Just Waiting for a Miracle

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

“Just waiting for miracles. That was pretty much my day,” Marceline Washikala reflects on her life growing up in a series of refugee camps. 

Washikala was born Aug. 20, 2000, in Lugufu, a refugee camp in western Tanzania. Her parents had moved there from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 after her grandfather was killed in the First Congo War. 

“Life in a refugee camp and being a refugee is always hard,” Washikala says. “The lack of opportunity and jobs is really difficult. You wake up every day not knowing what to eat, just feeling grateful that you are alive.”

When she was 4, her parents left her with her grandmother and two aunts while they moved to a different refugee village to find better opportunities for work. Growing up with her grandmother, Washikala was rarely allowed outside to play because her grandmother was often unsure if she would be safe out there. 

She attended school in the refugee camp for two years but repeatedly failed her classes and had to repeat the third grade. 

“In the morning, I would wake up and then I had to sweep outside and in the house, wash dishes, and get ready to go to school,” Washikala says. “I would walk 20 minutes to school and go to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. I went back home at 1 (p.m.) and there would be nothing to eat. So you just sit there looking at each other, thinking ‘What are we going to eat?’”

When Washikala was 9, the refugee camp in Lugufu closed and she moved to the Nyarugusu refugee camp, where she was reunited with her parents and siblings. She is the oldest of nine children and was often too busy caring for her siblings to make friends. 

Soon after she arrived, Washikala fell ill for a year. She remembers being very afraid and thinking that she would die. Fortunately, she recovered and has remained healthy.

After a year off from school, Washikala returned to the third grade at the age of 12. Her parents ran a small business so she was responsible for waking up and caring for her younger siblings in the mornings before school. School was very difficult for her. She didn’t know anyone there and didn’t have any friends. She lacked the experience and was the oldest in her grade. 

“Seeing the adults who went to school and then didn’t have jobs,” Washikala recalls. “They were just at home doing nothing. So I thought, ‘Why go to school? I will end up being like them.’”

When she was 13, she moved to a different school district which she liked much more. The teachers were very encouraging of her and she learned much better there. 

In 2016, the family began the process of coming to the United States. In 2018, Washikala immigrated  to Salem, Oregon, with her parents, grandmother, and nine younger siblings. 

Adapting to a new culture and new language was quite challenging at first. Although Washikala saw her friends succeed after attending high school, she was told that because she was 18 she would be unable to attend school and could only earn her GED diploma. However, when Washikala met Nadia, a Tanzanian employee for the school district who works with refugees in Salem, Nadia helped her enroll in the 12th grade at North Salem High School, and Washikala’s life began to turn around. 

In 2021, Washikala graduated from high school and currently attends Chemeketa Community College in Salem where she will graduate with her associate degree in business later this year so that she can help her mother to open a market for African food. Washikala works for the Salem-Keizer School District as a language specialist for families who speak Swahili but plans to move to Portland, where she will attend Portland State University and study social work. 

She attends the First Free Methodist Church and works as the director of the Uhuru Youth Choir. Founded in 2019 by Esperance Kouka, a musician from West Africa, the choir is made up of people from Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique, Egypt, and Kenya. They sing gospel music in various languages at churches, festivals, and hospitals in the Salem area. 

“I used to sing back home, but when I came here, I didn’t have any way to sing,” Washikala says. “So I joined because it’s something I like to do and I wanted a place where I could sing with others.”

Looking back at all that she has accomplished — while also looking ahead — Washikala says  “no matter what people say, just keep going. Follow your dreams.”