(This story originally appeared in The Lowell Sun)
LOWELL — The Congolese family’s home in Lowell is sparsely decorated, a sign of their recent arrival.
There’s no art on the walls, no photos of smiling faces, no toys cluttering the floors. However, there is furniture and food and the basic necessities for a fresh start in the United States.
The family of seven — father Sendegeya Bayavuge, 52, mother Vanisi Uzamukunda, 43, and five children ages 6-20 — arrived in early February with help from a resettlement agency. The family had spent the past two decades at a Ugandan refugee camp after fleeing violent unrest in their native Democratic Republic of Congo, a country located in Central Africa.
“I see America as good and I can live in America,” said Sendegeya through an interpreter on a recent Monday afternoon, his hands clasped together as he sat in the corner of the living room. “I see here they have security. The way I was (living in Uganda), I was always in fear … with security, I find everything good.”
Maria Uwimana, 16, sat on a carpet beside her father in the family’s second-floor apartment. Three of her siblings, sisters Nyirakabanza Muhawenimana, 20, and Lea Nyiramahoro, 11, and brother Dusenge Tuyishime, 14, sat across the room on a worn, cream-colored couch. The family’s “princess,” 6-year-old Sarah Nyiramana Bayavuge, nestled onto her mother’s lap.
The family was spared in late January from President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, which in part suspended the refugee admissions program for 120 days. Vanisi recalled hearing about the order as she waited with her family in a hotel for their flight to the United States.
“He said he don’t want the guests. We lost the hope to come,” Vanisi said through the interpreter. “After the situation changed and we came here, we were happy.”
“I’m really grateful that they were not immediately impacted by the proposed suspension of the resettlement program,” said Cheryl Hamilton, director of the Lowell site of the International Institute of New England, the agency assigned to resettle the family in partnership with the State Department.
A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her country and cannot return due to fears of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group, according to the State Department. Since 1975 the U.S. has welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. The city of Lowell has received 508 Iraqis, 220 Somalis, 31 Syrians, and 7 Sudanese during the 10-year period from 2007 through January 2017, according to federal data analyzed by the Associated Press.
Hamilton said about half of her staff’s cases are refugees from the Congo since the U.S. government committed to accepting 25,000 of them across the country. According to 2009-2013 data on Massachusetts refugee arrivals from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, 25 percent of 11,155 refugees admitted in the state hailed from the Congo.
Journey to a new life
It took over 24 hours for Sendegeya, Vanisi and their family to arrive in Lowell. They first stopped in Manchester, N.H. before being brought by resettlement workers to the light yellow multi-family house they now call home.
“In the beginning, we had a fear to fly because it was our first time to go on the airplane,” Sendegeya said. “After that, we realized we are with other people.”
He and Vanisi are bracing for the long road ahead. The children are still waiting to be enrolled in school, and the family as a whole is still struggling with having left their eldest child behind in Uganda. They don’t have immediate family here and don’t speak English. The language barrier, both parents admit, is a big obstacle they hope to overcome so they can have a better chance at finding jobs to support their family. Back in Uganda, Sendegeya worked as a farmer.
“I think that anybody moving into a new community, you’re having to rebuild your entire social network and, with that, obviously being less familiar with employment opportunities or navigating transportation,” Hamilton said. “Essentially, you are rebuilding every area of your life.”
The United States allocates $925 per individual, which goes toward housing expenses, according to Hamilton. Like with other refugee families the International Institute of New England helps resettle, Sendegeya and Vanisi’s family will have access to integration services for the first year and be eligible to come back to the organization for employment services for up to a year and benefit from citizenship services for five years. Hamilton said her staff also offers other programs, such as after-school homework help.
“Obviously, the federal financial assistance is lean and it’s remarkable the resiliency and the ability of families to navigate and overcome these challenges,” Hamilton said.
Vanisi said her greatest fear involves protecting her children. Recently, while the children played outside, the mother said a neighbor warned them to be quiet and threatened to call the police.
“We saw our neighbor just coming to give us a warning without saying ‘Good morning’ or ‘Welcome,'” Vanisi recalled. “It was just a warning — ‘Kids, shut up!'”
The incident was traumatic for Vanisi, who said her family now spends most of their time inside their home.
“In Uganda, it’s different because in Uganda you can play and dance,” she said. “Not that kind of warning.”
There have been tiny victories through the murkiness. The family found a market with familiar foods and established a friendship with fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses in nearby Chelmsford. Twice a week, members of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses pick up the family for meetings.
The four daughters later walked up a flight of stairs to proudly show off their rooms — Nyirakabanza and Maria in one, and Lea and Sarah in the other. Both rooms are bare except for neatly made twin-sized beds. In Lea and Sarah’s closet, there are clothes and several pairs of shoes. The family’s only son, Dusenge, has his own room. He remained quiet for the duration of the family’s interview and smiled shyly when asked about his thoughts on his new home.
“Right now, what I like and what I have desired, I have found it,” he said through the interpreter, his hands fiddling with a pale pink throw. “Everything is OK for me.”
Ask the eldest, Nyirakabanza and Maria, what they dream of becoming someday and their eyes light up. Both said they hope to become nurses to help others.
“I’m happy here, but not yet,” Nyirakabanza said, later clarifying that she is still sorting out her feelings about the family’s new life in America. “I will be happy and confirm the happiness when I see my achievement. My goal is to go to school to continue my education — to become someone self-sufficient. If I achieve that, I will be very very happy.”