LEHI — A child without parents or a home, Desange Kuenihira believed the bleak predictions for her future because all she'd know was the cruel realities of a Ugandan refugee camp.
"They said a lot of things that put me down, which I actually believed," said Kuenihira, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her five siblings and an aunt when she was just 2 years old. "They said, 'You're meaningless, girl. Your life has no meaning. You'll never even get your high school diploma. The only meaning you have is the dowry a man will give to marry you.' But coming here changed my mind."
She can't stop grinning when she considers what those same people might think seeing her in a cap and gown, collecting not only a high school diploma but an associate degree at age 18.
"I am proud of myself," she said, beaming. "It's been a journey, overcoming all of the stuff, but I'm graduating with my associate degree, and I'm really proud of myself. … I hope everyone who has supported me is proud too."
War forced Kuenihira and her siblings to flee the country with their aunt. She doesn't want to talk about her parents, except to say that because her parents were from warring tribes, they were picked on and harassed.
"The refugee camp was tough," she said solemnly. "They don't really give enough food for people, and a lot of women die giving birth. … We were not liked well. One day they burned our house down. … I never played with other kids. People picked on my siblings, and I got in fights a lot."
She went to school, but it wasn't engaging or challenging, she said. When she turned 10, her brother and aunt moved them to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. It was there they waited to learn where they would be resettled in the U.S. When she was 13, they boarded a plane almost completely ignorant of where they might end up living.
They arrived in Utah on a cold October morning. Salt Lake City was completely different than the myth that exists about life in America.
"It's so different than what it's like here," she said, giggling at the memories. "People would think you could pick up money off the street, that you don't have to work for it. You wear clothes once, and then throw them away. It was just a crazy thing. We did not even expect to see soil on the ground."
Because they were without parents, she and her siblings under 18 were sent to different foster homes. Her oldest brother and her aunt attended classes that allowed them to become the guardians for the children, and the family was reunited six months after arriving in Utah.
"It was hard," she said of the pain of being separated, which was eased by weekend visits. "These are the people who we went through everything with, and now we get separated."
Kuenihira said she immediately "fell in love" with school in the U.S. Despite not knowing the language, she earned straight As her first semester of high school, and immediately began searching for a more challenging environment. That led her to Itineris Early College High School, a charter school in West Jordan.
"I love challenge," she said. "I wanted to grow; I wanted something that would make me think differently. This school challenged me. And we are not just a school, we are a family."
Kuenihira said much of her success has come from a supportive family, that now includes the small school's staff and student body. The school gave her a job, and the staff has supported her in many ways, including sponsoring her when she entered a scholarship pageant.
"It was easy to make friends," she said of her sophomore year. "The first year I was the only refugee and black girl in the whole school. It felt like a lot of kids here didn't know about refugees."
So she started a club that brought in speakers and those who worked with refugees, and expanded the world view of her new Utah friends, while they helped her adjust to life as an American teenager.
"I wanted people to understand the reality of being a refugee," she said. "It's not like you choose to be a refugee. You don't have a choice. You leave or die."
Kuenihira said that while she's felt personally supported and embraced by Utah and the U.S., she feels like refugees as a group are misunderstood by most people, who know nothing about the process or why they must flee their home countries.
"When I say I'm a refugee, most people tend to see me as a victim," she said. "I'm not a victim. I'm a warrior. I am someone who has survived something. I'm someone who has left my home, who came here to make something of myself. It's not about being smart, it's about working hard."
Her oldest brother, Fiston Kuenihira, 25, who works with refugees in Utah's foster care system, said what they endured was difficult physically and emotionally.
"As a refugee, you don't have any hope at all," he said. "You just flee from your own country, and you don't know what your life will be. Everything becomes so hard, you just don't know what's next."
He said his sister has always been a leader, and he believes she'll achieve what she wants because she is determined and hard working. He could barely put into words what it's like to see her graduating from high school with her associate degree.
"It's magical," he said. "She works so hard. She is a very courageous girl. I'm always impressed with her courage. She never gives up."
Kuenihira said she doesn't feel cheated that she didn't enjoy the kind of childhood that many of her friends did. She said she is grateful for everything she's experienced in her life because it is part of who she is.
"My past is something that motivates me," she said. "It's my motivation in life, to keep going in life, no matter how hard it gets. … When I was in the refugee camp, that was not the life I wanted, but I was in that position. I had to accept what I had to move on. I was grateful with what I had. I want to live a happy life, so I'm glad my life went the way it went."