SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Haley Terrell

A New Perspective

I have been attending a church in Phoenix for about 2 years and what makes this church very interesting is that we share and commune with an African refugee church. The church is very old, and was built in the 1950’s. When I walk into the lobby on a Sunday morning, I am hit with the smell of coffee and donuts, and greeted by warm and friendly faces. The sanctuary is very old, and until recently, it was filled with old pews, silk flowers, and an organ. The sanctuary needs new paint, so it smells very stale, especially on warm days. However, even though the building is old and has the original stained glass windows, the people do not mind the church’s age, especially those who have been attending that same church for 30 years. Everyone is always warm and smiling, but I still cannot help but feel as if I am in a time capsule from the 50’s. The congregation of the other church consists of African refugees and some of them have only been in the United States as recently as a year. Most of them fled from the Congo and parts of Rwanda during the time of the Rwandan genocide to escape the tortures of the genocide and the mass killings.

The first time I came to church, my family had already been attending for a while, but I was extremely surprised to see how culturally diverse the congregation was. The church primarily consists of white and Hispanic non-denominational Christians and the African church members. We hold our church services separately, due to the language barriers since most of the refugees speak Swahili. However, we often hold our music and worship together. Both the African choir and the band play together and it is incredible. The musical differences are amazing, and yet everyone is able to sing together. Also, many of the African women, and some men, stick to their very colorful traditional wardrobe from Africa, which they make by hand and is absolutely incredible.

After I started attending regularly, I learned that the son of the African minister, named Eric, speaks very good English, and we began talking every Sunday. I soon learned of many of the horrific stories of the refugees. As I said before, these people fled their country due to the genocide that was occurring in Central Africa in the 1990’s. Last semester I took a History of Genocide class, and wrote a paper on the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan Genocide occurred in Rwanda, a central African nation, where almost one million people were massacred. It was the culmination of longstanding ethnic competition and tensions between the minority Tutsi people, who had controlled power for centuries, and the majority Hutu peoples, who had come to power in the rebellion of 1959–62 and overthrown the Tutsi monarchy. This coup d’etat led to the measure of hundreds of thousands being massacred, and escalated to even worse proportions in the 1990’s. This knowledge motivated me to arrange an interview with Eric to talk about his life in Rwanda, and also his experiences coming to America. In talking to him, I realized that studying the genocide and hearing real-life experiences from refugees are completely different.

Most Sundays are the same with mostly the same faces, but today I saw someone new, she was talking to the Pastor of the church. I went up and introduced myself, and told her my name was Eric after the sermon was over. For the next few Sundays, we would have brief conversations about life. We would talk about her school, and my work. Most of our conversations were pretty nonchalant, until one day she asked me if I would be willing to have an interview with her about me coming to the US as a refugee. She told me that she was taking a class on studying genocide, and told me that she was writing a paper on the Rwandan Genocide. Since Haley knew my family was from the Congo, she knew it was relevant and told me she wanted to learn from a person who has lived it, not from a book. I decided to talk with her, told her about my family’s history, and why we fled from the Congo. As I explained my story, her face was filled with shock and disbelief.

Our interview occurred in the sanctuary of the church. During my interview with Eric I learned how the father he has here is not actually his birth father. He was adopted because both of his parents had been murdered in the genocide. Throughout our interview, the staleness of the church, in combination with the quiet in our interview, and the deep emotions that Eric conveyed to me, were very significant emotionally and also mentally to me. He explained to me that when he was young, he had to hide in huts and constantly flee to others homes to seek refuge, until he was able to come to the US. I learned of the cultural differences between us, and how I was completely naïve to how terrible these refugees experiences were. My heart was so heavy, and I told Eric that I could not believe that after all he and the other refugees had been through that they can still be happy and optimistic about life. They have a beautiful outlook on life, and even though they have been through horror, they regard life here as a blessing.

I appreciate Haley wanting to know about my past and my culture. After our interview, and finishing her paper, she told me how much our interview benefitted her knowledge of the Rwandan Genocide. She told me how she felt privileged to learn my story, and I told her that I felt privileged that she wanted to know about my life and cultural experiences. Haley and I have a new understanding and appreciation about each other.

My experiences with Eric, and the African Church, have given me an understanding of poverty and global cultures that have put the borderlands of ethnicity, transnationalism, and class in new perspective. Also, the transnational influences in my experiences have given me better perspective on the struggles and blockades immigrants. I have known something about other cultures and people in poverty, but have never had a truly tangible experience with either of them. When I had my interview with Eric, his words and emotions really stuck with me because they put me into a place that I found uncomfortable. Stories of killing and people starving were so foreign to me that they really brought me to an emotional place I had not experienced before. I am a very privileged person, but Eric’s story made me literally realize how privileged I really am. These experiences made me really sit down and reevaluate my own past experiences, and how I may interpret them.

My realizations about these borderlands make me step back even further and evaluate this with my own cultural perspectives. Since this episode was recent, and Eric’s family has not been in the United States for more than a decade, it puts The Immigration controversy in Arizona into a different light for me. Our nation is spending more time and money trying to keep immigrants out, than actually helping people. Also, due to laws like Arizona Proposition 200, it is literally impossible for people who are not legal citizens to receive any benefits. I believe if people heard immigrant stories like Eric’s, their perspectives on immigration could change, or at least be more open minded. Our country is very privileged and with that we should want people like Eric’s family to come here, so that they may have opportunities like Americans do to succeed and to not live with a daily fear of death. We should take that as a responsibility.

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