Georges Budagu Makoko was born and raised in the mountainous Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he lived and studied for several years before a brutal conflict erupted. After barely surviving waves of violence, he emigrated to Portland, escaping the horrors that have killed five million of his countrymen since 2002. He wrote a book about his immigration journey called Ladder to the Moon, titled that way because for Makoko, traveling to America seemed impossible.
Recently, Makoko launched Amjambo Africa!, a newspaper dedicated to this mission which is published in four languages and features “on the ground” stories from Portland’s African community.
Tell me what you’re trying to do with your human rights nonprofit, the Ladder to the Moon Network.
The network came out of my book that I published back in 2013, Ladder to the Moon.
When I moved to Portland (in 2003), I was shocked by the fact that not many people knew what took place in my country, or in the neighboring countries of Burundi or Rwanda.
For the last 22 years in those areas, seven million people have been killed from the conflicts. The Rwandan genocide spilled over into the Congo. But people here generally have no idea. So what Ladder to the Moon tries to do is raise awareness. I want to send a message that people who are coming to America from Central Africa are not just coming for economic opportunities, they are escaping horrors. They just want to find new homes.
Once you arrived to Portland you faced challenges of a different kind. Can you talk about them?
The first major challenge was learning English. I was 29 years old when I came here, and I had to learn a new language from scratch. It was horribly challenging. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was. I had a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, but when I arrived I felt pushed back, and fell behind.
Is that a common challenge for new immigrants? Being highly qualified for jobs but unable to find work because of the language barrier?
Yes. You can understand the concepts — math, science, business — because they’re the same everywhere, but what you don’t have is the language. Then you can merge into a denial mode, because you don’t want to start back at the beginning of your career process. Take a look at the companies and organizations in Portland and see how many immigrants are occupying leadership positions. You won’t find many.
Immigrants can feel like they know things from their education, but at the same time some can feel ignorant because they can’t communicate with anyone. It’s very tough to be in that situation because you can become scared to talk to people. Because of this, some immigrants stay isolated in their own communities.
You’ve been a Portlander for over a decade now. What does your work with other immigrants look like?
I’m trying to give immigrants advice and tell them to stay positive during the language learning process. Encourage them to constantly learn. I tell them not to rely on solely on their communities. They should engage the Americans. Talk with the locals. Be friendly with them so you can learn from them. I tell them to read books and watch TV with the mindset of learning English. That’s my message. Some people do understand, but others refuse.
How can Americans who were born here make this process easier for immigrants and show support?
They should be patient, but also engage them in a friendly way. If you have a co-worker from the immigrant community, just approach them like you would your friends. There’s a lot they can offer you. Just talking with them helps them learn English. Americans tend to be skeptical in engaging. But if they tried to communicate more it would make things easier for immigrants.
Have you seen these viral videos coming out more frequently than usual it seems of racist Americans berating immigrants for speaking their native language? How much of an impact do stories of those incidents have on the immigrant community?
Yes, I have. It’s very discouraging. Having experienced working in a hostile environment, I always think that [racists] don’t know what they’re doing. If they would be mindful, and set themselves to learn what types of places these immigrants are coming from, they would learn something. Even those that call themselves native to one country can trace their origins to somewhere else in the world. Nobody can guarantee that in their lifetime they’ll never have to move because of war or famine.
I often read stories about immigrants being a benefit to the economy of the state they move into, which of course is true. But is there anything frustrating our misleading in the framing of immigrants in that way?
Yes, we want to be first seen as human. When you think of us as just an economic it tends to dilute our humanity.
What is the mission of the newspaper you publish, Amjambo Africa!?
We want to bring information from on-the-ground in immigrant communities into the mainstream. We profile successful stories of immigrants and make sure we all understand the benefit of living together by highlighting the culture differences. It’s for everybody.
We want to take that fear about immigrants away. We’re not here to take your resources. We want to show the horrific conditions that immigrants are escaping from. When people understand that, they tend to be more inclusive and embracing.
Please read Amjambo Africa. It’s a very good tool to learn about our cultural differences, which we all should be doing.
Pearls of Portland is a series that focuses on artists, activists, and cultural agents in Maine. Wanna nominate a Pearl? Email email@example.com
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