Cedar Rapids' Central African migrant community is coming into its own

  • Photo
Keegan O’Neil, guest columnist

Every Monday at a little after 6 p.m., women and men in brightly colored wraps and tailored shirts trickle into St. Mark’s United Methodist Church off Johnson Ave in Cedar Rapids. They greet each other in rapid and colorful Swahili and Kirundi. They are there, ostensibly, to study for the U.S. citizenship test. Many of them, though, will show up for an opportunity to develop their English skills to better find jobs and navigate their new home.

Most of these students are refugees from Burundi, a small nation nestled in the heart of central Africa’s Great Lakes region. Burundi suffered a civil war in 1992 similar to its neighbor Rwanda, though there was much less international recognition of the Burundian plight.

Much like the widely publicized migration of Latinos from Central America, the Central African migration has slowly made its mark in work sectors like housekeeping and warehouse labor where language is not a barrier. Unlike the Central American migration, the Central African migration is rarely on the evening news. Yet it is destined to play a major role in shaping Cedar Rapids going forward.

In fact, while the Burundi refugee population of Cedar Rapids has been slowly growing for decades, there is no official data on how many have migrated to the city.

Liberio Niyiragira, 27, estimates the number at 2,000 to 3,000, “Not counting the children; the children are born every day, man,” he says with a smile.

A large portion of the population resides near the former Westdale Mall, and it has been an insular and interdependent community.

Helen Armstrong coordinates citizenship applications and study times for scores of students at St. Marks. “Social service organizations are still catching up to the unique needs of this wave of people, especially in addressing the English language barrier,” she says.

In the meantime, the refugee community finds a way forward. Life as a separate community is slowly becoming a thing of the past, and Liberio is a prime example of this change.

Liberio, and his brother Moses, 18, helped translate my questions and the answers of their parents Levocatusi and Veronique while we sat inside the International Food Market on Third Avenue, Southwest where Liberio donates his time manning the front counter.

Liberio’s family is emblematic of many Burundi families in the city. While Liberio understood the answers in Kirundi better, Moses understood questions in English more completely. The spectrum of language transition moved up the generations and then back down from young to old to young again. Language is a powerful cultural force, and starting with the parents and moving to the youngest children, it’s easy to see a gradual integration with broader Cedar Rapids society that parallels their fluency in English.

Levocatusi and his wife Veronique moved to the United States in 2004, first arriving in Boston. They have eight children, six of whom came with them. Two married daughters remain on the African continent in Tanzania and Uganda. They later moved to Cedar Rapids to follow friends that settled here in 1998.

“We came to Cedar Rapids because it was nice and quiet and safe,” said Levocatusi. “We couldn’t learn to drive in Boston because it was too crazy and dangerous.”

Though they go to English language tutoring at various churches like St. Mark’s, the ability to learn a new language diminishes with age. They have worked at hotels and in kitchens throughout the area to make ends meet for their family. To their delight, their children are taking advantage of the opportunities that they have been able to win for them.

Their oldest son living in Cedar Rapids, Liberio, was a teenager when they arrived in the United States. He describes himself as “50 percent American, 50 percent Umurundi.” After graduating from Washington High School in 2008, Liberio obtained a two-year associate degree in Culinary Arts at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge and then went on to complete his Bachelor’s Degree in the same field at Robert Morris University in Chicago. In Chicago he worked in a variety of commercial kitchens and even cooked alongside Carlos Gaytan (of Top Chef fame) at Taste of Chicago.

Liberio’s language skills are far beyond his parents, but he falls short of perfect fluency. He can get his point across, but he doesn’t have the deep-seated understanding of idioms and cultural metaphors that marks a true native speaker. This is understandable given his age when he arrived in the United States.

Moses, on the other hand, describes himself as more American than Umurundi at a ratio of about 60/40.

“I spend the week at school with Americans,” said the Kennedy student, “but I spend most of my weekend with Africans. A lot of it is spent at church.”

Moses stands in stark contrast to his elders. Liberio and his father wear button down shirts, dress pants, and dress shoes. Veronique is always sporting vibrant shawls and head wraps. Moses, on the other hand, is most comfortable in a T-shirt and backward cap. The prep wrestler and soccer player, like most American teenagers, still is trying to figure out what he wants to do in life. For now, he knows that he plays an important role in helping the Burundi community find its way in the city.

“My generation are the kids who are at a point where we’re starting to build up and want to leave,” he said. “I’m still trying to decide what I’m doing. I’m here and I’m studying hard and I feel obligated to take these opportunities that I have to study something and turn around to help my community out. I’m a refugee kid and I feel I should help, but it’s hard to study sometimes because the community relies on itself so much.”

The weight of the community lies on everyone within it.

Says Liberio, “Me and my wife, we interpret in the hospitals. The community, the people, the parents call us and we make an appointment and translate. There’s Congolese Swahili and a Tanzanian Swahili. I can speak with the Congolese; they understand me and I understand them.”

Asked if they each would pass their language along to their children, both agreed that they must.

“I will speak Kirundi to my kids. I would like to have them here, raise them here, and then return [to Burundi] if possible.”

I asked Veronique and Levocatusi if, given the opportunity, they would want to integrate further into the Cedar Rapids community. They expressed some learned skepticism.

“How would that be possible? The reason my kids adapted so much is because they spent more time with Americans. We would be lucky to have learned English when we first came. We did not have anyone to help us. For my kids, they go to school Monday through Friday for eight hours,” Veronique lamented.

Liberio added, “They need the time we have had. Everyone from 45 years old and older stays within the community. Everyone younger understands at least a little bit of English.”

Veronique agreed: “We can’t get it because we’re too old. The kids can get it like that,” and snapped her fingers. For now her language-learning opportunities occur in churches scattered across the city, usually for only an hour or two at a time.

The family, like all Umurundi in the city, are proud of their heritage. Liberio states plainly that his aspiration for himself is to work to help the Central African community find its voice in the greater Cedar Rapids community.

“I want them to be involved. If this store goes well, then the goal we are reaching for is that we’ll expand the store and build a restaurant so that Cedar Rapids can eat our food. I’m not just going to live here. I want to be someone. I want to actually help build the city and help people. I want a place where we can raise Burundi kids to come and stay out of trouble.”

While Levocatusi prizes his culture, his priority is for his children to find success and happiness.

“We wish for them to be successful in life, to go to college, and to grow in good behavior, not to adopt bad behavior, but to always lean on the right people in this country. We want to raise our kids however, as long as they grow in a good way.”

• Keegan O’Neil is a freelance writer and Cedar Rapids native. Comments: oneilkeegan@gmail.com

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.