As part of Black History Month, we’ve asked a few of the youth in the refugee community to tell us about their experience learning about it. At World Relief, we work to honor and include all cultures and heritage, and celebrating Black history is just one way to do so. The first in a series of three, Emilienne, or Emily as she’s called in the U.S., tells us what Black History Month means to her in addition to her own culture.
At age thirteen, Emily Yope and her family moved to Memphis. For years, her family had been working to complete the paperwork necessary to move to a new country in hopes of avoiding the conflict in their home, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Upon her arrival, Emily immediately wanted to return to her old home.
“I wanted to go back. The first day, everything was different: the food, the people, the language, the house and school,” Emily said. “But with time, I’ve gotten used to it, and now I like it here.”
What once seemed foreign has slowly grown to feel normal—speaking English instead of French or Swahili, eating pizza, even wearing different clothes. She’s been able to incorporate aspects of her own culture, such as continuing to make the traditional dish fufu, a pastry often served with meat and a sauce, alongside these new American traditions.
However, it’s been more than just adapting to American culture. In school, she’s also been introduced to Black culture and history during Black History Month.
“They talked about it in history classes, and they had programs for it,” said Emily, a senior at Central High School. “They celebrated it on Fridays after school. People sang and acted out important moments that happened. [They] recited poems.”
Out of all of this, the moments that stood out to her the most were the ones when words were put into action: “I love Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman. They stood up and did something. They stood up for themselves.”
As a student also coming from a different culture, Emily understands how essential it is to learn about others and value their differences.
“It’s important [to learn about Black history]. It’s cool to learn the cultures and history of people,” said Emily, now 18. “Their culture is where they came from—how life has been since they got here, and how it’s going.”
Over time, Emily would like to see some of her own culture or that of her fellow refugees included as well: “When it comes to my skin color, I’m one of them. But when it comes to my actual culture and traditions, it’s different.”
Some of those differences can be seen in something as simple as a name. In America, when you meet someone, you automatically call them by their name. In the DRC, however, you wouldn’t necessarily call someone by their name. If they’re older than you, for example, you would call them aunt or uncle.
“I had to get used to that,” Emily said with a laugh. “You get all these uncles that you don’t know, but just because they’re older than you, you call them uncle.”
Although this is just one of many examples Emily shared, there are certain things from her home that can still be applied to the U.S. today. The DRC has thousands of tribes, and each one of them has their own culture.
“People look the same, but this person belongs here, and that person belongs there,” Emily explained. “But when they meet, they’re all the same people. In America, it’s the same.”
Some people may be from Memphis, and others from California, but they all still hold certain values and cultural traditions in common such as the way they dress or the food they eat. In a way, Emily said, it’s similar to her home. Everyone has different cultures and stories, as can be seen with Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month, but everyone is still American.
These cultural differences are part of what makes America the United States of America, and, when the country was founded nearly 250 years ago, everyone who came did so with the hope of a better life, just as Emily and her family did.
Today, we celebrate those who came in addition to those who fought for a better life, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the many others that came before and after them.
“I would love to go back and live in that time,” Emily said. “The fact that some people had to sacrifice to live better . . . I would love to do that, to ensure that my grandkids live a good life.”
One day, Emily plans to do just that by returning and helping those in her home country. But for the moment, she’s taking notes during this Black History Month and continuing to embrace the different cultures surrounding her in her new home, Memphis.
Bailey Clark serves as the Communications Coordinator for World Relief Memphis. With a background in journalism and advertising, she is passionate about storytelling and its power to make a difference.
Photo by Emily Frazier