Brenda JoJo Violer

Brenda JoJo Violer is from South Sudan, but she doesn’t remember it. She was two years-old and tied to her mother’s back when they fled to a refugee camp in Kenya to escape civil war. With no photographs, Brenda doesn’t know what her relatives look like. “That’s a really sad part of my story. I’m always trying to find who I am. It’s hard for me when I say I’m from South Sudan. People ask, what place? And it’s just too painful for me that I don’t know.” Brenda’s father helped them escape. They never saw him again. They believe he would come looking for them if he were alive but they refer to him as lost.

The value of a landing place can be measured in safety. Kenya was safe from the war, but people in the camps were starving to death. “You see young kids just die in front of your eyes. That’s why ever since coming here, it’s like Hallelujah! It’s a miracle for me. I never felt safe before like I do now.” It took eight years to leave the camp. Brenda’s best friend left the same day. They cried together in the airport. They were not allowed to carry much, but Brenda held onto a rhino horn momento from her friend. “When you are a teenager, your friends are everything.”

This spring, Brenda will graduate from Deering High, a school that made headlines as the first in the nation to provide athletic hijabs to female Muslim athletes. Brenda is not Muslim, but the story reflects her experience. “We call it the One School. We respect people from different cultures.” She has good friends and surmounted vast language barriers. It is an incredible accomplishment for a young woman who rarely attended school in Kenya. Brenda takes classes at Maine Medical and aspires to be a doctor or nurse. She has been accepted at several colleges and is still deciding, but one thing is certain: she wants to stay in Maine.

Brenda’s mother is getting ready for church and is embarrassed about being photographed. She returns in a fresh outfit and poses with her daughter. She returns again, this time in traditional African dress. She confesses that her previous outfit was for the photo shoot. Susan tries to keep culture alive for her children. “She writes songs. Everything in real life we make into song. That’s how I learn about my culture, how I became a singer too.” Brenda is a member of the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus, a group of refugee girls who have performed their music and stories on high profile stages including the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Susan is on disability, suffering permanent damage from a broken collarbone. There was a car accident on the way to Kenya. Brenda’s injuries were only cosmetic.“I got a big scar on my head. That’s why I always wear this.” She points to her purple headscarf. In order to pay for internet, Brenda works for Cultivating Community, an organization that expands food access to New Mainers through sustainable farming and school nutrition programs. “I’m passionate about helping people. That’s my thing.” Out on the farms, Brenda loves the smell of trees. “In the refugee camp we had a lot of trees.” “I smell the freshness and that makes me happy.”

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