After young Jireh’s uncle vanished, everything changed.
The danger was too close.
“We’re leaving tonight,” said Jireh’s father. “Take whatever you can.”
Jireh (JEE-ray) Mabamba was just seven years old at the time, the fifth of six children — the sons and daughters of preachers.
It was 2001, and Jireh’s parents opposed the child soldier movement in their home country of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
And their opposition made them targets.
Jireh is still unclear about who exactly was after them… and about who exactly found his uncle instead.
All he knows is they had to leave.
Now a 19 year-old college freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), Jireh sits inside a warm home. Outside, it’s a frigid midwestern morning.
“It was a nice house like this,” he says of his boyhood home in DRC, his eyes scanning the room.
His manner is calm and reflective right now, but he is charismatic and fun-loving too. Tall and fit, Jireh has the posture of an athlete and speaks English with eloquence. It might not be perfect, but it’s very good. In his delivery, you hear a mixture of accents and word selections acquired from the places he’s lived. It’s a melding of French, Swahili and Lingala influences from DRC, the mellifluous lilt of South African English and some American slag he’s picked up since coming to the United States.
“I was very young, so I do not remember what I took with me. However, I do remember us leaving a coat. It was green in color, and all my siblings including myself, had worn that coat. The family was very attached to it, but we had to leave it behind.”
Jireh’s memories of those initial months after fleeing DRC are vague, but stories have been passed down about the family’s existence as refugees.
“We drove, we walked, we drove, we walked, we took a boat.
“I think we went through Congo to Zambia, Zambia to Malawi, Malawi to Mozambique, Mozambique to South Africa.”
The small boy making his way through these refugee camps would have a very big dream one day. He just didn’t know it yet. But he does now, and it’s a dream that will lead him right back to where this story began. And he may just write a new chapter in his country’s history.
“We were illegal,” says Jireh. “When we arrived in South Africa, we didn’t have documents. We went to the home affairs, and we told them why we were there, and how we got there. We said we ran.”
Jireh’s parents and their children were registered as refugees. But the documents they received did not come with food or shelter.
“We spent a couple of days outside on the street. And then later moved to a church,” he says. “Then the church couldn’t do that the whole time, so we moved to a shelter.”
Jireh’s sister started selling oranges to try to earn some money for the family. Jireh’s father, a French-speaking preacher in DRC, struggled to find work and communicate in a new language. He took a job as a car guard — a position that earns no pay if not for the occasional tip.
By now Jireh was nine and beginning fourth grade.
“We moved to a primary school. A lot of naughty kids would go. Kids that had been kicked out from other schools.”
But Jireh and his siblings immersed themselves in academics. “We’d go to school, stay after school, speak to teachers, ‘show me this, show me that’. We were very committed.”
In middle school, he passed all his classes and played “every single sport” but was particularly passionate about basketball.
Soon, he set his sights on a prestigious all-boys high school — Durban High School — and decided to apply. Coats, ties, polish. It was not the place refugee kids typically aspired to attend high school.
Jireh remembers kids around him saying ‘forget it, you’re not going to make it. Nobody’s going to accept you.’
“And they were right,” he says. “Even though I had a dream of somebody handing me the uniform when I applied. I applied, and they said, ‘Nope, we’re full.’”
But one month later, there was an opportunity for a second chance. “That same school sent an email to all schools saying they were having a scholarship available for basketball,” he says. Seven players could represent each school. “I was like, oh, I’m going!
“Every day, every night, I’d be at that basketball court working, training.”
And when the day of the try-outs arrived, Jireh was ready. “I was the first person at the courts. It was part of my plan. I knew coaches would usually arrive there early and organize things, and I thought, if I go early and start practicing they will see me, notice me.”
He was warming up. He was shooting. He was scoring.
Then came time for the scrimmage.
“We played five on five, and I didn’t score a basket! I was stopping kids from scoring, and I was passing the ball. But my position is a shooter, so I’m meant to score. But on that day,” he laughs, “nothing worked!”
When the day was done, the boys were told, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
Again, he waited.
“A month later, the principal of my middle school came, and he’s like, ‘Jireh, congratulations. You are the first child in this school to EVER get a scholarship to that school. You make us proud.’”
Jireh Mabamba, a refugee from DRC, would attend Durban High School, the school where South African elite send their children.
“I was an average student. My first year, I was just following the rules: play basketball, do academics, play basketball.
“The following year, I decided to join leadership stuff. Oh, there’s a Toastmasters International course going on? I can join that. And there is student government? I can join that. I started getting involved in leadership stuff at school. And slowly, while playing basketball still, I started getting involved into school life and building myself up.”
Jireh made the most of his high school environment from grade eight through 12, but despite his optimism, it wasn’t always easy. The class differences were highlighted by some of the other students.
“The kids were like, Jireh, what do your parents do?” Sometimes he would answer ‘car guard’. Sometimes he would answer ‘pastor’.
“Some of those kids were very mean. They would have things going on, but they wouldn’t invite me,” he says. “They just never consider me.”
Sometimes they called him names. Sometimes they talked about his parents.
I asked him if that hurt.
“It did. It did hurt.
“My mom would always say, ‘It’s ok. You know what you have to do for that scholarship, right?’ I said, “Yah, I just have to pass, mom.”
Jireh would tell his father, “‘They called me this, and they called me that. And they called you guys this.’
“My dad would say, ‘Are you what they said?’ I’m like, no. ‘Am I what they said?’ I’m like, no. ‘Is your mom and I so and so?’ I’m like, no. ‘Then why you worried about it? It’s not true. If it’s not true, then you don’t worry about it. And if it’s true, change it.’”
Jireh draws much of his ability to forgive from his parents as well as South African leader Nelson Mandela’s example.
“He spent 27 years in jail and got out and forgave those people who put him there. When I got to South Africa, we faced a lot of insults and a lot of hate from people.
“A normal person reacts to it and calls them back names. But because of my beliefs and because of Nelson Mandela’s ability to forgive people that hated him for 27 years…” His thought trails off. “Mine was just a small period of time. So if he can do that for 27 years, I will just be myself and be good.”
By the time Jireh was in the 11th grade, he was heavily involved in Toastmasters and was giving speeches and winning contests. One day at school, an assembly was called for all the boys in the student body to attend. Jireh Mabamba was giving a speech called You Too Can Have the Last Laugh.
The speech was startling at first. “Hey you, you’re a fat kid. You can’t play basketball. Hey you, you’re so skinny. What makes you think you’re going to be a rugby player?” He got everyone’s attention. The message in earnest was summed up by Jireh later. “People will talk about you. People will criticize you. People will call you names. But if you keep doing what you’re meant to do, you will have the last laugh.”
The speech was transformative for Jireh.
“I was nervous. Even though I was making that speech straight from the heart, I memorized it. After that speech was a whole life-changing experience. In the school, people gave me respect. I never felt like that before. It was a great feeling.
“The Toastmasters coarse itself helped me a lot because I’m a shy guy. People don’t believe me, but I am. Every time I talk I get SUPER nervous. My legs shake. That was scary stuff, but I did it anyway.”
“I wanted people to hear me. I wanted people to understand how I feel. That’s the motivation I got from my parents. ‘Hey, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry about them. God will be with you. My parents are very Christian. God will guide you. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Service Above Self
Jireh’s high school guidance counsellor was very active in Rotary International.
“He asked me what I was going to do after high school. I said ‘I don’t know. My parents can’t afford for me to go to college.’”
“‘Well’,” said the counsellor. “‘There is this Rotary International scholarship that you can apply for, and I think you’re really qualified.’”
Rotary was familiar territory for Jireh. He had begun a life of ‘Service above Self’, the Rotary motto, by often being a host friend to new Rotary scholars visiting Durban High School. Now it was his turn to be the visiting student.
With the help of Rotary International, he would become part of the Rotary Exchange program and a member of the senior class of Duluth East High School in northern Minnesota, USA. Latitude Durban: 29+ degrees South. Latitude Duluth: 46+ degrees North.
“I came here, and my first snowfall was while I was doing my math test. I’d never seen snow before falling from the sky. I was super distracted.”
He was staring out the window.
Suddenly he heard the voice that had been trying to wake him a few times already. “My teacher was saying, ‘Jireh, are you ok?’
“I said ‘no’, and everybody started laughing.” Jireh asked if he could go outside and take a photo of the falling snow.
“The teacher said, ‘Well, who wants to go outside to take a picture with Jireh?’ And the whole class put their hands up! And he’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”
As the math class snapshot shows, Jireh has been welcomed like family here — in school, in host families, in life. During his first year in Duluth, he brought his magnetic personality to Rotary meetings, and now in his second year, he continues to do so while on scholarship at UMD studying business.
“The Rotary means a lot to me. They believed in me enough to go out of their way to help get me back here for college. I would not have done it if it was not for the help of Rotary Club 25. I owe them all a huge debt of gratitude. I hope that one day I will be successful enough so that I could make a difference in some student’s life like the Rotary did to me. They gave me hope and an opportunity to make change in this world.”
That young boy from the refugee camp has something in mind as to how he can make change in this world.
“I want to go to the Congo and set things straight. I want to become the president.”
Jireh explains how DRC is rich in minerals and how they have become a curse.
“People are fighting over them. The government is corrupt. They need somebody that can actually CARE not only about the minerals, but about the people themselves.
“Most people like that get killed,” he says.
I let that sink in.
Are you not afraid of that?
“I am. But my parents support me for it. They know it’s the right thing to do.
“I want to go back, but before that, I want to study here, and have a family just in case anything happens.
“I want to have a house for my parents — have them stable. And if I do go, and if I don’t come back, I’ll know they’re fine.
“I’m on the receiving end of the coin, every time. I’d like to be on the other side. The giving side.”
To many, Jireh is already there.