A World Away


Ugandan-born Jahan Berns is the face of a successful immigration story.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

A wife and mother of two, an attorney in a prominent law firm, an active member of her church and tireless volunteer in the community, Ugandan-born Jahan Berns is the face of a successful immigration story. She has a radiance, warmth, and ease in the way she carries herself that belies the unimaginable hardship she faced growing up. Berns knows that given the dramatic circumstances of her childhood, her life could very well have turned out differently.

Berns was born into a prominent family in Uganda, where her father, George Nkwanga, was a high-ranking military officer. His status afforded them security in a tumultuous time—Berns remembers him driving her to school in the mornings in a convoy with bodyguards—and she was too young then to understand their fate could turn on a dime.

Jahan’s father giving a speech.

Jahan’s father giving a speech.

In 1979, when the tide was turning against the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Berns’ father was among the military commanders who staged a coup to remove him from power. Still, even with Amin gone, peace and stability for Uganda remained elusive. In 1986 Nkwanga was assassinated by political rivals.

Berns was only seven. Still reeling from Nkwanga’s murder, her family was blindsided again when she, her mother and older sister returned to their home after his burial. “We got there and were turned away,” Berns says. “One of my father’s own friends had moved into our home, and there were soldiers now at the gate that we didn’t know, and they told us, ‘You can’t come in.’

“In 1986 there was no rule of law,” Berns continues. “You’re not going to go to the police and report, ‘Someone’s moved into my home and I want to file a lawsuit.’ The soldiers are the law. So as long as my dad was alive, we were safe, but now we became afraid.” The family learned their bank accounts had been emptied, too. “Life as I knew it was over. And I remember crying, because I didn’t understand how my dad was gone.”

Eventually Berns’ aunt gave them a room in her farmhouse to stay in. They were grateful, but it was a harsh adjustment: the farm had no electricity or running water; snakes were a constant threat; and every morning, Berns faced an arduous journey just to get to school.

“Transportation in Uganda after the war was very poor,” she recalls. “So we had to wake up at 4 a.m., take a cold shower, and drink water or eat porridge if there was any leftover from the night before, and then we would walk in the dark with a lamp. It was a village—very, very rural—so you could be attacked by wild animals.

“It was a time of intense fear, but also a time of having to develop courage,” Berns continues. “You had no other option. We would walk those many miles, and wait for the bus or the taxi with many other people. And once it came, it was almost always full, so people had to fight to get into it.” Her mother developed a system to ensure them a seat. She would run to the back, tap on the window until someone opened it, and hoist Berns inside. Before the bus could take off, Berns would shout that her mother was still outside, so the driver would be forced to let her on. “You just learn to survive. You learn to fight for your place and stand up for yourself.”

Jahan’s mother

Jahan’s mother

Berns learned a lot of her survival instincts during those years from her mother, who was determined for her girls to get a good education. Berns remembers that when they could no longer afford schoolbooks, her mother would walk her past storefronts to have her read the signs in the windows. “That’s how I learned to read English,” she says.

Still, her mother worried. She was acutely aware of the injustice that had been done to her family and felt she owed it to her daughters to do something to rectify it. The president of Uganda at that time was (and still is) Yoweri Musevini. She decided to approach him directly.

“Maybe two or three years into his presidency,” Berns remembers, “with my mom having struggled so much, she sat down and thought, ‘My husband did so much for this country. If fate had been different, maybe he would have been president. He was somebody. That should count for something.’

“So she decided she was going make (Musevini) aware of it and ask for help. And she did that, and it took a lot. I watched her sit down and write a letter every single night; I think they just got tired of receiving her letters, but one day she got an appointment with him. She went, and he said he hadn’t known we were alive. He asked, ‘What can I do for you?’ And she said, ‘I want you to educate my children.’ And he said, ‘Done. Wherever they want to go, I’ll educate them.’ When she told me, she was so excited she cried.”

Berns began attending a boarding school founded by British missionaries. It was there, amid the relative calm of her new school, the grief and anger she felt over her father’s death seemed finally to hit her full force, and she recalls periods of rebellion and outright fury. But two other things happened there that would shape the course of her life forever.    

One was converting to Christianity. “I had so much trauma, so much anger, and I had nightmares,” Berns recalls. “And then one day this friend of mine said, ‘Your dad was assassinated, right?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Are you afraid?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ Normally, never would I admit to people that I was afraid. She said, ‘Just go to sleep with your Bible.’

“I was desperate,” she continues. “So I went to my room, and this being a Christian school, everyone was given a Bible…you weren’t forced to read it, but you had one. So I got in my bed and held that Bible to my chest, and I remember this crystal-clear thought: ‘I don’t even know what’s in it. Why would it work?’ So I randomly opened it, and it fell on Psalm 91. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. Then I slept, the first night I had ever really slept without nightmares.”

The other thing that happened was that she began to apply herself fully in school. A gifted student under the worst of circumstances, here she began to thrive and eventually earned a scholarship to law school.

In her final year of law school she met her husband, Bob, an American, and after she graduated they moved to England before coming to the United States in 2005. Because her degree was based on English common law, she was unable to practice law here until she passed the bar in the United States, which she did with flying colors after graduating from the Birmingham School of Law. She’s now at attorney with Sirote & Permutt, P.C. representing creditors in state, federal and bankruptcy courts.

In life as in business, Berns has immersed herself in American culture with a uniquely global perspective. But few experiences growing up in Africa prepared her for the American style of life. “There was a lot to learn about culture, mannerisms, and speech,” Berns says. “In my culture, we are very direct, you say what you mean, and you mean what you say. You smile from your heart, and you sure don’t smile at someone if you don’t feel genuine warmth toward them. American culture can have a lot of plastic smiles, shallow and pretentious enthusiasm, phony conversation…I used to get upset when people would say, ‘Let’s get together sometime,’ and I would wait and wait. I now laugh thinking about it…they were just making polite conversation. It has been interesting learning all the cultural and social nuances. Some of the lessons have been hard, and some have come easy. With each situation, I try to remember to walk in love and forgiveness—for others and for myself.”

Berns also struggles at times to reconcile the wealth of material comforts and personal freedoms Americans enjoy with the grim realities many in Uganda still face. “Living in London prepared me a little bit for America,” she says, “but America is a country of excess. And it’s hard for me to get over the shock of how much this country has…the resources and food alone. It’s very hard for me to throw away food, because I always think about about how many people it could feed back home. And then I think one of the things that upsets me about Americans is how ungrateful they can be.”

Talking to Berns, it’s clear that she doesn’t use the term “ungrateful” the way others might—as a harsh judgment—because she understands many have never experienced the kind of abject poverty or been exposed to the cruelty she has seen. “Americans really don’t know that aspect of life,” she says. “So it’s easy to get complacent and feel entitled. But I never want to be like that, because I always want to be grateful for this country.”

Though a Christian, one perhaps surprising aspect of Berns’ life has been her effort to actively seek out and become involved with the local Jewish community. For Berns, it’s partly about seeking a sense of connection that goes back to her father, who completed his military training in Israel and felt great affection for the people he met there.

“He had this love after having trained in Israel…he had trained in other countries as well, but he found the Israelis to be very humane. So I was intrigued.”

Jahan met her husband, Bob, in her final year of law school.

Jahan met her husband, Bob, in her final year of law school.

Berns decided to become involved in volunteer work and advocacy through the Birmingham Jewish Federation (BJF). She later went to hear a visiting rabbi give a talk about the need for more bomb shelters in Israel, and threw herself into fundraising for an organization called Operation Lifeshield that builds the shelters. “It appealed to me because I thought of Africa,” Berns says, “where during war you really don’t even have shelters.” She eventually participated with the BJF as part of a Jewish Federations of North America women’s trip to Israel, where they visited the bomb shelter she and other donors had made possible.

“Going to Israel was like a dream come true for me,” she says. “I had wanted to go for years, because of my faith, but also when you grow up without a dad there’s this longing to just connect to the things that meant so much to him. My dad was an amazing soldier, and part of it was because he trained here. I wanted to walk through Israel and know I was walking the land that my dad walked in, and walking this land where my faith connects, and all that. And somehow weirdly all that brought so much closure for me regarding my father’s death. I thought, okay, he might never have seen that peace he worked for, but people carry that dream, and they work hard towards that dream, and it lives on. And in every way it was so life changing for me.”

Her ever-expanding worldview has continued to make Berns grateful for the opportunities she has living and working in America, warts and all. She has the gift of perspective, and she wouldn’t trade that for the world. “I go to court now, and I look at defendants waiting to be heard, and I watch them,” she says. “Some will plead guilty to aggravated robbery, and they still are calm, and I’m thinking, wow. Prison is not a pleasant place to be, but by and large people here are not dying for things like stealing. So that is one of the things that just blows me away about America, the respect for people’s rights. There are strong democratic processes. Let’s never forget what an amazing, amazing country it is.”

Her feelings about Uganda remain complicated. “It is a beautiful country, with very warm and, for the most part, incredibly friendly people,” she says. “(But) I think I am still struggling with frustration and a measure of anger over the acute poverty, crime and poor infrastructure in Uganda.… Of course I am grateful we don’t have the senseless bloodshed that we had before 1986, but nonetheless people are still needlessly dying from violent crimes, AIDS and other diseases. I don’t know when that will change for the better, but I hope and pray it will someday.”

Berns has also worked hard to deal with her grief over her father’s untimely death, and how unjustly her family was treated in the aftermath—but she doubts they were the only ones. “It is said that other families of (military heroes) suffered a similar fate to ours,” she says. “I have never sought out their families to confirm this; it seems pointless to open up deep wounds.

“I learned long ago that in order to be free of that anger and pain, I had to forgive and move on.”

5 Responses to “A World Away”

  1. This was a well detailed and written story. Thanks for sharing this message of hope, struggle, determination and most of all love and the powerful spirt of Mrs. Berns.

  2. T.K. Thorne says:

    Jahan, what an amazing life you have led. Thank you for sharing this with us. We are fortunate to have you in our community.

  3. Beth Schafer says:

    I love you, Jahan! Your testimony from our Lord and Saviour that you have been given to share with the lost NEVER gets old to me! I (and my family) are blessed to have you (and your family) as friends! GOOD SOLID CHRISTIAN FRIENDS~ALL GLORY AND HONOR TO GOD ALMIGHTY!

    May I share your story on my blog?

  4. Barbara Fant says:

    Jahan Berns and her family are model citizens, and Birmingham is very fortunate to have them here. If President Trump had any sense of the immense worth of immigrants from countries such as Uganda, the Sudan, Haiti and El Salvador, he and his White House staff would not disparage and try to keep them from coming and contributing to the tremendous talent and enterprise that the statue of Liberty welcomes and represents.

  5. Joy Ebomwonyi says:

    Wow, I just heard your incredible story, I am so blown away. Thank you for sharing your strong faith. God is faithful.

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