Congolese refugees take halting steps in new land
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Part of an occasional series tracking the new life of a refugee family.
LOWELL — The middle-age Congolese couple sat with their backs pinned stiffly against two chairs in a small downtown office. They spoke only when spoken to, and then barely in a whisper.
"Thank you for continuing to support us," Sendegeya Bayavuge said in Swahili. A winter coat was bundled close around his slender frame, even though the room was comfortably warm.
"Is everything OK?" Richard Appiah, a refugee caseworker, asked through an interpreter.
Bayavuge nodded slightly, still tentative and uncertain as he continues to digest the sights, sounds, and bewildering experiences of a busy American city after 20 years in a Ugandan refugee camp.
Bayavuge, his wife, and five children have been in the United States for just over two months, resettled in Lowell amid the turmoil surrounding the rollout of President Trump's temporary ban on new refugees.
They are among the lucky ones. But now, strangers in a culture so different from their own, Bayavuge and his family are struggling to begin anew in a country deeply divided on US policy toward refugees.
"Slowly, life will be successful," Bayavuge said to a visitor.
That undoubtedly is the hope for Bayavuge, who had been driven by war from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whether he believes it is difficult to say.
Four of his five children, with the exception of a 20-year-old daughter, are in Lowell schools. Bayavuge and his wife, Vanisi Uzamukunda, are enrolled in 16 hours of English classes a week. And the adults have their Social Security cards.
They also have joined twice-weekly Bible study with a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in neighboring Chelmsford, where many other Congolese refugees pray.
But there is still so much to do: None of the three adults has a job, the crowded city can be a chaotic maze, and communicating with neighbors is nearly impossible.
"It is hard," Uzamukunda said.
The family received a one-time federal stipend of $1,125 per person — a total of $7,875 — to begin paying rent and buy basic necessities. The International Institute of New England, the resettlement agency that brought Bayavuge and his family to Lowell, is working closely with them on core needs such as schooling, medical insurance, and job counseling.
Appiah, a native of Ghana, meets with Bayavuge and his wife once a week to monitor their progress, answer questions, and nudge them along a daunting checklist that would challenge a family moving across the country — never mind one moving halfway around the world to a fast-paced, first-world society.
"Have you received any mail in your mailbox?" Appiah asked.
Bayavuge handed over an envelope, unsure of the contents. Inside was an electric bill, which Appiah used as a teaching tool to stress the importance of monitoring the thermostat to control costs.
"It's very important to know how to use your electricity," Appiah said. The advice seems obvious, but this family had never even used a refrigerator or stove before moving to Lowell, or seen water flow from a tap.
"Next week, we'll be talking about the budget — income and expenses — and how we manage it," he said.
The family knows that self-sufficiency is expected within six months, and the oldest daughter has applied for a job. A bank account will come soon, Appiah said, as well as greater focus on finding work.
He rapped his watch with a finger. "Your time has to be very ... " Appiah said, touching the watch and smiling as he underscored the importance of punctuality. "It's very important if you want to achieve, especially in this country."
An hour earlier, Bayavuge and his wife attended a session on stress management with nearly a dozen other Congolese refugees. "The idea of this is to learn to be calm," said Margaret Martens, who led the session for the resettlement agency.
Calm appeared elusive until later in the day, when Bayavuge and his wife had been driven back to their sparsely furnished place north of the Merrimack River. There, they waited for the family to reunite for the afternoon and evening.
Bayavuge leaned on the porch railing and peered down the street, straining for a glimpse of his 7-year-old daughter, Sarah, the youngest of the children.
She appeared smiling within minutes, toting a rainbow-colored backpack that held an exercise book where she had practiced writing the alphabet. She high-fived Nadode Alphonsine Mukanyarwaya, another Congolese refugee who arrived in Lowell nearly six years ago and helps the family as an interpreter.
Next through the door was 14-year-old Dusenge Tuyishime, a son in ninth grade who brought along a classmate, another Congolese exile. Through an extraordinary coincidence, the friend had met Dusenge in Uganda at the refugee camp. Now, against the odds, they have renewed their acquaintance in faraway Lowell.
As the boys played excitedly with a puzzle, Dusenge's mother prepared porridge in the kitchen. The children chatted in their native language, smiling broadly and laughing easily as the porridge was served in coffee mugs and hefty slices of fresh bread were placed on plates.
Inexpensive curtains had been hung on the windows, and the refrigerator and stove no longer seemed as alien and intimidating as they had been when the family arrived on that first, cold night in early February.
Still, the language barrier seems insurmountable at times, and the family still spends much of its time indoors in a neighborhood that is only beginning to become comfortable.
Bayavuge, the father, relaxed inside the apartment, smiling in the living room on the single couch beside the single table and the single chair.
"We always have people to comfort us," his wife said. "And the good part is we have food and can sleep in peace," Bayavuge added.