21-Day Challenge Sparks Conversations about the Lives of Immigrants

A bird's eye view of a protest march with a participants carrying a sign that says immigrants are essential workers.
Image credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Author  Shannon O'Brien
Published on 

Students who took part in Wellesley’s 21 Days of Immigration Reflection Challenge, offered in November through the Slater International Center, had the unexpected opportunity to hear a first-person story from one of their classmates about living as a refugee.

“The direction of my life’s purpose was determined by the earliest events of my own life,” says Chantale Zuzi ’25, who was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo and talked about her journey to the U.S. during the 21 Days program, “because I grew up in a place where albinos were viewed as outcasts.”

Zuzi and two of her siblings were born with albinism, an inherited condition that leads a person to have very light skin, hair, and eyes due to a lack of melanin. Village members told her parents to kill her because of it. “The only reason I survived was because my own parents believed that I had the right to live,” she says.

When she was 13, her parents were killed during a massacre in Congo. Without them, she was unprotected from those who wished her harm because of her albinism, so she and her nine siblings fled together to a United Nations refugee camp in Uganda. While there, she became an advocate for people with albinism, even reaching out to the Uganda Human Rights Commission. The representative government in the camp didn’t appreciate that and started making her life more difficult. She decided to leave the camp and sought protection from the U.N. Refugee Agency in Nairobi, Kenya, which helped her resettle in Worcester, Mass., in 2018. Seven of her siblings have since been resettled in Boston.

Zuzi shared her odyssey with students participating in the challenge in order to make real the types of immigrant stories most students may have only heard through the news—abstractions of people coming to the U.S. for “better lives.” Since coming to the U.S., Zuzi has realized that many people don’t understand the numerous reasons immigrants leave their countries and the difficult decisions and often life-or-death scenarios they face. “No one would ever wish to leave their home to become refugees,” she said.

Previous 21 Days programs—which are based on Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra’s “21-Day Meditation Experience” and the idea that doing something for 21 days will create a habit—have focused on racism and gender and sexuality inclusion.

Leanne Dolat, program coordinator for Slater International Center, said this program was inspired by international students who had expressed a desire to educate their Wellesley siblings about their experiences navigating college and U.S. travel policy. Together, the participants tackled questions about what it means to be an immigrant or nonimmigrant student. How do international students go about getting visas? How have they been affected by COVID-19 travel restrictions? “We hope that students start to have potentially difficult conversations around immigration within the U.S., and how that has really impacted all of our lives at Wellesley,” Dolat said.

Katharine Conklin ’22 has participated in all three programs. “I think intercultural work is incredibly important,” she said. “It makes me better at the things that I really care about, in terms of education, and building and sustaining relationships with other people.” She said the race and gender/sexuality sessions were about issues of identity that are more openly examined on Wellesley’s campus, whereas immigration—particularly in relation to documentation status—isn’t discussed as easily. Participating in the immigration program “felt really important to me,” she said, “especially as someone who values continuous learning, and not just [learning] in classroom spaces.”

Topics covered in the 21-day program included international education in the U.S. and at Wellesley, global perspectives of international students, how to support undocumented students, how to support dual citizens, and more. Dolat said it was interesting to hear students share personal stories and to see others rethink how they engaged with immigrant communities in the past. “We are noticing throughout the 21 days that students are actually starting to think differently, which is great,” Dolat said.

For example, one student admitted to being unaware of all the hurdles Wellesley’s international students face, particularly in light of COVID-19 travel restrictions, and the homesickness many feel. Dolat said this student’s takeaway was to be more mindful of supporting international classmates.

Zuzi has been willing to open up about her journey to help her Wellesley siblings develop that mindfulness and empathy. She believes experiencing hardships and tragedies can prepare people for doing good work in the world. “When we understand from inside and outside what suffering feels like, it can give us the desire and drive to do all we can to alleviate the pain of others,” she says. “That is why I want to give back to my community and help to educate my peers about refugees. Especially in a setting like Wellesley, where we are people from different parts of the world. By knowing each other’s story, we get to know each other.”