Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Unlikely Champion

I was invited to write this blog post in advance of the opening of a new Disney film 'The Queen of Katwe". This is the story of Phiona Mutesi who overcame incredible odds to become an international heroine, an ordinary hero, an unlikely champion. She serves as an inspiration to many young women around the world. Her story involves a church and a chess game, and someone who was willing to take the time to teach her the game, but more importantly to believe in herself. She started competing in tournaments and eventually became an international champion. She lives in Katwe, a slum in Uganda, proving that champions come from the most unlikely places. The movie opens on Friday, Sept 30. View the featurette here.

My challenge was to write about an ordinary hero, an unlikely champion: someone who has overcome extraordinary odds. The biggest problem was picking the right person. It could be Sara, my wife, who left her home in Spain to come with me to wherever the Air Force might decide to send me, she learned English and now has a Master's degree and teaches English as a Second Language. It could be Hannah, who came years ago to this country as a refugee from Nigeria, and has become a citizen, completed a college degree, and is gainfully employed. Oh, she has also raised two children, mostly as a single mom; those children are both college students and making their mother proud. Or maybe it's Lina, who came to Ogden years ago as a refugee from the Congo... a refugee who was also a single mom with several children. She also has adapted to being here, and now serves with a refugee resettlement agency as a case manager for about 75 newly arrived refugees coming to Ogden.
And it's one of these refugees that i want to write about. I asked him to give me some information and for permission to write about him. Janvier came to Ogden Utah, just a few months ago and, because he had studied English while his family lived in a camp in Rwanda, is now enrolled at a local university, in the LEAP program (Learning English for Academic Purposes. He is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who spent years 11 years in that camp. Did I mention that he is very smart? He scored so well on the national advancement exam that all students take to be able to continue their education after elementary school that he was invited to apply for a scholarship; he was one of 5 students out of 200 from the Refugee camp who was awarded that scholarship, and sent to study at a private boarding school.

Obviously there were adjustments to make when they got to the camp. We go to camp on vacation, or for a church camp or space camp, or a hunting camp, but we go because we want to, we go to enjoy ourselves, we go to learn. As I write this I'm at a Camp - a Christian Camp and Conference Center. I’m here for a conference-- Monday to Wednesday, where I have already learned a lot from the speakers that have been paid to instruct, educate, entertain and edify us.  But that wasn't the case for Janvier.  His country was a war zone, his family had the choice whether or not to leave, but it wasn't much of a choice, staying was a much worse alternative than leaving everything behind and heading to a place where there was at least a modicum of hope.  

At least in the camp there was food, not much, and it only arrived once a month, or when the United Nations could get it there. The family lived in tents, and things we take for granted, like education and medical care weren't always available. Most refugees hope to be able to return home, to the land of their birth, but when the war continues for years, decades, and even generations, that hope gradually fades, and when the notification comes that you have been selected for resettlement to yet another country, that hope typically disappears. 

 In Janvier's case they were in the camp, waiting, for news, 11 years of knowing they were in the camp for an indefinite period of time, always hoping that it wouldn't be much longer before they received news that one day soon they would be moving to a better place, to a better life. Even after they were told that they were being processed for a move to the US, they weren't told where until almost a month before they actually got on a plane.  As Janvier describes that waiting process, he told me that he likes to read and so he was reading all that he could find about the 50 different states. He liked what he read about Utah, and was pleased when he heard that he and his family would be coming to Utah, (there's snow in the mountains, but he may not be quite so happy with it when it comes to the valley).

Janvier speaks English, but his parents, his siblings, his nephew don't; their heart language is Kinyarwanda, and they also speak Kiswahili. As the English speaker in the family, he gets to translate, he gets to help the family, and often he helps other Congolese refugee families. Having studied other languages, I know what a challenge it can be to learn a new language, the grammar, the vocabulary, the slang, and worst of all understanding jokes.

There are a lot of things we take for granted here, but in some parts of the world, including in refugee camps, those things we take for granted are seen as luxuries. Some of those luxuries that Janvier's family is enjoying include things like TV, fans, stove with an oven, comfortable beds, and even a car (Janvier is learning to drive!) There are opportunities for education, and even employment. Working doesn't always sound like a luxury, but in the camp they didn't work. Janvier works in the restaurant at a local hotel, and 6 members of his family (12 total) are working. Refugees come to this country ready and willing to work, wanting to contribute to their new community. Within just a few months we have people with limited English employed and not needing assistance from the programs designed to give refugees a new start.

Most of us have dreams, some bigger than others, and my unlikely champion is no different. He wants to finish the LEAP program, study biomedical engineering, and then go Medical school.  I asked Janvier what his long term goals are, and he has some simple ones: 1) contribute to the community, 2) help people who suffer as he as suffered, and 3) -last and most important: serve God in any way that he can. He didn't tell me this, but I have heard from other people that he's already helping others. He visits with other families and because of his English can translate and help them through the red tape, he has also showed some of his fellow refugees how to navigate the bus system. He has translated during orientation meetings, and along with members of his family, performed at a community event.   

In the movie "The Queen of Katwe", Phiona becomes an unlikely champion because there was someone there to encourage her to believe in herself and walk with her as she overcame the obstacles that had been put in her way.  Janvier and the other newly resettled refugees in Ogden get help from Catholic Community Services (A U.N. designated Resettlement Agency), their mentor families, and the neighbors who reach out to welcome them. In some cases, there is also a church family, and that's been the case for Janvier and his family.
Leaving a war-torn country, traveling many miles on foot, then spending over a decade in a camp in a different country, and now, he has overcome the odds and is on his way to earning a degree that will allow him to serve others.  

Janvier is my candidate for "unlikely champion"! 

We all know an unlikely champion. Their struggles have been different from those of Janvier, or those of Phiona. Why not try to find a way to encourage that person in your life who has overcome extraordinary obstacles? Both of you will be better off because you take a moment to put a smile on someone’s face.

Remember “The Queen of Katwe opens Friday Sept 30 in theaters nationwide. 


  1. I hope and pray he can succeed at all of his goals. What an inspirational story already.

  2. I hope and pray he can succeed at all of his goals. What an inspirational story already.