Destin Kowrati Bibemi is a refugee from Central African Republic. “There is a civil war going on in my country between Muslims and Christians,” he explained.
In fact, there has been civil unrest ever since the country gained its independence from France in 1960. The RIC sophomore recalled how his father was forced to leave in 2001 to find refuge in neighboring Cameroon.
“People were looting and going from house to house looking for people. It was very dangerous,” said Bibemi. In 2006 his father resettled in America. Five years later, Bibemi and his sister joined their father; and in 2013 civil war erupted. His mother remains behind in their homeland. According to news reports, militia and local armed groups have left thousands dead and brought on the displacement of nearly 1 million people – a fifth of the population.
“My father wasn’t able to send for my mother because marriage documents were burned during the looting,” he said. “The last time I saw her I was getting on the plane to America. She told me, ‘Be true to yourself. Always remember where you came from.’” And for the past five years, that is how Bibemi has lived.
His first challenge in the United States was mastering the English language. He speaks Sangho and French. So upon his arrival, Bibemi spent the entire summer reading and listening to radio and television, while looking up the definitions of English words in his French-English dictionary. His persistence paid off.
By the time he began his freshman year at Central High School, he could understand and speak the language. “But I didn’t want to speak because I felt like I wouldn’t pronounce the words correctly,” he said. “I was quiet that entire year. I wouldn’t say anything to anyone unless the person and I were alone.”
In his sophomore year, Bibemi made the varsity and junior varsity track teams, which brought both friendships and greater English acquisition. By junior year, he was fluent. By senior year, he was elected school president and gave the graduation speech.
He credits his fluency to summers spent at the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment (BRYTE) Summer Camp. In fact, Bibemi was one of the first refugees to benefit from the program founded in 2011.
BRYTE Summer Camp provides an intensive five-week experience for refugees who are in first through 12th grade. Everyone in the camp shares the experience of resettlement and the challenges of acclimating to a new school system, language and culture, Bibemi said. Mornings are dedicated to academics and afternoons to enrichment activities such as soccer and field trips.
During the fall and winter, Bibemi took part in BRYTE’s in-home tutoring program. “My tutor not only helped me with English, he’d take me to the library or to the park to get me out of the house. He helped me adapt to my new environment. He told me, ‘I’m not just here to tutor you. You’re a part of the family. We’re a family, now.’”
This summer Bibemi’s life in America came full circle when he was named assistant director of BRYTE Summer Camp. At 6’4”, he has the captivating smile and self-confidence of a young man who now leads from the front.
At RIC he is a leader in track, he is a freshman orientation leader and he has discovered a love of ballroom dancing. “I was lured into it by an RA in my dorm,” Bibemi explained. “At first I felt lost. But I’m not a quitter. I wanted to master ballroom dance so that I could say I had mastered it.” By his first dance competition, he came in third out of 193 competitors and continues to collect winning ribbons for the student-run Ballroom Dance Club.
Bibemi has crossed borders, language barriers, finish lines and dance floors, showing time and again that obstacles are mere challenges. His advice to other refugees echo his mother’s words: “Be true to yourself. Always remember where you came from. And do the impossible.”