Refugee Brothers Thrive at UI
Patrick and George Ngalamulume — children of parents who fled Congo — hope to give back to country that took them in, fight for rights of refugees
Patrick and George have the same goals as many of their peers.
George wants to eventually study medicine after completing his pre-med and biological sciences courses at the University of Idaho. Patrick is studying international studies in hopes of enrolling in the UI College of Law next fall. The brothers and UI Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) fraternity members want to do well by their parents and give back to this country.
Even though it’s not their native country.
The Ngalamulume brothers and their family came to Idaho via Zambia as refugees from unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo nearly a decade ago. Now, they’re motivated to make sure future immigrants are able to contribute to the same American dream they’ve been able to realize.
“We don’t want to reject this opportunity,” George said.
The brothers are at different ends of the education spectrum at UI. George, 19, is a freshman who just finished his first semester of biology courses in the College of Science. Patrick, 21, will graduate in May and plans to take his law school entrance exam this spring. They are two of seven children, and the first to attend college.
Such stability is a far cry from their family’s experience before immigrating to the United States. The brothers’ parents fled Congo in the early 1990s for Zambia, where Patrick and George were born.
“If you want to know what motivates us, that’s it,” Patrick said, referencing his parents, who live and work in the Boise area. “We want to be successful in our careers so they’re taken care of.”
They remember the squalor of their living conditions in Zambia vividly. Patrick can recall the nine-member family crowding into a two-bedroom house in the inner city and walking for miles to get clean water.
“The food was hard to come by, and in order to get water you had to walk miles and miles to get to the nearest fountain,” he said.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration helped bring the family to Boise in 2008. Patrick, who turned 13 shortly after their arrival in the states, said the change in their surroundings was a culture shock. The Idaho capital city felt like something out of a television show after traveling halfway across the world.
“The moment we came here, I was passed out asleep until we arrived at the apartment they put us in,” he said. “It was an apartment complex, people of different ethnicities. When I found out we were actually in America, it took my breath away, and it’s one of my best highlights of my entire life.”
The brothers grew up speaking Swahili, Nyanja and Luba. They later learned English, which they speak fluently. Their parents, Aimerance Kanku and Francois Muteba, are school custodians in the Treasure Valley, where the rest of their siblings still live. The brothers try to make it home as often as possible.
Patrick, who will be the first member of his family to graduate college when he walks at UI’s commencement this spring, said such an accomplishment would not be possible if not for his parents and their struggles.
“I want to give my parents the world because they have sacrificed so much for my siblings and I to be in this position,” he said. “My mom is my rock, inspiration and someone I look up to the most in the world, and hopefully I can be half the person she is.”
George and Patrick sometimes feel uneasy when talking about their early life experiences, and they didn’t often bring it up while going to school in the Treasure Valley. Many of their classmates and fellow members of their Mu Iota FIJI chapter didn’t know the brothers were refugees until recently.
But they are happy to advocate for others like them when asked. They describe their efforts as a way to show that refugees can make a difference when given the opportunity to do so.
“A lot of my friends didn’t know I as a refugee,” Patrick said. “I’m a big proponent for bringing refugees here, because everyone can fulfill the American dream who comes here.”
“Pay it forward,” George said. “America gave us a wonderful opportunity. We want to pay it forward.”
Both brothers became U.S. citizens in 2013. Patrick chose to attend UI for the same reason many others do — it wasn’t very far away from home and it had the Martin Institute and International Studies Program in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, which he wanted to take part in before advancing to law school.
Patrick said their time at UI has allowed them to meet students from a variety of different cultures. That bond has also been forged in their fraternity, where Patrick and George both live.
“That’s provided me with the brotherhood I can rely on both now and when I graduate,” Patrick said. “I have people who will support me now in whatever I do.”
Those FIJI brothers, and a few alumni, have already come together to help Patrick in a time of need. A fraternity scholarship allowed Patrick to stay in school a few years ago when he was struggling financially. His experience led to the creation of The Mu Iota Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta Perpetual Endowment Scholarship Program, funded by FIJI alumni, for future generations of Idaho FIJIs who need financial assistance to stay in school.
Both brothers work on campus to pay for their education. Patrick works as a building manager in the Idaho Commons. George works part time at the UI Library.
The Ngalamulume brothers have been in Idaho long enough to consider the Gem State “home,” though their ambitions will likely take them to places around the world for work. Patrick’s goal is to study international and human rights law so he can fight for the marginalized and people who cannot fight for themselves.
“I want to fight for the people who have been taken advantage of,” he said. “I want to represent a movement that will always seek justice for the people who feel oppressed and deprived of resources.”
After furthering his medical studies, George hopes to help those in countries like the ones his family fled.
“From being a kid, that was a huge motivation, I want to be able to help people in need,” George said. “If I can succeed as a doctor I want to be able to travel to those countries that are needed. I want to be able to give back.”
They’ve also taken a stance against recent rhetoric around the country that has been critical of refugees. Patrick said he wants to help guide the discussion so the general public realizes that there’s more to being a refugee than what folks see or hear on the news.
“Why are we trying to shut off the dreams of other people who want to come here?” Patrick asked.
“We want to set a different tone of what refugees are,” George said. “You cannot view everyone bad just cause of the things you hear. Sit with us, talk with us, and learn more about who we are as people. For us, we want to be the lead advocates to welcome refugees here.”
George sees their mission as to share the family story whenever he can, so current and future refugees are seen in a more positive light across the country. And both brothers see their education as a wonderful opportunity to personify that goal.
“I’m extremely motivated to make a difference in this world,” Patrick said. “… All that wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t come to the United States. My message would be to give back, now and always.”
Article by Brad Gary, University Communications and Marketing.