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An Incredible Young Woman's Journey From Africa to Springfield, Ohio

Aline Umwamikazi, on the day she graduated from Belmont High School. She's pictured here with her friend Jamie Cason and Jamie's husband.
Aline Umwamikazi, on the day she graduated from Belmont High School. She's pictured here with her friend Jamie Cason and Jamie's husband.

Two springs ago, in a comfy office at Wittenberg University, a shy young African woman asked her financial aid counselor a question: If she were admitted, could Wittenberg find her a place to stay between semesters instead of her Dayton homeless shelter?

In 12 years as a financial aid counselor, Jamie Cason heard the words of need spoken before. But never with the same urgency.

Jamie Cason: And her English was a little broken, but she told me: This is my dream. I want to be educated. I want to be in a school... I just instantly was drawn to her.

And to Aline Umwamikazi’s life’s story.

Aline Umwamikaz: Back home, you’re born through the violence, you grow up through that, you get married through that, you die through that.

Aline was 18 months old in 1998 when her mother, father, grandfather and uncles were killed in the Second Congo war. It was yet another chapter in decades of political instability and tribal slaughter that engulfed her Banyamulenge people. She escaped with her Auntie and Uncle’s family to the relative safety of Rwanda — which was recently scarred by genocide. Their situation there was dire.

Aline: When they killed my parents, they also took everything that we had. Even to get something to eat was very hard.

Harder yet was a truth the young Aline learned about so many victims of violence.

Aline: You didn’t do anything wrong. You just get killed because you are you.

In Rwanda, she missed lots of meals. Her Auntie home-schooled Aline, her brother, and her cousins — teaching them all the same dream.

Aline: I kind of felt like, if I go to school and get a good job, I can turn things around, somehow.

By age 11, Aline wanted to be a lawyer, someone who could defend her people and be a voice for the voiceless. But in Rwanda that was almost impossible.

Aline: High school there, it’s very expensive. In Kenya, there’s this organization that pays for the refugee kids.

Aline flourished in Kenya at a U.N.-sponsored high school that connected her with an immigration program and brought her to Dayton in 2015. Her her 90-minute walks to Belmont High School didn’t faze her. But American winters did.

Aline: I am not a fan.

A motivated Aline finished near the top of her class, and a campus visit lead her to Jamie Cason’s cosy office at Wittenberg.

At first, Jamie wasn’t sure she could help Aline. But then she saw Aline’s age — 22. That qualified her for the more affordable adult program — and lots of student aid.

The day Aline graduated from Belmont, Cason and her husband were there, too, cheering her on — and doing much more.

Jamie Cason: I just said, ‘Why don’t you come live with me for the summer, before school, and we’ll get everything, you know, set up.’ And I’ll get her feeling comfortable. I knew that was what she needed and what I wanted for her. And … she was in a homeless shelter.

Since then, Jamie has treated Aline like her own daughter — worrying over her class schedule and what she’s eating; over Aline’s taking college classes in English — what is to her is a third language.

Aline: I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for her. I have food in my fridge. I have a home. I have clothes… I have a life because of Jamie.

Jamie: She says that, and I understand that I’ve been able to help her. But she does all of the hard, hard work. And all of the things she’s been through in her life. There’s no one I know stronger than her.

Born into a world where people are killed for being who they are — Aline now finds herself in another where she is valued for being who she is. And that’s been, well, transformative.

Aline: When I moved here to this house, all the pain was gone, because I felt… home. They show me so much love, sometimes I feel like it’s not real. I don’t know if that’s normal or that’s weird.

Maybe it’s what it’s like to finally start feeling at home in the world.