conference meet, watching as an 8th grader from Highland Park won easily.
“I usually run right with her,” Uwajeneza said, pulling up past results on her lavishly cracked phone.
Two days before the section meet, Uwajeneza jogged very slowly around Como’s track for 30 seconds, then a minute.
“Was that below a four?” Kersey asked, on a pain scale of one to 10.
Uwajeneza smiled but didn’t say anything.
Later, she said, “I thought this year would be my best year; I took that nursing assistant course and just ran all summer . . . I really wanted to make it to state.”
Kersey said the times she’d been running before the injury would likely have earned her a spot at the state meet, but now he was unsure her foot would hold up for the five kilometers.
Now it was 4 PM. The other girls on the team went home after practice, but Uwajeneza headed to College Possible, a twice-a-week program for low-income students that helps them prepare for the ACT and fill out college applications, scholarships and financial aid.
She worked on the Minnesota Common App, checking off track and cross country as extracurricular interests.
With time still remaining in the two-hour class, she couldn’t put off working on her second essay any longer. With a sigh, she pulled up the outline she had so far, tapping the screen with a self-manicured nail. The topic was why I run.