A photo essay by Asher Imtiaz
Wim Wenders, a German director of two of my favorite films — Paris, Texas, and Wings of Desire — is also a photographer. “The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes,” he writes in The Act of Seeing (Faber & Faber, 1997). This is something I have reflected on a lot in recent times. Where to direct people’s eyes? In my previous essay for TLC, I talked about how my photography is deeply subjective. I photograph the themes I carry inside myself. When I decided to document refugees and asylum-seekers in 2016, I moved into an apartment building in the south part of Milwaukee that was home to hundreds of refugees. I was not just going to a place occasionally to take photos and interact with people. I was living among them, and I lived there for two and a half years.
Being in that community, I had the privilege of listening to countless firsthand accounts of people fleeing persecution, conflict, and unrest, living with uncertainty and fear. I also enjoyed those friendships each day — sometimes by being invited to their apartments to share meals. That really helped me in developing relationships with people on a deeper level.
After the forced break from documentation for a couple of years because of COVID-19, I was waiting for an opportunity to meet people. I wanted to stay with the idea of developing relationships before taking portraits — something similar to “Slow Journalism,” as Matt Norman described it in National Geographic.
I started looking at places beyond my city to document refugee communities. I looked into several cities where Episcopal Migration Ministry has an affiliate and received an invitation to visit Tucson, Arizona, in January. I have since returned multiple times to visit the refugee community there. This photo essay is part of a body of work to document the community in Arizona, and this first one includes people from Burundi, including Promise, above.
Asher Imtiaz is a frequent contributor to TLC. He lives in Milwaukee and attends Eastbrook Church, a diverse, multiethnic church in the city.
“I don’t want to forget my language.” Aline’s family fled to Tanzania from Burundi as refugees. She was born in Tanzania and moved to the United States when she was 17.
“Struggle. That’s the first thing I remember from my time there,” she said. “We struggle too much. No food, no job, no clothes, no nothing. But we cannot forget. Some people forget where they come from.”
She is planning to visit Burundi for the first time in her life next year. “I have a lot of family, but I don’t know them and they don’t know me.”
“When they come here, they change,” she said of some from Burundi. “They want to be black Americans. They don’t want to speak their language. That’s no good. I speak my language [Kirundi].”
“A significant moment for me was in eighth grade, when I was chosen to be a speaker for the promotion ceremony, and they asked me to tell my story. Right there, telling my story, I realized that I wasn’t a little scared girl anymore. I could become someone bigger and better.” Synthia moved from Tanzania to Tucson with her family in 2015.
“One of my core memories is moving from one camp to another all the time,” she said. “And every time you have to build your own house. While you’re building your own house, you’re living in a tent. I remember helping my father. We would make our own bricks, and then dry them, and then we would start building. We stayed in the last self-made home for three years, and after many immigration interviews we finally moved to the United States.”
Synthia’s father, Egide, spent 18 years in several refugee camps from 1997 to 2015. She was born in Mtabila, Tanzania, as the second of eight children. After Burundi’s civil war that began in 1993, Synthia’s mother and father fled to Tanzania separately for safety. They met in Tanzania, where they got married and started a family.
“I was born in Tanzania. As my parents are from Burundi, I say I am Burundian,” she said. “Now I am American because I got my citizenship here in the U.S.”
Synthia was 13 years old when she moved to the U.S. “It wasn’t easy in the start. I was laughed at for who I was and how I dressed. Everything was new, including the language and the culture when we arrived in Tucson.”
“Instead of going out for sports or clubs my senior year, I got a job to support my parents and help with my siblings,” she said. “I or my parents cannot afford to send me to university. I want to join the army. They have good programs and an opportunity for me to explore. That way I can get an education.” Synthia is preparing for her Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.
“It hurts me, it kills me,” Douglas said about not living with his family. “When I look at other families happy together and enjoying themselves, I imagine if this can be me and my family.”
Douglas moved to the United States in 2016 with his parents. He is the oldest child and has five siblings. He was born in Tanzania and lived in the refugee camps.
“My mother is from Tanzania and my father is from Burundi. I am mixed,” he said. “My parents started fighting and having issues a few months after we moved here. They got divorced later.”
His mother and other siblings moved to Illinois and his father moved to Ohio. He has been living with Aline and her family for the last couple of years.
“This experience made me learn things about life that I did not know. I can be something else. I have to learn how to build a great family, and I cannot do what my parents did,” he said.
“I finished high school last year and am now working on getting to the community college to start police training. I want to join the police department. Then, after five years working there, I can join the FBI. I don’t have my green card yet. I am waiting for my green card.”
“I gave birth to my son when I was almost 19 years old. It was a sin, I know,” she said. “Many times when you give birth and have a child, you don’t want to do anything in life, leave school, or stop things. It was too hard. After a break, I finished senior year of high school. I went to college. I prepared meals and worked hard. I know many girls who don’t continue and they just stop. I continued.”
Cynthia moved to the United States in 2015, when she was 16, with her mother and brother, Jethro.
“My grandma was my best friend and she’s getting old,” she said. “She left Mutabira and went back to Burundi when I was 6 years old. I really need to see her next year. I know it can be dangerous to visit.”
I attended Goshen Church on April 3. Burundians are the majority of its members, joined by people from a couple of other African countries. The worship was in Kirundi and Swahili. I was the only non-African in attendance, so they arranged an interpreter especially for me. That was very kind of them.
Evode Karemesha is the senior pastor, and a visiting pastor preached that Sunday. When the sermon ended, there were a couple of worship songs and another sermon was preached by Jackson Ngano. Samson Bushasha interpreted in English.
It is normal to have multiple sermons and services that last two to three hours. When this worship service ends, a Congolese community meets at the same place to worship God.
Egide Guhungu (right, above) is Synthia’s father. Her mother is third from the right. They joined the church earlier this year. Synthia is excited about a summer trip when they are going to Iowa to meet other folks from Burundi and other African countries to worship and pray together. The Goshen Church choir’s name is Gethsemane.
“Singing was something I loved,” Synthia said. “I would sing all the time, whether in the shower, cooking, or doing household chores. I remember one day my mom told me that I wasn’t good, and my whole family agreed! I thought they were lying because I enjoyed it and sang all the time. I thought I was good. But I realized that I wasn’t as good as I thought when I started singing in the older choir. So I practiced every chance I could and became good at it. After a year, I was confident because I knew how much time I invested in it. Now I lead the children’s choir.”
“I was born in Burundi, I grew up in Tanzania, I went to Congo and Rwanda. I was all over,” he said. “Before I was born, my parents became refugees in Rwanda after the 1972 genocide. That’s where they got married. Life in Tanzania was very difficult. It was very difficult. I stayed in a refugee camp in Tanzania from 1997 to 2012. We were not authorized to go out of camp. In 2012, we were forced to return to Burundi. The government of Tanzania said there is peace in Burundi. I stayed in Burundi for three years, but again went to Tanzania.”
Richard moved to the United States in the fall of 2021. “Life is good here. You eat and you walk,” he said. “Right now I’m looking for a second job, because I don’t have full health insurance.”
Burundi Refugee Crisis Context
Refugees who fled Burundi in 1972 escaped a series of mass killings committed by a Tutsi-dominated government against members of the Hutu majority. Estimates suggest that 150,000 to 250,000 people were killed, while an estimated 150,000 fled. That time is referred to as Ikiza (great calamity or scourge).
Many Burundians also left and became refugees was during Burundi’s civil war from 1993 to 2005. Almost all of the Burundi people fled to neighboring countries: Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
According to the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, 1,310 refugees from Burundi were resettled in the state between 1998 and 2021.