Part I: The Kamali Family

The Kamali family escaped from civil unrest and violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and lived for four years as refugees in Ethiopia. They arrived in Rochester, N.Y. on Tuesday, February 4, 2014, exhausted and excited to start a new life in America.

The Kamali family is greeted by caseworkers from Catholic Family Center Refugee Resettlement as they arrive at the Greater Rochester International Airport in Rochester, NY on Feb. 4, 2014.


One Mother

Nyirazana, 48, is a widowed mother of six. Her husband was killed in violent conflict in Eastern Congo in 2009. She speaks little English and is disabled due to a spinal injury.


Her Brother

Muhire, 28, stepped in to support his sister and became the patriarch of the family. He is the main English speaker and helps them navigate the resettlement process.

Her Children

Nyirazana has six children. Upon arrival, her three sons were ages 14-18 and her three daughters were ages 8-13. They each adapt to American culture at their own pace.


The Kamali family after the baptism of Serge, Dyna and Sako. From left to right: Nyirazana, Muhire, Aline, Serge, Nyota, Dyna, Sako and Eslon.



Eslon, 16

Serge, 18

Sako, 14




Nyota, 8

Dyna, 13

Aline, 10


The Kamali family spent their first days in America speaking in whispers because they worried about the police coming to their home for making any noise. Once they realized that the reason the city was so quiet was because of the snow, they developed a fear of the outdoors. “We were scared to go out. We weren’t sure what would happen,” said Muhire. His nieces and nephews kept looking out the window to see if there were people outside and they couldn’t believe it when they saw children playing in the snow. They wondered if Rochesterians received an injection or medication to help them survive the winter. They asked where the grass was and why all the trees were dead. Their living room filled with laughter when they learned that the trees would grow new leaves every spring. They were skeptical summer would even come.

“It was very cold in a way I cannot tell you,” said Muhire. “We were shocked when we reached here because of the climate.”

A foot deep blanket of snow covered the Kamali’s new home as they moved in on February 6, 2014 after spending two nights in a motel. Shortly after their late night airport arrival, a snowstorm hit New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a statewide state of emergency.

Stepping into their new home was the first step towards a life of stability, something Muhire said he has not experienced since he was a child. “This is where we can begin by changing our life,” he said.

Transition into a new life is facilitated by case managers from Catholic Family Center’s Refugee Resettlement Program, who greet families at the airport when they arrive in Rochester. Prior to their arrival, caseworkers identify low-cost housing and arrange for Saint’s Place, a local non-profit organization, to stock the new home with furniture and household goods. Soon after a family arrives, their case manager ensures they visit the clothing closet at Saint’s Place.


“When we reached the new house, we said, ‘Oh our life is completely changed!’ We have to live a new life, which is better than the life we were in. Because looking that every child has his bed or her bed it was something good for they used to sleep all together. Seeing that there was nothing that is missing was something that encouraged us.”


The Kamali family arrives at their new home with their case manager on Feb. 6, 2014.


Eslon, 16, leads his family out of the Motel 6, where they spent their first two nights, to see snow for the first time as the prepare to move into their new home in Rochester, NY.
Aline, 10, sits on her new bed as her brother Eslon, 16, looks out the window at the snow covered neighborhood while their family moves into their new home. The family was surprised that there was a bed for each person because previously they had to share.
Serge, 16, unpacks groceries as Dyna, 13, stares at the amount of food. Catholic Family Center Refugee Resettlement provided them with Price Rite gift cards to use for food until their public assistance benefits began.
Dyna, Aline and their uncle, Muhire, unpack kitchen items. Saint's Place, a Rochester-based non-profit organization, collects donations and delivers furniture and home goods to refugees' homes before they arrive.
Sako, 14, makes a bed as his family moves into their new home.
Serge (right) and his uncle, Muhire, try to set up a computer in their dining room but had trouble getting it to work.
Dyna (left) and Aline place a vase of silk flowers on their dining room table as their family finishes moving into their new home.
Dyna and Aline eat their first meal in their new home, strawberry jam sandwiches and apple wedges, forgetting to close the refrigerator. 




“The best memories I have in my life

were when I was with my husband. 

After he died, I was nothing.

I lost all my hope.

I actually have hope in America

because I am not struggling by myself. 

Here, I am supported.”











Part II: Starting A New Life

As the Kamali family began their new life in Rochester, they received support but struggled to become self-sufficient. They faced barriers in language, transportation and making a living but they said there was no other place they would rather be.



efugees receive medical, financial, educational and employment support, as well as a cultural orientation, during their first 90 days of transition. Birash Ramil, the family’s assigned case manager, helped them navigate the resettlement process, enroll in public benefits and ultimately aid them in becoming self-sufficient.

When Nyirazana was 9 months pregnant with Aline, who is now 10-years-old, she fell and injured her back. She continues to suffer from back and spinal pain, and her need for medical care was one of the determining factors in the family’s admission to the United States. Within a week of arriving, the Kamali family was taken to a clinic to be tested for tuberculosis and to receive any needed medical attention.


“Something that I realized was different from my country is the way doctors treat people. The way I was told about my sickness, I was told everything. In my country they didn’t tell me what I am suffering from. Here, when I went to the hospital, they did everything for me. I was suffering from back pain, and I was told I have a fracture on my spine and I didn’t know that before. They are treating me now.”

NYIRAZANA, translated by Muhire


“It’s not easy. You can be getting help and working

and find yourself with no money at the end of the month.”



Muhire said one of the biggest struggles of starting a new life was finding a job. After several months of searching, Muhire and his 18-year-old nephew, Serge, found part-time work doing housekeeping at Strong Hospital on their Environmental Services team. The positions were temporary, which left Muhire with constant uncertainty. 

“Here, you have to work in order to live,” said Muhire.

The Kamali family depends on New York State Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase food. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 program provides rent.

Though Muhire is the family’s main English speaker, he still has trouble communicating and understanding bills. He remembers how he panicked when he received the first phone bill: $560 when he was expecting $12. He did not realize his phone plan was local calling only. He had called to let his friends– former refugees that resettled across the U.S.– know that he had finally arrived in America. He had to pay the bill, using up most of the money that the family had received upon arrival.

In January, eleven months after arriving, Muhire secured a full-time job doing maintenance work at an apartment complex.

Despite their struggles, Nyirazana and Muhire said that they do not want to return to Congo and that there is no place in Africa that they wish to be. “America good!” Nyirazana says with her limited English and an enthusiastic thumbs up. 


 Getting Around 
Avoiding Hunger 




Dyna, Aline and Nyota return home from their first day of school. They did not like the pizza served for lunch, so they ate as soon as they got home.

Dyna, Aline and Nyota return home from their first day of school. They did not like the pizza served for lunch, so they ate as soon as they got home.

“What we want most is education for the children. 

That is my most favorite thing in America.”


Nyota eagerly raises her hand to answer a question during summer school.

Exactly one month after arriving the in US, the Kamali children started classes at Rochester City School District. After spending weeks in their apartment watching countless Disney Channel shows and practicing soccer in the kitchen, they were ready for a change of pace. Nyota, Aline, Dyna and Sako were placed in the same K-8 school while Eslon was sent to a school specifically for new immigrants because he did not score high enough on his English as a Second Language Placement exam to enter high school. Serge was told that he could not attend high school in the US because he graduated from a school in Ethiopia.

As soon as they got off the bus, all five students ran to the kitchen to eat lunch: fresh fruit, onion omelet sandwiches, and beans with amateke (a root vegetable and staple in African cuisine). They didn’t like the pizza that was served for free at school. 

Every student in Rochester City School District (RCSD) receives free or reduced breakfast and lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision because of Rochester’s high poverty rate. Additionally, RCSD received $228,735 for the 2013-2014 school year through the Refugee School Impact Grant Program. This federally funded program helps offset the costs associated with supporting a high number of refugee students. 

Muhire, who was a teacher in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), said that schools in America are much better than the DRC. He noted that students here learn differently and have access to technology in the classroom, like iPads and laptops. He said that in Congo, a school might have 5 to 10 computers and students would have only a few minutes to use one. Muhire said that they very much appreciate the bus system that transports the students to school, whereas the Kamali children used to walk.

Over the summer, Nyota and Aline attended a summer school program to improve their reading and writing skills. Nyota’s teacher, Joshua Cornue, said that she was very driven and excited to learn. He said that as soon as Nyota was finished with her work, she would ask for more. In May, Nyota wanted to be a doctor but by November she decided she wants to be an engineer so that she can build houses for those who don’t have one. 



Nyota wears a jean skirt that she received from the clothing closet at Saint’s Place.


“She’s starting to dress like an American.

If you wear that in my country, they will stone you.”



“We try to limit the behavior they get from school,” said Muhire about his nieces and nephews. “They have changed. Their lifestyle is changing little by little.” He has noticed differences in the way they talk, dress and behave. He said that in Congolese culture there is an emphasis on respecting your elders and he is concerned that the children may be losing this value because of their American classmates.



Eslon and Nyota get ready for church.


Eslon plays the guitar that Serge bought him at Goodwill while Sako watches music videos on his laptop.


Dyna, Aline and Nyota sing ‘Abana Turishimye’ a children’s Christian song in Kinyarwandan, their native language.




“Sometimes before people come here
they think it will be a new heaven.

But when they reach here, they find out that everything is totally different. It is hard for people when they are struggling their first time in America. But I say to just be patient.

When you are starting a new life,
everything is difficult.

You have to be able to stand for it.

If I have been able to stand for my life in insecurity, it is easier to stand for my life when I have stability.

In time, everything becomes easier.”





Part III: New Friends & New Experiences

The one thing that makes everything easier is a good friend, according to Muhire. "They make it feel like home," he said. As the Kamalis expanded their network of friends, they were also able to experience new aspects of American culture.

Aline timidly wades into the water, wearing a makeshift dress because she did not bring any swimwear, at Frontenac Park in Union Springs, N.Y.. Her younger sister, Nyota, loved swimming for the first time and her older sister, Dyna, was afraid of the water and did not go in.
The Kamalis and their friends from church, many also refugees from Africa, gather for a pot luck lunch at Frontenac Park in Union Springs, NY during the New York Conference of Seventh-Day Adventist Camp Meeting. There was an array of African and American food, including watermelon, which the Kamalis tried for the first time.
Dyna (left) eats Cool Ranch Doritos with her brother Sako. "The first time I saw Doritos, I said 'I can't eat this!' and threw away a whole big bag. But then I saw them in the store and decided to try them...Now I want to eat them everyday!" said Dyna.
Sako says goodbye to his middle school soccer teammates after he graduated from 8th grade at Roberto Clemente School. "Sako brought soccer to our inner city school," said teacher Joshua Cornue. "Everyone wanted to play basketball until they saw what Sako could do with a soccer ball."
Nyota plays with her neighbors, refugees from Burma who speak no English, in their front yard.
"It's a star!" exclaimed Nyota as she caught a fire fly for the first time with her neighbors.
Elson counts the stars on the American Flag on Independence Day. "Today is a holiday?" asked his uncle, Muhire. "You cannot tell. In my country, there would be people everywhere. Dancing in the street."
Eslon cuts his friend's hair in the basement of the Kamali's home.
Serge (center) is baptized by full immerison by Pastor Gary Wagner with his siblings Dyna and Sako at Union Springs Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Union Springs, NY during the New York Conference of Seventh-Day Adventist Camp Meeting.
Muhire tries to move the family's Thanksgiving turkey to a new pan as his family watches. Their church gave them the turkey, their first, and Angel NIshimwe (center) helped them cook it on Thanksgiving day.
Muhire and Serge look at the sewing machine they selected as they wait in line after spending hours at Walmart's Black Friday sale. They also purchased a laptop and television.
Nyirazana laughs with her friend Marie Dushimirimana, a former refugee from Tanzania, as they talk about breast-feeding while grocery shopping at Price Rite.


The Kamalis met most of their friends through their church or neighborhood. Many are former African or Southeast Asian refugees that previously resettled in Rochester. Frank Ally, who came to Rochester from Rwanda six years ago, met the Kamali brothers at church and has since become a best friend to them.

“Frank has shown us all we know in Rochester,” said Eslon. Frank taught Serge how to drive and showed him how to get a good deal on a television on Black Friday.

Friends are the root of many of the Kamalis’ new experiences, from swimming during the New York State Conference of Seventh Day Adventist Camp to catching fireflies for the first time. Angel Nishimwe was one of the first people the Kamali’s met through the church. She helped Nyirazana understand her first prescription pain medication and showed the Kamali sisters how to cook their first Thanksgiving turkey. She even introduced Dyna to Doritos. 

“The first time I saw Doritos, I said ‘I can’t eat this!’ and threw away a whole big bag. But then I saw them in the store and decided to try them….Now I want to eat them everyday!” said Dyna.

For Dyna’s 14th birthday in January, the family celebrated with music, prayer and a birthday cake. Muhire said that birthday celebrations in Congo include food for the whole village and poetry readings in honor of the person whose birthday it was. 

Dyna's store bought carmel apple spice birthday cake with a candle on top waits as her family sings to her.

Dyna’s store bought carmel apple spice birthday cake with a candle on top waits as her family sings to her.

New Roots

Serge feeds Dyna the first piece of her birthday cake.


The Kamalis sing to Dyna in Kinyarwandan and English on her 14th birthday. 


Throughout their first year, the Kamalis realized that they do in fact like pizza and Doritos. Nyirazana learned her first words of English and how to heal. Nyota, the youngest, learned how to swim and ride a bike. Muhire learned how to drive and how to cope with the winter.

Together, they learned not to fear the snow and now know that the seasons will continue to change.




Made possible by The Alexia Foundation

Many thanks to: Catholic Family Center for their support; Jenn Poggi, William Snyder and Loret Steinberg for their guidance; Elijah Walker for his picture editing assistance; and of course, the Kamali family for welcoming me into their life.

Infographics by Lisa Castore