Hope in a Quarter Acre: A Congolese Immigrant Finds New Home in Maine

Omasombo Katuka stands in a field filled with uprooted carrots, discarded eggplant bushes and wilting corn stalks. It’s noon in early October, but the sun already seems to have lost its strength. He frowns at a cluster of kale growing crookedly along a row, bends to pick off the fresh leaves.

Farm standThe rows of kale have grown in green, crammed between drier and more decaying crops like patchwork. The corn has passed; the green pepper, too. Omasombo’s plot – a narrow, thing quarter acre slice of land – lies just 100 yards past the pebbled driveway and next to the four greenhouses where the crops are sorted and stored before sale. A little over a mile from the town line of Lewiston, the farm takes up two sides of Littlefield Road in Lisbon, Maine. The farm buildings are unassuming: a one-room farm stand, painted a rusty red; an open-air wash station, punctuated down the middle and both sides by a long, thin tables littered with wash basins; and three smaller greenhouses for harvested crops.

The farm is run by the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, a farming education program exclusively for immigrants and refugees in the Lewiston and Portland area. The year-round program couples classroom learning with practical farming to teach new Americans the physical, economic, agricultural, and financial skills they would need to grow food for income. Many of the 11-year-old project’s past participants have gone on to manage farms independently, as supplemental or the main source of income for their families.

The 30-acre farm is less than a mile from the town line of Lewiston, where Omasombo lives with his wife and eight children. It is through this farm project that Omasombo may finally have found a toe-hold, a way in to understanding his adopted country, one that had beguiled him since arriving in 2010 from a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Omasombo, a teacher in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, escaped to neighboring Tanzania after rebel soldiers threatened to attack his family. After seven years in four separate camps, the Omasombo family – Omasombo, his wife Poya, and their eight children – was resettled in the United States, in a pocket of Nashville, Tennessee, infamously dubbed “Dodge City.”

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Life in North Nashville was a shock. Tee Hassold, who taught Omasombo’s son David in the North Nashville school system, describes the family’s home. “It was a building with six duplexes lined up next to each other. Brick, cinderblock, hard floors, sparse furniture,” he told me over the phone. The ten Omasombos shared three beds.

The family received $800 in government benefits each month, supported only by a part time job Omasombo secured washing sheets at the local hospital from four to eight a.m. each morning. His wife Poya, with her limited English, could not secure a job.

Hassold came to Nashville for two years with Teach For America. His second grade classroom was half immigrants from Africa and half African Americans, a dynamic that he describes as difficult. All of Hassold’s students were from the same projects, a “bubble” of five blocks just north of downtown Main Street.

The school, among the lowest performing in the entire state of Tennessee, was comprised almost exclusively of African American students and immigrants that lived in the government projects. The school pitted the African American students against the African students. Blatant discrimination and name-calling was a daily occurrence for the kids in Hassold’s classroom, which were all immigrants. Hassold didn’t tolerate bullying in the classroom, but there wasn’t much he could do in the school’s cafeteria or the bus. “It got worse as they got older,” Hassold admits.

Once, the Omasombos had a bullet go through their window. Hassold doesn’t think it was a targeted thing, but a stray bullet. The eggs that were thrown at the house, however, were unmistakably aimed at the family. “It was someone else in David’s class who threw them,” Hassold says.

Hassold took an immediate liking to David, taking him out of Dodge City on the weekends to see the rest of Nashville. He got to know Omasombo’s family well, and began inviting the family to his place for dinner. Despite the discrimination that David and the other children faced at school, Hassold knows that it gave the children an opportunity to understand how life worked in their new home. The parents of immigrant children in Dodge City, Hassold explains, didn’t have that opportunity. Because of language barriers, discomfort, or fear, parents didn’t acknowledge each other, and insulated themselves from life outside their apartment.

Life in Dodge City was nothing close to Omasombo’s previous life. There was nothing familiar, nothing even recognizable. So when a friend from the refugee camp in Tanzania told them about his new life in a town called Lewiston, Maine, Omasombo was anxious to move his family north.

In the summer of 2012, Tee Hassold started a blog, “From Congo to Maine: Help the Omasombos Complete Their Journey.” With a heartfelt written plea and a three-minute video, Hassold raised $8,000 to fund the family’s trip to Maine. In a rented 15-seat passenger van, Hassold drove himself. The Omasombos, Hassold, and two friends left on July 18 for a three-day journey from Nashville to DC to Boston to Maine.

When the Omasombo family arrived in Lewiston, there were only three Congolese families in the city. That number is quickly changing – as word spreads of the low costs of living and opportunities for education, more immigrants and refugees are sure to come to the Pine Tree State.

The foreign-born population in Maine, while low compared to the national, has grown exponentially in recent years. Between the years 2000 and 2011, according to the Immigration Policy Center, the foreign-born population grew 16.5 percent, from 36,691 to 42,747. Of this foreign-born population, 11.5 percent of are from Africa. This percentage is much higher than the national average, in which only 4.1 percent of the total immigrant population in the United States is Africa.

After many hugs and a few tears, Hassold disappeared with the empty van headed back to Nashville, and Omasombo began looking for a place to live. For two weeks, Omasombo, Poya, and their eight children slept together in a spare bedroom at their friend’s house in Lewiston, but soon found a house with rent much cheaper than their government housing in Nashville. He enrolled his kids in the Lewiston public schools. It was then that his friend told him about an agriculture program for immigrants that was run out of Portland, a 40-minute drive to the south. Omasombo had experience farming at the refugee camp, and needed the income a season’s worth of crops might bring in. He signed up right away.

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IMG_2766The immigrant population in Lewiston is well represented on the small farm off Route 196. Daniel Ungier, the program’s training coordinator, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the participants are refugees, and two-thirds are Somali Bantu. The program began in 2002 in response to a large influx of Somali refugees in Lewiston, Maine’s second largest-city. The refugees overwhelmingly lived as subsistence farmers in Somalia, and the New American project helped them start small vegetable farms for the Lewiston community and direct markets. Since its founding, the program has grown to reflect the increasing diversity in Lewiston and the greater Portland area’s immigrant population. In 2009, the project teamed up with Cultivating Community, an organization that used sustainable agriculture as a tool for community development, and expanded to include training, marketing, and sales assistances for the immigrant participants.

Even before the days got longer, back in the late winter months when the sun shone blindingly on the thick layers of ice that blanketed Lewiston, Omasombo began to attend classes provided by the New American project to learn the nuances of agriculture and farming in New England. Omasombo drove to Portland every Monday to attend classes in production and marketing, financial literacy, and farm- and market-based ESL classes. On the third weekend of April, Omasombo drove to the farm in Lisbon for the first time, and Ungier pointed to the quarter acre of land that was now his for the next six months. As a first year participant, Omasombo was provided a quarter-acre plot, seedlings, and on-site support. Other immigrants, toiling on plots around him, had graduated to the second- and third-level of the program, which incrementally give the farmer more autonomy and responsibility for handling the growing, harvesting, and selling the crops on their own.

Apart from hands-on assistance and classroom work, the project doesn’t provide much financial hand-holding. Everything that goes into the field is the participant’s own expense, says Ungier. The first year of an immigrant’s participation, they provide the seedlings, but after that farmers much manage their crops finances independently. Omasombo, despite being in his first season, has quickly become self-sufficient. “His level of independence with marketing resembles people who have been with the program much longer… but he’s still learning how the seasons work,” says Ungier.

Farming in central Africa, it turns out, is not identical to farming in New England. In the Congo, you can plant your crops twice during the eight-month season, and sell until December. In Maine, farmers must capitalize on a short, four-month season, from June to October. The hardest thing for Omasombo was learning all the new types of food, and the dates for when the food grows best. Ungier and his team, a staff of two full time farm managers and three part time assistants, teach the immigrants how to use different machines to assist in their work. They show them, crop by crop, the quality standards to watch out for. (“People don’t accept bruises,” says Ungier.) They go to the farmers markets with them, and watch the farmers interact with the customers.

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With winter beckoning, Omasombo doesn’t come to the farm as much. Now that he has a part-time job to help support his family of ten, he can wait until the farm’s manager calls him with a request to drive out to Lisbon. Hassold, who flew out to visit with the family last fall, says that the family is much happier in Maine. “In Nashville, there was no structure for integrating them,” Hassold says. “In Maine, they have all these opportunities for integrating, but [in Nashville] there wasn’t anything like that to help them get adjusted.”

Omasombo’s children, David included, love their new schools in Lewiston. David’s third grade teacher, after reading Hassold’s blog, took an interest and visited the family often. David can relate more with his classmates – everyone plays soccer here, and they didn’t in Nashville. Omasombo likes that there is more respect shown within families and between neighbors in Maine.

OmasomboBack at the farm, Omasombo leads me through his plot. Pepper, swiss chard, beans, peas, green onion, kale and row after row of the small white eggplant. Last winter, the project organized an outreach event that attracted more than a half dozen inquiries from Congolese immigrants. Although Omasombo was the only Congolese immigrant to participate this year, Ungier thinks that many more will follow his lead for the 2014 season. “Once we have someone like Omasombo, its easier for them to explain it in their own language and on their own terms – than ours,” says Ungier.

Ungier sees potential in Omasombo – not only in his farming skills, but in his business sense. “He’s done a really phenomenal job for his first year,” says Ungier. “What’s really unique is, he’s really had his own marketing plan from the beginning.” Omasombo’s strategy has been to sell directly to the Congolese community, driving down to Portland, with its larger Congolese population, and sending his crops across the country to friends back in Nashville and even in Iowa.

Participants usually make between $1,000 and 2,000 their first year, says Ungier, although he estimates that Omasombo has made much more than this. Omasombo is especially proud of his eggplant crop, a small white eggplant that he tells me is grown in Africa. He snaps a fist-sized eggplant off the vine and holds it up for me to see. 

Next month, Omasombo will start tallying up his sales. Ungier and his staff will help the immigrants keep accurate records of their income and their expenses. And in December and January, they will once again begin their production and marketing classes, preparing for another year.

Omasombo’s first priority is to learn. The more he gleans from the process, the more farming will help earn him an income in the future. “When you are in Nashville you cannot have an opportunity to learn something like that,” he says to me. The economic and financial lessons that Omasombo is getting from the program, however, extend far beyond the farm. “They can teach me how to work in America: tomorrow I can open my own business.”

SAVED! Benine Mudymba Creates a Safe Space for Young Congolese Women

Benine Mudymba was barely a year old when she arrived in the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although she has no memory of life in Africa, her parents spoke French in the house, and she grew up eating Congolese food and hearing Congolese music.

Mudymba has watched her mother, Francine, become a leader in the Congolese community north of Boston. Francine’s beauty supply store in Malden serves as an informal gathering point for women, and she spends much of her time driving new immigrants and refugees to doctors appointments and lawyers’ offices as part of her work for the Congolese Women Association of New England (CWANE).

But last year, 21-year-old Mudymba struck out on her own. Mudymba had begun to notice that women her own age were not attending the Congolese women’s association meetings and activities. “The women between the ages of 18 and 28 feel like they’re too young to be going to these meetings — they’re for the older moms,” says Mudymba.

In March of 2013, Mudymba established her own chapter of CWANE, which she named SAVED. SAVED, or Sisters After Virtue, Edification and Diligence, was created for young women to meet and discuss issues that were important to them. “I knew that I wanted to do something for women,” says Mudymba. “I wanted to do something on my own.”

Mudymba knew a lot of the daughters of CWANE members through her mother and from her volunteer work. The first SAVED meeting in March, held in a second floor employee conference room of the Stop and Shop in Lynn, attracted a dozen girls. Mudymba had attendees jot down topics they wanted to learn more about, and has based the first six meetings on that list. In May, the topic was women’s health; in June, it was being content in the different seasons. In July, it was peer pressure, and in August it was boundaries.

November’s meeting will be about finances and budgeting. Mudymba researches and prepares handouts for each meeting, and begins each gathering with a focus activity to get the girls to relax.

Mudymba keeps a meticulous blog for the group, complete with a schedule of upcoming meetings, notes and takeaways from previous meetings, and additional resources. The SAVED Facebook page is filled with encouraging updates and inspirational quotes.

Like her mother, Mudymba has become a mainstay in her community. She emphasizes the role of SAVED as a support group, but also points out that she is available for support and guidance individually. “They can come to me personally, and say ‘I have this issue.’”

In fact, Mudymba hopes to counsel women as a career. In May, she will graduate from Salem State University with a degree in sociology, and wants to work with juvenile delinquents and abused women. Although she knows that SAVED won’t be her first priority out of school, she wants to continue with the new organization. “I do want it to be bigger, I want to devote more time,” she says.

Benine Mudymba (front left) at a recent SAVED meeting.

Benine Mudymba (front left) at a recent SAVED meeting.

When asked where she sees SAVED in three years, Mudymba replies without hesitating.. “I would like to have a SAVED group in every state,” she says. Mudymba wants SAVED to be a support system for all young women, not just women in the Congolese community. But for now, she is just hoping for an office. “If I were to have an office, girls would feel comfortable doing one-on-one consultations,” Mudymba says.

Above all, Mudymba wants SAVED to provide a place where any young woman can go and safely share her problems, questions, and fears. She cites the importance of her older sister helping her out as a teenager, and hopes that SAVED can provide that big-sister guidance for younger women. “It’s amazing to see some of the questions they ask, because they value the other girls opinions,” Mudymba says. Already, she sees the effect that the meetings have had on the group. “It has become a sisterhood.”

Congolese Women Association of New England Celebrates 10 Years

On October 4, Julie Kabukanyi unlocked the door to a closet-sized office in Malden, Massachusetts. She settled behind a desk that takes up the majority of the tiny office. Dressed in a colorful outfit that contrasted the grey morning sky, Kabukanyi was here to discuss the apple-picking trip that the association was taking to North Andover at the end of the month. Despite a late-night shift, registered nurse Kabukanyi meets her fellow officers at the Congolese Women Association of New England’s headquarters for their weekly check in without fail.

This association was the Congolese Women Association of New England, known affectionately as CWANE (pronounced CWAH-NEE) and the meeting occurred on the eve of its 10-year anniversary as an organization. The idea for the group started back in 2003, when Kabukanyi and a half dozen of her peers noticed the problems that Congolese women were having with communication barriers and cultural issues and decided to call a meeting. Through word of mouth – news travels fast through families, neighbors, and church congregations – women came from every state in New England to gather and discuss common issues they face as Congolese women in America. “Women were very happy. We were waiting for something like this,” said Kabukanyi of that first meeting.

Since then, the Association has provided services to Congolese women throughout New England, including immigration counseling, ESL classes, job training, and cultural practice workshops. Kabukanyi, CWANE’s president, and the other two officers, Francine Mudymba and Anne Marie Wamba, work with new arrivals to navigate the legal and healthcare system.

Whereas other non-profit service organizations like the International Institute or Catholic Charities provide a set of services for a broad population of immigrants, refugees and asylees, CWANE provides similar services to a very specific group of women. Their ESL classes, held in a second floor conference room above a Stop and Shop in Lynn, are specifically for Lingala or Swahili speakers. Most importantly, the Association works to connect those who need help with those who can best provide it. “They come easily to us, because we are Congolese too. We speak their languages, and we serve as those in-between people,” said Kabukanyi.

Mudymba, who runs a beauty supplies store on Salem Street in Malden, said her store acts as a gathering point for Congolese women. “It’s like a networking place where everybody comes,” said Mudymba. “They’re coming to shop but usually they come with a problem.” When Congolese women come by the store looking for an apartment, for a doctor, or for help with their English, Mudymba always knows who to call. Many times she’ll close the store to take a woman to a lawyer or a doctor’s office, and race back to Malden to open the store by noon.

The three women are the gatekeepers to their community. With over ten years of experience, they are able to identify women’s problems and match them to the right service organization, doctor or lawyer. Kabukanyi said that the biggest issue for women is the unfamiliar role of power and confidence women are expected to hold in America. The social inferiority women are subject in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is quickly replaced by new expectations of self-assurance, a dramatic change that causes much confusion and reticence in new Congolese immigrants. “In the DRC, a woman doesn’t have a voice,” said Kabukanyi. “We have traditions, we have customs that require a woman to be like a second citizen. But when we come here, it’s different. You have to be bold, you have to be more outspoken. And we don’t have that in our culture. It’s a barrier, really.”

Wamba, who works during the week as a psychologist at Dorchester House, said there is a lot of PTSD and psychological trauma from what the women saw and experienced before coming to the US. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced almost twenty years of civil unrest as rebel groups such as the Mai Mai, FDLR, and most recently the M23 perpetrate atrocities on the civilian population, causing an estimated 2.6 million internally displaced. Most Congolese that are resettled to the United States in recent years have been direct witnesses to such violence. Wamba works out of the Association’s Holden Street office on Fridays and Saturdays as a counselor to any Congolese woman who wants to talk.

Even Kabukanyi, who left the Congo when she was 30 with a bachelor’s degree in English, found the ideas of these traditional gender roles hard to shake. “I’ve been in this country for more than 20 years, but it’s still hard for me to look a man in the eye. Because a man, for me, is the authority figure,” she says.

In recent years, the women have assumed greater roles as leaders in the community. After many difficulties placing unaccompanied refugee minors in American foster homes, the Office of Refugee Resettlement began working with the Lutheran Social Services organization to place these children in families of the same culture. Both Mudymba and Wamba have become licensed foster parents, and Mudymba currently is the foster parent of two refugee children from the Congo.

Finances are tight. In the last two years, Wamba has increased the number of grants the Association applies for, although they have yet to hear any good news from the government. Unlike other service organizations, CWANE is completely volunteer-based and acts like a referral service to existing government programs. For now, they are resigned to holding their officer meetings in the tiny office space on Holden Street, although Wamba is applying for grants for a larger space. It is Kabukanyi’s goal to begin holding twice annual General Assemblies, where Congolese women from across New England can gather to discuss issues in the community.

After 10 years, the Congolese Women Association is helping not only the web of Congolese women throughout New England, but the women who run it as well. “Financially we are straining right now,” admitted Kabukanyi, but the lineup of events they planned for the fall showed no hint of austerity. There was apple picking, youth group meetings, and a Toys for Tots campaign to plan for the Christmas party. There was no talk of officially marking the anniversary of the organization, although Kabukanyi said the three of them would probably go to dinner to talk about the last ten years. “We deserve a party!” she said.

New Haven Works to Welcome Refugee Family from DRC

Check out this fantastic profile of a Congolese refugee family in Connecticut , written by Rachel Chinapen of the New Haven Register.

Chinapen’s story captures the struggles of both this family of ten as well as the agencies and organizations responsible for their resettlement. New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS), who were tasked with resettling the family, had only five days to prepare for the family’s arrival.

Click the headline below to read the story in its entirety.
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The American Unsettlement System

After covering the Congolese immigrant and refugee community throughout New England for the larger part of four months, I went in search of a story that illuminated the struggles of immediate resettlement – perhaps a tale of culture shock, layered with stories about the kindness of state and federal officers and social workers in a deft and practiced resettlement system.

What I found, however, was much different. The story I will tell of Issa’s eight months in America illuminates impenetrable layers of protocol, low quality housing and a lack of cooperation between agencies.

Issa, whose sole companion in the world is a twin brother with severe mental issues, has been told that he cannot live with his brother in mental health housing. After a lifetime of clinging together, Issa and his brother face the prospect of life in America apart.

The beacon of light in this story, and in Issa’s life, is Viviane Kamba, the program director at the Congolese Development Center. Kamba has worked tirelessly on Issa’s behalf, logging hours on the phone with government officials, working with the resettlement agency to find better housing, driving Issa back and forth to the psychiatric ward in Beverly.

Kamba’s story is one of empathy and selflessness, providing Issa a much-needed touchstone of support.

While reporting Issa’s story, a story that is heartbreaking in the challenges Issa has faced, and heartwarming in his resilience in facing it, I have been reassured that Issa has the support he needs going forward in Kamba. In a system intended to support and sustain new Americans, one woman provides the understanding, comfort and hope that this refugee so desperately needs.

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.”

Parenting in a Foreign Society: An African American Immigrant Struggles to Reconcile Two Cultures

The World Bank estimated in 2010 that the US was the fifth most popular destination for African immigrants. If you factor in the fact that Africa’s working age population is projected to double by 2050, there are many indications that the African immigrant experience in the United States is not a temporary one.

Many Congolese immigrants that I’ve spoken to have told me of their problems disciplining or harnessing their children once they are exposed to American culture. The differences in parenting, I’ve discovered, are not just limited to the Congolese immigrant and refugee experience, but are indicative of the African immigrant experience as a whole.

This audio piece tells the story of one Burundian parent from New Hampshire and his struggle with the question: How do you discipline your kids in a completely foreign environment?

Samba Halkose, Student Liaison

Here’s an article by the Nashua Telegraph’s Michael Brindley that profiles Samba Halkose, a woman I met a few weeks ago in Manchester, New Hampshire. Although the article, which is from late 2009, uses Halkose’s story to drive home a … Continue reading

Capitaine Kabongo: New Leadership for the Congolese Community in New Hampshire

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.

Over 100 members of the Congolese community in New Hampshire gathered for the vote.

Over 100 members of the Congolese community in New Hampshire gathered for the vote.

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).

President-elect Capitaine Kabongo addresses the community.

President-elect Capitaine Kabongo addresses the community.

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.

CCNH board members discuss how the vote will proceed.

CCNH board members discuss how the vote will proceed.

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.

CCNH Secretary Victor Mbuyi registers members to vote.

CCNH Secretary Victor Mbuyi registers members to vote.

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.

The names of CCNH members are called upon one at a time to vote.

The names of CCNH members are called upon one at a time to vote.

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.”

Cleophace Mukeba, Immigrant and Activist

Last week I spoke with Cleophace Mukeba, a Congolese-American living in Vermont. In 2011, Mukeba founded an organization called the Vermont Ibutwa Initiative, dedicated to raising awareness of the situation in the DRC. Mukeba spoke to me about his experience arriving in Vermont and the struggle to adjust in an overwhelmingly foreign culture. “Everything is different,” he told me. “You have to adjust to the weather, learn how to shop, how to take a bath, how to get from one place to another, how to communicate.”

I will be writing more about the experience of Mukeba and other Congolese immigrants in Vermont in the coming weeks. For now, you can get a good introduction to Mukeba and his cause in this interview from Vermont’s Town Meeting Television channel.