Mbeomo and Tosha Msambilwa spent the first years of their lives waiting — for food, for clothing, for a home. The brother and sister were born in a refugee camp in Tanzania after their parents fled the Congo. More than two decades after the Msambilwa parents arrived in the camp, their wait came to an end last year, when their family finally settled in Indianapolis.

For Mbeomo and Tosha, that marked the beginning of another journey: Learning English.

Mbeomo, 15, and Tosha, 12, are enrolled in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program, which serves students in their first year in the U.S. who are learning English. The school, which opened this year, has seen explosive growth — going from about 55 students when they opened their doors to almost 200 kids, and new students arrive each week. The aim is to help students catch up to grade level and become fluent in reading, writing and speaking English so they can succeed in school and beyond, said Jessica Feeser, who leads the district’s English language learner programs.

“We had less than a 50 percent graduation rate for newcomers in IPS,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that we are equipping our students to graduate from high school.”

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At the newcomer program, even art class is an English lesson.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

About three dozen of the students in the newcomer program are refugees who fled war in their home countries or — like Mbeomo and Tosha — grew up in camps that were meant to be temporary.

When refugees arrive, they are paired with resettlement agencies that help them adjust to life in America and tackle problems like finding schools and work. The Msambilwas worked with Exodus Refugee, which helped Mbeomo and Tosha enroll at the newcomer school.

In the refugee camp, the Msambilwas’ parents didn’t have work, so the family relied on food and necessities from international aid. Every four months they received new supplies, Mbeomo said. In the weeks that followed, they would stretch the food to make it last until they were given more. In the camp, the family of nine — Mbeomo and Tosha have three adult siblings and two younger siblings at a nearby elementary school — lived in a small house with an outhouse instead of a bathroom.

The family left all that behind earlier this year, when they took a bus from the camp to a nearby town where they boarded a plane to the capital of Tanzania. From there, they flew through Switzerland to Chicago. Their settlement in Indianapolis was bittersweet, however, because Mbeomo and Tosha’s father became ill and died in the camp in Tanzania just months before they left for the U.S.

In some ways, the Msambilwa family was well-prepared to come to America: When they were selected by the U.S. State Department, aid workers in the refugee camp taught them about life in the U.S., from how to greet people to how to wash cloths, Mbeomo said. They even taught them how to board a plane.

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But life is still different in the U.S. Now, instead of a house, their family lives in an apartment. Their older brothers and their mother work in factories. The biggest differences between schools in the camp and in Indianapolis, they said, are that teachers in Tanzania hit students when they make mistakes and students in the U.S. use their cell phones in class.

The newcomer school offers a rare community for African migrants in Indianapolis. The Msambilwa siblings speak Swahili and their parents’ Congolese language of Kibembe, and there are at least 14 languages spoken at the school. But the Msambilwas have made friends with other students who speak the same language and other students who grew up in refugee camps.

It’s a relief to spend time with other people he can communicate with, said Mbeomo. But he is reluctant to spend time with them because it takes him longer to learn English, he said.

Ask either sibling about the future — what they want to be when they grow up, what they dream for their family — and their answer is the same. They will start thinking about the future once they have mastered English.