Resettling In New Jersey, A Long Way From Central Africa

By Catherine Bellamy

Arriving in the February cold, Yvonne Mukayisenga and her husband and four kids hauled their luggage up a flight of stairs and into a three-bedroom apartment in central New Jersey to begin a new life, again.

Mukayisenga, a 38-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was displaced twice. First, she fled the war in eastern DRC to Uganda; then, after years of waiting and vetting, she and her family were selected for resettlement in the United States.

The apartment is on a quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance from a small set of stores and the sole bus line that runs through town. Balancing her 1-year-old daughter, Abigail, on her hip while serving beans for lunch, Yvonne says, “We brought small clothes from Kampala.” She speaks slowly, to make herself understood in English. It is supposed to snow tomorrow, and she isn’t sure she has the right clothing to keep her and her kids warm.

Sonia, her 12-year-old daughter, describes how friends came to the airport in Uganda to wish the family farewell. Her English is the strongest in the family, from her time in school in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Her eyes begin to fill with tears, thinking about the people that they left behind. Her brothers, Benjamin and George, 7 and 5 years old, are sitting on the floor, drawing pictures of friends from school in Kampala.

Unlike their children, Yvonne and her husband, Emmanuel Kalinda Mugisha, aren’t nostalgic about leaving Uganda. Yvonne talks about life in Kampala, how they were close to their Ugandan neighbors and went to church on the weekends. Yvonne sold clothes in the market, and Emmanuel drove a taxi. But life became untenable with growing threats against Congolese refugees. The prejudice and resentment against refugees, and harassment by local authorities, conjured up fears reminiscent of the war. Leaving was a relief.

“We are now far away from dangerous people,” Emmanuel says through Sonia’s translation from Swahili. He speaks in a matter-of-fact tone, wearing a baseball cap that covers a large gash down the side of his head.

The war in eastern DRC haunts Yvonne. She fled the country eight years ago when her parents were killed by unidentified militia and her brother and oldest son disappeared. The conflict in DRC has been cruel and long, among the most bloody since World War II. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, it has left over 5 million dead and displaced close to 3 million people. Over 1 million women and girls have been victims of rape. For Yvonne, leaving Uganda and immigrating to a small town in New Jersey is another act of self-preservation, and a way to protect her children.

As for so many like Yvonne and her family, the move brings with it comfort, culture shock, and often, hardship.

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Today is World Refugee Day, recognizing the millions of refugees who, like Yvonne, are forced to leave their homes. The U.S. resettlement program is the largest in the world, settling over 3 million refugees since 1975. The U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees this year. Last year, the largest number were from the DRC, Iraq, Myanmar, and Somalia. The U.S. State Department reported that of the 8,000 refugees who arrived from DRC, half were women. Yvonne and her family were among the 678 Congolese to arrive this February, and among 10 that settled in the Garden State.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security approve an individual or family from the DRC for resettlement — a process that usually takes about three years.

“Nine agencies sit down every Wednesday with the approved list of refugees to be resettled in the U.S., and decide which agency will be responsible for which refugee or family,” explains Mahmoud Mahmoud, the Jersey City Director for one of the resettlement agencies, Church World Service (CWS). Some refugees indicate a preference for a specific location, if friends or family are already there; otherwise agencies decide on the location based on the profile of the household, and accessibility to social services and job opportunities.

yvonne
Yvonne at her new home in New Jersey

It was during a Wednesday meeting that CWS agreed that Yvonne and her family would become part of their caseload and placed in New Jersey. “Before the family arrives,” Mahmoud says, “CWS reaches out to property managers to negotiate rent, which is usually covered for the first three months, and then the apartment is furnished. Within a few days of arrival, we will take them to social services so that they can receive food stamps and Medicaid and give them a cultural orientation class. CWS helps to enroll children in school and adults in mandatory English classes, and with finding jobs.”

CWS supports a family for 90 days, with funding from the State Department based on a per-refugee basis. “Resettlement goes through phases,” Mahmoud observes. “The first few weeks, most refugees are worried as they are in a new country and everything is brand new. Each person is different, but the longer that a refugee is here, the more likely they are to accept any job.”

But for many women, like Yvonne, child care is a prerequisite for getting a job. Support for working mothers is limited, and there is no extra federal funding for mothers who are unable to work. Sarah Ivory, CWS Regional Director for the U.S. Program, says that many women from DRC, some of whom are single, come with young children, and that they “are coming to places where there is no network or family base.” No one is around to help care for the children.

With small children and no support network, options are limited. “We have seen an increase in alternative programming, such as starting women’s groups, as one way to respond to this need,” Ivory says. Women are able to get out of the house, to manage stress, and to strengthen community ties. It provides a space for women to discuss practical matters like getting a driver’s license and prenatal training, and to share possible solutions for child care and dreams of getting an education.

The initiatives show promise, but funding is scarce and ad hoc. While the U.S. resettlement program prioritizes the selection of the most vulnerable cases, making ends meet is a formidable challenge for many women and families. Last year’s report by the Migration Policy Institute on the integration outcomes of U.S. refugees states that with time, refugees’ incomes approach the level of the U.S. born. However, this has not been the case in recent years: More recent arrivals generally have lower literacy rates and less education, and are more likely to be low-income and to live in poverty. Without close friends or extended family, buried under housing and living expenses, and struggling to learn a new language and culture, some women become poor and isolated.

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Yvonne only arrived in New Jersey a few weeks ago, and she is still uncomfortable venturing outside on her own. Her family is the first from DRC to be settled in the town. She and her husband have one friend from DRC who lives in Virginia, but they haven’t spoken with him yet. The other Congolese refugees who flew with them to the U.S. are now spread out across the country.

Discovering foods from home, like cassava, helps Yvonne to feel more settled in her new home. Once she purchases a rolling pin, she can make chipati, the flat bread that is ubiquitous in East Africa. Yvonne says that she plans to take care of her children and maybe also to take care of other children, to open a daycare. Emmanuel has already started to look for work, and hopes one day to be able to take care of the elderly. Like many who have come to the U.S. before, their focus is on a better future for their children. As soon as they receive vaccinations and health certificates, Sonia and Benjamin and George will start school in town.

“For now,” Yvonne says, “I feel okay. I am happy as there were many problems in Kampala. We have been welcomed very well.”

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Lead image: flickr/Yasmeen

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