Jeanette Irakunda was born in Tanzania, but she is Burundian. Her family fled the 1972 Burundi genocide before arriving at the camps in Tanzania. Along with her parents and four siblings, Jeanette came to Nashville in 2008. Having learned basic math, handwriting and reading in French, Jeanette entered middle school far behind her peers. With tutoring and support from Nations Ministry Center, Jeanette and her family became self-sufficient, but she was not making progress academically at her zoned school. With her father leading the charge, the Burundi community in Nashville fought to get the best education possible for their children. Nations Ministry volunteers connected parents with LEAD Academy and the following school year, nine children from refugee families (including Jeanette) enrolled. Ultimately graduating as Valedictorian of her class, Jeannette is attending Fisk University with a full scholarship majoring in business administration. Jeanette and her peers took — and continue to take — every opportunity provided. Jeanette is forging a new path for herself and her family. Her story is motivating and inspiring and paints a picture of those in our community fighting for their future. Jeanette is also a college student, who has found a community in her Burundi church and her peers at Fisk and loves reality TV and music. She has faced struggles many of us will never know and has done so with determination and a smile on her face. It is with immense honor and a humble heart that we welcome Jeanette as today’s FACE of Nashville.
Do you remember the moment you learned you were coming to America? What was it like to get that news?
They told my family, and other families, we were getting a chance to go to America, but I didn’t know anything about America. At school the next day, everyone was saying if they got the chance to go to America or didn’t. You couldn’t be too excited because you might go through the process and it might not work out. I was excited because I hadn’t been anywhere except the refugee camp. We had to go through the process, then they transported us to another refugee camp, where we stayed for a few months waiting to come to America. I only knew that America was rich, with cars and things we didn’t have in the refugee camp.
What does the “American Dream” mean to you?
My life is better than some other people, but wherever you are there are obstacles — whether you are in the refugee camp or in America. Some people might portray America as a place where your life will be perfect, but you have to live day to day.
What is an example of a time when you felt like you didn’t belong/fit in?
When we first moved, we were always the outsiders at school. People said, “Who are these people from Africa? They are poor and dirty and don’t know English.” We were bullied because we came from Africa, and many people have stereotypes of Africa.
I feel like I am always out of place. I like to cover my hair and wear long clothing. It is different than what people around me wear. If I am around other Burundians, they understand me and look like me. Even Africans from other countries understand where we come from.
My sister has been in America since she was 2 (she is now 12) so she doesn’t really remember anything about Africa. She is more in tune with her surroundings and her culture. I don’t think she feels as much as an outsider as me. She is more Westernized, from the music she likes to the way she talks. She can more easily connect with other people.
What is one thing you would like people to know about your experience as a refugee?
I want them to understand it is not our fault that we were in a refugee camp. We were born there — and being born in a refugee camp doesn’t define you or your limitations.
Is there one thing you would tell refugees coming to America?
You are going to face a lot of problems. Mind your business and focus on your goals. Whatever problem or issue you are facing, you will get through it. Focus on what you want to achieve.
Last semester, a friend from school called me during winter break. There was a refugee woman who missed her bus. She didn’t know English and didn’t know how to get back to her house. She called me to help translate. I am sure she felt bad she couldn’t get back home from work, but it doesn’t last. She is going to learn a little bit of English. We learned English. It just takes time.
Do you feel a responsibility towards your parents to succeed?
I want to succeed for my family and myself. My family has been through too much for me to fail. I want to become something and make a difference for others and my family. I want people to say, all she has been through didn’t determine her future, she was able to overcome those obstacles.
How do you empower your younger siblings to take advantage of opportunities?
My sister, who is a senior, saw what I did and is pressured to follow my footsteps. She doesn’t have to follow the exact steps, but she knows I graduated and went to college, so it wouldn’t be right for her to graduate high school and do nothing with her education. We came from the same place and overcame the same obstacles.
My other sister compares her grades to mine (she is in middle school). She really wants to succeed and wants to be the best in everything she does. She gets that from me, obviously.
You graduated from LEAD Academy as Valedictorian of your class. How did LEAD impact your approach to education and the way you look at your future?
Before LEAD, I went to another middle school for one year, and we didn’t talk about college. At LEAD, that is the main focus. They want all kids to go to a four-year college. They help us shape our future and help kids make connections. Senior year, we went to an event with the governor and the mayor.
Tell us about your experience with Nations Ministry Center.
That is where I learned basically … everything. I started from the ABCs. They helped me through school and tutored me every day after school. During the summer, we would go to the center and volunteers would hang out, take us on trips and help us adjust to the new environment we were in.
When we started college, they really helped us. They set up our dorm rooms and helped us settle in. Without them, we would have been a mess! Now, we might not see each other as often, but they check up on us to make sure we are doing fine.
When you aren’t in class or studying, where can we find you?
Most of the time, I am in my room. I watch a lot of reality television — I like the “Love and Hip-hop” franchise, “Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Married to Medicine.” I also watch a lot of African shows and movies.
After classes, we go to dinner together and do activities on campus. On Saturday and Sunday when I come back from church, we hang out in our rooms. I am with friends a lot. There are a lot of LEAD alumni at Fisk, who check up on us to make sure everything is good.
I mostly listen to African music — songs from Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, dance hall music from Jamaica and French music. Africa and Jamaica have the best music.
What is the best piece of advice you have received and from whom?
One time, my mom told me, “Never compare yourself to anybody, because your path is not the same as someone else’s. Just because you might be behind, doesn’t mean you are heading towards failure. Focus on you and no one else — what they have going on doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Reality TV, food (chicken), music
Thank you to Jeanette Irakunda for sharing your story and opening our eyes to life as a refugee in Nashville, and a special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos!
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