Editor’s Note: Daina Jurika-Owen is a former refugee resettlement professional and is an academically trained folklorist. A native of Riga, Latvia, Jurika-Owen lives in Abilene. She is the author of a new book, Ten Cultures, Twenty Lives. The following story about a refugee named Isaac is similar to stories in the book, which can be purchased through her website, www.amayabooks.com, Texas Star Trading Co. in downtown Abilene, her office in Commerce Place on South Willis Street, Amazon.com and various e-book channels.
By Daina Jurika-Owen
It is a nice sunny day outside and Isaac has come to my office to share his story. He agrees to have his story recorded. What do I know about Isaac? I know that he is Congolese, is in his early twenties, and that he came to the U.S. with his mother and siblings in February of 2012. I do not know why Isaac’s family became refugees, whether it was because of their ethnic origins or some political involvement, or something else, but I hope to find out more when we talk.
Isaac is a young man and initially you would think that he is just like a zillion others. What makes him stand out is his passion and talent to perform music. Isaac was a well-known performer or as he says himself, music artist in Kenya. But I found out about his talent when he came to me one day at the IRC office and asked me to help him apply for a refugee travel document so he could go back to Kenya for a youth music concert. When I asked him about the concert and who would be performing, to my surprise, he said that he was one of the main performers. Here in the U.S., Isaac is “new to the scene” and cannot support himself with music yet, but he has not given up. Isaac is looking for connections and opportunities and has already received several invitations to perform.
MAY 19, 2014
(Following is “Isaac’s” story as told to Daina Jurika-Owen, a former refugee resettlement professional in Abilene.)
I am Isaac. I came to the United States in February of 2012 from Nairobi, Kenya, where I used to live with my mom and siblings. We came as refugees, through the refugee resettlement program. We all are from Democratic Republic of Congo; I was born in Kalemie, Congo, and all my brothers and sisters were born there, too. My parents were Congolese and lived in Kalemie for a long time. I have two sisters and four brothers, and I am the second oldest from my siblings. My brother Mathew is the oldest, and I am next after him. I was about five or six years old when our family had to leave Congo and settle in Nairobi, Kenya. I really think of Kenya as my “home country” because I grew up in Kenya. That is the country where I went to school and the one I know.
My dad was killed in Congo, and that was the main reason why we had to leave Congo. One night, robbers broke into our house, and they shot my dad and took everything of value from our home. My dad tried to protect us, and the robbers killed him. My mom and all of us children survived. The same people threatened that they would come back and kill us all if they found us still in our house, so we had to leave right then. If I remember right, it was not because of politics or ethnic issues, but because we were doing well as a family. My dad had a thriving business, he was doing very well, and some people did not like it. I don’t remember much about that incident, as I was a little child then, but I know that we could not stay in Kalemie anymore. And I have just some childhood memories about Congo; my mom often says that we children should know more about our old homeland. But my younger siblings know even less than I do, because they started their lives in Kenya, even went to kindergarten there. But it is a fact that we all grew up in Kenya, and not in Congo.
So we left Congo and settled to live in Nairobi, Kenya. Life in Kenya was not bad, although sometimes it was tough on my mom, as she was the only one to provide for all of us, and we were young kids then. We were not wealthy, but God provided for us. Some days, we just could have one meal a day, but still, with the grace of God, we had some food, and had a roof over our heads. We never had to sleep outside on the street, so we were in better position than many other people. And we all could afford to go to school. I finished my high school in Kenya, and although I could not always get what I wanted, we had our basic needs met, and it was good.
My mom was working on and off. As she was getting older, at times, she was not able to do her job well, and would be let go from her job. When this happened and my mom did not have a paid job, she used to make clothes at home and sell them. We all lived on that income, and it was not easy, but we managed. And sometimes other people helped us out: once our church friends helped our family pay rent for about two or three months, and at times friends and neighbors would bring food to us, to help us through another month. And kind things like that helped us survive. Life was going on, yeah.
When I was in high school, I was planning to go on to college. I wanted to study either law or political justice. My grades were good enough to go to college. I was quite bright at school, graduated with B-plus, and that would be good for college. I was talking to my uncle, he encouraged me, too, and I could see myself as a student in college. But when I graduated, it turned out that our family did not have enough money to pay for my college. My siblings were still in high school, and school fees had to be paid for them, and high school for all had to come first. So, my college studies had to wait. Our mom was the only one to provide for all of us, so she just told me: “Hang in there, Isaac, if God provides, you will get to go to college. And if not, you will just stay in the house.”
I said: “OK”, but I was unhappy about it at that time, as she had promised to me that I could go to college if I finished high school with good grades. All my high school classmates went on to college, some of them even as far as Belgium. I felt being left out, and it was upsetting. And I was saying to myself: “God, what is happening? What am I doing wrong?”
I graduated in 2009, and it was still several years before we got to resettle to the United States. At that time, I never saw it coming. I knew that my mom was doing all the refugee procedures, paperwork, but I was not thinking about it, really. I could not imagine us coming to live in the U.S. yet. We were in the process, had registered and everything, but nothing was clear yet at that time. Things seemed to be a little gloomy then.
Then one day, my mom told me: “Isaac, I know that you wanted to go to college and are upset now because you could not go, but I cannot let you just sit in the house like this. You have to find something to do, like, find a job.” So I had to decide what to do about it.
Luckily, I was doing music while still in high school, and I thought I could try to work with music. I was very involved in music activities while in school; I was doing positive music, poetry and things like that, but after I graduated, I gave my life to Christ. You know the saying that goes “Man proposes, but God disposes.” And all along, God had greater and different plans for me, which I did not know at that time. I became a Christian, and I started doing my music for God, to spread the word how Jesus worked in our lives.
How did I turn into a God-praising Christian? I have to say that it did not happen overnight. I am still in the process, I am still changing. I grew up in a Christian family, and that affected me, because my mom was very strict on religious stuff. And interestingly enough, when I was a child, really young, we were a Muslim family. We were strong in Muslim faith. But when my dad was about to pass away, he gave his life to Jesus. By then, my mom had started to get some Christian friends, and she was praying in Christian faith, but she was doing it in secret. After my dad passed away, our family became Christian. And I became a Christian with all of them, but it was automatic, because of the family. Other than that, I did not think much about God then. Only when I finished high school, I gave my life to Jesus; developed a personal relationship with him.
So, all taken together, what contributed was growing up in a Christian family, with Christian background. And our mom was very strict on following the scriptures; she was bringing us up in that way. We had a little service at home almost every night, before bedtime. So I knew the Word, although I was still living in my own way, you know, high school days, you have to question everything. But after that, I gave my life to Jesus. It revived all the scriptures I knew. But before that, it was: “If Jesus was to come today, your mom would go, but you would have to stay behind because you don’t have that personal relationship.”
So, I wanted a personal relationship, not something from other people’s testimonies. And it comes with prayers, and it is still a process, as it does not happen overnight. And that’s the essence of salvation. People are often afraid to give their lives to Jesus, because they think that only those who have done good things all their lives can accept Jesus, but those who had troubles and temptations cannot. But we have different lives, have to face different issues. But truly, if you accept Jesus, you do not go through your troubles alone. Jesus is there to help you. And He helped even with my music and is still helping.
So, I took up music, and sometime in late 2009, I made a song that I named “A Sunday Christian.” It was very well received by people wherever I went; I was playing it in churches, going to functions, jam sessions, and once-a-month events, places like that. I was going all over Kenya. And so far, the response I was getting was amazing. People loved what I did, and I was thankful for it, but I was saying to God: “Here I am, God, things are going well, but I am not financially stable yet.” The challenge then was that I did not have the money to get the song professionally recorded. It was a very good song, a lot of people loved it, but to take it to a different level, to get it to radio stations and TV and reach a bigger audience, it had to be recorded.
I had made friends with our church pastor’s daughter, and her family was very well off. She was an artist, too, and did some singing here and there. Once we both participated in a concert, and she was very happy about it, as she was the one who planted the first seed of music in my life. The pastor’s daughter encouraged me and helped me financially. At that time, I was not at the level that I could support my music. So, I approached that church friend with my song, and she listened to it and loved it so much that she actually paid for my first professional studio session, and her family chipped in as well. In this way, I got a chance to go to a big studio, and we recorded the song, and my friend also paid for my first professional music video. After we recorded the song, we also shot a video of it. Thus, a lot of artists got to know me, and I got to know them, as I was going to all those places to perform. Now, instead of me looking for places to perform, I started getting phone calls from people, like: “Hey, we are having this event and we would like you to perform. We have this amount of money to appreciate what you do.”
With the professional recording of “A Sunday Christian,” things in my life changed. Then, we started making T-shirts for that song. It just started by accident at first: I thought I would make a few T-shirts so I could wear them at concerts, to put the song out there. I already had the video and recording, so I was doing pretty well. And once when I was wearing that shirt at a concert, somebody stopped me: “Hey man, it’s a nice shirt you are wearing, can I get one? And how much do you want for it?”
At that time, I had made just five pieces, and I was not even thinking about selling them. I was in that concert, wearing the T-shirt and promoting the song. That’s when it hit me: I should start selling the T-shirts. So we made 20 T-shirts, and I started selling them. And amazingly, people loved them. The shirts had my face on the front, with the words “I don’t want to be a Sunday Christian,” and on the back, it had my name on it, “Izzo: I don’t want to be a Sunday Christian”. “Izzo” is my stage name, and it comes from my name “Isaac.” I said to myself: “If people want to buy a shirt with my face and name on it, this means something.” People loved the song and loved those T-shirts. I started getting calls from people I even did not know. They were asking me to perform, and my church friend kept introducing me to other artists, DJ-s, radio personalities and TV people, so things started happening for me.
That’s when I met other artists and we did a remix of “A Sunday Christian” with some of the well-known gospel artists in Kenya. That was in 2011, and it was a success, too. Then, I also got nominated for a Groove award. It is an award for the whole of East Africa, and my song was nominated as “the Hip-Hop Song of the Year,” and I was also nominated for the New Artist of the Year. “A Sunday Christian” just blew up. It became the best of the week; it was played almost every day on TV stations and radio. Finally, I was really making something out of my music. I could help my mom support our family. So far, she had been the only one to make money, and sometimes she did not have enough for all of us, as she just made money from her sewing. Now, I was making enough that I could chip in for rent and help with school fees for my younger siblings. And before I knew it, I was doing music full time and forgot my regrets about not being in college. Music seemed more fun, and I think it was because I got so much into it.
Right before I left Kenya for the U.S, I did another song with a well-known artist. The song was called “Press On,” and its message was to encourage people to persist and reach for their goals. We released the song in 2012, right before I came to the U.S., and it did pretty well. My family and I came to the U.S. in February 2012, but I had recorded “Press On” in November 2011.
And in April of 2012, when the Groove awards happened, I was in for a surprise. You know, you have to submit your music to be nominated for this award; that is the procedure, and that’s what I had done with my other songs in the past. But this time, as we were leaving, I did not submit the song. But in April of 2012, as I was browsing the Internet, I saw that my song was nominated as “The Hip-Hop Song of the Year.” Somebody else had done it for me! We did not submit it, but the song was entered. Only if a song is very big, very popular, it is entered automatically; you don’t have to submit it. Because it is also about business, if it is a big song, many people are going to vote for it, and that’s how the event will attract more attention. And this is what had happened with this song. And I was already here in the US, trying to adjust to the new lifestyle, thinking, what am I going to do with my music here? But things were still happening in Kenya for me: the song got nominated, and although we did not win the award, the fact itself that my song was nominated with other great songs of other artists, was something in itself; it was a big thing for me.
When I had to leave Kenya and move to the U.S. to live, I was happy and sad at the same time. I was happy as I knew that I would have more opportunities here, and doing music here could make you an international artist, while in Kenya, you were just there. But I was also sad because the opportunity to come here presented itself exactly at the time when things were going up for my music career. All along before that, it was me investing in my music, doing a lot of things to succeed, doing recordings, videos, everything. And then, I started getting nominations, invitations to perform, success with songs, interviews, different TV and radio talk shows, and so on.
I had many followers, people who wanted to know what I was doing. I even did not tell many people that I was leaving, I did not feel good telling my fans: “Hey, guys, bye, I am leaving.” I only told about it to two of my closest friends. But sometimes, Kenya is just small. I was at the airport on the day we were leaving, and we were at the security checking in our bags, and the security guard recognized me: ‘Hey Izzo, what are you doing, where are you going?” You see, he was someone who knew me from my music. But I had not expected to meet anyone at the airport who would recognize me. So, he asked me: “Where are you going, why are you leaving?”
What could I say? I could not say that I was leaving for good, so I told him: “I will be gone for a little bit, I am going abroad with my family, and I will have a couple of concerts there, but will be back soon.”
I could not tell him that I was moving to the U.S.; that would break people’s hearts, because those were the people who pulled me up, and they were the ones who wanted to know everything about my music, my future projects, what artists I would be collaborating with next, and so on. They want to know what I am working on, what new song I may have coming out, things like that. And I don’t want to turn my back on them; my listeners were the ones who voted for my songs, who were requesting my songs at registrations, because for a song to be played, it had to be asked for, requested. And many of my followers made me, Izzo, who I am in my musical career. I could not just say to them: “Bye bye, I am leaving.”
So I am trying to find a way to go back to Kenya regularly to perform. That’s why we had planned those “Radiate” concerts, and I hope to go back for the next one. God willing, God will provide. But I did not want to stay in Kenya because of my music. My family comes first, and we were all coming to the U.S. as a family. Music is important to me, music is what I do, but my family comes first. And now when my family lives here, I help support them. I help with paying rent and everything. If it was somebody else, I could have said: ‘No, I am not going,” but I could not say that to my family. I have siblings going to school full time, and sometimes my mom does not have enough to support them all, that’s when I can help.
Even here, I want to keep doing music. I may go to college soon, but also I am looking to continue with my music. I don’t want to stop everything. In Kenya, I had gotten to the point where many people were looking up to me as an artist, and I don’t want to back away from them, shut them off. That’s why I want to keep doing music for them even from here. And I have got so accustomed to music in life that the “normal life” seems a little boring. I am afraid to use the word “boring,” but that’s how it seems.
Like you have your “office life,” you are in the office every day, and this kind of life is different. When I was in Kenya, I used to go to different places, travel to different cities every weekend. One weekend I would go to Kisumu, and another to Eldoret or somewhere else to perform; it was always changing. When you get used to the life of a music artist, it is hard to settle down in one place for long, as it is very different. I was not used to a music life when I started performing, but now I am used to it. So with music and everything, life became amazing, and God started working things out for me.
I have been doing things to stay connected with my audience in Kenya. So far, I have done two music videos and they have been doing pretty well. I did them from here, but they were for a Kenyan audience; we distributed them in Kenya, and they did really well. In fact, this is one way to do it; I can reach the Kenya audience from here through video and radio, but they also want to see me performing the songs in person. That’s why we organized that “Radiate” tour last November, but I could not participate because of the visa issues. But I have not given up on a concert tour. We will try it again at end of this year or early next year, new concert schedule, will reconnect with my fans, with my audience again. We are still planning and organizing it, and I will get a visa in advance. I hope we can have the concert tour in 2015.
It will be the same type of event, with performing, music. It will be an up-lifting event for the audience, artists will be going out there and giving people hope, telling them: “It is not an accident that you are where you are; God has put you there on purpose. You just have to realize what you have, what is your potential.” That is the essence of the tour. To tell people to forget jealousy and envy, not to look at what other people have, but look at themselves, what they can offer to life. We just have to realize what we have to offer, to make our life successful. And that’s what the “Radiate” tours are all about: telling people to radiate, to sparkle, to find light in themselves. We all have something to offer. It is for all those who need to be lifted up, mostly young people who are trying to find their way in life, young adults after school looking for what to do, who are confused, and for those who feel abandoned. They may think: “Oh, I am from that rural area, really remote, and who cares about me, I am sure nobody does.” Those are the people I am after.
Age does not matter, but if it did, it would be mostly young adults. I want to inspire people to see God’s work in their lives. And I want to do it in a format that is the most appealing to those people; it can be hip-hop, or rap, or any other kind of singing, but it has to be something they would listen every day; something that they like, and a format that they can relate to. I have done some hip-hop, but I have done also some with a woman vocalist, in a different style, but all the songs are Christian gospel. It is just that you pick the format that speaks to your audience best. And most of my songs are in hip-hop style as I am reaching for a younger audience. Now, it is more like God working through me.
But overall, if you ask what I want to do with my life here, it is really music. I am still looking to meet people here, although I have met quite a few already. So far, things have been going pretty well here as well. This August, I will be performing in the festival “Rock the Desert.”I don’t know if you have heard about it or not, but it is a Christian music festival in Midland, Texas. It is a yearly event, and it is for big artists. People with well-known names participate there. It is just amazing that they invited me to perform; I never saw it coming. I sent them an email some time ago to find out what they were doing, and I spoke to them last year, sent them some of my music, and I thought that was it, that I will not hear from them again. But now they invited me to perform this year. They just sent me an email a few days ago, giving me the dates when I will be performing, and I can also merchandise my T-shirts and CDs and stuff. Imagine me, an African from nowhere, and I will be performing! It is amazing how God is working things out for me. And I have decided just to serve him with my music. That’s what I will do, and will tell the world how good He is. So, I will be performing in Midland in August.
I have been going all over the place with performances. Like, I was in St. Louis two weeks ago, like that. I work as a truck driver now, and last week I went to Oklahoma, and I often go through Dallas. I think it helps me with my music to some extent, like I got invited to perform in an event in Dallas. I am often in Dallas for my job, as my trucking company is there, and the music event organizers thought that I was from Dallas and invited me to perform. My family support me, also, they are getting used to me playing music, especially my mom. She enjoys that I praise God with my music. She is really thankful for that, and she likes that I don’t get involved in all the bad things that are out there, like drugs, for example.
Like now, some of the connections I made, it is truly amazing, and I think God worked it out for me. Because I am really nobody, I am not even from here, and have not even graduated from university yet. You know, sometimes you wonder, look at other people, and they have all those schools behind them, and have their platform, they are music giants, so naturally they have all the success. But me, it is just God, I am sure. It may sound crazy, but I find other music artists through the Internet, and when you make music, and other people hear what you have done, they want to invite you to see you perform. They get interested and want to know you better. “Who is this guy?” they ask. And they can look me up on Internet also, because many of my songs are out there. I have a website, and they can look me up on that website, that’s where they can find me. And I have some friends who used to do music in Kenya, but who live here now, although they do not do music full time anymore.
As to my future plans, I do not want to do anything that would interfere with my music. I was thinking to learn some instrument, like I always wanted to learn to play a piano, for example. But it has to be something that would add to my music career. I was thinking about law school, going to college, but that would be many years of serious studies, and I would have to give up my music. I don’t want to do that right now. But I could do production, or art design, something in those lines. Right now, I am using a small production company here in town to make my music videos. They are ACU graduates, and it is their business. I went to talk to them, and I gave them my song, and they put the video together. They mostly do advertisements, commercials for companies, but they do music videos, too. We talk over the ideas of how the video will look, and if I don’t like what they have done, I say that, and we redo it differently. It is my song. But we talk about it in advance, brainstorm, get the ideas together, and then go for it. Sometimes you have to be thinking in the same lines, you know, to get the product right.
I know I am just at the beginning of the road, but everything that has happened in my life and what I have achieved is God’s doing. And I just want to tell everybody out there: “Come to Jesus, God is everything.” I know it may sound too religious, that’s what I thought myself in the past, but it is truthful. Life in Christ is fun, it is true. It is part of what I do, I show to my peers, “Life in Christ can be fun.” You will find the same fun you are looking for in clubs and pubs. That is the motto I am living with.