Just a month into his freshman year at the L&N STEM Academy, student Phillip Sebu stood in the pit at the Tennessee Valley Fair’s Robo-Rodeo, tools at the ready.

As a rookie member of the school’s Robotics team, the STEMpunks, Phillip cheered on the team’s robot, Rosetta, a.k.a. Rosie, as it completed a series of challenges during the fair’s Robotics competition.

“He was hands-on, jumped in and stayed in the pit to fix the robot and work with the other STEMpunks,” said Nick Sirek, the team’s coach and a science teacher at the Knoxville-based magnet high school.

A little more than a year before, Phillip had been living in a refugee camp in Uganda.

He certainly didn’t envision he’d be exposed to the robot-building skills he’s learning to master with the STEMpunks, which took first place at the Robo-Rodeo in September.

Phillip was born in the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda after his parents, Mumba Musabimana and Dorothy Girimbabazi, fled their native Congolese village of Ceya in 1996 in the wake of the Rwandan genocide.

The couple spent 22 years in the settlement, raising five children, cultivating a plot of land they were provided and doing their best to make a life in Uganda. But internal violence within the settlement and outside threats prompted them to apply for refugee status in the United States.

“Where we (were) in Uganda, we were told we have to move to be safe,” Phillip said.

It took a decade for their application to be approved, but Phillip, his parents and two older siblings arrived in Knoxville in August 2018 to join an older brother who had already resettled here.

Kirsten Cole, school liaison and pre-arrival specialist with Bridge Refugee Services, helped Phillip and his older sister enroll in Knox County schools.

“I met with them to do school orientation and sat down and talked to them about what kind of schooling they had before and what schooling is like here,” she said.

While Phillip had attended a school in the refugee settlement, he said he spent a good portion of his time there cleaning and being disciplined.

“It was so different,” he said. “At school (in Uganda), we have to clean the school, sweep and clean the bathrooms before class, and I did not get lunch.”

Communicating with his classmates at Vine Middle Magnet School, where he attended 8th grade last year, proved challenging, even though he could speak some English when he arrived.

But Kirsten said Phillip adapted more quickly than many refugee children she’s worked with, and a teacher at Vine recommended he apply for admission to the STEM Academy, which focuses academically on the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

“Just the fact that he went into 8th grade and did so well and got so integrated in a year and is now at L&N was something I had never seen before at Bridge,” she said.

Nick, the STEMpunks coach, described Phillip as a friendly, conscientious and tenacious student with a lot of drive.

“He’s a joiner, and he really wants to be part of what we’re doing,” he said. “If you give him a task, he’ll tackle it.”

Phillip said he’s grateful he was accepted into L&N.

“It’s been good,” he said of his freshman year. “All the people are nice and friendly. I’m taking English Language Learning and math and science and some electives.”

His favorite class is his scientific research course.

“It’s mostly about communicating and working together,” he said.

He’s also grateful for the opportunity to learn how to use power drills, soldering tools, hand tools, drill presses and other tools he’s been introduced to through the STEMpunks.

Kirsten said she’s already seen Phillip’s skills in action as he does regular maintenance on a bike he received while participating in a summer ESL program for refugee students at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church.

“I like riding bikes, and I like meeting new people,” he said.

 He also hopes to make a career out of the skills he’s learning through the Robotics team.

“I want to be a mechanic – someone who works on cars,” he said.