The Determination to Persevere

09 January 2020

Josh Utter and Patience Mhlanga at the Washington, DC "Walking With Refugees" event. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
“Refugees are people with feelings. They have experienced so much suffering – some have even witnessed family members die. But, they preservere!”
Patience Mhlanga, JRS Advocate

Patience and her family fled Zimbabwe when she was almost eleven years old, during a harsh time of political instability in the country. Before they fled, her family lived a normal life – Patience and her siblings attended primary school, their father worked as a teacher, and their mother was a stay-at-home mom. They never thought they’d have to leave the place they called “home.”

The day Patience’s father stood up for his beliefs and the need for change by voting for the opposing pollical party, their family was reported, and her father went missing. The family was given a few days to evacuate the community or risk losing their lives. They fled to Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe and were reported again by a neighbor. Patience’s father somehow got in contact with her mother, and told her that “In case of anything, you can go to JRS [Jesuit Refugee Service].”

Patience’s mother then contacted JRS and the team, who helped Patience and her family safely leave Zimbabwe and reconnect with her father living in a refugee camp in Zambia. “[JRS] were really concerned about our safety; they had all their strategies in place. As a young girl I didn’t understand it all, but I knew that the organization was providing us safety and food. I don’t know which organization cares to that extent, about your whole well-being. There’s something so special about JRS.” When they arrived in Zambia, JRS was there to welcome them and provided a shelter, food, and reconnect the family with their father in the refugee camp.

[JRS] were really concerned about our safety; they had all their strategies in place. As a young girl I didn’t understand it all, but I knew that the organization was providing us safety and food. I don’t know which organization cares to that extent, about your whole well-being. There’s something so special about JRS.

Life in the camp was very difficult for Patience and her family. The everyday resources and essentials were limited or often not available – medicine for preventable diseases, food, water, blankets, or mosquito nets. There were no jobs for those who were displaced. “There was a lack of empowerment. You are just there, alive, hoping that you don’t die. I’m not even sure how my family escaped death.” Patience thought her family wouldn’t make it out of the camp alive.

Despite the challenges, JRS continued to accompany and support Patience and her family. The JRS team taught the children and adults how to read and use a typewriter and offered a safe space to worship. Patience’s mother was also employed by JRS as a librarian, which gave the family a steady income. “JRS had resources available that other organizations did not. They cared about educating us. Having a library and access to books gave us a spark of hope and showed us that education is important. It doesn’t matter if you’re a refugee, “said Patience.

There was a lack of empowerment. You are just there, alive, hoping that you don’t die. I’m not even sure how my family escaped death.

After an arduous, five-year process, Patience and her family were resettled to Bridgeport, Connecticut – where they started their new lives. Patience and her siblings were enrolled in school, learned English, found a church family, and jobs. When it was time for Patience to attend college, she knew she wanted to go to a Jesuit university. Fairfield University was at the top of her list and she was accepted with open arms.

After graduating from Fairfield University in 2014, Patience served in the AmeriCorps as a math tutor for Hmong students, including some who had just arrived in the USA as refugees.  She then pursued Theology at Duke and then joined the Peace Corps in Zambia. “As a Catholic woman and Jesuit educated woman, I hope to give back and always remind myself that God has given me a bigger calling in this world. I hope to use my education to help others flourish.” Patience aspires to work in Public Health, specializing in maternal and child health. She also hopes her background in theology can be intersected with public health and working in fragile countries.

Patience is currently an MPH Candidate at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

As a Catholic woman and Jesuit educated woman, I hope to give back and always remind myself that God has given me a bigger calling in this world. I hope to use my education to help others flourish.

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