Rukundo Uwimana was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda and spent the first 14 years of his life living far from his family’s war-torn home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Clarkston, Georgia, a town known as the Ellis Island of the South, his story is a common one.
Since the refugee act of 1980 was signed by President Jimmy Carter, Clarkston has taken in more than 40,000 refugees from across the world, making it the most diverse square-mile in the country.
That also makes Clarkston High School one of the most diverse schools in the country.
“When you walk into Clarkston High School, you're looking at over 40 nations,” says Clarkston cross country coach Wesley Etienne. His team is made up of students from 10 different countries, with 90 percent being refugees. And this season the Angoras are entering the season as state champions for the third straight season.
Junior Rukundo Uwimana was part of the last two state championship teams. “Coach, he was like, ‘do you want to join cross country?’” Uwimana says. “And I didn’t even know what cross country is.”
“Running a 5k, 3.1 miles, in the hot sun? Running through the woods. Seems a little crazy,” Etienne says.
Uwimana is now one of Clarkston’s top runners and he is hoping that his success will open up new opportunities he once thought were impossible. “Everyday I was like ‘I wish I can come to America,'” says Uwimana. “If I finish high school in Africa, I don’t have the money to go to college. In the refugee camp, most of the people were not going to school. But here I have a chance to go to college and finish my school.”
Cross country 2015 GA State champions pic.twitter.com/RImf15YpOh— Rukundo uwimana (@rukundo_uwimana) January 30, 2016
Etienne says stories like Uwimana's are celebrated throughout Clarkston's vast refugee community as a symbol of new opportunities that America may bring.
“When we’re running through the community we see them smiling, clapping for us, cheering us on,” Etienne says. “They know that these kids are the future. They’re living the American dream.”