An international student calls West Asheville home during health crisis

PART OF THE FAMILY: Brian Ngatunga, second from right, has been living with the Hanna family in their West Asheville home since August 2019. He was supposed to return to Mwanza, Tanzania, in early June, but COVID-19 postponed his plans. Also pictured, from left, are Hanna family members Bob, Danielle, Bryce and Caryn. Photo by Sheila Mraz Photography

On June 10, Brian Ngatunga’s travel visa expired. This would normally be an issue, considering the 18-year-old Tanzanian exchange student is still currently living in West Asheville with his host family, the Hannas. But these are not normal times. While international flights have reopened, Ngatunga has been unable to secure a plane ticket back home.

“It’s somewhat depressing and happy at the same time,” he says. “Depressing because I won’t be able to see my family, as was expected; but also happy in that during this COVID-19 season, I’m learning many things and also being productive.”

Ngatunga arrived in Asheville this past August, enrolling as a junior at Asheville High School. He was excited to return to Western North Carolina, where he first visited in May 2017, as a performer at the 44th LEAF Festival. His ambition is to become a computer programmer, he says. But during his current stint in Asheville, he’s also discovered a passion for theater and songwriting. “I started learning the piano once we began the stay-home policy,” he says.

Along with his new musical endeavor, Ngatunga has been following the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd. On June 6, he and his host family joined fellow community members for a vigil at Pack Square.

The events, he says, have helped shed light on previous conversations with his family. “Even before coming here, my parents were always afraid,” he says. “They were like, ‘Oh, who will like you over there in the United States? We’re very afraid you will be discriminated against.’”

Their concerns, Ngatunga continues, have only intensified since Floyd’s death. “Every day when I chat with my parents, they’re always like, ‘Has anyone discriminated [against] you? Has anyone done anything bad to you? Has anyone offended you?’”

Despite the recognized risks of being black in America, the 18-year-old says he is grateful to be here and proud to be part of the worldwide outcry for change. He’s also hoping to continue his education in Asheville, applying to private schools in order to extend his stay.

“I’m really thankful for all the opportunities that I’ve got here in Asheville, having welcoming smiles from people and having kindness from people and really enjoying my time at Asheville High School and having a very wonderful host family,” he says. “I really believe that education is for service. And I believe that I’m here so that I can be a change to my community back home. … I think getting some of the knowledge here and skills here and going back home and using them for a positive impact will be a very good thing for me to do.”

This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at news@mountainx.com.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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