Jefu Kashindi is one of those stories that transcends all of the challenges inherent in a school district where three quarters of the students are officially classified as underprivileged and one quarter of them are English Language Learners. E Pluribus Unum, the Latin motto inscribed on USA currency (Out of Many, One) could just as well be the mantra for DMPS, where students hail from nearly a hundred countries around the world.
Tanzania, for instance. That’s where Jefu is from. A year ago he arrived in America after spending the first 16 years of his life in camps for Congolese refugees and enrolled at Hoover High, where he quickly advanced out of the school’s Newcomer and ELL programs and into the Gifted & Talented track.
Last weekend he presented and defended his paper entitled No Irish Need Apply at the annual History Day district competition sponsored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. It’s a thoroughly researched treatise on the potato famine in the mid-19th century that led to a massive emigration from Ireland to America, complete with footnotes, bibliography and appendices. It details the desperation of the emigrants and the resistance they were met with upon arrival here.
In the process, Jefu made some history of his own. As far as anyone at North has been able to determine, he is the first student there to qualify for the state level of the History Day competition. Winners there advance to the nationals at the University of Maryland.
“It started as an assignment in my US History class,” Jefu said of his annotated project. When he presented it last weekend, he had to defend it in an interview with two judges. “That was my first interview ever,” he said, beaming with pride. When it was over, he was awarded a certificate which he took home to share with his family. He also received a feedback form, which he’s carrying in his backpack to prepare for the state finals on April 29 at the Iowa Events Center. “I want to win this contest,” he said, clenching his fists and teeth.
“Good topic to explore this year’s theme of ‘triumph and tragedy,’” read one of the judges’ comments. Good student to explore it, too, they might have added, had they known more about who they were interviewing.
And to think he started studying English barely a year ago.
Jefu, or Jeff as he introduces himself now, is one of seven siblings. He’s a sophomore at North where his older brother Victor is a junior. They both play soccer for the Polar Bears. Jefu netted two goals in the first two games of the season for the JV team, and was excited for an upcoming match with Gilbert when we spoke with him at school on Thursday morning. In fact, just about everything that’s happened to him in the last year excites him, as evidenced by his irrepressible grin, except for the winter weather that he grew just as tired of as the locals by the time it finally relented.
Jefu’s parents fled the civil war-torn Congo in 1996. He was born in a refugee camp in 2002.
“In 2016, President Barack Obama said the United States would accept more refugees from Congo,” Jefu said. “My parents began the process to apply, and we were chosen. Now, since we came here, there are so many first times. First time seeing tall buildings, first time in cars, first time seeing the snow…”
First time a Polar Bear, by way of an African refugee camp or otherwise, made it to the state finals of the History Day contest.
If Jefu makes it to the nationals in Maryland, maybe he could make a slight detour to drop off some copies of his paper in Washington DC for the benefit of those in need of a refresher on the Irish potato famine and its impact on American history.