US Refugee Numbers Don’t Reflect DRC, Syrian Refugee Crises

Refugees from the Congo war have increased by more than 350,000 in the last few months, says a UN report released on September 30. The current conflict in Syria has led to 2.1 million refugees and an additional five million internally displaced.

Yet statistics from the US refugee processing center show a disconnect from the number of refugees worldwide. At the close of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which ended last week on September 30, refugees from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Cuba represented 81 percent of the 69,930 refugees that were resettled in the US. Refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo represented 27 percent of the total, although the numbers were significantly front-loaded in the fall of 2012 and dropped as the fiscal year progressed.

And refugees from Syria? This group represented 0.5 percent of the total, with only 36 total Syrian refugees coming into the United States.

Barring an extended government shutdown, the new fiscal year beginning October 1 will provide an opportunity for the United States to to increase the number of refugees it accepts from Syria and the DRC from its allotment of 70,000 refugees total.

In August, Foreign Policy reported that the United States agreed to allow 2,000 Syrian refugees into the country in the upcoming fiscal year. These refugees, however, will not be coming right away. The resettlement process will also include a screening for terrorist ties, a process that will make an already laborious process even more unwieldy.

This inflated number of Syrian refugees, in addition, holds the danger of taking coveted refugee spots away from other applicants, such as from applications among the estimated 440,000 Congolese refugees waiting resettlement in Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

As the situations escalate in both Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and refugee numbers rise, the repercussions of this redistribution of numbers for the US refugee program remain to be seen.

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Guardian Maps Global Displacement Numbers

The Guardian’s Global Development team is at it again, illustrating the populations around the world with the highest levels of internal displacement.

With data provided by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council, the map shows that the countries with the three highest number of internally displaced people are Colombia, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectfully. This map estimates that 2.7 million are displaced in the DRC, up from 1.7 million at the end of 2010.

This number is higher than the 2.2 million estimated by UNHCR and the 2.4 million estimated by Refugees International.

This 2.7 million does not include 490,000 refugees that have fled the country. Over 69 million live in the country in total.

MDG : world map with numberof IDP by conflict

For more information and infographics illustrating the numbers of internally displaced persons around the world, check out the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement page.

The Daily Beast: How Refugees “Saved” Lewiston, Maine

Screen Shot from The Daily Beast
Check out this 2009 article by The Daily Beast about how the influx of refugees – mostly Somali, but lately populations from Sudan and the DRC – have “saved” the town of Lewiston, Maine. The article details how the post-2001 immigrant population in Lewiston has raised the income level, lowered crime rates, and infused the community with both youth and diversity.

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.

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.”

Do You Sugar-Coat Your Immigrant Experience?

I heard a really interesting piece from WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show where a young immigrant from the Congo named Danielle discussed how difficult her life is in America and how she feels she must lie and “sugar-coat” her situation to her family back in Africa.

Danielle, who lives in New York, had to move to a homeless shelter with her family after her stepmother lost her job. She suffered from the strict rules of the shelter and was embarrassed to explain her situation to her friends at school (“I didn’t want people to see me as a poor person.”)

“When I first came here, I was surprised. I thought everything was just perfect – but it wasn’t,” Danielle says on the show, and says that she lies to her mother back in the Congo, telling her that her life is better in America than it is in reality. “I don’t tell her that I live in a shelter.” She was so miserable that at one point she thought she might want to return to the Congo.

“When new immigrants come to the States they expect a new life… and sometimes what you get is a new life that you might not have expected,” says Kim Nicols of African Services Committee, who also appeared on the segment.

Click to listen to "Being Honest about the American Dream"

Click to listen to “Being Honest about the American Dream”

The idea of sugar-coating the immigrant experience to family and friends back in their native country seemed to strike a chord with the Lehrer audience. The show opened their phone lines to hear from listeners, and got lots of responses.

“I came here during a very traumatic time in my country’s history,” says Idina from New Jersey, who came to America from Liberia at age 13. “But I did realize that my situation was 100 times better than anyone’s situation in my country.”

But the other two callers echoed Danielle’s sentiment that life in America was not congruent to the experience they were expecting. People from home expect you to have money just because you’re in America, says Sulemon from New York. Felix on Staten Island agreed: “You can’t tell them the truth… if you aren’t making it in America, you will be seen as a failure.”

I’m interested in hearing how other peoples’ experience jive with Danielle’s. If you’re an immigrant from the Congo, what do you tell your friends and family back home? What do you say when things aren’t going so well?

Policy Changes for US Families Looking to Adopt in the DRC

The U.S. embassy in Kinshasa has announced changes to its adoption policy.

These changes concern families from the United States looking to adopt children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically a change in the order of the visa interview, which will now occur after a full field investigation of the I-600 petition from the American individual or family. These field investigations, the press release states, takes approximately three to six months to complete.

Also of interest for further investigation is mention of the alleged use of “expediting fees,” which act as bribes to speed up the process of adoption.

Here are some examples I found on social media of Americans sharing their experience adopting from the DRC in 2013:



Million Women Walk for Congo: Are You Going?

Lema Abeng-Nsah is the publisher for the international magazine DUNIA. A citizen of Cameroon, Abeng-Nsah was inspired to act after reading an article published in November 2012 by Katherina Dabo, detailing the widespread rape and sexual violence occurring in the … Continue reading

Video: Congo’s Diaspora Struggles to Bring Change From Outside

Despite weighty struggles here in America, members of the Congolese diaspora are very aware of the ongoing political and humanitarian conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This video from Voice of America, posted after the November 2011 elections in the Congo, demonstrates how Congolese around the world (a number this video cites at five million) believe it is their “duty” to play an aggressive role.

Data Visualization: Refugee Populations

This infographic by Visual.ly 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).