Ugandan refugee finds sense of belonging, a future in Buffalo

Ygeutte Rudahindwa is currently enrolled in Buffalo Public Schools' English Language Learner program

Ygeuette Rudahindwa (left) and Doreen Regan, ESL coordinator at the Herkimer School (right) have been working together for six months.

Georgina Hallowell/The Record

Ygeuette Rudahindwa (left) and Doreen Regan, ESL coordinator at the Herkimer School (right) have been working together for six months.

Georgina Hallowell & Daniel Carapetyan, Contributors

War moved 21-year-old refugee Ygeutte Rudahindwa from Democratic Republic of the Congo to Uganda at the age of 10 where she stayed for 11 years, attending high school, before feeling unwanted and running into problems with people in the refugee camp.

Rudahindwa has found a home in Buffalo and has spent the last six months at the Herkimer School on 228 Albany Street learning English.

The Adult Education Division of the Buffalo Public Schools offers a variety of classes in about 30 locations throughout the city. Herkimer School is one of the 12 locations offering English classes like Rudahindwa’s. High school equivalency and vocational programs are housed in other sites.

Buffalo’s number of English Language Learners has surpassed the total enrollment of the Buffalo School District for the past eight years, according to New York State United Teachers.

Rudahindwa, an exceptional student currently placed in an advanced level class at the Herkimer School, has only been here since September and has grasped the fundamentals of the English language. She speaks four other languages such as French, Mashi, Luganda and her native language Swahili.

The Herkimer School has a partnership with Catholic Charities of Buffalo, one of four resettlement agencies in Buffalo. Catholic Charities offers the facility and Adult Education Division supplies the English learning classes.

Doreen Regan, English as a Second Language coordinator of Adult Education Division and English teacher is impressed by Rudahindwa’s growth being enrolled in this ESL program for such a short period of time. Regan worked there for 25 years and was a director for six years.

The Herkimer School teaches students from all over the world. Most of the refugee students are from Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Nepal and Burma. The immigrant population at the school is from China, South America and Puerto Rico.

“It’s a real privilege because you get to learn about students from around the world and help them create inspiring work,” said English teacher Maria Eley.

As Mayor Byron Brown said in January, Buffalo is a refugee resettlement city. These people traveled across the world to join a community they can call home, and these programs make sure to foster a sense of belonging, Regan said.

“It’s very important to feel comfortable at home and to not feel threatened. A lot of our students have post-traumatic stress disorder – they’ve come from war-torn countries, been through a lot of trauma, so we try to create an environment where they feel safe and wanted,” Regan said.

Catholic Charities offers an eight-week cultural orientation class called ‘Newcomer” where students learn how to navigate the city and get adjusted before they transition into ESL classes.

“I was kind of nervous and scared because everything was new. The teachers were new to me, but when I started, the teachers were nice because they knew me. They’re so cool,” Rudahindwa said.

Upon entering the program at the Herkimer School, students get pre-tested and placed in classes based on their English proficiency level. They are tested to measure their progress before they can move to the next level of learning.

There are several factors that are important to learning English. Age and background information are the two most important, as they are the main things that will help someone learn English quickly. However, if the student doesn’t come from an educational background, a new language is typically harder to grasp, Regan said.

“On average it takes three-to-five years to have conversational English and it takes five-to-seven years to have academic English. It can be a seven-year process to really become proficient in being able to handle college level material,” Regan said.

Regan said assessment advisement instructors act as career advisers who help them find employment. They are assigned case managers through their resettlement agencies who help them deal with personal issues.

Buffalo Public Schools is looking for multilingual teacher aides and Regan is looking to give Rudahindwa an opportunity to find employment at one of these places because she enjoys working with kids.

The name Ygeutte means, “found,” in Swahili. True to her name, she has found not only a home, but a potential future.