In a way, America resembles what Guy Djekounda imagined from watching TV shows and music videos.
Big cars, big highways, big people. Incredible supermarkets, fast-food everywhere, his own smartphone.
And ... a lot of white people.
“I never thought of myself as being black before coming here,” he said and laughed.
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A vibrant young man from Chad, Guy arrived in the United States in September and is ready for the adventure. There is not a plan you can propose that he will not respond to without “pas de problème” (no problem).
He gets excited about what would seem like the littlest, new American things. His face glows, for example, when talking about the new speaker he found for the apartment. He is also deeply content to finally be with his family.
Guy met his wife, Zita, in a refugee camp, but they were separated when she and her children were selected to be resettled in the U.S. He has been dreaming of reuniting with the rest of his family who have been living in Durham for the past two years: Zita; stepson Prince, 15; stepdaughters Mabelle, 19, and Divine, 12; and 18-month-old daughter Samantha whom he just met for the first time.
Full of hope, Guy is eagerly learning English and enjoys practicing conversation. As soon as he can, he will study for his driver’s license test. He was a mechanic in Chad and hopes to land a similar job here one day.
Adapting to his new life, however, has brought culture shock.
“I have felt cold,” Guy reported after experiencing a brisk Durham night of 55 degrees, much different from Chad’s overnight lows in the 70s and daytime temperatures often rising above 100 degrees.
Getting used to the food is an adjustment as well.
“The food here has no taste,” he and a friend agree. “A skinny chicken is the tastiest kind, but here in America, chickens look fat and the meat is too soft.”
Chicken, and everything else for that matter, is also often frozen. In Chadian and Cameroonian villages, Guy explained, most families get fresh food every day because there is no refrigeration.
Here you go to work and you go home. That’s it. Streets are empty.
Zita, refugee from Chad
While Guy is talking, a tall woman in a colorful headscarf is in the small kitchen preparing fried fish and boiled cassava. “We know places where to buy African produce, even though some items can be expensive since they’re imported,” Guy said. He goes on describing a breakfast his family eats: “la bouillie,” a cereal served hot and made out of rice, milk and flour. Or, even better, a big plate of fufu (cassava dough) with a spinach sauce.
On a larger scale, Guy has found an unfamiliar “liberté,” a sense of freedom that did not exist back in Chad. First of all, because Chad is a country where the arbitrary laws are the norm under the guise of a democratic regime. Second, because being able to do whatever you want is not part of most African societies.
“In Africa, everyone knows what you are doing, when you are doing it, and why,” he said. “Many different people are entitled to have their say before you decide to marry someone, or get a new job, or move to another place.”
While Guy truly enjoys this new freedom, it can feel disconcerting to lose the guidance – and even the constraints – of your community.
“Sometimes there is loneliness,” Zita said. She used to be able to just walk outside and see everyone she knew almost every day. “Here you go to work and you go home. That’s it. Streets are empty.”
“Nobody walks!” added Guy. “People are in their cars. How are you going to meet them?”
The men sitting with him in the small living-room that has become a kind of village center nod in agreement. Someone knocks at the door and comes in without waiting for a reply. “Bonjour,” the newcomer says, “My name is Annis, I arrived a month ago.” Everyone knows he came looking for a welcoming community.
Divine turns up next, but without her backpack. “I left it in my locker,” she tells her father in English. He scolds her in French: “Do you really think you can afford not to do your homework? We did not come here to laze around!”
A neighbor scolds her too: “We need to show Americans that they were right to welcome us.”
Like many refugee-parents, Guy wants to instill in his children the same perseverance found in his own work ethic. Despite the challenges that come with starting from scratch, Guy is determined to find his place and make a life for his family.
Sophie Caplin and Sarah Zimmerman are members of the Duke University Class of 2018.