Matriculation 2015: Galleries

Launched, Part III: Stories of New Jumbos:

Ellah Nzikoba’s journey from a refugee camp in Africa to the Class of 2019 at Tufts

Story and Photos by Kelvin Ma

The story of Ellah Nzikoba begins in a refugee camp in Kenya. Her parents—her father is a doctor, her mother a teacher—and older sister fled their native Burundi and the civil war in which 300,000 people were killed in the conflict between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. Ellah was born shortly after the family arrived in Kenya in 1997.

Over the next decade, the family moved from camp to camp to escape tribal violence. Her parents made education a priority for Ellah and her sister, Sarah. When her mother, Esperance Uwimana, found work as the headmaster for the refugee camp preschool and kindergarten, Ellah would often read and study in her mother's office.

Her father, Nazaire Nzikoba, who speaks five languages, became an interpreter for American aid workers. Those connections helped him secure passage for the family to the United States.

Life in America

For the first time, Ellah and her family—which now included a younger brother and two younger sisters—found stability. Back then, the family only knew one person in the United States, a good friend of Nazaire's who lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, and helped get an apartment for them in his building. Ellah excelled in school, but found it hard to make friends. Although she could read and understand English, she could not speak it well; the family spoke Kiswahili at home.

"I didn't speak to people and mostly kept to myself," she says. Determined, she eventually taught herself English well enough to advance out of ESL classes. It was also difficult to relate to her classmates on another level, she says. When some of them complained about having to wake up early for school and having to complete homework assignments, Ellah had a different perspective. "What's there to complain about? Enjoy the moment," she says with a laugh. "I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to go to school [in the refugee camp], and I had to cross a river!"

And Then Came Tufts

Tufts showed up early on Ellah's radar when the freshmen at Somerville High School visited campus. The replica of an Old Ironsides cannon that students paint to mark the ebb and flow of their lives on campus appealed to her love of art. As she continued to excel in school, she grew to love science, biology in particular. That new interest, along with the memory from her first campus visit, cemented Tufts as her top choice, even as acceptance letters rolled in from other colleges.

"I'm looking forward to getting involved with the clubs and getting out into the community, Somerville in particular," says Ellah, who thinks she may follow in her father's footsteps and pursue pre-med studies.

She is commuting to Tufts her first year, riding the #89 bus from the family home at the Somerville Housing Authority's Mystic View Apartments. She says the decision to commute was an easy one: her parents are trying to save to buy a home, and her father is working on obtaining the credentials to practice medicine in the United States. Her mother is studying to be a nurse.

Ellah says her sister Sarah, a junior who commutes to UMass-Boston, wasn't all that thrilled to have a second commuter in the family. "She wanted our room all to herself."

Ellah is approaching this latest chapter in her life with the same humble optimism that she brought with her from the refugee camps of Kenya.

"People have been scaring me about Tufts because it's so difficult," Ellah says. "I'm actually looking forward to a challenge."

Kelvin Ma can be reached at kelvin.ma@tufts.edu.


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