Op-Ed

America is Starting to Feel a Lot Like Home—and That’s Not Good

When Mr Burundi moved to America he thought he was escaping violence against black bodies. What he found was something much different.

I’m a refugee.


Just over a year ago I fled my home country of Burundi when my activism against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s illegal third term landed me in trouble.

I came to the United States because it had what I needed in a new home. And I’m picky. Having lived in England, and travelled Africa, Europe and Australia, I believe I know what I’m talking about. But the recent events involving unarmed black men in America being killed by the police have left me wondering if I made the wrong decision.

Besides being a refugee I'm also black, male, and African.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect the United States to be a kind of heaven. I knew about the racism, the white privilege, and the police violence, but I always thought these were things I could “handle.” Things I could live with given my life experience as a Burundian living in Burundi.

See, where I’m from, although we do not have white privilege (because Africans run the country...well, in theory) we do have divisions based on privilege. It’s a division between the people who have political power and those who don’t. Politics run everything in Burundi.

For the past ten years, I have been more on the side of the have nots, than of the haves. So I learned how to make my way through the system—how to deal (and not to deal) with authority. I learned that the justice system isn’t really in my favor. Of course I forgot the part where I was supposed to keep my mouth shut in the face of injustice, and that oversight landed me here, in America.

Karl Chris Nsabiyumva, known on Twitter as Mr Burundi

However, being the child of a “have” of twenty years ago—before the power tables turned—I was financially well of. Therefore, my life in Burundi wasn’t much of a struggle. When you have knowledge, skills and money in Burundi, people respect you, even when you don’t hold political power. I expected it to be the same in America.

I came to the United States expecting that my British college degree, my skills and my work experience were enough to get a good paying job which would pay me a low-key but dignified and peaceful life. Well, I can still get the good paying job, but I’m beginning to have doubts about the possibility of living a dignified and peaceful life here. I’m talking about inner peace, where I don’t feel disrespected, or looked funny at when I walk or drive through a “predominantly white” environment. I experienced this a lot in England, Australia and all the other “white countries” I’ve been to (including South Africa, funny enough), but for some reason, I expected the States to be different, to be more progressive.

When I came to America, I thought that if I ever got stopped by the police, I would be nice, polite, smile, put my hands where they can see them, just like we do back home, and come out of the encounter alive. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that things are a bit different in this country.

Lately, I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror a lot wondering whether I look like a bad man. I hear all black people look the same to non-blacks anyway.

Today the news said that 136 murders have been reported in Dallas this year so far. Where I come from, when that many people die in the whole country, the United Nations calls for a Security Council meeting! Oh, and we don’t live in constant fear of an external “terrorist attack”.

The other day, my mother who stayed in Burundi (and has been following American news a lot since I came here), called and jokingly told me a Kirundi proverb which roughly translates to: you ran to a pond for shelter from the rain. Meaning, I’m pretty much facing the same dangers here as I did in Burundi (except that in Burundi I would actually die a hero of some sorts, whereas here I would be just another black man killed by the police...)

So, yes—America is starting to feel a lot like home, in the sense that I don’t feel safe in the hands of those who are supposed to protect me. One could say I’m only scared because the media “exaggerates everything,” but for all I know, that’s what the government back home says about the media too.

Black lives matter.

Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez

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