Natacha Nikokeza, 42, refugee and advocate
After more than a decade of living in Greensboro, there are still little things that remind Natacha Nikokeza she is in a different world. Like her boys’ constant need to be ferried to and fro.
In her native Burundi, children were more independent, walking to school and coming home for lunch on their own.
“I find that challenging for me being a parent in the U.S., because of the culture I was raised in was different; it was a big adjustment.” she says.
At her gig at the Center for New North Carolinians, Natacha is helping refugees like her navigate their new lives in ways big and small.
Burundi is a small, densely-populated African nation sandwiched between Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For much of Natacha’s life, the country has been in a state of political upheaval.
Natacha grew up the first born in a family of five. She wanted to be a lawyer.
“I was really into helping people — especially women. In Burundi, a lot of women are uneducated. I felt like they were taken advantage of,” she said. “I felt like I wanted to be a voice for them.”
Natacha and her family fled to Kenya in 2006 and started the resettlement process with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) immediately. “It’s a very long process,” she says. “It takes time and it takes lots of interviews. Lots of checking to make sure your story is accurate.”
“It was a very tough time. Everything changed overnight,” she says. “I went from going to work peacefully, coming home, and being very happy in providing for my family to not knowing what is going to happen to me or my family.”
They were brought to Greensboro the night President Obama was elected. The African Services Coalition resettled them in an apartment complex that was not great, but her family was safe.
“We have been able to make Greensboro home and we love it!”
Natacha soon started volunteering with resettlement agencies like Church World Services and interpreting for other refugees. She speaks six languages, including languages spoken by many fellow African immigrants such as, Swahili, Kinyamulenge, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi as well as French and English.
Natacha studied American law at Wake Forest while her Husband got a job teaching French.
Now she works for UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians. She coordinates programs at the Glen Haven and Legacy Crossing community centers. The centers provide programs for adults such as English classes, cultural education, employment readiness classes and other health and safety services for refugees and immigrants, as well as tutoring and other youth programs.
“The neighborhoods look like the neighborhood I lived in when I first got here…It felt very natural to work on these programs,” Natacha says. “I know how that feels like. When I’m approaching people, I share my story with them. That opens the door and they feel very comfortable sharing their stories. They start telling me the needs they have. I work beside them and hold their hands and make sure their needs are met.”
Natacha also manages a women’s support group for Congolese women called Umoja. Support faculty from UNCG, NC A&T, UNC-Chapel Hill, NCSU help provide education to the group members. The group started meeting at people’s apartment at Legacy Crossing. Just women getting together, having food, putting on their African attire and even hosts baby showers to make sure expectant mothers have everything they need. Now the group meets at the community centers as it has grown bigger.
“It gives them a way of knowing that there are not alone, we help each other’s out,” she says. “We share our experiences.”