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I meet Eva Ndayishimiye in her empty home. The heat has been shut off and her landlord, a woman named Nancy, was painting the baseboards. Nancy tells me she’s worried about Eva and then, to lighten the mood, dishes that Eva was once in a rap group back in Burundi, her home country in Southeast Africa. Eva’s voice is low and smooth, and as she begins telling me her story, I realize how deep and profound her struggle has been.
Eva is one of thousands of asylum seekers who have moved to Maine to escape persecution and instability in their home countries. She cannot go home: it is not safe for her and her family if she returns. In Burundi, it is a crime to be gay. And now, she cannot stay in Maine: Governor LePage is proposing legislation to deny General Assistance (rent, utilities and food) to immigrants and asylum seekers. If she stayed, she would become homeless. So, she is moving to Wisconsin in hopes that the change of address will revive her entangled work permit application. Without the work permit, she has no income. Without General Assistance, she has no support.
TELL ME ABOUT LEAVING BURUNDI.
I was a student in college in Kampala, Uganda, which is a daylong bus ride from Burundi. They are both East African countries. I couldn’t go back home because of safety reasons. In Burundi, homosexuality is a crime. So you… you just try to keep out of jail, I guess. I had this job in Burundi between college semesters and so much happened that the family just decided that I should just leave.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER YOU MADE THAT DECISION?
I applied for school in Atlanta and passed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and got in to university. You have to pass the test for the embassy and the university. I was really disappointed when I got here. Because when you are in Africa, America seems like the dream thing. You know, just freedom of working, getting your salary and living. In Africa, it’s much more complicated than that. I wasn’t even sure that I would get home safely every day after work. Here, the safety circumstances were great but my papers got attention stuck. It’s a silly system they have here.
HAVE YOU BEEN BACK TO BURUNDI SINCE YOU’VE COME TO THE U.S.?
No. I can’t.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN ASYLUM SEEKER? WHAT DOES THAT TERM MEAN?
When I was in Burundi, I experienced some events that are not normal and not safe. And as they kept repeating themselves, my family and I decided to look for the money and apply for a Visa. The process is just to register and send the file to the immigration office asking for asylum so that you can be here legally. When I first arrived, I just had a year to file the application to file for asylum. After that, I would be put in removal proceedings. It didn’t take me the whole year because I can write my story in English. I wrote the story and I sent it in January 2013; I had arrived in August 2012. It takes 150 days after sending the application until you can file a work permit. After 150 days, I filed it and it was denied. All they told me was that it was denied because I had changed addresses. I had moved because I had an opportunity in Maryland and I took it. And I didn’t know that, without a lawyer, if you change your address you are categorically denied. No one told me that. What I was reading on the Internet was different than reality. The biggest problem is that the office in charge of New England is really stuck, and they are not calling anyone. So, my file is essentially quarantined. And I just can’t sit around not working. I have to do something.
WHAT DO YOU WISH PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT BEING AN ASYLUM SEEKER?
I wish they knew that we are not troublemakers. I came here without any police record in Africa. Sometimes, you know, when given the same opportunities, we can be as any other immigrant in the United States. The U.S. is an immigrant country; everyone is an immigrant here.
WHAT WAS YOUR HOME LIKE IN BURUNDI?
Burundi has just one city. I think it is the same size of Maine, the whole country. I have a mother and two brothers and a sister. I am the last born. My family was very Catholic, we had to go the mass. It was really not the place to come out. So, my brother just went. And after, as I grew up, I just realized that he was different. And my two other siblings were not good about talking about this. We are a normal family: no one is good about talking about what is there, but we care. That’s what’s important.
DID YOUR FAMILY EVER ADDRESS YOUR SEXUALITY?
I have a gay brother; he lives in France. Since he went away, he and I have been talking. But for everyone else it’s a taboo. We don’t talk about it. Many gay people in Africa end their lives. It happens a lot in Africa. It’s just so different. You have to be there to see the difference.
WHAT MADE YOU HOLD ON TO THE VALUE OF WHO YOU ARE?
I used to think it was college, but now I think it was just stupid. I wish I could have been who I was without telling the whole world. It did get me in trouble. It was college, I could say things out loud and pay a little to my girlfriend. So, I guess it was just that.
ARE THERE THINGS YOU WISH AMERICANS UNDERSTOOD ABOUT AFRICA?
It’s actually the other way around. I wish Africans would understand so much about this country. I wish they knew Americans’ open-mindedness, the way they react to things. In Africa, we are still struggling to adapt our culture to every day life. It won’t be tomorrow that my mother will talk openly about homosexuality. I can try to explain myself to friends in Africa, but in Portland, Maine I can walk around and see other people like me, living their life openly. In Africa, we are still in that bubble.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR STORY?
You know, the two months before I got the actual Visa. I got sent to jail one night. I stayed there, treated like a criminal. My life just turned upside down in one night, suddenly. I was 21. And, all of a sudden, there was a ticket in my hand and a US Visa, and a school that was going to ask for $3,000, which is millions of Burundian Francs. I saw every single Greyhound Bus Station between Atlanta and Maine. I had no money in my pocket, I was just eating chips when I could afford them. I think sometimes people think there is no one living that life. But I do.
DO YOU HAVE HOPE THAT BURUNDI WILL IMPROVE?
It has been improving just a little bit because of all the people that have run away and have been asylum seekers in Canada or America or France. And Burundi has been at its worst. And now, they are the generation that we are hoping on. I’m talking about my brother’s generation, 29 or 30. They will need to do something with their degrees and PhDs. I’m hoping that the youth will react openly to the fashion. People need to go away and return home and keep living their lives. I hope to do that someday, but I can’t think of it right now.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU GOT TO MAINE.
I really didn’t see Maryland. I was babysitting for an African family. The salary was the stay, shelter. I didn’t get any money. I was working for an address and food. Which is exactly what I was doing here and exactly what I’ll be doing in Wisconsin. I am going to Wisconsin to file a change of address, which will take two weeks for the New Jersey system to send over. I’m hoping that the change of address will speed the process. But I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything.
TELL ME ABOUT WHAT YOU WERE ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH IN MAINE.
I was an intern at Maine People’s Alliance. And, we were getting petitions signed about the law that Governor LePage had proposed about cutting the Maine health budget. It would have been helping 70,000 people. It was a really great experience for me.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW THE GOVERNOR’S PROPOSAL, AND HOW IT WOULD AFFECT YOU.
Our Governor proposed a law that would stop welfare, or General Assistance, for the immigrants. I don’t think it has been agreed upon or not now. But if they do make any changes, I do get rent, food and non-food for a year and a half, I would be the first one to go without. To be homeless.
ARE YOU ANGRY?
I did this to myself. I decided to come here. This is on me. I was a kid back then in Burundi. But now, I understand I am alone in this. This country is welcoming to me; they tried. They have been paying my rent and I have passed by GED, but there is nothing I can do with it. I have been working since I was 15…
WHAT DOES THAT FEEL LIKE FOR YOU, TO WORK FOR TRADE?
I don’t have a social security number. So without a social security number, I can’t even do a work exchange. I can only do something else, like work for utilities.
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES? WHAT DO YOU DREAM FOR?
Dreaming? I just hope that the office in Nebraska or Chicago will move a little bit faster so that I can work.
I HEARD THAT YOU PLAY SOCCER.
I do! I used to. It used to make me feel better. I used to play soccer and have other hobbies. But I just can’t get my mind of all of this.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My family. You know, to pay back and keep them safe and in a safe place. My country is just getting worse every day. So they might be safe now that I am not home. It’s going to be a problem at some point. It would be great if they could come here, but it’s not happening soon.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT, OR BLESSING, OF YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
My writing. I write about everything. I have not just one journal. Maybe three, four journals.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
To get my life back together. To get my work and be my own person. To not depend on anyone else and just do my own thing.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE OR ARE LEARNING NOW?
You are alone. It’s just the little things that people do that sometimes help. But at the end of the day, you are just alone in the struggle. I have to do this alone, on the own beat of my heart.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
I guess the end of the afternoon, when I come home and I can have some time to do nothing.
I’M MEETING YOU AS YOU PACK UP FOR MILWAUKEE. HOW ARE YOU FEELING ABOUT LEAVING AGAIN?
Frankly, I am excited to see Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I came to Maine because there was General Assistance. I love Portland very much. This would be a great place to work, if I had the papers. The plan someday, is to return.
SO, MILWAUKEE IS AN ADVENTURE?
Yeah. Totally. But coming to America was an adventure. I’m glad I’m here because I’m safe.