Refugees share stories, react to executive order, immigration debate

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

CEDAR RAPIDS —  His faith in Christ and music were essential for Chance Muhango as he, his parents and seven siblings dealt with the monotony and uncertainty of life in a refugee camp.

“I’m a Christian; I can’t stay without praying,” said the soft-spoken young man as he sat in his uncle’s home in Cedar Rapids. “Since we have nothing to do in the camp, after school I was singing in three choirs, which means from Monday to Sunday, I was at the church every day after school.”

In camps like the one Muhango came from refugees are not allowed to leave the confines of the camp. Some endure tough conditions for decades rather than going home to fates that could be worse.

“When you are in a refugee camp, since you are not getting all the basic needs, you are very stressed, so when I’m going to church, I’m trying to reduce my stress,” explained Muhango.

The 21-year-old native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived Jan. 17 in Cedar Rapids and is receiving help from Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program. His family fled violent ethnic and political conflict in the Congo, ending up in a camp in Malawi supported by the United Nations and Jesuit Relief Services, among other agencies. There he spent five years with 15,000-17,000 other refugees from around Africa. After interviews, security checks and health screenings, he finally got the opportunity for a fresh start.   

“We had everything ready,” said Caleb Gates, Muhango’s Catholic Charities case manager. “His parents and siblings are in the process to come here. He was the first one, but because he’s over 18, that’s why he’s on his own case.”

Chance Muhango (left), a refugee living in Cedar Rapids, with Caleb Gates, his Catholic Charities case manager.

Now, he doesn’t have to wake up at 3:30 a.m. in the cramped dwelling he shared with his family of 10 to wait in line at the water pump or worry about whether they’ll be enough food for a meal after school. He can just turn on a faucet or open a refrigerator. His uncle’s home in Cedar Rapids has electricity, space and other conveniences he never could have hoped for in the camp, but Muhango is not at ease. His body may be in America, but his heart is still far away.

“Of course, I was not happy because I left my parents, brothers and sisters,” he said. “I wished to come with them. Now I don’t know when they are going to come.”

Muhango’s tale of suffering, patience and separation are common among refugees, as Siwacu Gidioni can attest. She sat next to Muhango as he told his story, occasionally helping him clarify his statements with brief exchanges in Swahili, an African language they both speak. Gidioni, now a U.S. citizen, does translation work for Catholic Charities as an AmeriCorps intern. She came to America nine years ago at 14-years-old. Her parents and siblings fled conflict in Burundi and went to Tanzania. They first came to Texas, and in 2013 moved to Iowa.

“We were there (in the refugee camp) for 11 years,” she said. “We didn’t know if we were going to come to America. That dream you don’t have. You’re just like, ‘Ok, we’re going to stay here.’ My sister was 21. They took her out of our case. They said they were going to bring her but they never did. She’s in Mozambique now because they closed all those camps. It’s painful.”

After graduating from high school, Gidioni went to work immediately, supporting her younger siblings since her parents were ill. Both she and Muhango hope to become social workers some day. But for now, those goals are not their primary concern. In light of the divisive political debate over immigration and security going on in the United States, they are constantly thinking of their family members in Africa.

“I  want to concentrate with education but since my family is (in Malawi), it’s very difficult to say, ‘I can do this,’” said Muhango.

Reactions to the executive order

President Donald Trump’s executive order took effect after Muhango arrived in Cedar Rapids. The temporary 120-day halt to refugee resettlement that was part of the order has been stopped, at least until the matter makes its way through the U.S. court system. The order, if re-imposed, would also temporarily ban foreign travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries as the vetting process for people from those nations is reviewed, according to the order.

Although Muhango and Gidioni’s native countries and the ones where their loved ones now live are not part of the order, they both expressed concerns that the policy could be expanded to include other countries or that refugee resettlement into the United States could be blocked entirely.   

“You never know,” said Gidioni. “Next time it could be Congo and Tanzania. We are worried about that.”

Aside from Gidioni’s sister, her husband is also still in Africa. She recently went to visit him there, and as a U.S. citizen was able to travel without incident.

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