Congolese teen determined to share his own story to help others
This is a story about a student at Iroquois High School. The teen is from the Congo, where he grew up in a refugee compound. His father was a schoolteacher, there, but the compound closed due to worsening living conditions and war. He and his family transferred to another camp before coming to America – Louisville – in September 2015. He is one of eight brothers and sisters. The oldest is 22 and the youngest is his 6-month-old baby brother. Alinoti is 19 and will graduate high school in May.
When his family arrived, they had no experience with the English language and no support or resources. Alinoti said one of his family’s first challenges was navigating the TARC system to get from their house in the south end to Catholic Charities to begin their required English classes. He said they left their house with only TARC tickets and instructions to get on the No. 6 bus. It was 9 a.m. They returned at 4 p.m., never making it to their English class.
Experiences such as these have motivated Alinoti to want to help others in similar situations. He dreams of returning to his birthplace in Africa on World Refugee Day, June 20, to share his story and to help others like him.
When Tomy Baker and Katie Kone of the PAL Coalition, a Family & Children’s Place program, met Alinoti he was very shy, and he didn’t understand much English. Baker and Kone were recruiting for the PAL Center – a PAL-sponsored out of school program at Lynnhurst United Church of Christ – during lunch periods at Iroquois. The two were explaining to him about PAL and what the initials meant.
PAL represents the area the program serves, Park Hill, Algonquin, and Old Louisville, but participants changed that to “Powerful Arriving Leaders,” so Alinoti went home and Googled the words.
He found powerful to mean something that is on a high level, arriving to mean to become, and leader, well, he knew what that meant.
Alinoti wanted to learn the power to become a leader. He felt he could become a leader. He said, “This looks like me.”
Now, he feels like a leader; PAL has been able to show him that.
His family has even noticed the positive change in him, and he is able to bring what he learns home, sharing stories of advocacy, health and wellness, and healthy relationships over family dinners each night.
He describes what those family dinners used to look like. He said, “They were many, with little.”
They had one small pot between the 10 of them and few plates and utensils, so they ate in shifts, the youngest eating first. They would cook and eat, then clean the pot and plates, and then the adults would eat.
When asked why he comes to PAL, his face lights up. Because of all the opportunities he has been give since joining last year!
At first, he was nervous and needed to think about it. He didn’t know the language, so it was a little boring for him because he couldn’t understand what was going on and what everyone was saying. But, as time passed, he understood more, because PAL gave him the chance to meet new people.
Iroquois, as many multicultural schools do, has a Newcomer Academy where immigrant and refugee students are grouped; they have all their classes and lunches together. They have few opportunities to meet other people outside of their cultures, so often they end up staying with what they know; speaking the language they know and are comfortable with. Even though they are in a new and different place, they still are surrounded by “same.”
PAL was different. It gave him the chance to meet others. To meet new, interesting people, people he could learn from. He said he learns a lot from meeting others. He also learns how we can all live together.
Being in PAL has improved his knowledge because, “we learn a lot,” and this has changed his family as well. He was so excited to meet “famous people” on a trip to Kentucky’s Capitol in Frankfort last year, with PAL Key Leader Board member and state Rep. Joni Jenkins as host.
PAL has broadened his horizons. Alinoti has been able to participate in new initiatives he wouldn’t otherwise have known about. PAL sponsored him to attend PEACE Education Peer Mediation training over spring break last year and Conflict Resolution training, and now Alinoti is a peer mediator at Iroquois.
Through a partnership with the Kent School of Social Work and Family & Children’s Place, PAL has piloted a trauma impacted support group specifically for youth refugees in Louisville. Tonya Clay, an agency clinical program leader, gets help from social work students who come to the PAL Center weekly and hold group meetings for PAL refugee students.
There they can safely share their experiences growing up in camps, arriving in a foreign land, and starting over with very little. They journal, talk, and learn coping strategies they can use and share with their friends and families.
It’s because of these opportunities that Alinoti found his confidence and voice. He wants to help others in similar situations. By meeting and talking with others, he learned he is not alone and it is that feeling he wants to share with others. He said he now has the confidence to talk to a million people—to share his story of hope and inspiration. He wants to help support new refugees adjust to living in Louisville, something he did not have much help with.
He even talks of setting up a celebration event for all PAL seniors to give them the opportunity to tell their stories and how their PAL experience changed them. He came up with this on his own.
Alinoti won “Who’s Who” at Iroquois in December. This is a prestigious award, one where you have to be nominated by two separate teachers and that requires several letters of recommendation from outside organizations and individuals.
Nominees also have to have good behavior and at least a 3.0 GPA.
Alinoti goes to school each day, comes to PAL and then heads to work. Last year he asked Tomy to take him and another PAL student to EBay in Fern Valley to fill out an application for a job that paid $15 an hour. Tomy helped them with the paperwork and provided a reference.
Alinoti got the job and worked for almost a year on third shift while still in school and summer school. He then worked two jobs, one at UPS for the season and a factory in Simpsonville.
His father, a teacher in the Congo now works in a bread factory. Alinoti helps financially, splitting the bills and rent; they are the earners for their families.
Tomy said it has been awesome to watch Alinoti at the center grow from a smiling shy boy to the young man he is today. Ready and eager to learn, to speak up, and get out of his comfort zone to help others like him.
On one memorable day at the Center, a planned guest had to cancel, so students decided they wanted to play Dodgeball. Watching the PAL students playing together, laughing and sweating, being kids, and coming from all around the world, was amazing, said Tomy.
Girls from the west end who sometimes don’t come to school because watching their nieces and nephews is more important, a boy from Park Hill who had to miss school to pee “clean” for his mom to take to a job interview teaming up with teens from the Congo and Kenya and Rwanda … “it was priceless,” she said.