Burundi where Come Nziberega is from, is a small land-locked country in Southeast Africa.
He heard the rebels were looking for him. He was hiding at his uncle’s house after being rescued from their compound by the United Nations’ soldiers and they found out. Come Nzibarega knew he needed to flee his beloved county.
What he didn’t know was when, or if, he would ever be able to return.
Nzibarega had no idea that working as a translator for the UN in Burundi would change his life forever. Nzibarega speaks five languages, including English, French and Kirundi, which are the official languages of Burundi.
Nzibarega was born and raised in the small, poor, war-torn country in the middle of Africa. After a year of working in Burundian communities, he was kidnapped by rebels.
“I went on leave. I was kidnapped by rebels,” Nzibarega said. “They thought I was giving information to the United Nations.”
The rebels held and tortured Nzibarega for two weeks until UN soldiers raided the rebel compound and rescued him. He lived with his uncle until he heard that the rebels found his location, so he fled Burundi and crossed the border into Ethiopia.
Nzibarega describes the boredom that he faced in the refugee camp. Kim McKenna, a former colleague of Nzibarega’s at World Relief, where he works with incoming refugees to help them with their settlement in America, described running as Nzibarega’s “saving grace.” Nzibarega mentioned that as well.
“Running was the only thing that kept me busy,” Nzibarega said of his time in the refugee camp. “It was a kind of therapy.”
In most cases, refugees aren’t allowed to work in the countries they initially escape to. Nzibarega did not receive a work permit, so he spent his large amount of free time running in the refugee camp, and found that he could make friends through it. He described not knowing his distance, but estimated about six miles.
“When I improved my time, that was my joy,” Nzibarega said. “It helped me to know that I do have something inside of me; I have my potential.”
Colleague and friend Becca Powell described one way that running played a role in Nzibarega’s life when he came to America.
“My husband is a runner and Come is a runner, so my husband became a volunteer with Come,” Powell said, a volunteer for World Relief; a volunteer is an American friend that helps the refugee acclimates to life in America. “Come and my husband became friends and he became part of our family.
Powell’s husband helped Nzibarega train for Bloomsday when he first arrived and started running. Nzibarega said that he felt “super great” running Bloomsday for the first time.
World Relief is a Christian organization that is licensed to give refugees resettlement assistance, employment services and immigration services to help them thrive in the United States. Powell says she knew from working with him as a client since he came to America in 2012 that he would be a wonderful benefit to the World Relief team.
Nzibarega speaks multiple languages and African dialects, which helps greatly when working with African clients. School in Burundi is taught in French and he learned English in high school. There is also a component of trust that his experience allows him that is different for other case workers, McKenna said.
“One of the issues that a lot of our clients struggle with, and we struggle with our clients, is the issue of trust, many of them have come through situations where they don’t trust a lot of people,” McKenna said. “They’ve come to America, which is a completely different community and environment, and they’re not sure who to trust.”
McKenna also mentioned Nzibarega’s knowledge of other languages as a huge advantage, but not the only advantage he has. Refugees also know that Nzibarega has been through experiences that most Americans would not understand.
“If they’re clients that [Come] can talk to in the same language, that’s even better,” McKenna said. “But even if not, he can share his story and share how he’s come to where he is now and help to give them hope.”
Coworkers praised his positive and hopeful attitude and his strong work ethic. Colleague Andrea Simpson described a time right after Nzibarega arrived to America when he worked nights at Walmart as well as for World Relief part time, but never wavered in his efforts.
“You would have never known from his attitude or his demeanor that he was probably exhausted,” Simpson said. McKenna discussed his faith and its ties to his resilience.
“I think what I find remarkable is that no matter what difficulties come his way he’s able to say that God has a purpose behind it and that God will take care of him,” McKenna said.
Nzibarega said that he did not know where he would be or who he would be without his faith. While in the refugee camp, he decided to not worry about what would happen and if good things would happen, because that was “not my department.”
Once Nzibarega escaped Burundi, he waited in a refugee camp for six years. He had running, but always dreamed of more. The great potential exists, but is stifled, in refugee camps and America is great for opening its doors to that untapped potential, Nzibarega said.
“Riches are trapped in refugee camps,” Nzibarega said. “But America says, no problem, we’ll give you a chance.”
Nzibarega describes America as a place where those dreams and that untapped potential can become true and as a “small world” because it “has someone from everywhere.” Coming to America as a refugee was more difficult for a single person and he was glad to be lucky enough to get that chance to achieve his dreams, he says he remembers how he felt when he found out he would be coming to America.
“I was very excited,” Nzibarega said. “The chance that I got was not given to very many people.
Now Nzibarega works full time for World Relief as a case manager, helping refugees, aiding the newcomers in training for employment, taking English classes and taking advantage of other resources that will help them flourish in America. Nzibarega is a member of the World Relief support system that is offered to refugees when they are granted resettlement in Spokane.
Powell, who says she always thought that he would be a great case manager and met him the day after he arrived in America, noted that Nzibarega’s
measure of success is different from most people.
“He really has a servant’s heart and lives his life as a servant to others,” Powell said. “His barometer of success is not money, fame or fortune, but how he can touch the lives of other people.”
Nzibarega would like to go back home after he is able to become a U.S. citizen in two years, he says. That permanent resident status will give him more protection when he heads back to his war-torn birth country.
Now Come is using his life story to inspire and motivate thousands of people.