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UNC Medical Student Recounts Experience as Scholar, Political Refugee from Zimbabwe

February 9, 2017
School of Medicine

In December 2008, as Tendai Kwaramba crossed the southern border of Zimbabwe into South Africa, she wondered if she would see her native country again. She was 18 years old, had just graduated from high school, and was fleeing to the United States, where her mother, Christinah, and brother, Farai, awaited her.

The U.S. Department of State had approved her student visa and the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city and her hometown, had provided documentation for her travel. But Christinah’s status with the country’s ruling political party, Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), made it too dangerous for Tendai to depart from Harare’s airport, where alert officials could detain her.

“Detainment in Zimbabwe often means death,” explains Tendai, a second-year University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill medical student who received a master’s degree in Global Public Health from Duke University in 2015. “That’s the reality in Zimbabwe. Everyone knows someone – or knows of someone – who disappears at the hands of ZANU-PF and is never seen or heard from again.”

To avoid scrutiny at the Harare airport, Tendai took a 13-hour bus ride to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she boarded a flight for the United States. A few weeks later, at the beginning of January, she joined Farai at Southwestern College, a small Methodist school in Winfield, Kansas.

She packed only the bare essentials for what could be the rest of her life: enough clothes for the trip and the days that immediately followed her arrival in the United States; her journal, in which she wrote poetry and documented her experiences living in hiding for the previous 15 months, outside the notice of Zimbabwean government officials; and Sudoku puzzles to occupy her time while traveling.

“I left a lot of my belongings behind,” she says. “But I brought Zimbabwean cornmeal and juice for my mom and brother – those were also essential items.”

One precious belonging Tendai carried with her, which occupied no space in her luggage, was the memory of her final visit to the grave of her father, Tinashe, who died of esophageal cancer at age 40, when she was nine years old.

“It was very difficult for me to visit his grave in the days before I left,” she reflects. “What do you say in a situation like that, at 18 years old? I told him that I loved him, that I would say hello to my mother and brother for him, and that I hoped to return to Zimbabwe to visit him again, although I had no idea if it would be possible for me to do so. I also made a promise to him that motivates me today: I promised him that I would work hard to make something of my life.”

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