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Coming to America 'like winning the lottery'

Joseph Ishimwe works for Farm Bureau Financial Services at an office in Morris. Ishimwe was born in Congo, Africa, and moved to North Dakota as a refugee when he was 16. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times

Joseph Ishimwe sat inside Common Cup in Morris one brisk February afternoon. A smart phone sat straightly beside his coffee mug. In his plaid shirt and blue pants, Ishimwe was very much the mid-20s American businessman, but less than 10 years ago, Ishimwe slept in a barren refugee camp in Zambia.

Morris is thousands of miles away from that refugee camp. Even farther when it comes to emotional and mental distance.

"From the age of nine months until I was 16 I lived in four different countries. The last place we were was a camp in Zambia. We set up there for three years," Ishimwe said.

Before the last camp in Zambia, Ishimwe and his family led a nomadic life, not by choice but by necessity. Civil unrest in Congo forced the family from its home.

Ishimwe and his family moved to Fargo, North Dakota, from Zambia in 2009 through Lutheran Social Services. He's been working as an agent for Farm Bureau Financial Services and, several months ago, he moved into the Morris office. He still maintains an office in Dilworth roughly one day a week. He lives in Morris during the week and is a member of the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce Board. When he isn't staying in Morris, he is at the family home in West Fargo, North Dakota.

As he sat in the booth inside Common Cup, Ishimwe talked easily about his life in Africa.

His life in Africa was nomadic life marked by fear and separation from his father not long after eight to nine family members left the Congo.

"When we stayed in one place for a week, it felt like years," Ishimwe said. But, they always knew they'd need to leave.

"There were hundreds, even thousands of us," Ishimwe said. "A lot didn't make it or they got lost. If you couldn't make the journey you got left behind. You saw dead people on the road. Nothing shocked you."

"Life was unpredictable," Ishimwe said of the separation. The family continued to seek news of his father and tried tocontact him. Eventually, the family was reunited.

While he sat in the coffee shop booth, Ishimwe's smart phone rang and he needed to answer it. The call is brief. Ishimwe returned to the story of his life.

The family's trek through African countries included stops in refugee camps established for those fleeing war torn countries. A refugee camp provided a safety net, Ishimwe said. Although the camps were often in difficult conditions, refugees were free from violence while inside the camps, he said.

Yet, violence and unrest were always a threat.

"You could wake up and need to be going. More than likely it would be to another camp," Ishimwe said. The move was sparked by nearby unrest or because supplies had run out.

When a move was needed, it happened quickly.

"Kids who were playing got left behind or were abducted," Ishimwe said, because they were too far from their families.

Life could be unpredictable but the harsh routine of refugee camp daily life was not.

"The only thing you did in camps was wake up and go to sleep," Ishimwe said. "You hoped for a better tomorrow."

"At the last camp, I knew people who were fourth-or fifth-generation in the camps," Ishimwe said.

"Some people do give up," he said. For him, his family knew it wanted to care for each other. "It's life nonetheless and you make the best of it."

That life, he said, shaped him.

"Processing is difficult," Ishimwe said. "I'm still not an attached person. My personality is very loose. Not to take away the fact that there are some things you get attached to, you get used to."

But, Ishimwe has found he's comfortable working in Morris and with Farm Bureau.

"I'm a people person. That's always been me," Ishimwe said.

"I'm a terrible salesperson," he said with a smile but "I love working with people."

Even while moving with his family and living in the refugee camp, Ishimwe said he was a smiling, engaging, positive person.

Yet, "me personally, I'm an old soul. I don't relate much to people my own age. For me, I'm at home visiting with older people."

Perhaps his soul and personality developed because he needed to adapt. Adapting meant survival.

"I adapt really quickly. I learn really quickly," he said.

While he spoke, Ishimwe got up to refill his coffee cup from a counter dispenser. Not far from his booth, several individuals sat with their laptops and cell phones as they drank coffee. Ishimwe returned to the booth and his stories.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota resettled refugees from 13 countries in 2009. Those countries were the Congo, where Ishimwe was born, and Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Columbia, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan. The LSS North Dakota website said 406 refugees settled in North Dakota in 2009. From 1997 through 2015, an average of 400 refugees settled in North Dakota each year.

Ishimwe was 16 when he arrived in Fargo. But he decided to finish high school rather than obtain his GED. He had one semester to complete. Ishimwe is in the 2011 West Fargo High School graduates list which is posted on the June 3, 2011, Inforum website. He is also listed in the honor roll posted on the West Fargo Pioneer website on Dec. 1, 2010.

He wasn't really interested in school. He had learned and spoken nine languages while in Africa and had learned many of the skills needed to graduate.

"I was in P.E. and history for the majority of the time." That makes him smile. "I had options for another language but, nope, that wasn't for me."

"I tried college for two years but I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I joined the workforce," Ishimwe said.

Ishimwe said he continues to try and find himself and his path. He knows this job provides interaction and challenges he enjoys.

Local business representatives noted Ishimwe's desire to be involved in the local community when they nominated Ishimwe to serve on the the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce board, chamber director Carolyn Peterson said.

"He's an excited individual looking to be involved in volunteerism and in the community," Peterson said.

The family has adjusted to life in the Midwest. His family bought a house in West Fargo. His mom is a custodian and his dad works at Scheels. They were teachers when they lived in Congo. His brother sells cars and his sister is in college in the Fargo area.

The chance to live in America was like winning the lottery, Ishimwe said.

Returning to Africa, even to visit, is not something he's set on. "It's not everyone's dream. It really isn't," Ishimwe said.

He may like to see family and friends but he doesn't have a home country. "When you've lived as many places as I have it's tough to know where to go (back in Africa)," he said.

Where he's at now, including working in Morris, "feels like home."

Ishimwe finished his stories. He picked up his smart phone, smiled and then, walked into the brisk February afternoon.