Patrick (2017) and George Ngalamulume (2020) know all too much about hardship. Each already has overcome a lifetime worth of obstacles.
The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers from the Mu Iota Chapter at the University of Idaho are two-time refugees whose family of nine fled unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo by emigrating to Zambia before finding a new life in Idaho. They didn’t start school in America until ages 13 and 10, yet defied the odds and became the first in their family to attend college.
But two years ago, in early 2015, Patrick was scared. He feared that everything he had struggled for might be taken away.
Then a sophomore at the University of Idaho, he had run out of money. He didn’t know if he could stay in school and felt his dreams of a brighter future in America might evaporate.
That’s when he met Mitch Sonnen (1986), a graduate brother who recently reconnected with Phi Gamma Delta.
Mitch was getting a tour of Mu Iota’s renovated chapter house in Moscow, Idaho, on the weekend of the Norris Pig Dinner in March 2015 when he first shook hands with Patrick.
That handshake started a conversation via Facebook and email and forged an unlikely alliance that symbolizes what Phi Gamma Delta’s Brotherhood can mean and underscores how undergraduates and graduates can teach and inspire each other. That chance meeting between a 50-year-old who had forgotten his Fiji roots and a 19-year-old refugee from Africa fighting for his new life was the beginning of an unbreakable bond and a two-year saga that is still unfolding.
Paying it Forward
Mitch learned that Patrick’s financial aid and scholarships were running out. Patrick’s parents, Aimerance Kanku and Francois Muteba, were school custodians supporting a large family and couldn’t afford to pay his college expenses. Patrick might have to drop out of college, return to Boise and move back in with his parents.
Mitch, who lives near Seattle and works in the technology industry, emailed other graduate brothers for help. Within an hour, he had his first reply: “Hey, where do I send a check?”
The emails kept rolling in. All told, 21 graduate brothers made pledges of $20 to $500.
“Most of these guys had never met Patrick,” Mitch said. “They had just heard his story and wanted to help.”
Mitch also reached out to the Phi Gamma Delta Educational Foundation, which led to a scholarship from the John Pappajohn Scholarship (Iowa 1952), and found more aid from the Boise School District Educational Foundation.
Fast forward a few weeks. Patrick received some unexpected news: He could stay in college and remain in the house. Mitch had raised several thousand dollars, all of it through Phi Gamma Delta and University of Idaho connections.
A man he had just met had shown him the true meaning of brotherhood.
“You’re a Fiji. I’m a Fiji,” Mitch told him. “I want to help you stay in the house.”
Patrick calls it “the most generous thing I’ve ever had anybody do for me” and vows to “pay it forward.”
Patrick is now a 21-year-old senior still living in the house. In May, he will become the first in his family to graduate from college, with a 3.4 grade-point average in International Studies. In April, he will receive the Martin Award, named after Boyd A. Martin, a Mu Iota Fiji who established the Martin Institute for International Studies at UI. Patrick plans to attend law school next year at Idaho and remain active in the chapter.
George, 19, is a freshman at Mu Iota following the path Patrick blazed. George is majoring in Pre-Med with an emphasis in Biology and dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon.
‘I have to pinch myself’
Nothing seems impossible for two brothers who too often went barefoot and hungry amid violence in the Congo and who thought having their own bed was a luxury when they first landed in the middle of the night in America in 2008. The third and fourth of seven children can’t believe how far they have come.
“At times, I have to pinch myself,” Patrick said.
Mu Iota has been a perfect match for the Ngalamulume brothers as they adjust not only to college life but to a new language, culture and country.
“I can rely not just on my brother Patrick, but on my other Fiji brothers as well,” said George, the softer spoken of the two. “I can always count on all of them if I need something. They’re all here for me. It’s wonderful to have that kind of bond and friendship.”
“I’m so happy to have this experience, not only for the next four years, but for my whole life.”
Patrick feels the same way.
“The house has been everything. It’s been the one constant thing I’ve relied on,” he said without a trace of an accent. “My brothers give me the support through everything I’m experiencing.”
Mu Iota is just as lucky to call Patrick and George their brothers.
Adam O’Keeffe (2016), Patrick’s best friend in the 91-year-old chapter house across from UI’s tree-lined Hello Walk, says his pledge brother has endured so much that it has made him “wise beyond his years.” Patrick seems to know everyone on campus and always has time for any Fiji Brother, yet Adam appreciates how the friendly senior that underclassmen affectionately call “Pitty-Pat” sometimes challenges him.
“That was new to me – to have a friend who’s constantly pushing me to be better,” Adam said.
Lessons in Life
Patrick serves up daily doses of inspiration and reality to others, in and out of the house. The Ngalamulume brothers demonstrate how diversity can make their chapter, and university, better.
Recently Patrick helped spark a class discussion about refugees and the Trump Administration’s attempt to block immigrants from some Muslim countries. A student he knew said he supported the ban. Patrick revealed to the class that he was both an immigrant and a refugee. A deep discussion followed that wasn’t in their textbook or lesson plan.
“It’s about engaging people in dialogue,” said Patrick, who wants to specialize in civil-rights law, of how he approaches such situations. “My grandfather is Muslim. People don’t know that. When I tell them, their mood changes, their tone changes.”
Romuald Afatchao, one of Patrick’s professors and himself a refugee of Togo, has watched the curious freshman who kept coming to his office and peppering him with questions blossom into a self-assured senior mentoring others.
“We live in a time when people are quick to make judgments,” Afatchao said. “It’s great to have Patrick around to tell a human story about how he struggled to get here, and what he’s done to contribute to our society and our communities. I’m glad he gets to tell his story. As a former refugee, I can relate.”
Most who meet them have no idea that Patrick and George have lived outside America. The brothers speak flawless English and seem totally at ease on campus.
“They definitely do break the stereotypes,” said Jessica Samuels, one of Patrick’s former advisors. “Few people would guess they are refugees.”
The pressure remains intense, pushing the brothers to study harder and set ever higher goals. Some of that comes from within, but they also want to succeed for a father who only finished second grade and a mother who never went to school.
“The joy that I have for my son being the first to graduate from college is the same joy that I had when he was born,” said his mother, Aimerance, of Patrick.
Said his father, Francois, “He’s doing something that I wish I could have accomplished but couldn’t. It brings great love and joy to me.”
Love, joy and a lot of pressure. “Everyone in my family is looking at me to succeed,” Patrick said, “to fulfill everything they’ve never had the opportunity to do.”
George added simply: “You can’t mess up at all.”
Inspiration & Motivation
They haven’t let anyone down. In fact, they seem to motivate everyone around them. Mitch Sonnen’s fundraising efforts didn’t stop with Patrick and led to the Mu Iota Scholarship Endowment, which rewards Idaho Fijis for staying in the house and achieving good grades. Mitch also realized how much he missed the house and has become perhaps Mu Iota’s most passionate graduate brother. He regularly makes the five-hour drive from Seattle and is president of the Board of Chapter Advisors.
“Patrick inspired me to focus on this endowment, to get it set up and get it funded with the University,” Mitch said.
The goal: $1 million. Crazy? No crazier than a couple of refugee brothers becoming role models for their fraternity brothers.
That inspiration extends beyond the walls of Mu Iota all the way to the top at the University of Idaho. President Chuck Staben calls Patrick “a great kid” and applauds Phi Gamma Delta’s efforts to help him.
“Pulling together aid for him is a great investment, not just in his future but in our future, because he will contribute to society,” Staben wrote in a recent email to Mitch. “Thanks to you and your Mu Iota Brothers.”
George can’t believe how lucky he is to have found Fiji.
“It’s wonderful to have that kind of bond and friendship,” he said.
As Patrick prepares to take the next step in his life, he remains deeply grateful for his new brothers and his Fraternity.
“All I’ve done, as a person, friend and brother, has been because of the guys in the house,” he said. “I’m damn glad to be a Fiji.” t
About the author: Don Shelton (Idaho 1976) lived at the Idaho chapter for four years and earned a Journalism degree from the University of Idaho. He serves on the chapter’s Board of Chapter of Advisors and UI’s Journalism and Mass Media Advisory Board. He is the Executive Editor of The Seattle Times.