By Claudia Mathis
Mawuena Agbossoumonde has come a long way. He has blossomed into a vibrant 21-year-old man who attends Syracuse University and plays midfield on the school’s men’s soccer team. When he was 10 years old, he and his family emigrated to the U.S. They arrived in Syracuse on Feb. 24, 2000, after living seven years in a refugee camp in Benin, Africa.
Agbossoumonde and his 17-year-old sister Dovenin gave a presentation about that journey on Jan. 10 to the religious education students from St. Mary of the Assumption in Minoa and St. Francis of Assisi in Bridgeport.
The group of close to 40 fourth through sixth graders sat in rapt attention at St. Mary’s Parish Center as the two young people told their story of how they survived in West Africa and how they were supported by people after arriving in Syracuse.
Matthew Lanphear, a fifth grade student, was impressed by the family’s extreme poverty. “They lived in a tent,” said Matthew. “I’m glad that I learned about what they went through so that I could have a better understanding of what they need.”
St. Mary’s and St. Francis are working together to honor Bishop Robert Cunningham’s Justice for Immigrants Campaign that he initiated earlier this month. The refugees’ presentation was given in an effort to facilitate the students’ understanding of the importance of justice for immigrants.
“We’re trying to build awareness,” explained Linda Diana, Youth Faith Formation Director at St. Mary’s and St. Francis. “We wanted to tell them what refugee resettlement is all about, explain to them about the dignity of life and emphasize the importance of not discriminating against other people.”
The students were very interested in the talk. “They were amazed at what they heard,” said Diana.
Mawuena was 10 years old when he arrived in Syracuse. When he lived in the refugee camp, he worked to help support his family. “They barely gave us enough food and sometimes we had to fight for it,” Mawuena told those in attendance. “Adults weren’t allowed to work and earn money while living in a refugee camp, so the children had to do it and do it on the sly.” Mawuena’s jobs included working at a port moving cargo from ships and helping his older brothers in constructing mattresses. He also maintained a garden, watering it every day before leaving for school or work. He attended school four days a week and worked the remainder of the week.
Dovenin spent the first seven years of her life in the refugee camp. When she arrived in Syracuse, she was seven years old and had never attended school because she hadn’t been able to afford the necessary uniform to attend school in Africa.
The Augbossoumonde family knew very little about the place they were emigrating to. “When they showed us pictures of America,” said Dovenin, “they didn’t show any snow, so we didn’t know anything about that.”
“When we got to Syracuse, it was really cold and there was snow all over the place,” said Mawuena. “I said, ‘What is going on?’ We were used to having sand everywhere. We were wearing sandals when we got here.”
Mawuena said that he was very excited about coming to the U.S. but that he was also a little apprehensive. “People told us to be careful — that maybe they would dump us in the ocean,” he said.
Mawuena added that the hardest thing to get used to after arriving in Syracuse was the culture — most notably the technology he encountered, the different foods and the way that strangers on the street didn’t converse with one another as they did in Africa.
The brother and sister told the students that their family of eight had to count on total strangers to pick them up at the airport, to find them a place to live, to provide them with food, to teach them the English language and to show them how to live in a different culture. The family received assistance from the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program, St. Francis of Assisi Church in Bridgeport and many others.
Mawuena said that he and his brother have volunteered with the Refugee Resettlement Program to help other refugee families feel welcome in Syracuse.
Cathy Troast, sixth grade religious education teacher at St. Mary’s, said she was very impressed not only by the way the family has adapted to their new culture, but also that Mawuena continues to work with the people who are now transitioning into the Syracuse community. “He’s a remarkable young man,” said Troast.
The family’s sponsors, Deacon Guy and Melissa Hart of St. Francis of Assisi and also St. Matthew’s in East Syracuse, have played a crucial role in providing assistance. “Without them, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Mawuena. Melissa said that she continues to visit the family often.
St. Francis of Assisi took an interest in assisting the family because of Melissa’s inspiration. She organized the committees that provided the supplies to the family. “It was one of the most powerful emotional and spiritual experiences of truly living and believing that we are brothers and sisters,” Melissa said. “My heart started to grow in love. I feel very blessed that God put them in my life for me to love.”
The students are promoting the bishop’s Justice for Immigrants Campaign by designing posters and flyers and decorating bulletin boards to make people aware of the importance of helping other refugee families. In addition, the students decided to host a linen drive, collecting sheets, blankets and towels to donate to families in the Refugee Resettlement Program.