TOPSHAM — In 2014, 16-year-old Jessie Mujambere and his older brother arrived in Washington, D.C., unable to speak English — and the uncle they expected to greet them was nowhere to be found.
The brothers fled to the U.S. from the war-torn African country of Burundi to find a better, safer life. And it’s clear from a few minutes chatting with Mujambere, who graduated from Mt. Ararat High School on June 10, that he’s found a good home in Topsham with his foster family.
Still, his thoughts often go back to the land of his birth, and to the family with whom he’s had contact only once since coming here. The whereabouts and safety of his parents and siblings remain a question.
Both brothers, meanwhile, are here legally, waiting for their asylum cases to be heard. It’s a process that can take years.
Burundi, which is bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, became an independent nation in 1962. Ethnic tensions led to civil war in 1994. The election of President Pierre Nkurunziza to an unprecedented third term in 2015 infuriated opponents, who deemed the act unconstitutional.
“People have fled the country, and others have died in that year, 2015,” Mujambere said May 24 in an interview at Mt. Ararat High School. “It’s really not safe there.”
Jessie and Franck, who is two years older, came to America in advance of the election.
“My parents wanted me to be in a safe place,” Mujambere said. He didn’t mind leaving home at the time, because he fully expected his parents and four other siblings to join them.
But they remain behind. They could be either in Burundi or Rwanda, Mujambere said, and the American Red Cross is helping their foster family track them down.
Winter was approaching, and Mujambere didn’t have a coat, when they arrived in the U.S.
“We couldn’t even speak (the language),” Mujambere recalled. “We didn’t even ask anybody (for help), because we knew this is a country that speaks English.”
Mujambere spent about a month in a Portland teen shelter while his brother, then 18, sometimes had to sleep in an adult shelter.
Mujambere completed his freshman year at Deering High School in Portland, where social worker Jane Hubley, recognizing that the brothers needed to stick together, took them into her home.
Hubley’s house was “close to school, and we could have food” and a place to sleep, Mujambere recalled. “She was a really nice woman; we’re still in contact with her.”
They have heard from their family once, in an email from their father in December 2014. But Mujambere figures the email account has since been closed because the government controls such communications.
A chance meeting led to the brothers’ move to Topsham.
Erika Tepler, a teacher at Deering, learned that Mujambere was in need of a guardian, and asked her parents to assume that role.
Mujambere soon met Erika’s parents — Sheldon and state Rep. Denise Tepler — with whom he and Franck spent Independence Day 2015.
“That’s when I asked to live with them, that day,” Mujambere said. “They didn’t expect me asking them … (but) they were just OK with that.”
Maya Tepler, Erika’s younger sister, is now directing and co-producing “From Away,” a film about the brothers’ experience.
“I call them sisters now,” Mujambere said of the Teplers’ three daughters, “because we’re like a family.”
Soon after moving in with the Teplers in August 2015, Mujambere started his sophomore year at Mt. Ararat, where he played on the varsity basketball team. Franck graduated in 2016 and now attends Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.
Despite struggling through his classes at first because of the language barrier, Mujambere worked hard and made gains, said Peggy Callahan, head of the world language department at Mt. Ararat and a mentor to Mujambere.
“I’m astounded by his growth, and it’s so nice for me to hear him express himself in the way that he’s able (to do so) now,” she said. “Every day that he’s come to school, he’s always had just a big smile on his face, a very positive attitude about everything, no matter what challenges that he’s had to deal with every day.”
Excited to be finishing high school, Mujambere said he will study business administration at Central Maine Community College in the fall, and perhaps transfer to a university afterward.
Looking back on his journey from Burundi to Topsham, Mujambere said he feels like he’s packed a full decade into the past few years.
“It went really fast, the way it happened,” he said. “I’m lucky to have Denise and Sheldon, to be able to accomplish this.”
Asked what advice he would give to a person who has just arrived in America, Mujambere thought carefully.
“Don’t give up, no matter how it is,” he said, noting that prayer got him and his brother through some tough circumstances. “We know we still have a long way to go, to find life and be able to have our own things.”
Jessie Mujambere, who graduated from Mt. Ararat High School on Sunday, June 10, has found friends and a foster family in Topsham. He and his brother escaped from Burundi in 2014. (Alex Lear/The Forecaster)