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.”

Refugees Not Yet Safe to Return to DRC, says UNHCR Advisor

After the November 4 ceasefire between the M23 rebel movement and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, things are still not safe for refugees to return to their homes.

M23 rebels and the government have failed to agree on terms of a peace deal due to a disagreement over the wording and interpretation of the ceasefire: the DRC government claims that the M23 movement was military defeated, while M23 argues that they agreed to a ceasefire to achieve peace.

There are 40,000 internally displaced persons within the DRC and 10,000 refugees in neighboring Uganda, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ updated numbers, released on November 6.

Regional advisor to UN refugee agency UNHCR, Christophe Beau, said that armed gangs in the DRC need to put down their weapons and re-enter society before those displaced can return home, reported United Press International (UPI). “Even when a zone has been made secure people always fear to return to it because they could still be threatened by people who were in the armed groups,” Beau told IRIN Monday.

It is only when rebels have been successfully integrated into Congolese society that previously displaced persons can live in the DRC safety, said Beau.

 

Read more:
DRC Refugees Face Uncertain Future, UPI
Obstacles to Return in Eastern DRC, IRIN News
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre: Democratic Republic of the Congo

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.

UNHCR to Build New Refugee Camp in Burundi

In May, the UNHCR reported that it will open a new refugee camp in Burundi in order to accomodate the arrival of new refugees fleeing the DRC.

The camp, the fourth in Burundi, will serve up to 13,000 people.

UNHCR has built the camp for a cost of US $2.5 million, and includes a school, health center, and water supply system, reports an article in AfriqueJet.

The refugee I profiled in April, Issa, lived in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in western Burundi for nine years. While in the camp, which held a population of 60,000, Issa worked many jobs, including that of a fisherman, and his brother sold food and clothing. Because of his brother’s mental health issues, Issa was able to be resettled after less htan a decade at the camp; on average, refugees live in camps for 17 years before resettlement.

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 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.

Asylum Applicants in Portland, Maine: An Update

In the process of the research for my last article on the Congolese diaspora in Maine, I came across an October 2011 Portland Press Herald article about the overwhelming demand for asylum assistance.

The article described the incredible spike in demand for assistance for asylum applicants in Maine: in one year from 2009 to 2010, applications for asylum assistance increased from 100 cases to approximately 400. The majority of these cases, the piece read, were from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The paper did not give a conclusive reason for the rise in asylum seekers in Maine, but did contrast this upward trend to the national average, where asylum applications fell a staggering 16 percent from 2006 to 2011. Another differing factor was the success of asylum assistance seekers being helped by the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Maine’s sole provider of immigration legal aid to low-income residents. According to a study from Syracuse University, the success rate of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project was 97 percent, compared with the 54 percent national average of asylum seekers with lawyers.

The article mentioned that the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland was forced to stop accepting new cases in March of 2010 because of this overwhelming demand, but didn’t provide any hints towards the situation at the time of the Press Herald’s publication. I wrote to Noël Young, an asylum coordinator attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to ask for an update.

The article says that the demand for asylum assistance increased from 100 cases to about 400 between 2009 and 2010. What is the demand like today?
Young: Same. I don’t have hard numbers for you but the demand has no subsided – but I don’t think it’s increased either. We are slightly better able to deal with it, due to the creation of my position (see below), but we still have to turn people away.

The article also says that you had to stop accepting cases in March 2010 – have you begun again accepting new cases? If so, how many new cases do you take?
Yes – we began again in December 2011, although we certainly cannot take all / meet demand. My position was created and I was hired in June 2011 to deal with the increased demand and by December 2011 we had ‘reopened.’

The article stated that the majority of asylum seekers in Portland were from Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, DRC, and Somalia. Is this still the case, or are you seeing any new trends?
All is still the same, with the only addition being Angola.

Young also clarified about the migration patterns for Congolese to Maine; the first wave of Congolese that came to Portland were resettled refugees, whereas the current “explosion” in population are from asylum-seekers.

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.

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.