Pascal Ramadhani identifies as Congolese, but he was born in a small village in Tanzania called Kigoma. With its vast mountains and miles of blue water, an image search of the scenery paints a striking contrast against the refugee camp he spent the first ten years of his life in.
He grew up under the watchful eyes of his community members. Everybody was “always outside,” more like family than neighbors. They helped care for Pascal and his four younger brothers when their mother and grandmother were busy.
But for young Pascal, the social pressure of constant observation sometimes had an opposite effect. He struggled to find a place where he was allowed to be himself.
His school’s rules were more like laws. And as the eldest sibling, he felt guilty that his mother had to pay for five school uniforms on her own.
“I felt like I couldn’t be free, couldn’t do anything,” he said, “it felt like nobody could help me out.”
Still, Pascal prefers to focus on the good that got him through hard times. From “day one,” he wanted to be a dancer. Dancing and adventuring with his friends were opportunities to leave the day behind and cherish the moments where he could truly be himself.
“It was a bit rough, or tough, but it was fun at the same time. When I was young, I remember my friends and I used to go hunting, and climb mountains… then we were free, you know?” Pascal recalled.
He never imagined he would live in the U.S. After transferring to a different camp, a plane that was supposed to go back to Congo changed its flight route. Then, his family saw their name posted on the resettlement board.
“We didn’t ever think we would come here, we never even talked about it. They always post on the board to let people know who will come, but you have to have a case, a reason,” he said, I believe in God, in Jesus Christ – if it wasn’t for Him I wouldn’t be here.’”
In 2010, they landed in Chicago in the middle of winter, with staff and volunteers from the World Relief DuPage office there to greet them. The snow-covered skyscrapers were like nothing he’d ever seen before. Even his new home was a lot to take in.
“The food was different, and in Africa when you want to get food or water, you have to go out. Here, everything is in the house,” Pascal said, “then, Freshman year, no English, it was tough. Imagine you go to Tanzania and don’t speak Swahili.”
He knew that the next few years would be filled with obstacles. But this time, Pascal didn’t feel helpless – he felt empowered by the chance to build his own support system.
He surrounded himself with people who spoke English and joined the cheer team because he liked “doing flips.” After graduating high school with plenty of new friends, Pascal was accepted into DuPage College. His family was his number one priority, and with enough space to flourish, they had grown closer than ever.
His mother’s health problems started during his second year of college. He paused his education to care for her and found opportunity in the Quad Cities
“My mom is the one who raised us. She’s the greatest. Sometimes, when I look at her, I feel women are powerful, because imagine raising five kids by yourself. She gave us everything that we ever could have dreamed of,” Pascal said.
The encouraging staff at World Relief DuPage inspired him to pursue a career in sociology. After a year at Blackhawk, he applied at World Relief Quad Cities. He “couldn’t believe it” when he got a call back. It was a “great moment.”
Pascal hopes to get married, start a family of his own, and go back to school to finish what he started. He became a U.S. Citizen in 2020, and hopes his story will help others like him.
“There’s a lot of people like me, so hopefully another person can hear my story and know that I’ve been there and that everything works out. That’s why I want to help all these newcomers, because it was tough. I want to give back.”
Dancing is no longer the only way for Pascal to be free. In giving back, he’s finally found his niche.
Written by Erica Parrigin