A REFUGEE FINDS STABILITY AFTER YEARS OF FLASHBACKS
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TWENTY-THREE years ago, Abwe Songolo made the fateful decision to keep moving. It was August 2000, and he had spent hours sailing across Lake Tanganyika from his hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the city of Kigoma in Tanzania, where he had to live on the streets. He had escaped the war engulfing Congo, but Tanzania still felt too close to home. “I wanted to go as far as possible from Congo because of what I’d experienced,” he said. “Because I would have flashbacks.”
Mr. Songolo grew up in a village in Congo, and he was helping tend his family’s farm when the Second Congo War broke out. He remembers the day, June 30, 2000, the country’s Independence Day, when his family gathered around their radio to listen to the celebrations and then suddenly realized that soldiers outside were trying to break down the front door. The family scattered. Mr. Songolo took cover under the bed, and when he emerged, he saw the devastation: His father and four older brothers had been shot dead.
Then only 18 years old, Mr. Songolo fled — first to Tanzania and eventually to Mozambique. Border agents in Mozambique directed him to a refugee camp, but he struggled to adjust: He had no money, knew no trade and did not speak the official language. “Life was difficult,” Mr. Songolo said. “I was still very young, and I had to start taking care of myself to do all I could to survive.”
For more than 20 years, he lived and worked in Mozambique, but the move would not be Mr. Songolo’s last. Several years ago, he said, the government of Mozambique falsely accused a group of people, including him, of stealing medicine and equipment from a hospital. Despite a court ruling in the group’s favor, the officials unsuccessfully tried to deport them back to Congo. Mr. Songolo said that the United Nations refugee agency heard about the case and got involved, helping him relocate to Arizona this year, along with his wife and five children.
As before, Mr. Songolo had few resources to ease the transition. “I could not even manage paying for a phone,” he said.
But this time, Mr. Songolo didn’t brave it alone. In the United States, the International Rescue Committee works with new refugees to make sure that they have the resources to become self-sufficient soon after their arrival. The United States admits a limited number of people as refugees every year, and nonprofit groups ease their transition.
Rather than face the streets as he did in Tanzania, Mr. Songolo and his family found an apartment with the help of the International Rescue Committee, which paid for the family’s rent and utilities for one month, totaling an estimated $2,000. The International Rescue Committee is one of the organizations supported this year by The New York Times Communities Fund.
Mr. Songolo quickly regained his footing. Within a few months, he found work at a furniture company as a carpenter. The International Rescue Committee enrolled his three eldest children in school and offered them language support. So far, he said, they have relished the new technology, using a computer
Help with housing costs eased a family’s transition to a new home.
for the first time and experiencing the thrill of swiping on an iPad.
Mr. Songolo still gets flashbacks. And he misses the sense of community he often felt back home, where he would drop by friends’ houses unannounced and pick food from farms when he was hungry. But the challenges are well worth it, he said, for the opportunities for his children. Unlike him, they’ll be able to graduate from high school. “They’re starting to enjoy life here, especially because of the education,” Mr. Songolo said. “I’m grateful to God because they’re progressing well and I know their efforts will pay off.”
This article is part of a series about The New York Times Communities Fund, formerly known as the Neediest Cases Fund. The campaign was established in 1911 to use journalism to offer readers direct ways to help their neighbors. It assists 10 nonprofits as they work to provide direct support to people and communities facing hardship. Thanks to contributions from readers, the fund has raised more than $330 million since it began.
Learn more and donate at nytcommunitiesfund.org. To donate by check, make checks payable to New York Times Communities Fund, and send them to P.O. Box 5193, New York, N.Y. 10087.
New York Times