Wilita and his siblings. This picture was taken when they first came to the United States. Wilita is in the top right corner wearing a black suit and white shirt.
I grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When I was a child, my family and I experienced one of the deadliest wars since World War II, with more than 5 million deaths. We were forced to flee the country.
Every day we lived in constant fear. Our church was bombed while we were inside worshiping and even though we escaped alive, we knew that any day could be our last. We ran and tried to find refuge in the jungle, but no matter where we went we were surrounded by the war. Almost every night was consumed by gunfire. We were not safe; we had to leave the country.
During our escape, we were exposed to a reality that was unimaginable. We were threatened by militia groups pointing machine guns at our faces, human remains consumed the roads and river streams, villages were pillaged – no one should ever experience this, especially a 10 year old. Unfortunately, many people in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and many parts of the world are living that same kind of experience today.
Despite this horrific experience, my family and I were able to escape and come to the United States. But even after coming here, I was exposed to a different kind of violence, from racist abuse to gang violence. I had to quickly learn to navigate the systemic injustices that affect so many people in the States.
My life is not just full of pain and suffering though. For every dark room, there is a spark of light. The moment that had the most significant impact in my life was not my experience in the Congo, or in Pasadena where we first lived when we escaped the war.
When I was 13 years old, my parents decided to go back to the Congo and support the development of the country. They were concerned about bringing me, however, as many children my age were fighting in the war (some voluntarily and others forced by rebel militias). They did not want me to go back to the war and risk abduction as a child soldier or worse, get killed.
Hearing about my situation, a family in the U.S. (whom I had barely met) with three kids under the age of 5 decided to take me in until I finished high school. I am where I am today primarily because of this one act of kindness.
This family took a risk and brought me in, knowing that I went through a traumatic experience and probably was dealing with a lot of internal baggage. They loved me, provided me with the best education, encouraged me to have fun and, most importantly, showed me how to love again and to see goodness in people.
I believe that the actions that we take have the potential to influence a positive or negative reaction. I faced a lot of injustice and violence in my life, and I am not here because of my own doing. I had people in my life who supported and empowered me to continue to move forward. Every child deserves the opportunity to pursue a fulfilled life, like me.