In 2005, Eugenie Kirenga traveled with her one-year-old son from Rwanda to the United States to visit her two sisters who were attending school in Pittsburgh, PA. But as her return date approached, news broke that Rwandan soldiers, who had left the country during the genocide, were returning to the country. Kirenga decided to remain in America, but it was incredibly hard. Her husband was still in Rwanda, and she spoke no English. Her cash dwindled and she discovered that she could not work legally.
“I began the asylum process by writing my story in my native language and asking a local Rwandan to translate it for me,” she says. She also secured an interpreter to come along to her asylum interview. She was lucky to have found this support and wonders how she would have fared without a translator. “They asked me a lot of questions,” she said.
After receiving asylum, Kirenga worked in hotel housekeeping. After six months, her husband joined her. Eugenie attended Dayton’s Emmanuel Catholic Church, where she made many new friends. This included Josephine, an elderly congregant of a neighboring church, who happily tutored her in English and supplied her with essential items such as a washer and dryer and a dining room table. “She was like a grandmother, giving our children attention and love—even gifts at Christmas,” Kirenga says. They remained close until Josephine’s passing in 2016. “We miss her every day,” says Kirenga. “She was family.”
Today, Kirenga pays that generosity forward. For example, for seven years, as an Immigrant Resource Specialist at the City of Dayton’s Welcome Dayton Program, Kirenga worked closely with the city’s immigrant population. She helped them access affordable housing, apply for benefits, and find employment. She educated them about their civil rights.
Many immigrants and refugees don’t know how to navigate the American system; they need help.Eugenie Kirenga
Kirenga says that once newcomers integrate, they become tremendous contributors as workers, taxpayers, and entrepreneurs. “Whenever I help someone resolve an issue or access housing, food or healthcare, they are so grateful,” she says. “Their lives can finally begin; that’s because Dayton is committed to making that happen.”