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  • Erick Manirakiza

We Are Not From Here

Erick Manirkariza's first person story about moving to the United States with his grandmother at four years old, the time she ran around St. Elmo frightened of the Caines family, and how he balances life as a high school student and athlete while balancing different worldviews.

Erick’s grandmother, Veronica, fled Burundi in the 1970s. She moved to the United States with Erick when he was four years old.

It was the second day in the states for me and my grandmother. We had just got off the plane, and I remember going to the Caines’ house. They were looking after me and my grandmother. We were brought in through their church, East Ridge Presybtarian. It happened to be the Fourth of July; to my grandmother, the sound of fireworks wasn’t the sound of celebration or independence. No, to her it was the sound of guns and bombs going off. “I had made some beans and tomatoes from a Kenyan recipe, and they were cooling on the stove. I had read that French was the official language of Burundi, but Veronica didn’t speak French,” recalls Shonda Caines, Lower School Head and Director of Exceptional Education Programs at CCS. “I was attempting to communicate with her in French, which I think just scared her even worse.”

Thinking my grandmother had said a word that sounded like “Catholic,” Shonda’s husband JR went inside for a crucifix he had purchased while visiting Uganda. When he returned, however, my grandmother ran down the street. “We spent close to two hours chasing her through the streets of St. Elmo,” Shonda recalls. “Every time she would slow down and one of us would get close, she would dart off again.” I was four years old and asleep, so they carried me to their guest bedroom. My grandmother was in her traditional Burundian atrie, which was a combination of shirt top with vibrant colors and skirt-like blanket as the bottoms; she had a wrapping for the head. The Caines called friends and found a woman who was from Kenya to help them communicate.

My life story is very unusual. I was born in a refugee camp, a place filled with immigrant families seeking asylum from neighboring countries such as Burundi, Congo, and many others. Families were usually there to start a new life because the country they were fleeing was in shambles or at war. My grandmother, like many others in the camps, didn't have a good education because the years she should’ve been in school were in the middle of a civil war. She had to adapt how she made a living. She would make her own gardens from scratch from cutting little trees down to plowing the land with a little hoe and machete. She would sell the produce that she grew to make a living and to feed me. The markets were always busy with people trying to sell their own products--sugarcane, beans, rice, flour, sweet potatoes, and more flour. That was my family.

Erick's grandmother, Veronica, with family friends.

My grandmother, her sister, and other family fled Burundi in the 1970s, escaping civil war. They didn’t have time to grab much, only stuff they could carry. My grandmother told me stories of her trying to survive during that time. One day as we were sitting on our little porch of our little one bedroom, one bath house, she started telling me about where we came from.

“Erick, we are not from here.”

“I know we are not from here,” I said.

“Erick, a lot of our family is still in Africa and other places.”

As a little 8 year old, I didn’t know how to respond to that because she was the only family I knew. I just thought it was interesting to know there was more of our family somewhere.

“Erick, me and my family would run from people with guns when I was younger. They would start shooting, and we would run. I remember them shooting me in the leg,” she said.

I first thought that she was kidding. In my head, if anyone got shot, they would die. She raised her skirt-like blanket so I could see her leg, and it had a weird smudge in the skin. I reached over and touched that spot. It was soft, but if I pressed down I could feel the bond underneath. I couldn’t imagine the pain it brought her, but yet she is still here.

She said, “That’s where the bullet entered my skin.”

I asked, “Did you ever take it out?”

She said she didn’t have access to a doctor, so she let it heal over. My grandmother struggled so I could thrive. I’ll never forget that, and she’ll never let me forget that as long as she or I live. When I was born, I didn’t have enough blood, and my grandmother had herself drained of blood so I could live. The amount the doctors needed was more than you should take from one person, but my grandmother said she was willing to give up her blood if it meant I stayed alive. My grandmother taught me a lot of lessons growing up, some I just learned because I see her as my mom and I just did everything she told me to do. When we got the chance to come to America, my grandmother didn’t hesitate even though it meant leaving her family.

When I was younger, my grandmother would sit me down and tell me, “Erick, if it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have come to America. I brought you here so you can work and start your own family.”

When we got the chance to come to America, my grandmother didn’t hesitate even though it meant leaving her family.

I’d just give her a confused look, not fully understanding what she was saying.

She always says, “The only reason why we are in the states is because of you.” I hate it and love it at the same time. I’m the oldest in my family, so I’m supposed to be like the chosen one, I guess. My grandmother sacrificed everything she was in Africa so I could live a life worth living. I hate having all this pressure on me because I never asked for it. I often find myself asking, “Why me? Why do I have to be the one that gets all this opportunity? What if I mess it up? What if I throw it all away? How do I go about life? Who am I living this life for? Me? My siblings? My grandmother? My future family? God?” All questions I’ve had ask myself struggling to find any answers.

Erick with Nate Manning trying on hats. Nate attended CCS until his sophomore year and graduated from Lookout Valley with the Class of 2020.

My grades at Chattanooga Christian School have fluctuated at times because of life at home with my grandmother. I have been late to school multiple times a semester because my grandmother needed someone to translate for her at the doctors office. I remember days where I would miss school because she needed me the whole day, and my work would pile up and stress me out. I didn’t tell her because I knew all the things she sacrificed for me to even be here. I was scared to tell my teachers sometimes because I didn’t realize that I was in such a different boat than my peers. I figured it was normal to feel that amount of stress at times. I also didn’t want anyone to pity me for my situation. During At Home Learning in the spring, there were more distractions. My grandmother doesn’t speak English, so she didn’t fully grasp the idea of us being at home for school. She made me run a lot of errands in the middle of classes. She’d ask me to get water or groceries, or take her to work at Pilgrim’s Pride, a chicken processing plant. I felt inclined to help every time.

I am very fortunate to have been adopted and raised by both my grandmother and the Mannings, a family we met through our church, East Ridge Presbyterian. They had a son my age, and we became friends and brothers from that moment on. They have come alongside my grandmother--and the Caines family--as they all raised me with Christian principles and raised me to be the man God wants me to be. If it weren’t for the Mannings showing me how to live life as an American and how to go about certain decisions when you come face to face with them, then I would probably be in a gang, in prison, selling drugs, doing stuff I shouldn’t be doing. Although, my grandmother has never really trusted white people. I believe it’s because of generations upon generations of spreading stories of slavery in the U.S. She didn’t trust the Mannings at the beginning.

She used to tell me before they picked me up, “Be careful, and don’t trust them too much. They might throw you in a ditch and leave you there stranded.”

I said, “Ma, that's crazy. They love me, and would never let anything happen to me.”

--but they showed her that they wanted to treat me as their own son, and from then on I have been a part of their family.

My grandmother has other views I just don’t agree with, and I’m sure being raised in two different settings has something to do with it. I fell in love with sports when I came here, and the Mannings helped me find the one I loved the most. I’ve thrown and hit a baseball, I’ve kicked and caught a football, I’ve shot and dribbled a basketball, I’ve ran 400 and 800 meters in races, I’ve run miles upon miles of races. Soccer came out on top. Soccer has helped me express myself. It’s helped pave a path for my future. I was blessed by God with the gift to play soccer at a high level. My grandmother wants me to quit soccer and pursue a career in the medical field, but I have never been able to look at my blood or anyone else’s for that matter. So I’m going to continue to go the path that looks right, which is pursuing soccer. I have hopes and dreams. I have hopes to repay everyone that’s helped me be who I am today, especially my grandmother. I have hopes to make a difference in my community. I hope to one day work so my grandmother doesn’t have to anymore.

This is the story of my life, and how it was changed through my grandmother and her willingness to stop at nothing until I have made something out of myself. There’s not a moment I would ever change or take back. Everything happens for a reason!

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