PORTLAND — When Milly Mpundu and her family immigrated to Portland from Burundi in 2011, it was to escape the violence in her home country.

“My country was not safe for my family,” Mpundu, a senior at Casco Bay High School, said.

Burundi, a landlocked country in eastern Africa, has been the site of much civil unrest, and Mpundu’s father, who worked for the United Nations, wanted to get his family out.

The first thing Mpundu said she had trouble with when she arrived at age 13 was the language barrier, as well as a different kind of classroom set up. She said back in Burundi, she spoke French in school, although there usually was not much talking in class. Rather, at her former school, students were expected to “basically sit down and hear the teacher talk,” without asking questions.

“Here teachers want you to learn” and encourage students to ask questions and understand the reason why they are studying the subjects presented, she said. “It’s meant to help you grow both mentally and socially.”

As for the language barrier, Mpundu, 17,  said it was difficult at first to make friends, understand the teachers or the culture. She said she was scared to ask questions, either because she might have the wrong answer or get made fun of. But she kept persevering, taking classes in school to learn English, and, after about a year, she said she was pretty comfortable.

“If you’re really motivated to learn and not be shy, it gets easier to talk,” she said.

And once she felt more comfortable, Mpundu wanted to give back to the community that helped her. She began interning at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, an organization in Portland that helps immigrants seek asylum, find jobs and keep their families together. She helped with translations, research, and “helping newcomers get adapted to the new culture.”

“I’ve been through that process and know what’s like,” she said. “It’s important for me to help those in the same place I had been.”

She interned there her sophomore and junior years, and the summer between her junior and senior year she worked with the law firm Drummond Woodsum. What she loved most about interning was the chance to learn more about the world from the people she spoke with. She said even someone else from Burundi would have had different experiences than she did.

“You get to see a different side of people,” she said.

Unlike when she came to the United States, Mpundu said many asylum-seekers don’t get to come to the U.S. with their families. She said people don’t always notice the struggle of not having family around.

Mpundu will be attending Stonehill College in the fall to study international law, with plans to eventually work for human rights. She said ultimately, she would like to work for the United Nations and help the world.

“I think I can do it,” she said. “It will be really tough, but I think I can if I believe in myself.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Milly Mpundu, who immigrated to Portland from Burundi because of the dangers in her home country, will be graduating from Casco Bay High School. She has volunteered with a law firm that helps asylum-seekers and plans to study international law at Stonehill College.

Sidebar Elements

Portland commencements

• Portland High School will hold its commencement ceremony on Wednesday, June 8 at 10:30 a.m. at Merrill Auditorium on 20 Myrtle St. in Portland.

• Deering High School will hold its commencement ceremony on Thursday, June 9 at 10:30 a.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena on 1 Civic Center Square in Portland.

• Casco Bay High School will hold its commencement ceremony on Thursday, June 9 at 6 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium on 20 Myrtle St. in Portland.

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