Newcomers graduate wins award after overcoming odds

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For Guy Kalenga, 19, his life has focused on cultural reconciliation.

Kalenga came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo five years ago and is one of 200 city students who was awarded the city Department of Education’s Chancellor’s Remarkable Achievement Award.

“These students have overcome obstacles such as violence, abandonment, homelessness, language barriers and illness to graduate,” city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said. “They are an inspiration to their peers and all New Yorkers.”

While a 6-year-old living in the Congo, Kalenga’s father, a bank director, was murdered for presumably sharing secrets with insurgents during a civil war. His mother soon left for New York City to continue her job as a nanny for a Belgian diplomat while Kalenga and his five siblings stayed in the Congo with relatives.

“I never really got involved. I was so young. I was sad,” Kalenga said. “When you’re a little child, you don’t realize [your loss].”

When Kalenga came to New York in 2006, he enrolled at Newcomers High School in Long Island City. Although the school focused on helping immigrants, attending high school in a foreign environment was still far from easy.

Instruction from his English-speaking teachers sounded like singing, said Kalenga, whose native language is French.

During his freshman year, his mother and uncle would translate all his homework into French. After Kalenga responded in French, the assignments had to be translated back into English and checked for clarity by the French teacher before they were handed in.

But by his sophomore year, Kalenga had learned enough English to do his homework on his own.

“I like to work hard,” he said. “For me, quitting is not the first option. Just keep trying and you’ll reach what you want.”

Kalenga attributes his successes to his mother, teachers and friends. He also finds inspiration in the story of President Barack Obama.

“He kind of grew up the same as me,” Kalenga said. “He gave me the idea of how to work hard in life — achieving what he is.”

School and sports also helped Kalenga acclimate to his new country and find community.

As an active member of the school’s soccer team, Kalenga eventually became team captain. He also managed the girl’s’ soccer and basketball teams this past year in addition to working as an aide in the main office.

“The [soccer] coach always called us ‘my boys’ — made us his family,” Kalenga said. “You come into a country, you don’t know anybody, but you come into a family.”

For his human rights class, Kalenga also completed more than 300 hours of community service.

“He always is the first one trying to collaborate with others, to help others,” Kalenga’s classmate and friend Jeannette Neto said.

Kalenga will pursue a degree in business administration at Borough of Manhattan Community College this fall, although he plans to study political science in the future to fulfill his dream of bringing peace to his country as a diplomat.

“I believe in everybody and equality. You’re just a human being. You should love one another,” he said.

Kalenga lives with his mother and siblings in East Harlem.

Reach reporter Evelyn Cheng by phone at 718-260-4524.

Updated 11:30 am, October 12, 2011
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