Jean Mfuranzima, a refugee from Burundi at Pima College East, works on his graduation speech in a quiet room at the library. Mfuranzima will be the commencement speaker at the Pima Community College graduation ceremony.

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

Jean Steve Mfuranzima has worked hard, struggled and sacrificed on his journey from his turbulent birth country of Burundi to the PCC graduation ceremony podium where he will speak Thursday.

Yet, he still would rather people say “believe in others” instead of “believe in yourself.”

Mfuranzima was born in 1987 and is the oldest of four children. Since his birth, Burundi has seen a string of presidents deposed, multiple genocides and violence driven by intense tribalism and politics.

He and his family grew up the middle class, but because of ethnic prejudice, they should have been better off, he said. His father, who died of a heart attack in 2011, obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture from the United States.

“We grew up seeing my dad working, doing his best.” And despite the fact that the system was unfair to him, “he planted a seed in us, an education seed,” Mfuranzima said.

Coming to America

In Burundi, Mfuranzima maintained his deep Christian faith, became a student leader on his college campus in Burundi, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and married a woman with a degree in psychology who was also a leader on her college campus. Together, they organized national leadership summits for students, rubbing elbows with Burundi’s president.

He left it all behind when he came to the United States seeking asylum from a government that he was active and outspoken against.

“It’s kind of hard, there’s personal freedom, liberty here, and in my country there is suffering, poverty, sexual violence, corruption,” he said. “I’m honored to be here. I’m safe.”

But when he reached Tucson in January 2014, he struggled.

Since it is illegal to work until asylum is officially granted, he depended on friends for housing, transportation and sometimes food. He battled bouts of depression. He volunteered to help other refugees and found his church community.

“Everything changed,” he said, when he was granted asylum a year later.

For nine months, he worked two full-time jobs and two part-time jobs to save for travel expenses for his wife, Ange Carine Kaneza, to join him in America, and to have a religious wedding. They married in November 2015, and even though culturally they were expected to have kids immediately, they held off.

Instead, they planned to work and save money to return to school, since their degrees did not transfer to the United States, which is typical for refugees.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” he said, quoting Nelson Mandela.

“We decided to both work two full-time (minimum-wage) jobs after marriage. No honeymoon,” and no kids, he said. He worked as a caregiver and interpreter and she as a caregiver for two companies.

“It was tough because we were tired, we had no life, just saving,” he said. Yet, he’s grateful because it provided time to transition into American life, and, “I enjoyed it because I was helping people,” Mfuranzima said.

In March 2017, they had saved enough to pay for school.

Between February 2017 and August 2017 they took a slew of proficiency tests at Pima Community College across subjects such as math and English. Mfuranzima is now a strong English speaker and is learning Spanish, his sixth language.

Going to school

After a year of schooling, 33 credit hours and overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, Mfuranzima will graduate from PCC on Thursday with a 4.0 GPA. He’s a candidate to receive an associate of arts degree and an Arizona General Education Curriculum certification. He will also deliver the commencement speech.

Mfuranzima said he wishes his father could see where he is today.

His wife expects to graduate in December as a licensed practical nurse.

During his time at PCC, he was elected Arizona regional officer and vice president of the Southern Board of Phi Theta Kappa, the world’s largest and most prestigious honors society for two-year college students with a 3.5 GPA. He also serves as a student senator at the East Campus.

“He’s a very involved member of our community,” said Carmen Amavizca, Mfuranzima’s English teacher.

“When you’re in a class you become a family, you become a community. So it means you help each other. That was my first challenge. ... Everyone was so individualistic,” Mfuranzima said.

Mfuranzima would take his writing assignments to Amavizca at least three times before submitting them. This continued even after he was no longer her student, including his graduation speech.

“I knew he was smart and a great student, I just wasn’t aware how incredibly talented he is in really being an amazing leader that listens to people and kind of provides them with guidance in a nurturing way,” she said.

Finding his talent

Mfuranzima is not a natural-born leader.

He was such a shy boy that he had a hard time speaking, he was bullied, and when he got a girlfriend he struggled to talk to her.

“I remember one teacher told me I’ll never be someone,” he said.

But he remembers vividly the day his church pastor asked him to lead the church’s 150 youth. It was 2002 and he was wearing a blue shirt, he recalled. “He saw something in me.”

He began organizing events to bring people and ideas together, writing speeches and taking the first steps to becoming the leader that he is today. His is proud that his talent is leading.

“I’m not saying that because I’m full of myself, I’m saying that because I know,” he said. “How? Because even during (his speech) rehearsal I can feel the adrenaline, I can feel the passion and other people can feel it to motivate them.”

At a student leadership summit for PCC, he gave a presentation “on ways students can participate in school environment and also outreach opportunities,” Amavizca said. His session drew the largest audience.

“I use that gift to serve,” he said.

Next chapter

Service is one of Mfuranzima’s biggest motivators.

“I’m studying in this country, I’m working in this country, I got married in this country. ... You know my second chance was given with this country,” he said. “That’s why I want to serve, to help, to assist American citizens.”

He was recently sworn in as commissioner of the Human Relations Commission in Tucson, which aims to “study discrimination within the community and encourage mutual understanding, respect and cooperation among all groups.”

“He’s the only student I’m friends with on Facebook, and he’s always being honored for something,” Amavizca said.

“I don’t have a U.S. citizenship yet, but whenever doors are open, I must serve,” he said.

Mfuranzima will continue going to Pima for at least another semester to make himself competitive for scholarships.

His goal is to attend Northern Arizona University to get some type of leadership or educational organization degree that “will help me to understand poor people disabled people, people who are suffering, all people who cannot serve themselves.”

His dream is to get his Ph.D. and eventually run for office. He also wants to encourage refugees and immigrants to become more involved in the Tucson community.

“I realized we should say believe in others because I’m here, I’m the product of others, I was assisted by others, I was motivated by others.”

This time, he wants to be someone that others can depend on.

Contact Mikayla Mace at mmace@tucson.com or (520) 573-4158. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.