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 the first part of “Isaac’s” story as told to Daina Jurika-Owen, a former refugee resettlement professional in Abilene. The conclusion will be posted in one week.)
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.