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African Refugee And Heritage Employee Passes CNA Exam

Valerie Johnson, administrator of Heritage Ministries’ The Village in Gerry, congratulates Paul Cubahiro on passing his CNA (certified nursing assistant) exam this fall. Photo by Mary Heyl

GERRY — Over the past three years, life has changed considerably for 27 year old Paul Cubahiro, and now that he has passed his certified nursing assistant exam, more exciting changes are on the way.

For more than a year now, Cubahiro has been working and living on campus at Heritage Village in Gerry, and in the words of Administrator Valerie Johnson, “He’s part of the family.” Cubahiro recently shared his journey from Kenya to Gerry and the new goals he has set, both personally and professionally, now that he has reached this new milestone.

“I am from the Congo, but I used to live in Kenya as a refugee,” Cubahiro explained. “I moved here to America in 2015.” Sadly, over a million people like Cubahiro have fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is considered “one of the most complex and challenging humanitarian situations worldwide,” according to the UN Refugee Agency.

In recent years, the DRC has struggled with civil war and corruption, especially violence over control of the country’s vast mineral resources. Human rights violations are widespread and include physical mutilation, killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention in inhumane conditions, which has forced many Congolese to flee their homes. DRC refugees have fled to multiple sub-Saharan African countries including Kenya, where Cubahiro’s wife and daughter, born just a few weeks ago, still live.

In 2015, Cubahiro joined his parents in New York, and spent a year in Syracuse before living in Albany for approximately one year. “I’m a Free Methodist (Church) member,” Cubahiro said, “and my father is a Free Methodist pastor. One day, he asked me to drive him to Virginia, because they had a church conference. I met many, many people — Americans — there, so I talked to them. I talked to the Free Methodist bishop and he asked me what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do here in this country.”

Cubahiro explained to the bishop that he had been studying medicine when he lived in Africa; however, he did not know how to continue his studies in the United States without a high school diploma or any training. “When I left my country, I lost everything,” Cubahiro explained. “So the bishop talked to David Smeltzer (CEO, Heritage Ministries), and at the end of the day, David called me. He asked me if I wanted to move here, if I wanted to work with them here, so they can help me get a CNA and get going.”

Heritage Ministries, which has had a long affiliation with the Free Methodist Church, connected Cubahiro with the resources to begin his healthcare career here, while also building on the language skills he acquired in Albany. “When I came here, I had no English,” Cubahiro recalled. “It was very hard to learn. … In Albany, I took a training for six months. Apart from that training, I would read the newspaper, watching American movies, listening to American songs. I would just forget about everything in my language because I have enough of my language. I don’t need anymore. I decided to follow everything in English. Where I don’t understand, I go to Google,” he laughed.

Village Administrator Valerie Johnson pointed out that Cubahiro is actually trilingual, as he spoke French in the DRC, learned Swahili in Kenya and now speaks English. “We set him up with some English as a Second Language (ESL) classes when he started with us,” Johnson explained. “To go through the NAT (Nurse Assistant Training) class, it’s reading, writing and performing skills, but he has to take a test in English, so we wanted to set him up to be prepared for that.”

Cubahiro spent a few weeks in ESL classes at the Gateway Center in Jamestown, and then joined the CNA program through Heritage Living at the Chautauqua Mall, which offers training classes for new and existing employees. Last month, Cubahiro passed the exam to become a CNA, and now has his sight set on the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program at JCC.

Personally, Cubahiro’s primary goal is to bring his wife and daughter, Edna, to the United States.

“I’m trying to do that, but it is very hard,” said Cubahiro. “I have already filled out the forms and sent them to Immigration, but I didn’t get their response yet. It’s not easy when you are not a citizen. When you are a citizen, it can take just six months. When you are not a citizen, sometimes it can take two years, or even more than two years.”

Johnson explained that Cubahiro’s uncle, Joseph Sembibi, is now at the Village pursuing the same path as Cubahiro and will be starting his NAT classes soon. She is thrilled that Cubahiro has passed his exam and grateful that he is a part of the staff. “He’s a huge asset. You have to be a special worker to work in healthcare and to work with elderly residents,” Johnson pointed out. “He has fit in great. The residents love him, and the staff say he is doing a great job. This is all very new for him, and he’s doing wonderful. We even have residents who bought gifts for his new baby, so he’s fit right in with everybody here.”

Johnson continued, “We’re glad to have the opportunity to help him. We have the housing next door, which is convenient for a situation like this. … It’s a win-win for both of us because he’s able to help our residents here, and we’re able to help him down his career path.”

Although Cubahiro is somewhat less than thrilled with western New York’s cold and snowy weather, he says the drawbacks of living are nothing compared to the life he left in Africa. Despite the challenges he has had to overcome, Cubahiro is grateful for his new life in Gerry — a life he hopes to be sharing with his family soon.

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