Student found haven in U.S.

April 24, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

MONT ALTO, PA. - Aline Niyonkuru couldn't speak English when she came to America from her native Burundi in the fall of 2001 to live with an aunt.

Niyonkuru, 23, a sophomore at Penn State Mont Alto, is fluent in Kirundi, her native tongue, and in French, the official second language of the small central African nation.

Slightly smaller than Maryland, Burundi is bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. Lake Tanganyika is within its borders.


Burundi, according to a CIA Web site, has been wracked by civil war since 1993, a war that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Burundians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

The fighting, which continues today on a lesser scale, erupted in 1993 between the Hutus, who represent 85 percent of Burundi's population, and the Tutsis, who represent 14 percent of the population, Niyonkuru said.

"It's two tribes fighting for power," she said.

Twa, or Pygmy, make up the remaining 1 percent, Niyonkuru said.

Burundi's population is about 6.2 million, according to the CIA Web site.

"Many people are aware of the genocide that happened in Rwanda and the war in Congo," Niyonkuru said. "Little do they know that the same thing happened in Burundi."

"I was lucky," she said. "I lived in a village when the war started. We could hear people screaming in their houses. They were coming to kill us. We hid in the bushes."

Niyonkuru lost two cousins and an uncle in the war.

She and her family, including three brothers and two sisters, endured the war for nine years.

"I was afraid I could die any day," Niyonkuru said. "I am thankful that I survived the war after spending many days and nights in the bushes hiding. When you are in a situation like that, you have to make the best of it, make life go on. You have to keep going.

"When I arrived here, I finally felt secure and hopeful about my future."

Her aunt, who lives in Yardley, Pa., in Bucks County, brought Niyonkuru to live with her and keep her safe.

She learned to speak English quickly.

"I had to learn," she said. "Everyone around me spoke English - my aunt and uncle and cousins."

Niyonkuru spent an extra year in high school to have a better chance at getting into college, she said.

She was accepted at Penn State, but there was no housing available at the main campus in University Park, Pa., she said. Space was available at the Mont Alto campus.

Niyonkuru started in math, then switched her major to international politics. She moves to University Park in September to finish her four-year degree. She hopes to earn a master's degree and Ph.D. in international business, she said.

She likes the Mont Alto campus.

"It's a small community," she said. "I know almost everybody here and classes are small. You can interact with the professors."

Niyonkuru is financing her education with scholarships, financial assistance and, eventually, loans, she said.

She also works on campus as a resident assistant.

Despite the danger, Niyonkuru wants to return to Burundi this summer to launch her Burundi English Project.

"It will enhance spoken and written English, as well as expose American culture to Burundian university students," she said.

Niyonkuru wants to return for eight weeks during the next four summers to get the project up and running, she said.

"I believe English is an important language widely used all around the world," she said. Not being able to speak it is an academic and social handicap, she said.

Burundi is surrounded by English-speaking countries. The ability to speak English will give Burundian university students educational opportunities in other countries, Niyonkuru said.

The students she teaches in the project will, in turn, teach others, she said.

Niyonkuru needs $8,000 this year for travel, living expenses and equipment and materials.

She said she has $1,000 so far.

Harambee in Progress, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, is providing guidance, supervision and evaluation of the project. It also will handle donations for Niyonkuru's project through its Web site,

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