When she had been announced as the winner of Oregon's Poetry Out Loud competition, Belise Nishimwe simply stared at her sister sitting in the audience.
For a young woman who had impressed with her words, and who doesn't lack the ability to converse, it stunned her. When her sister Serapiya gestured for her to go accept the award, Nishimwe excitedly stood up.
"I was so surprised," says Nishimwe, a sophomore at St. Mary's Academy and a Northeast Portland resident. "It's just a blessing to have won. I had never done a competition like Poetry Out Loud.
"I just thought it would be a good way to get back into writing about poetry and to find the love of poetry."
Nishimwe accepted the Poetry Out Loud award from Kim Stafford, Oregon's poet laureate, and she'll represent the state in the national competition April 29-May 1 in Washington, D.C.
And what a deserving recipient Nishimwe is. She's the daughter of African immigrants originally from Burundi. Her parents, having escaped genocides, lived for 11 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania before moving to the United States with the help of Catholic Charities USA and Holy Redeemer Parish about 12 years ago. Life wasn't easy for her parents, and it's not been easy adjusting to living in the United States, even as her parents worked toward citizenship for the family. Nishimwe, 17, has gone to Catholic schools, but not before having to repeat kindergarten after she had arrived, because her learning and English hadn't advanced enough.
The poems Nishimwe presented at the state contest were "Love's Philosophy" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay, and "Worth" by Marilyn Nelson.
Engaging, well-spoken and affable, Nishimwe impressed judges in edging Lakeridge High School's Nicole Coronado, the runner-up, and seven other regional finalists to win the contest, held earlier this month at the Salem Public Library.
"She inhabited the poems. It wasn't just memorizing," says Sara Salvi, a St. Mary's English teacher who helped prepare Nishimwe for Poetry Out Loud.
Nishimwe's mother, Consolota Harerimana, reacted with an "Oh, my God!" when asked of her reaction to the poetry win. "Very exciting, very happy," she said in English, before expressing in her native Kirundi, "Thinking back to the moment when we first arrived in the United States, and she was 5, and barely knew a word of English, and to come to this point ... I'm very proud of her."
All three poems Nishimwe recited mean something to her, but mostly "Worth," simply because of the title and the words about being worthy of being a young black woman.
"As a black woman and an immigrant, it's important to know that I'm worth something. What I'm doing is worth something," she says.
There have been pivotal people in her life, including family friend Erin Weisensee and the people at St. Mary's Academy who have helped Nishimwe find her voice. She enjoys English, literature and, obviously, public speaking.
She's a smart kid, Salvi says. "She has a real joy in learning."
Nishimwe has a big voice and is using it to speak out for immigrants and social justice.
"She is small in stature," Weisensee says, "but early on, she found that internal voice. She has a power in her and boldness that started coming out."
Note: Belise Nishimwe's family story will be featured in our upcoming Amazing Kids special section.
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