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A Harrison high school senior and refugee talks about having a peaceful heart

DiverseCity

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By the time he was 15, Cyalibwa Mahuno had encountered more atrocities and hardship than most privileged Americans will ever have a frame of reference for. At the time, Cyalibwa lived in a refugee camp in Burundi, Africa, where he had scraped by since he was 3, after he and his family fled the war-torn Congo on foot and by ship.

Cyalibwa’s (pronounced kia-lee-bwa) family was given a monthly allotment of food that included things like fufu (a dough made from ground cassava and plantains), beans and a couple of bars of soap. Cyalibwa says he thanks God for the Burundi government allowing him to go to school for free. But if he needed a notebook for school, or a pair of shoes, his family would have to sell part of their allotment to buy those things.

Through struggles, Cyalibwa’s mother always drove home the importance of being educated. For people like her, growing up in a war zone, accessing a safe classroom environment had been virtually impossible.

An industrious woman, she would often take money from selling their commodities and buy cash crops like cassava leaves and sugar cane — things she could resell to the people of Burundi at higher prices, in an attempt to make ends meet. If they didn’t sell, she’d have to barter their next month’s allotment to get by.

But despite his mom’s commitment, Cyalibwa’s dreams were stifled by survival needs at the camp. “Dreams are hard [unlike in] America where you can say, ‘I want to be a doctor,’” he explains.
Now 18, and a Harrison High School senior, he says “peace is everything.”

I first came to know Cyalibwa by reading an essay he wrote last year for a contest run by the Youth Transformation Center, which promotes and facilitates restorative justice practices in schools. The contest was open to kids who were previously a part of YTC’s restorative justice programs at Harrison High School, the Career Readiness Academy, Sierra High School and Carmel Middle School. The essay contest was intended to help kids demonstrate what they had learned from YTC. Thirty-two kids participated; winners each received a $100 gift certificate to the Chapel Hills Mall, and $25 donated to their schools. But I believe the biggest prize lies in the lessons.
D-2’s former superintendent, Andre Spencer, brought YTC into his district to help kids who wrong others (or are involved in conflicts) to learn accountability and empathy and to make a plan to repair the damage their actions have caused. Often, kids who work with YTC would otherwise be suspended or expelled because of infractions. As I was going through the kids’ essays to write this story, Cyalibwa’s insights about the importance of peace caught my attention. “Being peaceable means being committed to growing,” he wrote.

Cyalibwa and his family moved to Colorado Springs when he was a freshman. At the time, he knew very little English, and was often called the N-word or made fun of because he was African. These experiences made it hard to connect with people, which is why when he heard about YTC as a sophomore he was eager to learn.

“When I hear we were going to make peace to the people of my school, I started to be scared because it is not easy to forgive and I asked myself a lot of questions,” he wrote in his essay. “‘Is it easy for me to talk to others?’ I always worried about thinking to talk to someone, and especially someone I do not know. They might ask: ‘What should I talk about? How can I set up a conversation? How can I maintain the conversation? How will they react to what I say?’”

Reading Cyalibwa’s story, I thought that a lot of our young people are born into their own “war zones.” They’ve been traumatized in numerous ways and are still expected to demonstrate accountability, even if the people who have hurt them were never accountable.

A lot of these kids have been attacked not just by people, but by systems and structural racism. Do they deserve less compassion than those they lash out at?

Restorative justice is about rethinking our system of punishment and moving toward understanding for both perpetrator and victim that leads to reconciliation. The focus moves from one person to all parties. The aim is to learn communication skills that help kids navigate through trauma, connect and heal.

Cyalibwa graduates this year and is currently looking for college scholarships. He’ll start this journey at Pikes Peak Community College, with the dream of one day attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Today, he is free to dream of becoming a nurse or doctor — he says he’s been told by many family members that he demonstrates extraordinary care for people.

He takes it a day at a time though. “If you don’t have peace with yourself,” he says, “it makes being at peace with anybody else impossible.”

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