Issa’s Story Published by The Atavist

My story “The American Unsettlement System,” about the resettlement of Congolese refugee Issa and his twin brother, has been co-published by The Atavist and the Pearson Foundation on the former’s cloud-based Creatavist platform.

You can download the Storymakers iTunes app here (once you download, it, “The American Unsettlement System” is the second option under “Grand Prize Winners”). The story is best viewed on a tablet, but if you want to view the story on your computer the browser-based version is available here.

“The American Unsettlement System” incorporates audio, visual and text-based extras to enhance the original reporting. You can through the story linearly, swipe back and forth chapters to engage in the multimedia extras, or listen to the story as an audiobook.

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If you have any questions about the story, the Storymakers Award, or the Creatavist platform please contact me.


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.

Congolese Immigrant Lusenge Siriwayo Teaches African Dance in Vermont

An article from Vermont Public Radio profiles a Congolese immigrant living in Vermont who teaches African dance to local youth.

Through the Vermont Folklife Center’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Lusenge Siriwayo has been teaching drumming, dancing and singing to Congolese and African immigrants. The group, called “Ngoma ya Kwetu,” is based in Burlington.

According to the Vermont paper Seven Days, Siriwayo and his family of eight have been in the United States since 1999. He is also a director of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, an organization that serves refugees and immigrants in the greater Burlington area.

VPR’s story includes the following video:

BBC News Magazine: African migrants who call America’s whitest state home

This video focuses on the influx of Somali immigrants and refugees into the town of Lewiston, Maine, where over 6,000 Somali and Somali Bantus that have settled since 2001.

With a state population of just over 1.2 million, these numbers have wide-reaching consequences. Although this video focuses on the town of Lewiston, the state’s largest city, Portland, has been experiencing an increase in its immigrant population as well. Today, over 1,000 immigrants from central Africa live Portland.

Click through to watch the BBC produced video.

Click through to watch the BBC produced video.

This BBC video demonstrates the challenges that both African immigrants and residents themselves face in the country’s “whitest state.”

The Boston Globe: Investigating the Death of Irene Bamenga

Maria Sacchetti of the Boston Globe has pointed me in the direction of The Globe’s December 2012 series “Justice in the Shadows,” a critical look at the U.S. immigration system and the flaws in immigration law enforcement.

Part Two of the series, “Out of sight, detainees struggle to be heard,” revolves around the story of Irene Bamenga, an illegal immigrant from France who died in a border detention center because officials neglected the woman’s requests for access to medication for her heart condition.

The Globe uses Bamenga’s story to illustrate malpractices in detention centers around the country, where thousands of immigrants are held for days or weeks. The video focuses on the grief felt by Bamenga’s husband, Congolese immigrant and Lynn resident Yodi Zikianda.

Congolese immigrant Yodi Zikianda of Lynn remembers his late wife, Irene Bamenga.

Congolese immigrant Yodi Zikianda of Lynn remembers his late wife, Irene Bamenga.

The series is worth a read, as it exposes major inadequacies of the system while recognizing the administrative and political complexities of the current system. The series also includes multimedia components such as interactive graphics, documents, videos and a timeline.

Portland, Maine: Impact of the 13 Percent

My last blog post pointed out the huge difference between the foreign-born population in Portland, Maine and the rest of the state. This 2010 story from WLBZ News drives this point home. According to this report, Portland “has become so diverse that 23 percent of its overall school population is now learning English as a second or even third language.”

“When Principal Mike McCarthy got to King Middle School 23 years ago, just 3 percent of the population was foreign born,” the article reads. “Now it’s climbed to 30 percent and growing all the time.”

Read the article in its entirety and click on the image below to watch a short video produced on the school.

Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources - WLBZ News

Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources – WLBZ News

Documentary: The Whole World Waiting

The 2012 documentary “The Whole World Waiting” follows 15 immigrant high schoolers in Maine, including Congolese immigrant Emmanuel Muya.

“Back in the Congo, we heard rumors that America is paradise — where everything is perfect, money flows like water, you can eat as much as you want, whenever you want, you can get anything,” says Muya in the film.

Read an article about the film and its characters, and watch the entire documentary below.

The Whole World Waiting from The Telling Room on Vimeo.

Congolese Asylum Seekers in Portland, Maine

This article from the Portland Press Herald uses the case of Burundian Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, seen in the video below, to illustrate Portland is home to an increasing population of asylum seekers, who must prove that persecution in their home country is enough to warrant protection from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Nahimana belongs to a new wave of immigrants – people from central Africa seeking asylum because they fear for their lives in their native countries. It is the fastest-growing immigrant group in Portland.”

The article, written in April 2012, says that the majority of Maine’s asylum seekers come from Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC.

An October 2011 article from the Press Herald stated that asylum cases have spiked in Portland in the past few years. The Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project saw an over 400 percent increase for asylum assistance between 2009 and 2010.

Given the recent violence in the DRC, requests for asylum will only increase. I recommend you read Tom Bell’s article, which covers the process for and trends of asylum seekers in Maine as well the politics behind asylum funding and protection from the state and federal government.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Hearings: What Could they Mean for Congolese Immigrants Living in the US?

This morning marked an important step for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, as many influential leaders testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Comprehensive immigration reform, for many living in the United States, is a way out for undocumented persons. But for many immigrants from the Congo and throughout Africa, comprehensive immigration reform would also mean reforms to employment and for reunification of families.

Among those testifying were Jose Antonio Vargas, the Filipino American journalist and founder of Define American; Jessica Vaughan, the Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies; Chris Crane, the president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council; and Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

You can follow the continuing conversation with the hashtag #CIR. Video of Antonio Vargas’ testimony is below.

What does Comprehensive Immigration Reform mean to you? Leave your comment below.

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.