Refugees from Congo find fresh start in Massachusetts

February 26, 2018

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) — Mateso Kagenyekero didn’t want to stay in a country where wars happened at every moment. He wanted a different life for his wife Asani Furaha and their 5-year-old son, Divin Mwami Heri.

Last Thursday, that life began when the family of three arrived in the U.S. from Burundi, a small landlocked country in East Africa.

“We’re very happy to be in this country because we know it’s a country that has rights, that has equality and dignity,” Kagenyekero said.

Speaking in French, the couple recalled the journey that brought them to Massachusetts and shared a glimpse of the lives they left behind. As his parents sat around the table scattered with a few toys and books, Divin Mwami Heri slept soundly in the child-sized bed that had been placed in the home’s living room. The family is staying in temporary housing in Northampton while a more permanent place can be found.

The family fled the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 and went to neighboring Burundi, where they took up residence in the capital city of Bujumbura.

Even in Burundi, life wasn’t easy. Kagenyekero worked as a teacher in an elementary school, but said he made less than those from Burundi because he was a foreigner.

Furaha was trained as a nurse and said she worked with both Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium — the Belgian Doctors Without Borders — as well as the Civil Volunteer Group, an Italian organization that provides aid in 26 countries, including Burundi.

In addition to finding good jobs, the family also dealt with unrest they thought they left behind in the DRC. Kagenyekero recalled an incident in Burundi when they were pulled out of their homes during the night by armed military personnel and questioned about incidents earlier in the day they had nothing to do with.

“I did not want to stay in a country where there are wars happening at every moment,” Kagenyekero said. “I’ve lost so many things — my parents.”

Kagenyekero and his wife and son are now the fifth family of refugees — 20 people in all — to call Northampton home, having come to the Paradise City with the help of the city resettlement program under the direction of Springfield’s Catholic Charities.

In 2017, the organization resettled 17 people, according to executive director Kathryn Buckley-Brawner. One family, a mother with four children, was transferred to Boise, Idaho, where the woman’s sister lived.

So far in 2018, eight people have arrived — Kagenyekero and his family and another family of five from the Democratic Republic of Congo who arrived in January.

All but three of the refugees are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with one family of three from Iraq.

Catholic Charities said they can accept 50 refugees to be resettled in Northampton in fiscal 2018, which began on Oct. 1, 2017.

Kagenyekero and his family left Burundi by plane on Tuesday and were greeted the next day by nearly a dozen members of their circle of care, a group of volunteers who offer to help refugees transition to life in Northampton.

En route to the United States, Furaha said she was nervous. She wondered what would happen if their bags were lost or if they couldn’t find the group waiting to greet them.

But those worries didn’t come to fruition. When the family of three finally arrived at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, on Thursday afternoon there were around a dozen people waiting for them with open arms.

“It was a very warm welcome,” Kagenyekero said.

This past month, the circle of care group received word they would be welcoming a family sometime between mid-April and mid-June, but that changed to Feb. 22.

“We had less than a week to prepare. We were really excited but it was unexpected. Since the travel ban, families have been trickling in very slowly,” said member Sara Weinberger, referencing President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries.

Weinberger is a co-leader of the Congregation B’nai Israel-Beit Ahavah-Laurel Park Circle of Care.

“Our job is not to make them dependent on us. Our job is to help them become Americans here and to be able to take care of themselves,” Weinberger said. “That is what we are aiming for. It’s hard though because you want to do everything.”

The group was supposed to welcome a Somali family a couple of months ago, but that family ended up living with relatives elsewhere in the states, Weinberger explained. After that, the group wasn’t expecting to get a family for quite a while and had even thought about doing work for Puerto Rican families who had been displaced by the hurricanes.

Now that the family has arrived, the circle of care has created a schedule of volunteers to visit and help them get to required appointments, shop for groceries and slowly adjust to life in New England.

“We are kind of finding our way. The family is finding their way,” Weinberger said. “I am confident that it will all work out. There will be bumps along the road but we are there to support them.”


Online: http://bit.ly/2FzCC6K


Information from: Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.), http://www.gazettenet.com

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