Congolese Refugee Resettlement
The Journey of the Thembani* Family
Escape from the Congo — 1996
Congolese strong man, Mobutu Seseseko, after overthrow attempts, retaliated against his own citizens. His army, largely comprised of Tutsi mercenaries from Rwanda, overran and destroyed towns and villages in retaliation for opposition to him.
Esombo Thembani, along with Julitha and Furaha, taking only the clothes on their backs, boarded a refugee boat with more than 100 refugees fleeing the attacking military. Their windy and dangerous trip, across Lake Tanganyika to safety, took one day. Boats were fired upon, as they departed, by Congolese military. Many perished either as a result of these attacks or later on from the overcrowding and difficulty of the trip.
Upon arrival in Tanzania, the refugees traveled for six hours over 160 miles of dirt roads by truck to the Nyaragusu refugee camp, where they would spend the next twenty years, before coming to America.
Life in the Refugee Camp
The Nyarugusu refugee camp is one of the largest and best-known refugee camps of the 21st century. It is located in the western province of Kigoma, in Tanzania, and lies about 150 km from Lake Tanganyika. The camp was created by The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, and the Tanzanian government in 1996 to accommodate more than 150,000 Congolese refugees from the eastern Sud-Kivu region of the DRC.
The camp, at its peak capacity, housed over 200,000 refugees. Camp rules were structured to keep the refugee population in a state of dependence, sitting around and waiting for something to happen. The rules included: no gardening or agriculture, and no exiting the camp for any reason. Pictures of people with no hands and no arms were prominent in camp as reminders of the consequence for breaking rules.
However, the rules were broken regularly. For example, because there was no firewood for cooking in the camp, people would have to source wood outside camp to cook their meals.
Women were often raped upon leaving camp grounds and because they were violating the rules, they had no recourse to justice for this treatment. Six to nine month jail sentences were common penalty for rule infraction. Prisoners were used as “free” labor on farms surrounding the camp, with local land owners reaping the full benefit.
Food provided by the UN World Food Program was sparse. Rationed food amounted to about twenty cups of corn meal flour per person and an allotment of about ten cups red pinto beans every two weeks. Porridge was made with the flour and beans were cooked for about ten hours in order to render them suitable for consumption. There was also a ration of salt, but no sugar, rice, meats, fruits or vegetables. The first time the Thembani children ever held a piece of fruit was after they had arrived in the USA.
Sleeping was on mats on the ground or brick floor. No electricity or running water. Water was limited to two five gallon pails per day, per family. To get water, a family member queue up at midnight for the daily water ration, otherwise there was no assurance that the family would get water before the supply was exhausted. This water was used for everything; cooking, bathing, and drinking.
Some training was done under contract with the UN, however, contractors would use trainees as laborers, paying the equivalent of $5/month in wages. Many enterprising individuals managed to leave the camp to work for local residents, merchants, and farmers. Money earned could be used for purchase of goods for consumption or barter. Locals managed to enter the camp and sell or barter with the camp residents in an underground economy. Read more about UN African Refugee Camps.
Turn Around in Tanzania — Thembani* Head to the USA after 20 Years
The family reported that, in 2011 during a two-hour visit, Anton Buthelezi, a human resources executive from Harmony Mining, was appalled by the conditions in the camp and the treatment of the refugees. They believe he was instrumental in spurring the UN to initiate a process to move refugees out of the camp. Shortly after Buthelezi’s visit, the UN announced a plan to relocate refugees to other countries including Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, and The United States.
In 2012, Esombo made the first application for the family to leave the refugee camp. He then repeatedly petitioned authorities in his quest to move the family out of Tanzania. In 2014, the family received notice of being considered for relocation.
Thus began a several step process including background checks and vetting, and other processing to determine “qualification and suitability” for emigration. On January 29th, 2016, the family was notified that they were candidates to come to America. They then spent a week outside the camp in Kigoma, Tanzania for final vetting and physical examinations with US authorities. They arrived in Pennsylvania on August 31st, 2016.
Life in America
Esombo was told by people in the refugee camp that people in America were not friendly. His fear of not being welcome was shortly overcome by the warm reception the family received that created by the nearly 70 volunteers. After being here two months, he says the generosity of all the people, who have stepped in to help the family, is the one thing that has
overwhelmed him and deeply touched his heart.
Some other things that impressed him were how orderly and polite people were. He gave an example of how people actually stop at stop signs and how courteous everyone is. He doesn’t think there is much corruption here, like in Africa. He thinks the government does a great job with social services and benefits for immigrants.
The family had their first ride on a elevator at St. Paul’s. Two children are attending school. Another awaits more processing to be enrolled. Everyone is learning English, how to tell time, colors, ABC’s, and money math. The adults and young adults are attending ESL classes at the WON Institute. Countless volunteer hours are provided to support the family’s assimilation to America.
Esombo said he now sleeps peacefully, without worrying about something bad happening to his family. However, he is very concerned about the family’s learning English. He worries about how the future is going to work out. Welcome to America!
Esombo said he heard things can be tough in the USA. We told him, he’s already been through the toughest part of his life.
Would You Like to Help?
The Thembani story and their coming to Montgomery County has truly been a blessing to everyone who has had the opportunity to support them, interact with them, and come to know them better. Imagine waking up in a country where you did not know the language, how to take a bus, buy food, earn a living, make a phone call, turn on the TV, or the heat. The family will need a tremendous amount of support over the next few years.
Right now volunteers are mostly needed to teach English (to teach, you only need to know how to speak English) and for transportation. If you have volunteer time in your heart to share, please send a note to St. Paul’s using the Contact Us link.
Information here was obtained from the family, interpreted for us by a volunteer. If you have any reason to believe we have misspoken or have gotten some facts wrong, please email the St. Paul’s Webmaster. Thank You.
*Thembani, a pseudonym; origin Africa, meaning trust in the Lord.