On being a newcomer: An interview with Dikembe Mutombo

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NBA legend. Humanitarian. Post-secondary school graduate. Dikembe Mutombo is a man of many talents. The 52-year-old was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and grew up with nine siblings. In 1987, he came to North America as a young adult to pursue his passions and goals. Here, Mutombo shares his story about being a newcomer and reveals his tips for young people who are coming to a new country for the first time.

Can you tell us about your experience as a newcomer to North America?
“It was a positive experience for me. I always knew I wanted to come to America and maybe one day go to medical school and become a doctor. I had dreamt about it from a young age and it had always been my ambition, so I was so happy when I was able to fulfil that dream. Then the game of basketball came along, and I was able to play in my sophomore year.”

You came to North America when you were 21 — was it a hard adjustment? How did you cope?
“Adjusting was hard — I did miss home. For me, home will always remain home. The hardest thing for me was learning to speak English. But one thing that really helped was being around other newcomers in my freshman year. We stuck together — they were always around and that really helped me. So many of them remain my friends to this day.”

Who did you turn to for support?
“I had a cousin in America who I was close to — he was like a father figure to me and looked after me while I was away from my parents. I was also fortunate to play alongside great teammates and a coach who I really admired. They were my support network.”

Did you feel homesick? How did you cope?
“I did miss my parents — being away from home for so long was not easy. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, so that made keeping in touch difficult. We didn’t have any money to pay for phone calls. But I wrote to my father, and he wrote to me, so that helped.”

What would you tell young people who are also newcomers?
“I would tell them not to lock themselves in a room because they miss home — that only makes it worse. It’s important to get out there — surround yourself with friends and other people you meet. Try your best to enjoy your new surroundings. Find a hobby — in my freshman year I played soccer and basketball and it helped me to spend time with my friends. And manage your time — make the time for things you love.”

The experience of adapting to a new country can be challenging, but there are things you can try to make the transition easier. Staying in touch with friends and family, while also meeting new people, can help you feel less lonely in a new place. If you’re struggling, support is always available. You can talk to a friend, relative or social worker. Remember, Kids Help Phone’s counsellors are available 24/7 at 1-800-668-6868 if you need to talk.

Kids Help Phone would like to thank Dikembe Mutombo and NBA Canada for their participation in this story!