What was lost -- and found -- for Congolese refugee

2015-08-17 | The Knoxville News-Sentinel

Aug. 16--One afternoon in July 2014, Faina Munyarugamba sat on a couch in an extended-stay hotel in Knoxville, clutching her Bible and praying.

It could have been a hotel in Lexington, Ky., where the federal government originally told Munyarugamba she was going.

It could have been in Boise, Idaho, or Chattanooga, or Syracuse, N.Y. It didn't matter to Munyarugamba. What mattered was that she and her two younger daughters were in America, and they were safe now.

Years after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo when rebels burned down her home; after a long and dangerous journey facilitated by nuns across various borders; after four years of living in a shack with a dirt floor; after mounds and mounds of paperwork and promises to work hard here and repay the cost of their plane tickets -- Munyarugamba and her daughters were finally in America.

And although she would struggle with the English language and work on a factory line until her feet swelled, forsaking 25 years of experience as a nurse, and although she would miss the food and familiarity of the Congo, along with her family members -- who might be dead or alive -- she was thankful for a new start in a safe place and a new friend who helped her recover the loss she most grieved -- her oldest daughter, Greta.

Adjusting to Knoxville

The U.S. government resettles some 40,000-75,000 refugees a year, people from various countries who meet specific guidelines. Each year, Knoxville gets a handful of the 1,000 or so who end up in Tennessee.

Once here, they're helped by Bridge Refugee Services to start a new life in a new country. But their day-to-day lives depend on their abilities to adapt to a whole new culture -- and on the community's willingness to welcome and help them.

That's because Bridge, which is funded by government grants and individual donors, has just three caseworkers serving a couple hundred refugees at any given time. The caseworkers focus on the basics, meeting the refugees' immediate needs for housing, clothes, food and health care, then helping them get a job. The government requires refugees to be self-sufficient within three months, and they also have to reimburse the government for their plane tickets to the U.S.

So Bridge relies on volunteers to help with the details of assimilation: helping refugees learn English, meet people and adjust to American life. A program called Community Circles connects Knoxville families with new refugee families.

Munyarugamba had been in Knoxville only two days when Brenda Weatherly walked into her hotel room. She said she remembers feeling overjoyed this woman would be her friend, who was about her age, had teenage daughters among her seven children and was also a Christian.

That day, Weatherly took Munyarugamba to her house to do laundry.

"She apparently was expecting to wash her laundry in the bathtub," Weatherly said. "When I brought her to the washer and dryer, she had no idea what they were. When I showed her how they worked, she was amazed."

Jennifer Cornwell, who just stepped down after five years as director of Bridge, said that's the sort of thing the Community Circles volunteers can do.

"They can take them grocery shopping and spend time there, mapping out different things and why we have 300 choices of toothpaste, that we just don't have the time and the resources to do," Cornwell said.

For people fresh from developing countries, "things like the toothpaste aisle are daunting. It takes some time to get used to that, to understand how to pick things."

Female refugees fleeing war-torn countries are often heads of their households and can use extra support, Cornwell said. In Munyarugamba's case, some months before she left the Congo, her husband had simply not returned. She doesn't know whether he is alive.

Over the course of a year, Munyarugamba and Weatherly developed a deep friendship, spending most weekends together. As Munyarugamba became more trusting, Weatherly learned more about what her friend had suffered.

Fleeing the fighting

Munyarugamba and her family are Tutsis, an ethic group ravaged by rebel militia groups who began a civil war in the Congo in 1996. Munyarugamba was at work and happened to have her daughters with her because one was ill when she heard the rebels had come through her village and burned her home. She never returned, instead taking her daughters -- then 8 and 9 years old -- on a long journey via a sort of underground railroad facilitated by nuns, which got them across several borders, ending in Kenya.

In Nairobi, Munyarugamba waited four years for the opportunity to apply for refugee status in America, living in primitive conditions and sometimes going without food so her daughters could eat. In America, she thought, her daughters would be safe and could get an education -- something financially beyond their reach in Kenya, she said, where she could not always afford medical care when they were sick, let alone tuition.

Weatherly was once reading a book, "A Thousand Sisters," about the Congolese and asked Munyarugamba about a valley near the Rwandan border deemed one of the most dangerous in the country -- only to have Munyarugamba confirm that had been her home. She told Weatherly of being stopped by the rebel army, who pointed machine guns at her, at her daughter and at another child for four hours "until they were able to determine that she belonged to the proper tribe."

Another time, Weatherly asked Munyarugamba about the Mai Mai Kata Katanga rebel army.

"She said ... they killed her brother," Weatherly said. "He was shot under the chin up through the head in front of his wife and four children. I can understand more clearly why Faina misses her Congolese family: She has a widowed sister-in-law raising four children without the protection of a father somewhere in a war-torn country."

To date, more than 5.4 million people have died as a result of the Congolese civil wars, which ultimately involved nine African countries, various groups of United Nations peacekeepers and 20 armed groups. Torture, destruction of property and sexual violence have been widespread; one study suggests more than 400,000 women a year suffer rape in the Congo.

"I do not know if Faina or her daughters experienced any sexual violence," Weatherly said. "If they were fortunate enough to escape this crime against women, surely they knew firsthand other women who were not."

Torture and trauma experiences are the rule among refugees, Cornwell said; they undergo physical and psychological exams to confirm their stories before being granted asylum in the U.S. Because of that, she said, Bridge tries to immediately address mental health as well as physical -- although explaining that concept to some refugees can be a challenge.

"It hurts me, in my mind," thinking of family left behind, Munyarugamba said -- most of all, her oldest daughter, Greta.

Greta, who wanted to be a neurosurgeon, was away at college when Munyarugamba and her two younger daughters fled. Unable to find any information about Greta after the militia attacked the campus where she was living, Munyarugamba believed she was likely dead -- but she never gave up hope.

At a surprise 50th birthday party Weatherly and other friends gave Munyarugamba last August, she confessed her one wish: to find Greta.

A daughter found

Not quite a month later, Munyarugamba got a call from Africa while at Weatherly's house, from someone who thought they had found Greta in Rwanda using another name. On Facebook, Munyarugamba saw her daughter's face for the first time in five years.

"I could tell by the look on Faina's face, this is Greta," Weatherly said. "We were both on the floor crying. Sandra and Sandrine came up, and we said, 'We've found Greta!' "

Weatherly messaged Greta on Facebook, sending a picture of herself with Munyarugamba, "so she would know this wasn't a scam." Greta, 26, had thought her mother and sisters were dead. Hit by a truck during the rebel attack, Greta was left for dead on the roadside, then picked up by a Red Cross ambulance that took her to a hospital in Rwanda.

There, she lay in a coma for a week before surgery to place a metal rod in her shattered leg. A Rwandan family sponsored her to finish college there. Now, with no money for graduate school, Greta was living and working in Rwanda under a name that did not belie her Tutsi heritage.

The next day, Greta spoke to her mother on the phone. Tears flowed on two continents.

But finding Greta and reuniting her with her mother were two different things. An adult herself, Greta is not eligible for reunification under the U.S. government refugee resettlement -- a process that could take several years. And Munyarugamba, though on the path to U.S. citizenship, would not be able to petition to sponsor her daughter for five to seven more years, after she became naturalized.

"Unfortunately, the reality of the refugee program and immigration in general is that a lot of families are separated," Cornwell said. "We have served countless numbers of people who have family overseas that want them to be here, but for various reasons, they can't get here. Some of it has to do with the nature of flight. ... When whatever the threat was that came to them, they had to leave their family, and so they were separated for a long time. When that happens overseas, you get processed separately, you're on a separate case -- even if your family comes later."

Weatherly, after doing some research, thought it was possible for Greta to get a student visa, with a friend sponsoring her to study at Pellissippi State Community College. She gathered the documentation, started a GoFundMe account to help raise tuition, and began the long process of waiting with her friend.

It was not until July that Greta finally got an appointment with the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda -- only to be denied a student visa, and denied again on appeal. Munyarugamba was crushed.

Hope for the future

Weatherly developed a workaround she hopes will be temporary. A friend of hers and Munyarugamba's here, Kristie O'Leary, began a Feeding the Orphans charity in Ghana, from where she has adopted four children. Greta was able to get a visa to go to Ghana to work for the charity.

O'Leary will soon see Greta, and Weatherly -- with the previous donors' permission -- has earmarked funds raised for Greta's tuition to now purchase the expensive plane ticket for Munyarugamba to visit Ghana. Then, in five to seven years, Munyarugamba can apply to sponsor Greta to move here. Weatherly hopes to find an immigration lawyer who can advise them.

"She needs a miracle," Munyarugamba said. "She needs to be with me and Sandra and Sandrine."

Munyarugamba hopes to help all three of her daughters meet their goals to become doctors. In Congo, despite spending part of her childhood in an orphanage after her mother died, she was educated -- somewhat unusual for women -- and was a maternity nurse for 25 years.

In America, she worked night shift on a factory line but recently acquired a job in the kitchen of a nursing home. With day hours, it allows her to be home with the girls at night, and she's hoping it will propel her back to a career in health care.

Cornwell said Bridge has a goal of helping professional refugees become certified in the U.S., "because it's their work and what they love, but also, we don't need to waste talent and skills."

But the first step is usually "just very pay-the-bills type of work," she said.

And there's not extra, Weatherly said -- hence the online fundraising account to reunite Munyarugamba and her oldest daughter, if only for a visit.

"The combination of community support and Faina's determination to make a better life for her and her daughters has made for a very successful refugee placement," Weatherly said. "My wish would be that more people in Knoxville would come alongside refugee families to support them with friendship. The goal is not to do things for them that they can do for themselves, but to help them gain independence as quickly and smoothly as possible.

"I love Faina dearly and am so thankful she's in my family's life."