Data Visualization: Refugee Populations

This infographic by user aime visualizes the most populous countries where refugees come from and flee to. As the Infographic demonstrates, the DRC has the second-largest population of refugees leaving the country in Africa, with 455,852 in 2009.

Although there is no correlation in this data map, notice that the United States is the largest host country for refugees in the Americas with 275,461 — although not the largest host country in the world. The U.S. was in fact beaten in this regard by Chad (338,495), Kenya (358,928), Jordan (450,756), Germany (593,799), Syria (1,054,466), Iran (1,070,488) and Pakistan (1,740,711).

Why is it so hard to find this Diaspora?

Immigration in America has never been more contentious a topic. The recent protest culture that has emerged from the Occupy movement and student-fueled immigrant rights campaigns such as the DREAMers have forced politicians’ hand on the issue of immigration reform. On the dawn of Barack Obama’s second term in office, it appears as if immigration reform for this country will finally be tackled.

Perhaps to capitalize on the political opportunity or perhaps because people are finally listening, significant attention has been granted to the challenges and troubles of immigrants in America.

In this context, I’ve decided to focus on a specific group of immigrants in America, that of the Congolese, a Diaspora population seemingly poised to expand dramatically in the next few years due to renewed fighting between the government and a group of rebels known as M23 in their native DRC.

So why is it so hard to track down this community in my own backyard?

National Data

The U.S. Census, indisputably the most comprehensive source of population and demographic information in the country, has only the most general statistics on Congolese in America. From the Census’ “American Factfinder” website I was able to find that as of 2010, 11,000 Congolese-Americans lived in the United States. Eric Newberger, lead researcher at the American Community Survey, says this number has a large margin of error. The number could be as small as 9,400 or as large as 12,600.

Newberger did, however, help me understand just how “new” the Congolese Diaspora was: of the total in America with Congolese ancestry, a full 80 percent were foreign born. This means that only 2 out of 10 Congolese Americans have been born in the United States – the rest have immigrated here this generation.

Census information from 2000 substantiates this idea. According to this census, 3,886 people in the United States claimed ancestry of the Congo or the DRC (however, this number is skewed as 3,886 claimed DRC ancestry and 1,602 claimed ancestry from Zaire. It was only in this current Census that the two were combined into one ancestry group), meaning the majority have come since the 2000 Census was administered.

Despite the relatively small population of 11,000, the recent events in the DRC point to an increase in refugees and overall Congolese-American population in the near future. Fronteras claims that in 2010 alone over 3,000 Congolese refugees arrived in America, and Senior Resettlement Officer of UNHCR, Larry Yungk, estimates that this number will grow by 10 to 20 percent over the next two to three years.

State Populations

Apart from the national statistics from the American Community Survey, I have been unable to find a source that specifies the Congolese population of individual states. “The Congolese population in the U.S. is too small to be broken out separately,” explains Michelle Mittelstadt, the Director of Communications for the Migration Policy Institute, in an email. Instead, the Census breaks down the populations by state into ancestral categories such as Eastern Africa, Northern Africa, Western Africa, and Middle / Southern Africa.

Both the Congo and the DRC, of which Diaspora would be considered to be Congolese, are located in this latter category. (Also in this category: “Middle Africa” includes Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe. “Southern Africa” includes Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland.)

The American Community Survey has data for this “Middle / Southern Africa” category for the year 2011. Of the total 172,922 in the country, 5,821 were from Massachusetts, 3,099 from Connecticut, 799 from Rhode Island, 779 from New Hampshire, 350 from Vermont and 184 from Maine.

If the proportions stay consistent across states (and the 11,000 Congolese refugees consistently equal 6.36 percent of the total Middle/Southern Africa population), the populations in each New England state would equal: 370 in Massachusetts, 197 in Connecticut, 51 in Rhode Island, 50 in New Hampshire, 22 in Vermont and 12 in Maine. There are flaws to this logic, as I know from my reporting in New Hampshire that there are over 150 Congolese-Americans in New Hampshire alone.

Social Characteristics

The statistics that the 11,000 Congolese ancestry number came from in the Census provided very useful social data. Here is what I know about the Congolese American population as of 2010:

  • 58.8 percent live in a house with children under 18 years old
  • The population of those aged 65 and older is only 0.8 percent of the entire population
  • The average household size is 3.83 people
  • 5,463 are enrolled in school
  • 2,181 of the total population are elementary school aged (grades 1-8)
  • 10,831 have been in the U.S. for over one year (only 997 came over from abroad)
  • 1,980 entered before 2000 (22.4 percent of total population)
  • 2,088 are born in the U.S. and 8,820 are born outside the US (foreign born)
  • 1,221 are naturalized U.S. citizens

These statistics are fascinating, and bring up a lot of questions I will dive into for my future reporting. Fully half of the entire Diaspora population is enrolled in school of some kind, the majority in elementary school. How does this imbalance play out in Congolese communities? Is there a focus on services for the well-being and education of children, considering almost 20 percent are aged 6 to 13? What are the differences between the population that have been here since 2000 (22 percent of the total) and those that have arrived after 2009 (less than 10 percent)? What are the differences between the attitudes and lifestyle of the naturalized population (11 percent) and those not naturalized (89 percent)?

In the coming months I hope to fill in the gaps of knowledge about the U.S.-Congolese Diaspora and, along the way, do my best to answer some of these questions.

#WhyMigrate? The Guardian Wants Your Stories

This morning I received an email from fellow community manager Maeve Shearlaw of The Guardian’s Global Development beat, which I admire and follow.
The Guardian has been crowdsourcing reasons people migrate on Twitter with the hashtag #WhyMigrate?
In a last push for their #WhyMigrate article, The Guardian is looking for last-minute submissions from the Congolese Diaspora. How has migration affected you and your family? What is life like now? How do you interact with people back home? If you have a good story, please send 400 words to Shearlaw at The Guardian.
The deadline is 12pm GMT tomorrow, January 30.

[View the story “#Whymigrate? Exploring migration through twitter ” on Storify]

Update 1/31/2013, 9:41 a.m.: Here is the “Reader’s Voices” piece by The Guardian. Although the deadline has passed, if you want to add your voice please email me.

Congolese Community of New Hampshire Elections

On Sunday, the Congolese Community of New Hampshire held their election for president of the organization. The two candidates were Capitaine Kabongo and Nepa Stani. Kabongo, a student at the University of Phoenix, won the election and will serve for two years.

New Hampshire’s Immigration Story

Here’s an awesome series from NHPR looking at the state of Immigration in New Hampshire.

The series, which took place over nine months in 2012, includes wonderful voices such as Eva Castillo, Coordinator for The New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees; Augustin Ntabaganyimana, Director of Resettlement services for Lutheran Social Services of New Hampshire; Salaam Ode, a medical and legal interpreter and translator in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts; Amadou Hamady, coordinator of the Refugee School Impact Program administered by the International Institute of New Hampshire; and Dawn Higgins, director of cross cultural communication at the New Hampshire Technical Institute.

Some of my favorite stories in the series:
Is New Hampshire Putting Skilled Immigrants to Good Use?
Socrates Exchange: Who is American?
Teaching Refugee Students: Challenges and Rewards
New Hampshire’s Immigration Story: Culture Clashes
The Economics of Immigration in the Granite State
Traumatized Refugees Struggle to Make New Hampshire Home
New Hampshire’s Immigration Story: What We’ve Learned

Why Did You Come to America?

This week The Guardian crowdsourced reasons why people from all over the world have migrated. Using the hashtag #WhyMigrate, The Guardian heard from people who migrated to South Africa, Poland, the United States, Thailand, and Malaysia. Some of the reasons people gave was to see the world, to become involved in politics, to escape poor living conditions, and for reasons of safety and security.

That made me want to ask those among the US-Congolese population: #WhyMigrate?

Honore Murenzi: Navigating “The Jungle”

Inside the office of New American Africans, the organizations’ director, Honore Murenzi, is talking to a Congolese refugee named Patrick. It is Patrick’s first visit to the office of New American Africans in Concord, New Hampshire, as the 22-year-old had just arrived from the Congo four months earlier.

There’s not much Murenzi can do for Patrick on this first visit, but he hopes to act as a guide for the young man as he adjusts to life in New Hampshire. “I talk to him, listen to him, see if he has a problem,” says Murenzi. Most often, the problem is that a new immigrant or refugee can’t connect to services, or simply don’t know where to go to get them. Murenzi goes with them, helps them navigate, and translates for them. “I meet them. We talk about everything. So I try to give them help, tell them what to do. And we go from there.”

Even with comparatively small numbers, the community that New American Africans represents – immigrants from African countries – is a tiny proportion of the state’s total foreign-born population. The Carsey Institute says that of New Hampshire’s total foreign-born population, 31 percent were European, 27 percent Asian, 19 percent Latin American, and 16 percent Canadian – leaving only seven percent left over for “other” immigrant populations. Census data narrows down number further: in 2011, 4,373 of those foreign-born in New Hampshire identified themselves as African in origin.

Murenzi felt the race disparity acutely during his first months in the United States, back in 2001. “For three months, it was terrible. It was very white people. White, white, white, white,” he says. Overall, only 1.3 percent of New Hampshire’s population identify themselves as black – only 17,131 persons total.

Photo: Tory Starr

The directory at 4 Park Street.

The office of the New American Africans sits nestled inside the crook of an L-shaped hallway on the second floor of Number 4 Park Street, less than 200 steps from the New Hampshire Capitol Building. Because of the two doors, one on each side of the “L” hallway, the office enjoys an advantage in position among the dozens of other non-profit or state-funded headquarters.

The office of Honore Murenzi lies at the top of a narrow staircase, past doors labeled “League of Women Voters of NH” and “Michael G. Gfroerer, Esquire.” The hallway is patched with bright yellow signs that read “Love Your Neighbor,” with the word “Neighbor” emphasized in dramatic reverse-block lettering.

Photo: Tory Starr

The door to New American Africans, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Murenzi’s office reflects the eight-year history of the organization. File cabinets fill every open space and stacks of binders and manila-enveloped sheets of paper lie across every surface. Murenzi works primarily at a desk with a hefty laptop perched on top of yet more paperwork, but when he meets with someone he pulls his chair out from behind the desk and into the center of the room.

A second room acts as a work area for people to come in and read, do paperwork, or connect to the Internet. Two computers sit at small black workstations in the corner, next to a four-foot high stack of hefty National Geographic volumes bound in maroon leather.

Pinned across the entire length of the wall to my left is a canvas banner that reads “Love Your Neighbor: Cast out fear & Hatred in Concord.” This time, it is the word “LOVE” that is emphasized in yellow and black lettering. Felt-tipped messages of “Concord embraces ALL” and “Love One Another” bleed together on the canvas.

The majority of signs tacked to the wall, in addition to the centerpiece by the computers, are from the three rallies New American Africans held after three recent incidents of hate in the south end of Concord, one in September 2011 and two in August 2012, when immigrant families found graffiti hate messages on the external walls of their homes. The police have not yet been able to establish a connection between the incidents.


It is late, and Patrick has left. With an organized system, Murenzi would have heard of Patrick’s arrival sooner, but he is not worried about missing anything. “It’s like an Africa network, we don’t write, it’s word of mouth,” he says.

Murenzi came to the United States from Rwanda with the help of a friend. Because the friend was working at Harvard University, Murenzi believed he was coming to live in Boston. But the friend and guide lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, a 60-minute drive from the city, which caused some confusion for Murenzi. “When he picked me at the airport, he brought me to Manchester. I didn’t know, I thought it was a big town. Boston was big.”

Murenzi was given a free studio apartment in Laconia, where he settled in. It was two weeks after moving to Laconia that he was first able to understand that he was living in a separate state altogether. He got the message from an advertisement on his television that used the word “New Hampshire.” To his recollection, it was his first time hearing the name.

At first, Murenzi was upset that he wasn’t living in Boston, where he had intended to settle. “But I was there, so I stayed. I learned that New Hampshire was good for children. I had the children who were coming, so I said look, let me stay here.”


New Hampshire holds one of the smallest percentages of foreign-born in the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2010 there were 69,742 people who were foreign-born living in New Hampshire, comprising only 5.3 percent of the state’s total population, compared to the national percentage of foreign-born population of 12.9 percent.

Despite this, New Hampshire’s foreign-born population has been the seventh-fastest increase in the country since early 2000s, according to a recent study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

There were other aspects to Murenzi’s life in New Hampshire that were very difficult at first. He received no help from the state. His only contact from the outside world was his Harvard friend, who would call or visit his studio apartment.

His first language was French, the national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was born and raised, so he bought a French-English dictionary and would point to one word, then another. He said he learned a lot of his English from television, as well.

After his wife and two children, aged 12 and 13, joined him in Laconia, he got a job as a high school French teacher at the private Concord Christian Academy. When he wanted his children to attend the private school and its $6,000 yearly tuition, he took a second job and his wife began to a position at the Association of Christian Schools in New England.

As Murenzi became more and more comfortable with his new world, he began to see the struggles of other immigrants and refugees. “I saw how they were having problems, and I remembered what I knew with the problems. So I begin to try to help.”

Photo: Tory Starr

Inside the New American Africans office.

New American Africans officially began in 2004, but Murenzi has worked full-time as director of the organization since 2006. There is no membership (“It’s not normal for when you want to help people to ask for a membership”) and he cannot say how many people he has helped.

Because many of the people he works with have no car, he does lots of home visits. According to the Carsey Institute study, more than 50 percent of the foreign-born population in New Hampshire resides in Hillsborough County, located in southern New Hampshire and including the larger cities of Manchester and Nashua.

Despite his time growing up in the Congo, and his years in Rwanda, Murenzi isn’t interested in building a community around specific groups. “I don’t care about Congolese,” he says. “My focus is how can we have something we didn’t have in Africa. Something in common. How can be bring people together so that we can live in peace together?”

He tries an example. “If your family and mine are fighting in Africa, but if they hear that we are together, they can say ‘Wow, they are doing very good there. Why not us?’”


With tax season just around the corner, Murenzi is working to organize a meeting about financial literacy in Manchester, where someone will come in to teach recent immigrants how to do their taxes before the April 15 deadline. This is an important skill to have, but I can hear his frustration when he speaks about this and other events he organizes for his constituents. “They are only interested in how they can survive,” he explains. “Now, it’s about taxes. After that, they don’t want to learn more.”

Photo: Tory Starr

A poster from the “Love Your Neighbor” rally in Concord in August 2012.

Despite the fact that he has lived in the United States for more than a decade, Murenzi still seems frustrated by the complicated nature of… well, everything. “It’s too much to learn. Too much. And I don’t know if you Americans understand. It’s too much,” he tells me.

He feels overwhelmed by everything from the red tape and convoluted process of state politics to the overwhelming number of options for products to clean your rug. He tells me that there is money from the government but people don’t know to ask or even begin to figure out the process by which to get it.

“This country is a jungle,” he says. “For me, it’s a jungle. You Americans say that Africa is a jungle. But I find that you live in a jungle. You don’t know yourself, you don’t know your laws, everything you want to hide you write in small print letters.”


Murenzi soon has to drive up to The Heights, an area of Concord east of the Merrimack River, for an English as a Second Language class. Before he leaves, he points out a large mounted photo in the corner of his office. “Do you like that picture?” he asks me. It was a photo of a tiny African-American girl, covered in a black headscarf with white circles in the pattern, clutching one of the bright yellow “Love Your Neighbor” signs. Her mouth is open in a shout, and despite the tear rolling down her cheek, she looks happy.

The photo was from the last rally New American Africans held, after the third incident of hate graffiti in Concord. The rally was held outside the home itself, on Thompson Street, not far from where we sit.

The rally brought together several hundred neighbors, officials, and members of the public to voice their support of the Somali family that lived in the home.

“My wish was Boston, but now I am here, I am very happy. Despite what happened, because of what I do,” says Murenzi. “Sometimes, I say I’m going to leave this job. And then I see for example a kid like that –” he beckons to the photo by the window, “Smiling – all that’s good. And I feel that today I do something.”

The Current State of Congolese Refugees in New England

Historical Background

The term “Congolese” refers to a person who is from either the Congo or the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Middle or Central Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, was formerly known as Zaire. The Republic of Congo, or simply the Congo, is a smaller country northwest of the DRC.

A Map of the DRC, from the Nations Online Project

A Map of the DRC, from the Nations Online Project

Congo was colonized in the late 19th century, when the Congo Free State was officially recognized by European powers in the year 1885. Belgians controlled the area for 75 years until the country was granted independence in 1960. That year, nationalist Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister but was overthrown within months by Congolese soldiers led by Joseph Désiré Mobutu.

Another crisis arose in 1964 when rebels threatened to take over the country. Mobutu was forced to ask for help, and European, United States and Belgian troops defeated what became known as the Simba Rebellion.

Just one year later, in 1965, Mobutu declared himself president of Congo, and was officially elected to the position in 1970. In 1971, Mobutu changed the name of the country to Zaire.

In the late 1970s and 80s, opposition parties and rebel groups began to gain power, but were suppressed by Mobutu until 1990, when the president finally agreed to a multi-party system called the Third Republic, complete with elections and a constitution. In response, soldiers looted Kinshasa, leading to the evacuation of over 20,000 foreign nationals. In 1992, a gathering called the Sovereign National Conference elected an official chairman (Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo) and prime minister (Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba).

A new government emerged in 1994, a union of the Third Republic system and an opposition government created by Mobutu. This new government, called the High Council of Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT), placed Mobutu as head of state.

The First Congo War occurred between 1996 and 1997, after the genocide in Rwanda spilled into Zaire. Hutu forces began to use refugee camps in Zaire as camps for invasion against Rwanda, and soon allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire. Supported by Rwanda and Uganda and led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Tutsi militias in the country (who became known as the AFDL) formed to defend themselves and rebelled against Mobutu. In 1997, Kabila took over the capital Kinshasa, declared himself president, and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Second Congo War followed in 1998, when the new leader Kabila lost his supporters and was attacked by a rebel movement led by Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba’s rebels, known as The Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), threatened Kabila’s reign and drew six African governments into the conflict.  Joseph Kabila took over for his father after the latter’s assassination in 2001 and brokered a peace deal, dividing territories and sharing power, thus ending the Second Congo War in 2003.

A transitional government was established in 2003 until 2006, when Congo held its first multi-party elections. After Kabila took only 45 percent of the vote (despite a clear majority), fighting occurred in the capital of Kinshasa, which resulted in the death of 16 citizens. A new election was held that October, and Kabila won this time with 70 percent of the vote.

In December 2011, Kabila was re-elected President of the DRC, despite some official tallies which showed a majority for the opposition candidate Étienne Tshisekedi. The credibility of the vote was questioned by the Carter Center, yet held until 2012 when ethnic Tutsi soldiers mutinied against the government.  The rebel group called “March 23 Movement,” also known as M23, took control of Goma in November 2012, the third largest city in the DRC with a population of one million.

As 2013 begins, the DRC government and M23 rebels have engaged in a dialogue to resolve their differences.

The Resettlement Process

By definition, refugees are those unable or unwilling to return to their native country because of persecution or a fear of persecution. Refugees are differentiated from asylum seekers only by location of where the person is when he or she applies to reside in the United States. (If a person is outside the United States when considered for residency, he or she is a refugee. If the person is on United States soil at the time, he or she qualifies as an asylum seeker.)

The process of resettlement is complicated but well regulated. A refugee begins his or her journey by seeking temporary asylum outside his or her native country, settling in a refugee camp or a neighboring country. According to the Refugee Health Assistance Center, at this time the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) works to determine if the person is eligible for refugee status.

Resettlement is always the last option for a refugee, and is very rare: on average, refugees live in camps for 17 years, and only one percent of the world’s refugee population gets resettled. If the person or group of people qualify for refugee status, the local refugee service center works to prepare case files and securities clearances, set up interviews with a United States immigration officer, conducts medical evaluations.

Once in the country, the U.S. Department of State provides placement services for the first 90 days after arrival, carried out by local affiliate agencies. Depending on resources, these agencies provide support extending past the 90-day window.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the lead agency for the resettlement process. The ORR works with the affiliate agency in the weeks before the refugees arrive, setting up housing and filling out the necessary paperwork. The agencies pick up the refugees at the airport and get them settled into their new homes. They then provide 30 days of core services, such as support for social security applications, English as a second language (ESL) enrollment, medical checkups, and basic lessons in culture.

After one month the government provides a grant program, an alternative to welfare. If after six months the refugee still doesn’t have a job, that person is referred to the Department of Health and Human Services. Normally after eight months, cash assistance runs out. Refugees can apply for lawful permanent resident status after one year in the United States.

Congo’s Refugee Situation

In the 1960s, Congolese came to the United States for mostly educational reasons, and emigration continued after Mobutu chose the United States as a place for refuge in the 1970s. Many of those that came to the United States for education in these two decades have been forced to stay because of instability back home. War refugees from the Congo began to come to the United States in the 1990s.

By the year 2000, a total of 5,488 Americans were descended from Congo. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the five states with the largest populations of refugees from Middle Africa (defined as the states of Burundi, Central African Republic, the DRC, and Rwanda) in 2000 were Maryland, California, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. These five states, combined, constituted 47.5 percent of the total foreign-born number from Middle Africa in the United States.

Because of the fighting between the M23 rebel group and the DRC government, the current humanitarian situation in the DRC is grim. As of November 2012, more than 2.4 million Congolese were internally displaced, with over 460,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

The tide of refugees from the Congo, although less significant numerically compared to the numbers of Iraqis or Bhutanese coming to the United States, is significant. According to Migration Information Source, the year of 2010 saw 3,174 immigrants arrive from the DRC, and 977 in 2011. The United States’ Congolese community will grow up to 20 percent in the next two to three years, according to Larry Yungk, the Senior Resettlement Officer for UNHCR.

New England Congolese Community

The Congolese community in New England is small. The Migration Policy Institute has stated that in 2000, the population of refugees from Middle Africa in New England was 2,426. According to Statemaster, from 2000 to 2004, 64 refugees arrived in New England from the DRC: 14 refugees to New Hampshire, 31 to Vermont, 11 to Maine, and four each to Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Migration Information Source ranked the DRC at #21 of the largest 30 countries to send refugees to the United States between the years of 1983 to 2004, with a total of 3,191 refugees. Boston ranks as #11 in the top metropolitan areas for refugee resettlement during this time period, with over 36,232 refugees from around the world.

As of the year 2000, Massachusetts held the largest percentage of refugees from Middle Africa of all the New England states, with 1,580 refugees. Connecticut served as the home for 356 Middle Africans; Rhode Island, surprisingly, had 282 foreign born from Middle Africa, and 111 lived in New Hampshire. The smallest Middle African populations in New England were in Maine (65 residents) and Vermont (32 residents).

The population of Congolese refugees and immigrants in New England largely reflects the immigrant population of these states as a whole. A recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies in 2010 ranked Massachusetts as the seventh-largest foreign-born resident population in the United States, with over 15 percent of the total population being foreign-born.

Another interesting statistic comes from the Center for Immigration Studies, which has tracked how long foreign-born residents are residing in New England states. The smaller populations of foreign-born seem to stay the longest: the foreign-born residents of Maine, for example, stay an average of 26.1 years, and the foreign-born population of Vermont has stayed an average of 22.7 years. The two lowest averages for time-spent in-state were Connecticut (average of 19.9 years), and Massachusetts (average of 18.9 years).

More resources on the history of the Congo here.