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World

Young Immigrants From Kenya Return For A Reunion

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A volunteer trip to Africa over school vacation had a special meaning to several Missouri students this summer. It was the kind of program where young people travel overseas to dig wells or maybe help build a village school. But for these students, it was also a trip to the nation where they were born, Kenya. St. Louis Public Radio's Ryan Delaney has the story of their trip and also the man who made it happen.

RYAN DELANEY, BYLINE: Geoffrey Soyiantet made the move from Kenya to Missouri when he was 29 years old. It was January. He remembers the cold.

GEOFFREY SOYIANTET: To a point, I wanted to go back (laughter). But I really had a very - lot of struggle.

DELANEY: He says he struggled because there wasn't much of a community of Kenyan immigrants for him to lean on. Now 43, he spent several years trying to build a network of job and housing resources. Suddenly, he was the guy to call for Kenyans moving to St. Louis.

SOYIANTET: So it reached a point my phone was actually calling all the time.

DELANEY: He now runs a nonprofit, Vitendo4Africa, which translates to action for Africa in Swahili, which assists and mentors new arrivals. But he worries younger immigrants are losing some of their Kenyan heritage.

SOYIANTET: So most of them, they are kind of shying away being immigrants. And because of that, they lost some identity.

DELANEY: Through his organization, Soyiantet leads trips of teenage Kenyan immigrants back to their home country over summer breaks. Four teenagers joined Soyiantet traveling around Kenya this month. It was the first time back for most of the group. They painted at a rural hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOLS HAMMERING)

DELANEY: And here in a village, hours from the main road, they spent several days constructing an addition onto a school.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD LAUGHING)

DELANEY: As they worked to build the frame of a new classroom, there were whispers among curious onlookers about whether this group really was Kenyan. But then Sally Gacheru and the others started speaking in Swahili.

SALLY GACHERU: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Swahili).

GACHERU: (Speaking Swahili).

Since we did that, the kids got more closer to us. They stopped, like, shying off. And so like, oh, these are people who have stayed here, people who know, like, our language.

DELANEY: And then they brought out soccer balls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: One, two, three...

DELANEY: There are interactions with older residents, too, like the school carpenter. One evening, while waiting for dinner, George Masese quizzes Victor Rotich.

GEORGE MASESE: My question is this - what is the difference between Kenya and America?

VICTOR ROTICH: That's a hard question. Like...

DELANEY: The 17-year-old tries to answer.

ROTICH: I guess, like, it's maybe - to a point, it's an easier life.

DELANEY: Elizabeth Kamau, who has lived in the United States less than two years, has a measured answer to those who ask about going to America.

ELIZABETH KAMAU: Because they expect, like, life is so easy there. But even though most people may seem it's easy, but it's not easy. So it's hard. Even though they might be curious about it, I tell them it's not all milk and honey.

DELANEY: Soyiantet, their chaperone, wants them to remember what their life in Kenya was like. He reminds the teens about his childhood challenges each time they groan about fetching water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

SOYIANTET: When I tell them about the life I grew, what I used to do, the distance I used to walk and what I used to do before I go to school - to them, looks like a theory.

DELANEY: It's been five years since Rotich moved from western Kenya to St. Louis. He's learned to look back on his childhood here differently.

ROTICH: When I first came to the U.S., like, I didn't want to be Kenyan most like - mostly. I wanted to, like, adapt fast, become an American. But like, as I grew older, I learned to appreciate, like, where I'm coming from. So most of the time right now, if you ask me where I'm from, I'll just say I'm from Kenya.

DELANEY: Geoffrey Soyiantet hopes the kids will return to the U.S. with a sense of pride in their Kenyan heritage and become mentors to younger immigrants. Without that, he says, they'll have a community without a culture.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Delaney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.