WASHINGTON TERRACE, Weber County — Ashraf Kambere walks briskly, urging his companions to hurry so he won't miss the bus.
The sun is rising behind the Wasatch Range as he climbs aboard the Route 612 bus, which winds through his neighborhood before heading north on Washington Boulevard.
"We'll need to get on another bus," he says. "That takes us to the train."
Every school day, this is his routine: He gets up at 4 a.m., showers and dresses for school. Then he drives his aunt Anifah Barobi to the cookie factory where she works.
He returns the car to the driveway of their house, collects his backpack and books and heads to the UTA bus stop around the corner from the duplex where he lives with his siblings, aunt and cousin.
He transfers to another bus to travel to the Ogden FrontRunner stop. He takes the commuter train south to the Murray stop, which is about 45 miles. Then he catches a southbound TRAX train to the Meadowbrook Station, hops on another bus headed east on 3900 South to 300 East. From there, it's a three-block walk to the Utah International Charter School in South Salt Lake.
Kambere's morning — and evening — routine is exacting. He knows precisely where he's going and how he'll get there. He will spend four hours and 48 minutes each day commuting to and from school.
It makes for long days and never enough sleep, but he has another destination in mind — graduation from high school and eventually college.
While he is personable and approachable, Kambere seems drawn to academic subjects that require precision and certain outcomes.
Perhaps that is why he excels in robotics and aspires to be an engineer. Or perhaps it's because he remembers a time when it was uncertain whether he and his siblings would live one day to the next.
Kambere is from the war-torn Congo. At an age most American boys are dealing with the awkwardness of junior high, Kambere became the guardian of three younger siblings after his family was captured by rebels and both of their parents were killed.
"I saw it happen," Kambere says matter-of-factly. "It is OK. It is part of life."
He was 13 and suddenly in charge of the care of his younger brother and sisters, the youngest just 5. They and other children were held in the rebel camp until one day the fighters suddenly left, leaving Kambere's and other families unattended.
Kambere and his siblings, ages 12, 10 and 5, made a run for it. They headed into the countryside in the opposite direction that the rebels had traveled.
"You can't stop. Anything can happen. I have to try my best to serve the young ones," he said.
Much of the time they didn't know where they were but they were keenly aware of the brutality they were fleeing from: murder, deprivation and sexual violence used as a weapon. They were afraid to enter villages over concerns that villagers might mistake them for their captors' children and kill them.
They foraged for food, occasionally taking food from gardens they encountered. Kambere didn't want to steal but feeding his siblings was a higher goal.
They often ate cassava, the starchy root of a woody shrub that can be eaten raw.
The children wandered for a month, occasionally meeting people who told them where to go next, or where they might find something to eat.
As they approached the border of Uganda, a man they didn't know offered to pay their bus fare to the Kyaka refugee camp. They accepted his help.
On the first day in a camp of more than 28,000 people, Kambere saw a woman who had a short neck like his father.
"The first day I found my aunt (Barobi). I was so lucky," he said.
Her first words? "Where are your parents?"
Kambere responded, "They are fine. They passed away."
The sibling party of four became an extended family of six. His aunt has a daughter, whom Kambere calls his sister-cousin.
While attending school in the refugee camp, Kambere and his brother Hakim Kambale became fast friends with a fellow refugee named Jean Dedieu Bonane.
After living in the camp for a while, the reconstituted family was asked if they wanted to be resettled. Each member of the family was subject to individual interviews to determine whether their experiences were consistent and they were telling the truth.
"Then we waited for the results," he said. Months passed. One day, they received sealed envelopes. "I was shaking," Kambere said. His eyes scanned the enclosed letter for the word "APPROVED."
In the months that followed there were more interviews, medical exams and an orientation.
The day finally came when Kambere, his siblings, his aunt and his cousin boarded a commercial airplane headed for the United States and then to Salt Lake City, where they were resettled by Catholic Community Services of Utah.
Once in Utah, Kambere and his brother started school at the then-upstart Utah International Charter School. On their first day of school, Kambere spied a familiar face across the gymnasium: fellow refugee Bonane, whom he had met in the refugee camp.
"That was the first time that happened at our school," said Utah International Charter School principal Angela Rowland.
The family eventually relocated to Weber County, primarily because housing is more affordable there. His siblings decided to go to school in Ogden, but Kambere wanted to stay at Utah International.
The charter school, which serves students in grades seven through 12, is Kambere's home away from home. In addition to his own studies, Kambere has mentored younger students, serving as part translator, part big brother.
In many respects, the school's been an extension of family. Kambere got so engrossed in assembling the school's yearbook that "I put everybody in but myself," he said.
When he performed stand-up comedy at the school talent show, he received a rock star welcome from his classmates. "When they call me, I was shaking, my whole body," he said.
When asked if he wanted to pursue stand-up comedy professionally, his mood turns serious. "I just do it for fun. It is not a career," he said.
Kambere, now 19, takes his studies seriously. During his recent high school graduation after attending a "super senior year," meaning he attended an extra year of high school, he was one of a handful of students recognized for earning a GPA of 3.5 and above.
His commitment to his education — which has included the long commute to and from school while also staying in school an additional year — has set an example for other students, Rowland said.
"It's that love of education and value of education that's really powerful," she said.
As an older student, Kambere takes younger classmates under his wing.
"He's very nice. He's extremely helpful. For kids who need a translator, he's always really willing to help. It's just a great, positive attitude," she said.
Some students joke that he's the mayor of their school.
It's clear that he takes pride in the school and considers it community.
Twice in recent years, Kambere has served as a junior counselor for outdoor education experiences for younger students who one year traveled to Bluff, and the next year to Eden.
"He was fantastic. He swam in the San Juan River in his khaki pants," Rowland said.
When the talent show was over, Kambere and a couple of classmates stayed afterward to fold up and roll away the lunch tables that served as seating for the audience.
"I think that it's an African thing but it's also a sign of his maturity. I think he had to take a parental role in his family with his younger siblings and still does to a certain extent," Rowland said.
This past week, Kambere graduated from high school along with Utah International's largest class to date — 33 seniors. The graduating class included Bonane, another high-achieving student.
Ask Kambere about his accomplishments and he is quick to thank teachers, friends and family he met along the way.
He points to a line in his graduation portfolio he believes sums it up: "I fight for my life in (the) future," he wrote.
A large group of family and friends was there to cheer on Kambere's accomplishments.
Among them was Kathy Ulrich, of Ogden, who volunteered through Catholic Community Services to assist Kambere's family. Now, they're family friends.
"The first few months it was a lot of help but now they're very independent," she said.
Ulrich taught Kambere to drive. "It was really important stuff to be independent and there was no one else to do it," she said.
She recalled one of the first times she invited the family to her house for dinner and they shared their story. "I didn't even know how to begin to relate," she said.
Ulrich said she's highly impressed by Kambere's dogged commitment to finish high school.
"My kids graduated from high school and it was very expected. This is actually very meaningful," she said.
Graduation day marked the last time Kambere would take the long journey from his home to school and back again. He said he had mixed feelings about completing school and what the future will bring.7 comments on this story
This summer he plans to work and enroll in Ogden-Weber Technical College to study mechanics. While he's excited about the next chapter, he confessed to being a little scared about what comes next.
And while he's wise beyond his years and assumed responsibilities few adolescents ever do, he allowed himself time to relish his family's long journey and the extraordinary effort it took to earn his high school diploma.
"I'm so happy, so so happy. Even I can't imagine how happy I am today," he said.