Home Away From Home
For many refugees, home is a place they may never return. See resettlement through the eyes of a DRC refugee.
By Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor
Ndizeye can remember the day nearly two decades ago when he was forced to flee his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The soldiers. The guns. The shouting. The crying.
“We knew what was about to happen if we stayed,” he says.
He walked alongside others from his village for three days through the unforgiving terrain of eastern DRC to Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda, where he lived for 16 years before he and his wife, Uwimana, were resettled in the U.S. in 2019.
With America today accepting a historically low number of refugees, Ndizeye’s humbly-told story illustrates how refugees who have been welcomed in as strangers are contributing to our communities.
Ethnic conflict and economic despair have continually destabilized the DRC since long before Google existed. The 100-day slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus carried out by Hutu extremists during the 1994 Rwandan genocide led Rwanda to invade neighboring Zaire (present-day DRC) in 1996. This triggered the First Congo War and hundreds of thousands of deaths more as Rwanda and its coalition sought to kill any remaining perpetrators of the genocide who may have fled to Zaire.
While the First Congo War brought a new government and the renaming of Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997, the deep-rooted tension that remained would soon erupt into the Second Congo War, considered by some to be World War III. From 1998 to 2008, 5.4 million people died. Ndizeye made it out alive in 2003, the year the war formally ended (though the casualties did not).
16 Years in a
“It was terrible,” she says.
Uwimana had lost both of her parents and her sister. She lived by herself among some-20,000 Congolese refugees in Gihembe before meeting Ndizeye.
Refugees in Rwanda’s five established camps receive 7,600 Rwandan francs, the equivalent of roughly nine U.S. dollars, per person, per month. They live in homes built from little more than plywood sheathing. They’re fortunate for the shelter, safety and assistance—yet it is difficult to survive and remain healthy on so little and in a region plagued by illness. The current Ebola outbreak in the DRC is the second largest in history.
“You are safer from the killing and sickness, but you are not at home,” Ndizeye says. “There is not enough food, water. Things are not enough. You are just getting the minimum to sustain.”
Ndizeye was able to earn a small additional sum teaching social studies in the camp, which required him to pass a national exam and train himself. The extra money helped him support his three children—one daughter and two sons—all of whom Uwimana gave birth to while living in Gihembe.
How Resettlement Works
Ndizeye recites a song that he used to sing to his students in the refugee camp:
“Home again, my home again, when shall I see my home again?”
He smiles as he sings, but the reality rings through. For many refugees, home is a place they may never return. Ndizeye and Uwimana held hope that the violence in the DRC would one day stop. In 16 years, it didn’t. In 16 more, it still might not. The only way to start a new life was through resettlement.
Refugee resettlement is a form of legal immigration. Refugees coming to the U.S. are carefully selected using the most sophisticated intelligence and security before being formally approved by the Department of State. Nonprofit organizations such as Catholic Charities, which helped bring Ndizeye, Uwimana and their three children to the U.S., partner with states and counties to aid the process.
Refugees in America receive limited federal assistance. They must even repay the U.S. government for their plane tickets to come here. In San Diego, Catholic Charities helps refugees find housing, learn English, enroll in schools, secure jobs and become integrated community members. We are not letting in rebels from dangerous countries; we are bringing in those fleeing them.
This Is What a Refugee Looks Like
When Ndizeye was informed that he and his family would be accepted into the U.S., he spent a month communicating with various members of Catholic Charities’ refugee services team in preparation for the journey. We arranged for a medical escort to accompany Uwimana, who suffers from diabetes, and met the family at San Diego International Airport upon their arrival on January 18, 2019, to take them to their new, two-bedroom apartment in City Heights.
As I’m speaking with Ndizeye, his cell phone is making all sorts of noise. It seems as if he’s reading text messages. I eventually ask who is contacting him. It’s his employer.
“Research shows that over time, refugees contribute far more in state, local and federal taxes than any initial support they receive.”
In San Diego, the 601 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients accepted during 2019 filled 501 local jobs and opened 97 new minority-owned businesses, making San Diego County an exemplification of refugee self-sufficiency following resettlement.
Ndizeye works for a large paper product manufacturer in San Diego, taking the bus and trolley more than an hour each way. He returns home from work around midnight. During the day, Uwimana walks the kids to and from school, attending English classes herself in between.
“We are feeling okay,” Ndizeye says. “We can move around during the day or at night, not feeling like we will face problems. We can buy food and get the necessities. It’s a good feeling.”
Ndizeye notices that in America, there is not as much time spent with neighbors as in Rwanda. Everyone is busy—himself included. His next step is to get a car so that he can move faster. It is not easy to provide. It is not easy to adapt. But he hopes more refugees are given the opportunity.
“They have the energy and ability to work,” Ndizeye says. “If they can get resettled and have a nationality here in the U.S., they can keep being useful, get a good education and solve problems instead of being in a refugee camp for years and years.”
In January 2020, Ndizeye and his family celebrated their first full year in the U.S. Meanwhile, the State Department announced a cap of 18,000 refugees to be accepted into the country over the next 12 months, down from 30,000 in 2019 and 110,000 in 2016. For comparison, there were more than 878,000 refugees and asylum seekers from the DRC alone as of November 2019, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Learn how you can help give refugees a pathway to self-reliance and a sense of belonging in America.