From war to peace: a family success story

When Innocent Ncuringoma arrived in Sioux Falls in 2007, he was 13 and the only word he knew in English was “hi”.

Now, nine years later, the Washington High School alumnus is a junior at South Dakota State University majoring in Computer Science.  He will graduate with a B.S. next spring.

His story – and the story of his whole family – is nothing short of miraculous.

At the age of 10, Innocent had been forced to flee his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his mother and four siblings amidst a 10-year-old civil war. His father had died from an illness several years earlier when Innocent was only six years old.  Innocent’s mother took her four children and fled to the neighboring country of Burundi, where the family found refuge for three years before they were finally given asylum in the U.S. – in Sioux Falls.


Back row (L to R): Chance, Jeanne, Innocent, and Bonheur; Front row (L to R): Belle and the children’s mother, Narerwa.

“It was tough when we first got here,” Innocent remembers. “We left many things behind, and it seemed like everything here was the opposite from what we knew.  We didn’t like the food, and we didn’t like the weather.  People were in their houses instead of out on the streets walking.  Everything was different.”

Welcomed to Sioux Falls by LSS, the family met an LSS employee from Kenya who helped translate for them. Most importantly, he also put them in touch with some other families from the Congo.  “They showed us where we could buy African food at African grocery stores,” Innocent remembers.  “That made a big difference for us.”

Innocent’s mother, Narerwa Yagabo, literally got to work right away taking care of her family. At the refugee camp, Narerwa had given birth to a sixth child so that when the family arrived in Sioux Falls, Narerwa had six children – ages 9 months to 19.  Narerwa got a job right away at John Morrell, working the night shift so that she could take care of her children during the day.

“Daycare was too expensive,” Innocent said. “My mom didn’t sleep much during those early years.  She is a hardworking woman.  She is amazing.”

Narerwa’s hard work and parenting skills have paid off. Innocent isn’t the only sibling to have made his life successful here in Sioux Falls. His older siblings have had equal accomplishments: Yvonne, the oldest, graduated with an associate’s degree and a certificate in nursing, Jeanne graduated with a B.A. in the medical field, and Chance graduated with a B.A. in Political Science. Innocent will graduate from SDSU next year, and his two youngest siblings are doing well in school: Bonheur at Washington High School, and Belle at Anne Sullivan Elementary.

Narerwa still works the night shift at John Morrell, but Innocent said that his mother now gets to sleep some during the day, especially now that summer is here. “We can help watch the youngest and let her get some rest,” Innocent says.

All six children speak English fluently, and Innocent said that he eventually took a liking to American food. “I’ll eat anything now,” he says, laughing.  “But I still love to eat fufu (a staple African dish).”

Despite his success in the U.S., Innocent has not forgotten his homeland or the war that still ravages it. Three years ago, Innocent started a non-profit organization, called AREEM, that helps children (especially girls) in the Congo who have been affected by the war.  The organization partnered with Washington High School to raise $2,000 as well as numerous boxes of school supplies to send to the Congo.  “Each year, we support 30 students,” he said.

Even though Innocent is now firmly planted in the U.S., he said he would like to go back one day to visit the Congo. “I still have grandparents, uncles, and cousins there.  I would like to see my grandpa one more time,” he said.

In the meantime, the family has had some great family reunions here in Sioux Falls. Recently, his father’s family arrived in Sioux Falls: one uncle, two aunts, and nine cousins.

“You can’t imagine how happy we were to see them. We had not seen them since we left Congo in 2004,” Innocent said.

Now Narerwa and her six children are the welcoming committee. They can translate for their relatives and show them where to buy African food and how to navigate this strange world called the United States. They can, above all, show them how to find great success in this new land.

Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson

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