World Refugee Day: Terence

The last 15 years have been busy for Terence. He moved to Chicago and started a family. He got his degree and is working toward a PHD in community psychology. He’s used his knowledge of five different languages to find work and build community. The days are quite demanding for the local community leader and Heartland Alliance employee.

As we honor World Refugee Day, Terence’s rise is something to celebrate. Terence is a refugee, having fled during the Burundi Civil war in the nineties. For over a decade, he lived in a number of refugee camps across Tanzania and Zambia, with few resources and virtually no support.

Terence’s new life began in 2004, when his resettlement paperwork suddenly processed in a rapid fashion – throwing him on a plane and flying him to Chicago with little to no information. That evening, he was brought to a small third-floor apartment on the northside, furnished with just an old fold-up couch and a refrigerator stocked with food. Terence did not eat that evening.

“I was still getting over all that had just happened. you cannot say you have an egg until you have it in your hand. That uncertainty of my resettlement was very, very stressful.”

It was difficult learning a new way of life in those first few years. Coming from a decade of hunger, violence, and uncertainty left Terence without much trust for his new home. But the city quickly welcomed Terence with open arms. Volunteers and teachers showed him community – and supported his incredible capacity to learn and grow. New friends from local immigrant and refugee communities taught him he was far from alone. Resettlement social workers ensured that he had the resources necessary to thrive.

One woman in particular made the biggest impact in his life. A retired Truman College professor took him under her wing after a chance encounter, bumping into one another in the school’s hallways. She would go on to show him his new city – teaching him about public transportation, American culture, language quirks and the like.

“She really helped me, and I’m so happy to have had her – I call her my mom. It inspired me to do the work that I do today. She told me I would be a good social worker, and now I am here today.”

Terence has been working for Heartland Alliance for thirteen years now – as a case manager, a translator, and shelter worker. He’s used his experiences, his five different languages, and his empathic connection with fellow refugees to help countless refugees and immigrants rebuild their lives in our city.

“I’m proud to work with Heartland because I have to give back. I’ve been helped, and I need to help other people to – especially new immigrants. Heartland helps you understand that you are home. That sort of support is very important – and I can give it.”

Terence believes that his new life in Chicago would be possible without those who chose to support him in his journey – and he’s continued that welcoming tradition ever since. Refugees from all walks of life know of Terence personally, and often greet him as a mentor and good friend. The embodiment of a helping hand, Terence looks forward to his future as a psychologist that serves vulnerable populations. He believes that we all have a part in welcoming our newest neighbors, and this World Refugee Day, he looks to you as well.

“Refugees are resilient, and can thrive in any situation. All that they need are resources.  They need you. Get close to your refugee neighbors, support local agencies like Heartland Alliance, and take the initiative.”