MANCHESTER, N.H. – More than 175 Congolese immigrants and refugees packed function room on Maple Street on January 27 to vote for the next president of the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.
The turnout was larger than expected, a promising sign for the election organizers and president elect, Capitaine Kabongo. Kabongo beat his fellow candidate, Stany Nepa, 55 votes to 22.The strong interest in the election meant an investment in the future of the organization to its leadership. “It’s gotten bigger. There are more and more people showing interest,” says Victor Mbuyi, the organization’s Secretary.
The Congolese Community of New Hampshire, now in its third year, offers services, educational opportunities, and support for immigrants from the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo after government-funded services lapse (refugees get six months of government hand-holding, immigrants get nothing).One of the biggest challenges to the Congolese immigrant community in New Hampshire, according to the organization’s leadership, is the lack of knowledge of local laws and customs. “They don’t integrate into society,” says Mbuyi. “You live in America, but you don’t know the laws. You don’t know how to move ahead in your life.”
Congolese immigrants “live in the American culture but they behave according to the African culture,” says Leonard Lekin, one of three board members on the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.
Because of this, education for community members is the number one priority for the organization and for the new president-elect Kabongo.Kabongo, who came to the United States from the Congo in 2001, worked four jobs in New York before moving to New Hampshire in 2005. He has been involved with the Congolese Community of New Hampshire since its inception in 2009, a fact that won him many votes, according to Mbuyi.
One way Kabongo hopes to educate the community is through educational seminars, and he has already identified his first topic: life insurance. “We want all our people to have life insurance,” says Kabongo. He hopes to partner with a bank or insurance company to bring them to a meeting to teach the advantages of and options for choosing a policy. “It’s my responsibility to tell people from my community that life insurance is important,” he says.
More opportunities for educating the community come from within the group’s leadership. Mbuyi, who commutes to Boston every day to work as a fund manager at State Street, hopes to give a presentation soon about 401(k)s, and wants to work with people individually to go through their finances.
In the past, the organization has had increased success in getting outside speakers to come talk to the group. In 2012, a representative from the office of New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen came to explain to the community what they could expect from the Senator’s office.
Despite these speakers and educational opportunities, a lot of Congolese are “missing a lot of information” says Kabongo. “We are together, but sometimes we are not all on the same page.”
To combat this, Kabongo is renewing focus on social meetings. He hopes to organize parties, during which he will share a certain message to the attendees – whether it is about life insurance, taxes, trash pickup days, or something else entirely.Kabongo wants work with and take advantage of the American holiday calendar. For example, for Fathers Day he plans to organize a soccer game where parents play against the community’s youth. This will give parents who work all the time the chance to enjoy themselves, Kabongo explains.
These social and educational opportunities are all to help the immigrant community better understand the American way of life. Kabongo feels that the biggest challenge is pushing his constituents to explore on their own. He feels that if you put the Congolese community into society, the gap in understanding that exists currently will disappear.
Kabongo’s goal for the Congolese to integrate themselves more in American society faces its biggest challenge when it comes to language. Little effort had been made thus far to encourage English use; all three hours of the election proceedings occurred in French, the official language of the Congo.
Kabongo, who speaks, English, French, German, Hebrew, as well as the four indigenous languages of the DRC: Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba, hopes to use his language skills to be as clear as possible with all members of the New Hampshire Congolese community and to encourage them all to increase their English language skills.Kabongo, who works full time at Easter Sales in Manchester, will manage his two-year term with the help of a dedicated core board of advisors like Victor Mbuyi. With 10- to 12-hour workdays and two to three hours of commuting each day, Mbuyi has only weekends to focus on his work with the organization. He plans to call every person who registered during the elections – over 150 names – to come into the office and talk.
Kabongo displays a similar doggedness when it comes to his work with the organization. “I can preach… tell them how we can advance in this country,” he says. “Together, we can do something really incredible.”