Jo Jo Lusambo is a former Congolese refugee who is paying it forward today on the First Coast.
This is the the second in our GlobalJax Profile series introducing First Coast residents with international roots who make positive contributions to the community.
It’s full circle for Lusambo. Ten years ago, Lutheran Social Services helped his family begin news lives in Jacksonville when Lusambo was 14, after they fled civil war in the Congo.
Now he is helping the First Coast’s newest generation of refugees as an intern at the organization, where he translates documents into his native language, Swahili, and mentors kids.
Civil war erupted in the Congo in 1997.
“We couldn’t watch TV. The power was cut off, we had to sleep in the hallways because bullets were flying,” he said.
Lusambo and his four brothers escaped with neighbors to Uganda. Lusambo’s mother later met up with them.
“We spent about a month or a couple of weeks where I don’t know where my parents were, we walked wherever these people walked, we slept where ever these people slept. We ate whatever these people ate,” Lusambo said.
Lusambo’s father, an attorney, was arrested after refusing to work for the new government. He was later released through Amnesty International.
When his family obtained refugee status to come to the United States, Lusambo had not been in a classroom in four years. He landed in Englewood High School in the middle of his junior year, knowing just a few words of English.
“It was not a good experience my first year because I did not know anybody," he said "I did not know the resources that were available through Lutheran at the time like the after school program, so I was pretty much lost, so I really prayed nobody spoke to me at the time.”
Part of the culture shock came in the form of $150 Michael Jordan sneakers.
“All I knew was I was to wear something clean I was fine and that created a lot of culture shock and other kids of would make fun of me because when my dad or sister would buy me shoes," he said.
"It wasn’t really Jordan–mine would have a Jordan on the other side and they would have a real one and they made fun of me.”
Lusambo draws on that experience to help other refugee kids at Lutheran Social Services adjust.
“I feel as a refugee they need a lot of help. It might be a basic thing but for them it’s something big and for them it might be just taking one of their kids and playing soccer and they will enjoy that and cherish that,” he said.
The kids consider him a role model who has walked in their shoes.
“They won’t leave me they hang on me. I met some kids, one had a brother in Syria and he didn’t know where his brother was. They all shared their stories and I shared my story and told them, ‘things could still happen for you – you’re in America, you have a second chance.’”
Lusambo’s success as a soccer player led to an athletic scholarship at the University of North Florida where he met his wife, Miriam, started a family, and launched a cleaning business so he could work nights while finishing up a degree in International Relations.
He spends what little free time he has helping the kids and plans on a career helping others.
“I don’t have big goals to become a corporate guy, if I can just help, I’ll be happy,” he said.
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