Gillette principal speaks to UN about refugees

By Kathy Brown

Gillette News Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Bertine Bahige, principal at Rawhide Elementary School in Gillette, answered questions at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Monday.

It’s not your everyday event for a principal in Wyoming or even for a former child soldier and refugee. Bahige was chosen to represent the world’s refugees after the U.N. members approved a new Global Compact on Refugees on Monday. He represented the 1 percent of the world’s refugees who have been resettled, speakers added.

It was a historic day, according to speakers, as the U.N. pledged support and action in countries who accept refugees, whether it comes in the form of schools and education, or building needed infrastructure.

Bahige was part of a 50-minute video lauding the new compact, a two-year project.

Dressed in a suit and bow tie, the principal who calls Gillette his home spoke about his hopes and how he wanted to give back to the community that welcomed him.

He specifically spoke about Gillette and why he and his daughter were at the meeting as a way of giving back to the community and providing hope and opportunity that became so important in his own life.

In answering questions on the floor of the assembly, Bahige spoke about his past and the worst days he experienced while he was a child soldier for two years after being abducted at age 13.

“The worst part of that experience was every single day was the worst day,” he said. “And the fact that I didn’t know if I would make it to the next day; losing my whole family without ever seeing them again. So the worst day was every day.”

That’s why he ran from where he was kidnapped and ended up in a refugee camp in Mozambique. He ran toward hope. And after spending five years in the refugee camp, he was resettled in the United States, arriving in Baltimore.

Eventually while working three jobs, he made his way to the University of Wyoming to earn a degree in math education. He then was hired as a math teacher at Campbell County High School before eventually taking over as principal at Rawhide Elementary.

Bahige was flying back to Gillette this morning and unable to answer questions. He texted, “it was humbling, especially knowing that decision made in that building impacts the whole world! I wanted her to experience it,” he said of his elementary school-aged daughter.

On the U.N. floor, he spoke about what drove him to run from those who had kidnapped him and the risks he took in doing so.

“It was hope instilled in me by my parents. I knew that I had a purpose on this earth, something I could give back to,” he said. “It was that hope if I make it to the next day, I had a hope of a chance of making that happen.

“One of best thing about being in the refugee camp, even with limited resources, was knowing that I had shelter and that I had safety,” he said. “Those are things that I was truly, truly grateful for every single day. The hope I had was getting access to education, building my life, and the hope to help the community I was part of.”

Bahige said when officials interviewed him over and over in that refugee camp, he had no idea what was going on. Then came the decision to resettle him in Baltimore.

“I think that when you think about refugees, we often forget that all that refugees are looking for is hope,” he said at the U.N. “They’re asking to put that hope in their way. They’re victims of circumstances that often they had nothing to do with. And they’re asking for hope. And that hope can come in various forms. And it can come in the form of education. And once I was given that opportunity, I wanted to turn it back through education.”

He earned a scholarship at UW and became a math teacher in Gillette. “I could have chosen to just walk in that classroom, teach math and go home about my life. But no, I knew that I wanted to call Gillette, Wyoming, home because it gave me that chance. And I wanted to give back to my community and do some outreach work,” he said.

“So I started reaching out to those at-risk students because I knew the pain they were feeling. I knew not having enough and how does that feel like. But I also knew that if I can place and instill that hope that was given to me, it can make a difference.

“That’s why I brought my daughter today because I want her to learn and to understand that, you know, it’s through this kind of effort, global effort, in working together that we can make a difference in those refugees’ lives. And they bring a lot to the table if we can give them that opportunity, that chance, that hope, and that’s what this is all about.”

Among the speakers was Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, president of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly, Amina J. Mohammed, U.N. deputy secretary-general, and Fillippo Grandi, U.N. high commissioner for refugees.