Congolese immigrant to speak at English learners event

posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016 in  College News

By: Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

WATERLOO—Christophe Shabani Kumbelu was college educated and worked as an accountant in his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When he fled Congo and arrived in the United States in February 2014, though, it was like starting over.

Days after flying into Chicago, Kumbelu connected with a fellow Congolese immigrant who brought him to Waterloo to find work. Because his English was very limited, they turned to Tyson Fresh Meats, where he started a job working on the line. Kumbelu later enrolled in the English language learners program at Hawkeye Community College’s Metro Center and is now taking classes on the main campus.

“When I came to the United States, my goal was to be an accountant,” he said. Kumbelu is making progress toward that goal, with plans to transfer to the University of Northern Iowa in the fall and begin work as a teller at Veridian Credit Union.

The 47-year-old will be telling his story Wednesday and striving to encourage those enrolled in or finishing the English language learners’ program. Kumbelu will be the student speaker at the first ELL Next Step Ceremony. About 125 people will be recognized for completing or participating in programs, earning scholarships, becoming citizens and serving as student ambassadors.

“This is also the first year that Hawkeye has offered what’s called the Next Step scholarship,” said Anna Laneville, a transition specialist at the Metro Center. ELL students who are accepted into Hawkeye can get three free credits when they sign up for six. “It’s just support that Hawkeye is showing for immigrants and refugees.” Kumbelu is one of 22 people receiving that scholarship.

The 10:30 a.m. event is at the Waterloo Center for the Arts, 225 Commercial St. The public is invited to attend.

Students being recognized are a fraction of the 562 enrolled in the ELL program this school year. “We currently have 53 first languages and students from 38 different countries,” said Laura Hidlebaugh, ELL and family literacy coordinator. “If I didn’t work here, I wouldn’t have any idea of the diversity here in Waterloo.”

The growing number of Congolese enrolled in the program account for 25 percent of the students, she said. Burmese and Latino students account for 40 and 30 percent of the enrollment, respectively.

Although there is an ongoing civil war in Congo, Kumbelu worked in the relative safety of the capital, Kinshasa. But he sought a diversity visa to the U.S. to escape from the corruption throughout the society and was chosen by lottery. Because Kumbelu’s first language is French and his bachelor’s degree in finance was earned outside of the U.S., he wasn’t prepared to work in his chosen profession upon arrival here.

“We are really grateful to Tyson, because there is not a requirement of language to work at Tyson,” he said.

He is thankful for the Congolese congregation at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Metro Center, both places he found encouragement to learn English. Kumbelu enrolled in an intermediary ELL class and then a hybrid ELL-college preparatory class.

“When I came to Metro, they told me ‘You can do it.’ That’s why those words gave me hope, that I can do something better in this country,” he said. “It just gives me that power inside to overcome those obstacles. If you don’t have these people who can encourage you, it’s not easy.”

He studied English for eight months before enrolling in classes at the main campus. The courses have “helped me to adjust my level, my skills in writing and math.”

It has been challenging to take morning classes and study while working second shift, often well past midnight. “Normally, it should be easy if my only occupation was studying,” said Kumbelu.

“For me, it’s going to be a good day to give my testimony,” he said, and “to encourage others it’s possible to study here. I’m very happy to speak at that event.”


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