Breaking Barriers

Firmin Ntakimazi says Des Moines and LSI helped to save him. Now, he is giving back.

After years of living in fear, surrounded by violence in his home country, Burundi, Firmin and his family found safety among Central Iowa’s welcoming people. Now Firmin, 52, has spent the last 10 years finding ways to be active in the Des Moines and LSI communities.

During the school year, Firmin can be found in the halls and classrooms of public schools across the Des Moines district. He is one of several bilingual outreach community workers in area schools, translating for families who speak Swahili, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, Kinyamulenge, and French.

“It’s serving as a bridge between teachers and administrators, and the communities who don’t speak English,” Firmin says. “They have needs, and they need to communicate. They need someone in-between so they can make those exchanges.”

Firmin says his work is also encouraging more children stay focused in school.

“The kids might misbehave and say ‘My mom doesn’t speak English, what are you going to do?’ But when I’m here, they know if you mess around, Firmin will call your parents,” he says with a laugh. “They’ll focus on education, and the parents can go to work without worries.”

In his free time, Firmin works as a direct support caregiver in the area, and he spends his weekend as a pastor at First Church of Nazarene in Des Moines. He loves that he can help ease the congregation’s daily stresses and lingering trauma through prayer and worship.

That faith has also empowered Firmin through his own stress and struggles.

In 1993, Firmin’s home country of Burundi erupted in civil war. In order to save is family from the increasing violence, Firmin fled to Tanzania.

Firmin spent 13 years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. He lived there with his wife, Emma, and two young sons, Dan and Joshua, and he worked as the principal in the camp’s school. But when the Tanzanian government closed the camp, he and his family were sent to live in the U.S. as refugees.

Upon boarding their plane to the U.S. in 2006, Firmin’s family didn’t know where their home would be. They discovered they would be moving to Iowa only when they landed in New York and were put on a connecting flight.

When Firmin and his family landed at the Des Moines International Airport, LSI staff members were there to welcome them. LSI found a rental home for Firmin’s family, and team members helped them make appointments and find jobs in the area. Firmin’s family participated in ESL classes at LSI, and Firmin has since assisted other Burundian families in adjusting to their new lives in Iowa.

Firmin has made his home in Des Moines, and he has no plans to leave. His family is here. He has found his passion for supporting others here. And he even loves Iowa’s brutal winters and snow!

Firmin’s sons, Dan and Joshua, are now in high school, and Firmin and Emma welcomed two daughters, Grace and Selah, in Des Moines.

Firmin wants new refugees to find the same joy his family has discovered in Iowa.

“When refugees come, they are frustrated. They think they will not make it. But people here and at LSI are very nice, and they’re helpful,” Firmin says. “You’re not alone on this journey.”

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