This interview was conducted on 4 November 2017 at the house of Sylvie Bokika. Questions were posed by Aliosha Bielenberg and Jeanelle Wheeler, both students at Brown University. Audio recording and photography was provided by another Brown student, Addy Schuetz. Sylvie’s son was beside her throughout the interview. The interview was conducted in French and has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity. Significant editorial additions have been indicated with the use of square brackets.
Sylvie Bokika at her home in Providence. Photo credit: Addy Schuetz.
Hello and thank you for the chance to speak with you! Could you please introduce yourself?
Yes, my name is Sylvie. Sylvie Bokika.
When did you arrive in the United States?
I came here in the middle of February – on February 14th, 2017.
What was your arrival in the US like?
We arrived well. My husband was there with me and Aline [the head of WRC] was there with her husband as well. People from Dorcas [International Institute] came to pick me up and drop me off at my new home. It was very good!
Before coming to the US, were you in the Congo?
No; I was in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, where my husband and I were in a refugee camp. That’s where my son was born. And then we came here with my son who was only 10 days old. He was born on January 11th, his father brought him to the US on January 21st, and then on February 14th, I joined them here. So that was that!
How long did you stay in Ethiopia?
In total, I stayed in Ethiopia for three years – three and a half years, maybe. And before that, I was in Kinshasa [the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo].
What did you do there?
In the Congo, I worked in Kinshasa. When I was in university, I worked as well. I worked at a Catholic center called the Communauté famille chrétienne [Community of Christian Families]. I worked there as a kind of manager. It wasn’t easy work! At university, I studied international relations so I tried to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That’s where I did all my internships, but I wasn’t able to get a full-time position in the end. But I didn’t just stay at home! Instead, I found a job at a Catholic NGO called the Cana center [for information (in French) see their website at http://www.c-f-c.cd/]. I worked there for four years.
In Ethiopia, refugees couldn’t work. But there were French schools because there were many diplomats from all over the world and lots of people from Francophone countries. All the diplomats and their families went to the French schools in Addis Ababa, where everything was taught in French.
You had to speak French if you went to school there. Remember – not all refugees are illiterate! Many of them were students and have the ability to work. So the schools needed teachers. There were some French teachers there, but not many. So there were plenty of competent people that could work and they brought them in.
I was a teacher. And my husband was also a teacher. His studies were in chemical engineering. He taught high school while I taught children from five to seven years old. I was a tutor! That’s what I did, even though the Ethiopians don’t like that the refugees work. Besides being a tutor or a diplomat, you were considered a foreigner and you weren’t allowed to work. Even if you were a doctor, you couldn’t work there. They felt that it’s their place.
What did you do at the Catholic center? What were your responsibilities?
To manage everyone. Normally, this community was for couples who were Christian. For the sanctification of couples and for valuing the family – the Christian and Catholic families and for the family in general. There are many people now who are free and don’t want to form the family through a normal couple in the way that God established. Now there are people who say, “It’s a democracy! Everyone is free to do what they want!” But God established that there is a man and a woman and that together they have children. So our work was to value this idea of the family that God has created. The family, the value of family, is important. If a family is good, if they are faithful, if they live in the sanctification, they will have good children. But if there is a lot of divorce, the children will not be well-educated and will have different attitudes. Statistics show that many delinquents had parents that were divorced. That is why we, in the Catholic community, teach couples to organize and take care of orphans, etc.
Do you go to church here in this neighborhood of Providence?
No, Aline takes me to one a little farther away. Sometimes I go to the Protestant church here but I am Catholic, not Protestant. Still, I always like hearing the word of God.
Was your work in French or in Lingala?
It was in both French and Lingala.
Did you like being a teacher to children?
Yes, I liked it a lot! It’s great being around children. I learned so much. I almost want to cry with how much I miss it.
Did you like other aspects of life in Congo and in Ethiopia?
Not at all. This, the United States, is the country we chose. Sometimes I miss working because here I can’t work since I don’t know the language [English]. I’m trying to learn the language because I naturally want to work. Staying here at home, that’s not part of who I am. I like to work!
I stopped working January of this year and now I’m staying at home, but I know that if I learn the language, I’ll be able to work. I like working and I like creating things myself. I don’t like staying at home like this.
Are there differences between life in Africa and life here in the US? Did you have any expectations coming in?
Yes, there is a very big difference. The difference is that in the United States, the first thing I found was that there was a lot of order. There was little order where I lived in Africa. Here, at least, you respect the country and its people. There is a sense of human rights and you respect for them. Here, there is freedom of expression. When you arrive, like when my husband and I did by plane, people asked questions and my husband spoke however he wanted. In my country, you could not do that, even if you said the truth. You would go to prison and people would ask, “How could you say that?” But here, I found that people know to respect others.
When I went to the hospital, it was also different than in my country. If you are sick, you have to pay first. If you don’t have money, you will die. But here you are treated first, and you give them your health insurance card. Even if you don’t have one, they will still see you and only afterwards will you have to pay. Where I’m from, you have to give the money first and then you give the prescription to the pharmacy.
The other week, my son had a fever so we went to the hospital. I asked, “Where’s the prescription?” and they told me that I had to present what the doctors gave me to the pharmacy. It’s not like that where I’m from. Where I’m from, you can die if you don’t have the money. Even if you just need aspirin. Even then. That’s the difference. You see?
I also found the way you treat people to be different – they have good manners here. I think the way you treat people depends on your education. If you have the chance to be well-educated, that’s good. I found people here to be kind even to people you don’t know. That’s the difference.
The absence of poverty is a difference, too. The streets are nice here – they’re all paved. But where I’m from it’s not like that. The authorities don’t bother to pave the streets – it’s not done. Having a car is reserved only for the rich. So you can see there is a very big difference!
Have you thought about teaching French?
I could do that. But the problem is that I haven’t yet fully learned English. If I learn English very well, I will also be able to transfer my knowledge of French to others.
Are there any other obstacles?
It’s only the language. I am making efforts. I can now write some English. If I read it, I can understand. But now, I need to speak. I can read – if I see something, I know what it means. But now, to speak, to speak like I speak French, that’s the goal. With practice, I will be able to achieve it.
Are there other obstacles in the United States?
For now, I haven’t found any. Life is good.
Could you speak more about the role of language in your life?
In Congo, there are at least 488 languages! There are four national languages: Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili, and Tshiluba. French is the official language. Outside of that, there are many other languages besides the national languages. Where I’m from in Congo, we speak Lingala, but my father’s side speaks Sakata and my mother speaks Nunu. My husband speaks Swahili, but my husband also speaks [a tribal language whose name we couldn’t catch]. There are so many languages!
My parents are from different villages. I was born in Bangu but I grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. In Bangu I spoke Kikongo, and in Kinshasa I learned Lingala and French.
Do you speak your parents’ languages, as well?
No, I don’t, but I understand a few words. You see? There is such a diversity of languages!
Did you often see your grandparents growing up?
Yes, I saw my grandparents on my mother’s side, but my father’s parents were already dead once I was born. I often spent vacation with my mother’s parents.
What do you think of the role of language in life?
Language is very, very, very important. If you don’t understand enough languages, you are handicapped. Look at me – I can’t work. Why? Because I haven’t mastered the [English] language. If I learned the language well, I would be able to work. You see? If you don’t understand the language, you can’t really survive where that language is spoken. You have a problem, you can’t do anything. Why? Because you don’t know the language. You see? If you know the language, you are able to communicate directly with someone.
I learned French at school. But I also learned English at the university. The problem was that we were in a Francophone country so we neglected English. Since I was studying international relations, I took English. But we neglected it. We didn’t believe in its importance. For us in the Congo, we don’t see what’s beyond the horizon. And once we understood the importance of English, it was already too late.
Were all your classes in French?
In French, yes – though there was an American school.
How did you come to the university in Congo?
I took exams. I took the baccalaureate [essentially a high school diploma] when I was 18 years old and after I took exams for the university. I passed and then I started studying at the national university in Kinshasa. It was called the Catholic University of Congo. At first it was affiliated with the university at Louvain and was primarily to train Catholic priests. Then Mobutu [the dictator and President of the DRC from 1965 to 1997], with his follies, had problems with the Catholic church and so confiscated the university. So it was no longer private and Catholic but instead became national and public.
Did you study under Mobutu?
During the time of Mobutu? No. Mobutu had left; I started my bac [high school] when Kabila was in power. [Joseph Kabila has been president since 2001, succeeding his father, who was president from 1997 until his assassination.]
There were many problems with students and the government, right?
Even last week, there were clashes between the students and Kabila because he doesn’t want to leave office and that really irritates students.
Was it the same when you were in university?
Yes, there were often marches that I participated in. When I got home, I was told not to continue doing them anymore – many of us were arrested by Kabila’s government, and when I got home I was told that it was the last time I would participate in a march.
Was it your classmates that were arrested?
Yes! Me too. When I was in university, I was arrested for participating in a march. All of us students were protesting to demand our rights. Then we were let go and my family said not to participate in protests anymore.
I have a question. You were educated, you worked a lot, but now you can’t find a job because of language issues. Do you think this causes a certain feeling of distance between you and American society?
Hmm… no. Because me, I see that there’s plenty of people who want us to integrate and really have the goodwill to help us become like other Americans. They help us integrate and become accustomed to their way of life and their customs.
You said you would really have liked to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Why did that not work out? Was it because of the president?
Yes. Because with us it’s really difficult to work in the government. If you don’t know a minister or another high-ranking official, who’s going to help you get a job? No one.
It’s a difficult question, but do you think things will ever change?
For now, I don’t think so. It’s people’s mentality that’s the problem. It enters the minds of people and it really has to be scrubbed out. This mentality is widespread and it will really take generations to change. First we need a different president who can help change people… but it’s really difficult.
What kind of mentality? A mentality of corruption?
Of course! Because we see this in our country. The people who are in charge there, they manipulate others who don’t have the means. Even if someone is competent and can work, they don’t let them do that because they are corrupt. They want them to stay in their place.
If this were to change – if there was a miracle and the government were to change, would you return to Congo?
To Congo? I don’t know yet. We’ll see when the time comes.
Are you gonna be the Minister of Foreign Affairs?
No, probably not! [she laughs]
If not that, then, could you talk a bit about your dreams?
I’m dreaming of other things. If you enter the politics of my country, you’ll have lots of problems. For me, I prefer to have the training [formation] and be able to create something. Even if I become American, I hope to use the good things I learn here to build something great in Congo. Maybe even a school! But whatever I do, it’s better as an American of Congolese origin.
What’s a normal day for you? What is it like being a mother?
A mother? I prepare my house, I put things in order, I clean… And I cook, of course.
Do you cook Congolese food?
Yes. I sometimes make cassava – I make fufu and ugali (they’re the same thing, really). I really like fufu!
I know it’s difficult to get cassava here.
No, it’s around – it’s just expensive. I made fufu the day before yesterday.
Do you think you’re going to work in the future?
I prefer to work, and I hope to work. It’s really very important to me.
What are your hopes for your kids for the future?
That they have the chance to study, to work, and to become great men [grands hommes].
Yes, that would be good! The issue is, back home, you lose your Congolese nationality if you acquire another nationality.
How is daily life for your children?
At school, it’s going well. They like learning languages. One of my kids finished his bac [high school] last year. Now he wants to go to the army. We’re expecting him to leave soon. The other the day the captain came and spoke to him.
So he speaks French?
He speaks English, French, Somali… He lived in Djibouti – he was born there. But not from me, from a different mother. So my husband was in Djibouti with his previous wife. He and I met in Kinshasa, but then he left for Djibouti. I stayed in Kinshasa, but it didn’t work, so I joined him later. He was my friend back then, and then he married to a Somali woman.
It’s super how many languages you and your family speak!
Thank you! I’ve really understood how important English is here. If we neglect English…
But French is also really important, especially for International Relations.
That’s true! I was really impressed that the person that interviewed me at the American Embassy [in Kinshasa] spoke very good French. He was a white American but he even spoke Swahili. I was shocked! It was so impressive!!!
Do you have the chance to speak English with anyone outside of Dorcas?
Not to practice English, like we do in the course. But a friend has been coming regularly for a long time and he always speaks in English to me.
I think you’re going to learn English very quickly.
I hope so! That’s my biggest concern.
Do you think it’s easier for you to integrate, in comparison with other Congolese refugees, because of your education and your experiences?
I don’t really know many other refugees, because I see them only occasionally. I really think that what I have to do is learn the language. Because I think with my level, I really must master English in order to get a good job. I don’t want to do just anything, I want something that reflects what I’ve accomplished.
I really have to learn English and get some kind of training – a certificate/piece of paper that’s actually recognized in the US. Here, they don’t recognize what I’ve done in Congo – not even the bac. I’m sure of what I have in my mind – what I’ve learned – but I need to find a way to demonstrate that to people here.
I actually wrote a thesis at the end of my degree in Congo. I wrote about the influence of Islamic fundamentalism on the foreign policy of the US from 1990 to 2000. I talked about how the threat of terrorists influenced US policy after the Cold War.
Maybe someday you could translate your work into English?
Yes, absolutely! It’s really frustrating. I talked about terrorism, I talked about how wars like that never end, and I talked about what we should do to combat and avoid these. I even defended my arguments in front of a committee.
Thank you so much for talking with us.