28 October 2020

From Many Languages One World to UN Volunteer: Bahati Ernestine

The Many Languages, One World (MLOW) essay contest, co-hosted by ELS Educational Services and United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) from 2014-2017, challenged university students worldwide to write an essay examining global citizenship, cultural understanding and the role of multilingualism in fostering both. The essay had to be written in one of the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish), but not in the student’s first language or primary language of instruction. Winners of the contest were invited to United Nations Headquarters for the Global Youth Forum, where they created and presented action plans for the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda.

This follow-up series reconnects with the MLOW contest winners to showcase their journeys since the contest and spotlights their reflections on language learning and how it shaped their educational and professional pursuits.

Bahati Ernestine was a winner of the contest in the English language group in 2016. She is a refugee from Rwanda living in Kenya, also a UN Volunteer with UNHCR in Nairobi and a nurse working on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read on to find out how the MLOW experience helped Bahati take the first steps in becoming an advocate for the inclusion, integration and education for refugees.

UNAI: What inspired you to enter the Many Languages, One World (MLOW) contest?

Bahati Ernestine: I have always strived to be the voice of the voiceless. Learning different languages especially the local ones enabled me to do this. Many Languages, One World (MLOW) was a way for me to amplify my voice on behalf of all refugees on a global sale. I also helped me break the barriers that I saw ahead of myself because of my refugee status.

UNAI: What was the subject of your essay and which Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were reflected?

Bahati Ernestine: My essay was on Global Citizenship and Cultural Understanding. It was written based on my personal experience and that of displaced persons all over the world who bring with themselves different cultures and well as languages. My essay encompassed SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), and SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).

UNAI: Please tell us about the academic or career path that you have taken since the contest. Did your language studies and MLOW experience help you make your decisions?

Bahati Ernestine: I pursued a degree in Nursing that I have now graduated from. I studied at a university that teaches in English, whereas my primary and secondary education was in French. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been undertaking my internship/residency at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi.

MLOW gave me the courage to begin taking the first steps in advocacy for refugee inclusion, integration and education not only locally but on an international scale. I have since been invited to speak on subjects such as the importance of education of refugees, challenges facing refugee girls, how to harness the potential of young refugees, among others. I have been able to grow through the experience. This year I was hired as a UN Volunteer with UNHCR in Nairobi and I am now in charge of youth activities. I have also been working as an interpreter for refugees since I was in school.

At the hospital I work in English, but I can also speak Swahili, the national language of Kenya that most patients are comfortable with. My speaking and volunteering engagements are also mainly in English. Learning English as a new language has got me to a position where I am able to mediate communication between humanitarian organizations and refugees. I am privileged to be able to understand and advocate for people because of the languages I speak and relay their needs in a way that will lead to action by humanitarian actors.

UNAI: Could you please tell us about the challenges that you had to face while studying or working in a language/culture that is different from your own?

Bahati Ernestine: The challenges I have encounters are many - economic, social, and political as is the case within my refugee context. However, I have been blessed with opportunities to build my resilience and fight for others to have a smoother path than mine. The biggest lesson I have learnt and that I would like to share is that we all belong, and we all have a part to play. We can go further together.

Refugee education in times of COVID-19

Bahati Ernestine shares a keynote speech at a virtual forum convened by UNHCR and Kiron on the impact of COVID-19 on refugee education.