Refusing to Assimilate: Is it an Immigrant’s Right?

Just last week I published a story about the difficulties immigrant parents face upon arriving in America. The piece revolves around the story of New Hampshire resident Sikobizama Melchiade, an immigrant from Burundi who feels he has no power to control his son because of America’s child abuse laws.

Last winter, the police were called to Melciade’s apartment after an argument with his son. It was only after a doctor confirmed that the bruise on his son’s cheek did not come from Melchiade that the police let him off with a warning.

“If I had rights I would have punished him that day, but I couldn’t,” Sikobizama said. “They told me I can face a three months prison sentence or pay $1,000 fine.”

I have heard similar stories from other sources, who say that immigrants from Africa in particular have issues parenting their children upon arrival to the United States.

“In African culture… you deal with your children the way you want,” said Leonard Lekin, a Congolese immigrant and board member of the Congolese Community of New Hampshire. “When there is something for the child, you don’t have to hestitate even if you have to slap him, to whip him… But when you do it here, it’s not accepted.”

In my radio story, I mention the work of organizations like the Congolese Community of New Hampshire and the police to educate immigrants about American culture and laws when it comes to parenting. The idea is that education and a deeper understanding of American culture will resolve these misunderstandings between immigrant parents and their children.

But the attitude of Charles Katende is defiantly different. Even though it may not be in his legal rights as an American citizen, his Congolese background and upbringing is too important for Katende to ignore.

I met Katende recently at his walkup apartment in Salem, Massachusetts, where he lives with his family.

Katende, 53, was born, raised and educated in the Congo. After he finished college he took a job at a government TV station in Kinshasa and worked as a TV and Radio director for 15 years. But when Laurent-Desire Kabila came to power in 1997, Katende was forced to leave because of his political affiliation with the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). “I found out I have to go, to save my life,” he said.

After a brief stint in Belgium, Katende was granted asylum and came to the United States in 2001. His family joined him in 2003.

In the year and a half that Katende was by himself in the Northeast, he worked hard to educate himself of American culture and laws. He received his certificate in English through an ESL program in South Boston and found a roommate, an American man named Jim Corbet. “I learned many, many things from him,” said Katende of Corbet, a single widow with a dog.

But Katende’s path into American society wasn’t easy. Before living with Corbet, he lived in the Boston shelters Saint Francis House and the Pine Street Inn for a stretch of five months. “It was very, very hard for me,” Katende said. “But because I choose to be here, I said ok, let me stay.”

His wife and six children, ranging in age between four and 18, joined him in the spring of 2003. Katende, like many Congolese immigrants that I have spoken to, said that he immediately saw the differences between his children and their American peers.

“I started to show them how people are living here,” Katende said. “I told them to be very, very careful with the way young people live here. The way the parents and the kids can live together, here… it’s totally different from where we come from.”

Where Katende is different than others I’ve spoken to lies in his insistence that he treats his children the way he would have treated them back in the Congo.

“Some Congolese parents start to make a big mistake. They say, ‘Leave my kid, he’s American,’” said Katende. “No, that’s no good.” According to Katende, adhering to American parent-child dynamics is a compromise immigrants should not have to make.

Katende’s children, despite seeing the actions of their peers in America, have respected their father’s request. “They see how their friends act. They see how their friends here, the American friends they meet, how they live with their parents. They see how some American kids are yelling at their parents sometimes. But my son, my daughter can’t yell at me, no.”

The Katende family’s adherence to Congolese culture is a choice they are free to make, but as I point out in my radio piece, this often leads to misunderstandings and the intervention of law enforcement, particularly when parents choose to physically discipline their children. Because Katende has chosen to raise his children according to his ancestral culture, it puts him in jeopardy of clashing with local laws concerning child abuse and maltreatment.

Although Katende told me he never hits his children, he did make it clear what he thought about the practice. “Slapping my kid or punishing my kid is a way you can make your kids get a better life,” he said.

So how has Katende avoided the family disturbances and legal repercussions that have plagued so many other immigrants? It is perhaps due to the understanding Katende gained during his first few years in the country, living with an American roommate. It could also be because Katende took the time, when his children first arrived, to explain to them the differences in cultures.

“I understand the differences here, and I teach them. I tell them, if you go that way, you are going to lose everything we have.”

When I entered the family’s second floor apartment on that Thursday afternoon, Katende had just begun filling out a petition to bring his 13-year-old son to America to join the rest of the family. “He was sick the day they had to take the plane to come here,” Katende explained, and the doctor advised that he stay behind.

Katende hasn’t seen the boy since he was four years old. He plans to go to Congo to see if he can help the process along.

At age 13, Katende’s son will experience the tremendous culture differences and the seemingly unadulterated freedom that American teenagers celebrate. He is sure to be tempted to test his father’s limits.

But Katende feels he has the skills needed to handle the challenge. “I don’t say I am the best daddy in the world, no,” he said. “I try to be like my daddy was. I like to be like my grandfather was. The way that they help us to grow up.”

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