Focus on International Students: Pursuing her dream and praying for a family in exile

Melissa UwamahoroThis is the fifth in a series of stories on SUNY Broome’s international students, who come from all over the globe. The college will celebrate International Week from Nov. 13 through 17. International students will share the cuisines of their homeland at the Dining Hall, and will visit the BC Center to read children’s books from their home countries.

Today we meet Melissa Uwamahoro, an Excelsior College student from Burundi.

Most Americans don’t know where Burundi is, and Melissa Uwamahoro is aware of that. She started off an interview by spelling the name of her home country, a landlocked nation in East Africa located just south of the equator.

It’s largely rural and quite small, with a tropical climate. The people are friendly, Uwamahoro said.

But not always.

“In Burundi, it’s very dangerous right now,” explained the SUNY Broome alumna, who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree through the Excelsior College partnership.

The troubles began in the spring of 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, a move protested by many people. An attempted coup heralded even more troubles, and many have fled the small country in search of safety – including Uwamahoro’s family.

“People are being killed and kidnapped. Everything changed in the country,” she reflected.

Coming to SUNY Broome

Before the troubles began, Uwamahoro learned about SUNY Broome from her cousin, who had attended the college, and followed his footsteps. She graduated with an Associate’s degree in May 2015, and is majoring in business through Excelsior. She has a passion for business, stemming in part from her family; they had owned a gas station back home.

“I love SUNY Broome. It became my second home when I came here in 2014,” she said.

Like most international students, English isn’t Melissa’s first language and becoming fluent was among her first priorities. Overall, the professors were understanding and the campus community was very welcoming, she said.

As a SUNY Broome student, she was involved in the International Student Organization, which gave her the opportunity to network with other students and learn about a variety of cultures. She recommends the club to everyone, native-born Americans included.

When Uwamahoro first arrived in the United States, she was surprised by Binghamton, which seems so different from the big cities that she initially imagined.

“I wondered, ‘Was I going to a village?’” she said of that initial trip. “I like it because it’s small, so you can connect with people quickly.”

Danger at home

At present, Uwamahoro doesn’t have a country to return to, nor does her family. She experienced the chaos in Burundi firsthand in 2016, when her passport expired, forcing her to return home to have it renewed.

As soon as she arrived, she was arrested and asked for her identity.

“They were thinking I was a journalist. Journalists are not allowed to tell the truth there, and they have been killed,” she said.

Because of her American connections, she was safe – for a while. In the middle of the night, agents came to her family’s house with dark intentions. Melissa and her family had escaped, but their housemate was killed.

She was able to obtain a passport thanks to family connections, and her family left the country on the first flight out, leaving everything behind.

“I wanted to stay. I was feeling that if we die, we should all die together,” she remembered. “But my family said, ‘You have an American visa. You have an opportunity.’”

Her family fled to neighboring Rwanda to escape the violence, while Melissa returned to Binghamton. Her brothers, who participated in the protests, are on the government’s wanted list and could be killed if they return.

She’s worried about her family, but they tell her that they are safe. Still, she prays hard for them and hopes to help them in any way she can once she embarks on her career.

“I have to stay strong and if anything happens…” Her voice trailed off. “I hope they’re going to be okay.”