A diploma scroll and graduation cap with a medical mask hooked around the top button (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

A Rwandan refugee graduates into a pandemic, and an uncertain future

Claudine Katete spent most of her life in a refugee camp. Now her goal of becoming a social worker is in jeopardy



Claudine Katete - Katrina Powell
July 25, 2020 10:30PM (UTC)

This is an excerpt from the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness. Interview and editing by Dr. Katrina Powell. Powell is a professor of rhetoric at Virginia Tech and editor of the forthcoming Voice of Witness book "Resettled: Beginning (Again) in Appalachia."

Claudine, 26, is a senior at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, finishing her final semester online. She spent most of her life in the Osire Refugee Camp in Namibia. Her family fled Rwanda in 1994 when she was two years old. She arrived in the United States in 2014 at age twenty. When we spoke, Claudine was in her apartment in Roanoke, Virginia, where she lives with her mom and younger sister. She's grateful to spend time with her family but also worried about finding work after graduation.

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I finished my courses in the social work program in the fall. We have to finish all the classes before field placement. I started my field placement with Roanoke City Department of Social Services in January. It's very practical. You practice all the things you learn and plan for in class. At the agency I worked a regular eight-hour day Monday through Thursday. Then on Fridays we had class and I caught up on assignments. In class we talked about our experiences, about assignments, and about what was going on in our field placement. We listened to our classmates' experiences and how to deal with stressful cases.

I was in my field placement for two months and then in mid-March I found out that everything was cut off. I had to stay home because of COVID-19. All the classes at Mary Baldwin went online. There were so many activities that I was still required to do for field placement, like attending advocacy community meetings. But I was unable because those meetings were no longer happening. So I worried if I could still graduate. Luckily our program director adjusted our requirements so we could graduate and still meet our professional requirements. I continued to do my work remotely and did research to cover the hours. It's not the same though. I worked with Adult Protective Services at the agency and we did a lot of home visits. After the shutdown I didn't have direct contact with clients. I had two clients of my own that I was working with, and before I left, my cases were closed. So I had a chance to work with those clients from the beginning to the end of their cases.

Right now I'm very disappointed about graduation. I had planned a big celebration. Family and friends were coming from across the country. Even family in Rwanda that my mom reconnected with only recently, whom we haven't seen in so long, were coming to celebrate. My graduation was a reason for all of us to get together. But my plan is broken now. Mary Baldwin is planning a nice online celebration, but it won't be the same. I was going to wear the cap and gown. We won't be able to take the photographs with all our family and friends. My mother was going to see me walk across the stage. She worked so hard to get me here. My brothers can't travel from New Hampshire and even a small gathering might not be possible. I know they're all proud, but now they can't show it.

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Since my field placement was going to be in Roanoke, I moved out of my dormitory and into an apartment in January, and drove to class on Fridays in Staunton — an hour's drive. My mother moved back to Roanoke from New Hampshire. She was helping my brothers there, but now we live together in Roanoke. When my sister's classes at Radford University moved online, she moved in with us, too. It's been really hard. I'm the only one working. I've been delivering newspapers for the Roanoke Times to pay the rent on the apartment. I work from midnight to 4 a.m., driving and taking papers from house to house. I make about $1400 a month, but the rent is more than half of that. It's really good that we're together now though. Mom has a plot at the community garden, so she grows vegetables and that helps us. We all love being with her. She takes care of us.

Before my field placement was canceled, I wasn't even sleeping. I'd come home from delivering papers and get ready to go to the agency. But now that I'm done with that agency work, I have a little more time to sleep and to apply for jobs. But I'm so worried about work and taking care of the family. I don't even know if I'm going to be able to find a job in social work because most of the places where I'm looking are closed. There are no vacancies right now. I have student loans.

I also want to go to graduate school, but I want to do that while I'm working in my profession at the same time. I don't know how I'm going to cover that. Because really, if I can't find a good scholarship, I'm going to be forced to wait for at least two years and save money for it. Hopefully, I can find a place that will hire me while I'm taking classes as well. I'm looking for clinical social work.

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I want to open my own agency once I get my graduate degree, a place for social work but with high school students wanting to pursue education—like who I was when I was getting ready to go to college. I want to work with immigrants and refugees and I want to work with students directly. After high school, there are many who rush to go into the workforce. Some are pressured by their parents and I know from personal experience that some parents have cultural beliefs and traditions that keep their kids from college, especially girls. Some girls, their fathers pressure them to get married. Also, this is a new country for them and they might not have access to information. There's so much more that we can achieve if we go to college.

I wanted to be a social worker from a very young age. My mother was a single mom with four children and when we came to the camp, we were the first Rwandans. There were Ethiopians, some Sudanese, Congolese, and Burundis. There were some resources for them, but nothing for Rwandans at first. There were no scholarships for Rwandans to finish eleventh and twelfth grade. So many others got help to finish, but my mother couldn't get help to send me to finish high school. So she grew her own vegetables and saved money to send me to the Paresis Secondary School in Otjiwarongo, a small town in Namibia. I finished high school there. I had to figure it out on my own.

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I really miss college because I lived on campus with friends and we'd get together at the library or the coffee shop downtown and talk about our classes and our problems. I also miss my professor, Mary Clay Thomas, the director of my program. I could go to her office and talk to her. I really cherished her support. When I transitioned from the community college to Mary Baldwin, I stayed after class and asked her, "What do I need to know? What should I change?" I worried because for me, failing was not an option.

I haven't seen my brothers in New Hampshire in a long time, but because of COVID-19 I can't see my brother who lives here in Roanoke either. His wife is pregnant and my nephew is small so we are very careful. We had to do a Zoom chat for his birthday. I haven't seen my boyfriend for two months. He lives in Maryland. We use Zoom chat a lot, too.

I hope things get back to normal. Sometimes when I think about it, you know the saying, "It is what it is." You have to live with it. When you don't have control over something, what can you do? Stressing won't help you. I learned that living in the camps.


Claudine Katete

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Katrina Powell

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