M’munga Songolo, Anthony Braunstein, Sophia Ell, Gabriel Briare and Asukulu Songolo were award winners from Holy Cross at last year’s 50th Valley Catholic speech competition. Gabriel won first place in the original composition speech that brought Asukulu the second-place honor. (Courtesy Songolo family)
M’munga Songolo, Anthony Braunstein, Sophia Ell, Gabriel Briare and Asukulu Songolo were award winners from Holy Cross at last year’s 50th Valley Catholic speech competition. Gabriel won first place in the original composition speech that brought Asukulu the second-place honor. (Courtesy Songolo family)

“All refugees have a story of resilience.”

So Asukulu Songolo began the speech that won him second place in the original composition section for eighth graders at the Valley Catholic Middle School speech tournament last spring.

Asukulu went on to tell the story of how his parents had fled the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a Zambian refugee camp. After seven years in Zambia, the family — his parents, his older brother, he and his twin brother, M’munga — came to the United States.

The Songolo family chose to leave: sensible but wrenching.

“It was difficult starting our new life in the United States of America considering that most of our family and friends were still suffering back home,” Asukulu told his audience at the speech competition.

Language barriers were a problem, especially for his parents, who had to find work. However, “we couldn’t just give up because life was hard. We simply had to persist and be determined to make life better,” Asukulu wrote in his speech.

Now a Central Catholic High School ninth grader, he wants to find a career that will contribute to his adopted homeland here and also improve the lives of people in the Congo. “This is why I have to think a lot about my future and what I hope to do with it,” he said.

“It’s powerful that he wrote that,” says Julie Johnson, principal of Holy Cross School in North Portland, where the Songolo children have been students.

Johnson first met the family when Asukulu’s older brother, Felix, was a student. She describes Felix, now 17, as having similar gifts of compassion and eloquence.

Diligence and ambition run in the family. Asukulu’s twin, M’munga, similarly won a second-place prize at the Valley Catholic competition this year.

M’munga wrote an article titled “How do refugees make America great?” for the Refugee Center in East Portland.

In that essay, M’munga explained he works hard because “this is for more than just me. This is for my family, my parents, my siblings, my struggling family in The Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Both M’munga and Asukulu get top academic grades, both hold positions on the Multnomah Youth Commission (the official youth policy body for the City of Portland and Multnomah County) and school clubs, they compete in track, they are active with the Refugee Center and Asukulu was student body president at Holy Cross.

“The Songolos straddle two cultures,” Johnson says of the youngsters’ successes. “You have to be driven to do that. It’s not easy, especially with elements of American culture prevalent in social media. The Songolos respect the culture they’ve come to.

Johnson adds that the young Songolos’ parents hold them to very high standards. “They’re driven to want to succeed both in faith and in life.”

Johnson strongly believes that the diversity of cultures at Holy Cross School (which is about a quarter Hispanic) enriches every student there. 

“Especially with what Pope Francis and Jesus teach us,” she says, “it’s so important to remember that when people speak negatively of immigrants there’s a face to every one of them.”