Survivor of coup in Belleville wants to celebrate diversity

Ama Prisca, a student at Nipassa Belleville East High School and is this week's Belleville News-Democrat Student of the Week, poses for a photo in July in Belleville.

Tim Vizer, Belleville News-Democrat

BELLEVILLE — Today's tense political climate in the United States?

"This is nothing," laughs Ama Prisca Nipassa, 17.

Now a citizen of the United States, Ama is a rising senior at Belleville East High School and among the teens putting together the second annual Belleville Peace Festival.

She lived with her grandparents in Togo, a country in West Africa, until 2010; her mom and older sister had moved to Illinois when Ama was 3. She remembers she and her grandparents had a routine where they went to the beach on weekends, and she ran with her grandfather. Every night, they would watch the evening news at 5:30 p.m. before making dinner together.

"One day all we saw was the president of Togo instead (on the news). I was fine, but my grandparents were scared," she said.

She said they isolated her from the coup in 2005, but she saw tires burning in the streets of their neighborhood in Lome, the capital of Togo.

"I remember that people I went to school with (would say) 'my Dad was killed,'" she said.

Ama worked with friends on the second annual Belleville Peace Festival. Building the community is important to her, because she remembers strong community bonds in Togo, as well as people's cheerful attitudes. The festival features live music, performances and vendors and is sponsored by local businesses, which Ama contacted to get them involved.

It's more than a fun afternoon on the Belleville Public Square to Ama, she said; it's the people behind the community.

"You meet people you think you have nothing in common with, and then realize 'Oh my gosh, I have this much diversity in my community.' It's a beautiful thing," she said.

Diversity reminds her of "my country." There are three million people in Lome, which is the largest port in West Africa. She called it a melting pot.

The Belleville Peace Festival on Aug. 5 wasn't so much a "demand" for peace, she says, as it was "more like a community thing ... more like 'We're all one.'"

Once in Illinois, Ama joined clubs and teams and learned English, her third language after Ewe and French. Ama is on the speech and debate team, and did declamation as a junior, where she read another person's story. She advanced to state competition with her speech about the Rwandan genocide.

Question: What will you likely study in college?

Answer: "It will be bio-medical related. I used to want to be a doctor. In West Africa, not everyone is as fortunate. I saw people dying of things that are curable. But there are so many ways to help; I don't have to be a doctor."

Q: What was hard to get used to in the United States?

A: "That everyone seemed to complain at my school (Grant Middle). I thought that until (I learned English). It's all about the situation ... the fact that it was cold in the classroom was big enough to call out the teacher."

Q: You helped with the Belle Valley School Illinois Math and Science Academy Camp this summer. What did you like about that?

A: "Worked with fifth and sixth graders ... I don't know where I would be if someone hadn't done that for me." Ama helped the students build parts for a boat, including the propeller and hull and test its load capacity.

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