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.”

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.”

Advertisements

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.

Congolese MCLA student Alex Mukendi leads by example

The Berkshire Eagle has profiled Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts senior Alex Mukendi. Mukendi, 22, is currently interning in the office of the college’s President, Mary Grant.

The article does not go into specifics about Mukendi’s childhood in the DRC or the circumstances that brought his family to live in New York, but Mukendi does say that one day he wants return.

Read the story here.

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?

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.

Why is it so hard to find this Diaspora?

Immigration in America has never been more contentious a topic. The recent protest culture that has emerged from the Occupy movement and student-fueled immigrant rights campaigns such as the DREAMers have forced politicians’ hand on the issue of immigration reform. On the dawn of Barack Obama’s second term in office, it appears as if immigration reform for this country will finally be tackled.

Perhaps to capitalize on the political opportunity or perhaps because people are finally listening, significant attention has been granted to the challenges and troubles of immigrants in America.

In this context, I’ve decided to focus on a specific group of immigrants in America, that of the Congolese, a Diaspora population seemingly poised to expand dramatically in the next few years due to renewed fighting between the government and a group of rebels known as M23 in their native DRC.

So why is it so hard to track down this community in my own backyard?

National Data

The U.S. Census, indisputably the most comprehensive source of population and demographic information in the country, has only the most general statistics on Congolese in America. From the Census’ “American Factfinder” website I was able to find that as of 2010, 11,000 Congolese-Americans lived in the United States. Eric Newberger, lead researcher at the American Community Survey, says this number has a large margin of error. The number could be as small as 9,400 or as large as 12,600.

Newberger did, however, help me understand just how “new” the Congolese Diaspora was: of the total in America with Congolese ancestry, a full 80 percent were foreign born. This means that only 2 out of 10 Congolese Americans have been born in the United States – the rest have immigrated here this generation.

Census information from 2000 substantiates this idea. According to this census, 3,886 people in the United States claimed ancestry of the Congo or the DRC (however, this number is skewed as 3,886 claimed DRC ancestry and 1,602 claimed ancestry from Zaire. It was only in this current Census that the two were combined into one ancestry group), meaning the majority have come since the 2000 Census was administered.

Despite the relatively small population of 11,000, the recent events in the DRC point to an increase in refugees and overall Congolese-American population in the near future. Fronteras claims that in 2010 alone over 3,000 Congolese refugees arrived in America, and Senior Resettlement Officer of UNHCR, Larry Yungk, estimates that this number will grow by 10 to 20 percent over the next two to three years.

State Populations

Apart from the national statistics from the American Community Survey, I have been unable to find a source that specifies the Congolese population of individual states. “The Congolese population in the U.S. is too small to be broken out separately,” explains Michelle Mittelstadt, the Director of Communications for the Migration Policy Institute, in an email. Instead, the Census breaks down the populations by state into ancestral categories such as Eastern Africa, Northern Africa, Western Africa, and Middle / Southern Africa.

Both the Congo and the DRC, of which Diaspora would be considered to be Congolese, are located in this latter category. (Also in this category: “Middle Africa” includes Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe. “Southern Africa” includes Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland.)

The American Community Survey has data for this “Middle / Southern Africa” category for the year 2011. Of the total 172,922 in the country, 5,821 were from Massachusetts, 3,099 from Connecticut, 799 from Rhode Island, 779 from New Hampshire, 350 from Vermont and 184 from Maine.

If the proportions stay consistent across states (and the 11,000 Congolese refugees consistently equal 6.36 percent of the total Middle/Southern Africa population), the populations in each New England state would equal: 370 in Massachusetts, 197 in Connecticut, 51 in Rhode Island, 50 in New Hampshire, 22 in Vermont and 12 in Maine. There are flaws to this logic, as I know from my reporting in New Hampshire that there are over 150 Congolese-Americans in New Hampshire alone.

Social Characteristics

The statistics that the 11,000 Congolese ancestry number came from in the Census provided very useful social data. Here is what I know about the Congolese American population as of 2010:

  • 58.8 percent live in a house with children under 18 years old
  • The population of those aged 65 and older is only 0.8 percent of the entire population
  • The average household size is 3.83 people
  • 5,463 are enrolled in school
  • 2,181 of the total population are elementary school aged (grades 1-8)
  • 10,831 have been in the U.S. for over one year (only 997 came over from abroad)
  • 1,980 entered before 2000 (22.4 percent of total population)
  • 2,088 are born in the U.S. and 8,820 are born outside the US (foreign born)
  • 1,221 are naturalized U.S. citizens

These statistics are fascinating, and bring up a lot of questions I will dive into for my future reporting. Fully half of the entire Diaspora population is enrolled in school of some kind, the majority in elementary school. How does this imbalance play out in Congolese communities? Is there a focus on services for the well-being and education of children, considering almost 20 percent are aged 6 to 13? What are the differences between the population that have been here since 2000 (22 percent of the total) and those that have arrived after 2009 (less than 10 percent)? What are the differences between the attitudes and lifestyle of the naturalized population (11 percent) and those not naturalized (89 percent)?

In the coming months I hope to fill in the gaps of knowledge about the U.S.-Congolese Diaspora and, along the way, do my best to answer some of these questions.

Honore Murenzi: Navigating “The Jungle”

Inside the office of New American Africans, the organizations’ director, Honore Murenzi, is talking to a Congolese refugee named Patrick. It is Patrick’s first visit to the office of New American Africans in Concord, New Hampshire, as the 22-year-old had just arrived from the Congo four months earlier.

There’s not much Murenzi can do for Patrick on this first visit, but he hopes to act as a guide for the young man as he adjusts to life in New Hampshire. “I talk to him, listen to him, see if he has a problem,” says Murenzi. Most often, the problem is that a new immigrant or refugee can’t connect to services, or simply don’t know where to go to get them. Murenzi goes with them, helps them navigate, and translates for them. “I meet them. We talk about everything. So I try to give them help, tell them what to do. And we go from there.”

Even with comparatively small numbers, the community that New American Africans represents – immigrants from African countries – is a tiny proportion of the state’s total foreign-born population. The Carsey Institute says that of New Hampshire’s total foreign-born population, 31 percent were European, 27 percent Asian, 19 percent Latin American, and 16 percent Canadian – leaving only seven percent left over for “other” immigrant populations. Census data narrows down number further: in 2011, 4,373 of those foreign-born in New Hampshire identified themselves as African in origin.

Murenzi felt the race disparity acutely during his first months in the United States, back in 2001. “For three months, it was terrible. It was very white people. White, white, white, white,” he says. Overall, only 1.3 percent of New Hampshire’s population identify themselves as black – only 17,131 persons total.

Photo: Tory Starr

The directory at 4 Park Street.

The office of the New American Africans sits nestled inside the crook of an L-shaped hallway on the second floor of Number 4 Park Street, less than 200 steps from the New Hampshire Capitol Building. Because of the two doors, one on each side of the “L” hallway, the office enjoys an advantage in position among the dozens of other non-profit or state-funded headquarters.

The office of Honore Murenzi lies at the top of a narrow staircase, past doors labeled “League of Women Voters of NH” and “Michael G. Gfroerer, Esquire.” The hallway is patched with bright yellow signs that read “Love Your Neighbor,” with the word “Neighbor” emphasized in dramatic reverse-block lettering.

Photo: Tory Starr

The door to New American Africans, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Murenzi’s office reflects the eight-year history of the organization. File cabinets fill every open space and stacks of binders and manila-enveloped sheets of paper lie across every surface. Murenzi works primarily at a desk with a hefty laptop perched on top of yet more paperwork, but when he meets with someone he pulls his chair out from behind the desk and into the center of the room.

A second room acts as a work area for people to come in and read, do paperwork, or connect to the Internet. Two computers sit at small black workstations in the corner, next to a four-foot high stack of hefty National Geographic volumes bound in maroon leather.

Pinned across the entire length of the wall to my left is a canvas banner that reads “Love Your Neighbor: Cast out fear & Hatred in Concord.” This time, it is the word “LOVE” that is emphasized in yellow and black lettering. Felt-tipped messages of “Concord embraces ALL” and “Love One Another” bleed together on the canvas.

The majority of signs tacked to the wall, in addition to the centerpiece by the computers, are from the three rallies New American Africans held after three recent incidents of hate in the south end of Concord, one in September 2011 and two in August 2012, when immigrant families found graffiti hate messages on the external walls of their homes. The police have not yet been able to establish a connection between the incidents.

*

It is late, and Patrick has left. With an organized system, Murenzi would have heard of Patrick’s arrival sooner, but he is not worried about missing anything. “It’s like an Africa network, we don’t write, it’s word of mouth,” he says.

Murenzi came to the United States from Rwanda with the help of a friend. Because the friend was working at Harvard University, Murenzi believed he was coming to live in Boston. But the friend and guide lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, a 60-minute drive from the city, which caused some confusion for Murenzi. “When he picked me at the airport, he brought me to Manchester. I didn’t know, I thought it was a big town. Boston was big.”

Murenzi was given a free studio apartment in Laconia, where he settled in. It was two weeks after moving to Laconia that he was first able to understand that he was living in a separate state altogether. He got the message from an advertisement on his television that used the word “New Hampshire.” To his recollection, it was his first time hearing the name.

At first, Murenzi was upset that he wasn’t living in Boston, where he had intended to settle. “But I was there, so I stayed. I learned that New Hampshire was good for children. I had the children who were coming, so I said look, let me stay here.”

*

New Hampshire holds one of the smallest percentages of foreign-born in the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2010 there were 69,742 people who were foreign-born living in New Hampshire, comprising only 5.3 percent of the state’s total population, compared to the national percentage of foreign-born population of 12.9 percent.

Despite this, New Hampshire’s foreign-born population has been the seventh-fastest increase in the country since early 2000s, according to a recent study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

There were other aspects to Murenzi’s life in New Hampshire that were very difficult at first. He received no help from the state. His only contact from the outside world was his Harvard friend, who would call or visit his studio apartment.

His first language was French, the national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was born and raised, so he bought a French-English dictionary and would point to one word, then another. He said he learned a lot of his English from television, as well.

After his wife and two children, aged 12 and 13, joined him in Laconia, he got a job as a high school French teacher at the private Concord Christian Academy. When he wanted his children to attend the private school and its $6,000 yearly tuition, he took a second job and his wife began to a position at the Association of Christian Schools in New England.

As Murenzi became more and more comfortable with his new world, he began to see the struggles of other immigrants and refugees. “I saw how they were having problems, and I remembered what I knew with the problems. So I begin to try to help.”

Photo: Tory Starr

Inside the New American Africans office.

New American Africans officially began in 2004, but Murenzi has worked full-time as director of the organization since 2006. There is no membership (“It’s not normal for when you want to help people to ask for a membership”) and he cannot say how many people he has helped.

Because many of the people he works with have no car, he does lots of home visits. According to the Carsey Institute study, more than 50 percent of the foreign-born population in New Hampshire resides in Hillsborough County, located in southern New Hampshire and including the larger cities of Manchester and Nashua.

Despite his time growing up in the Congo, and his years in Rwanda, Murenzi isn’t interested in building a community around specific groups. “I don’t care about Congolese,” he says. “My focus is how can we have something we didn’t have in Africa. Something in common. How can be bring people together so that we can live in peace together?”

He tries an example. “If your family and mine are fighting in Africa, but if they hear that we are together, they can say ‘Wow, they are doing very good there. Why not us?’”

*

With tax season just around the corner, Murenzi is working to organize a meeting about financial literacy in Manchester, where someone will come in to teach recent immigrants how to do their taxes before the April 15 deadline. This is an important skill to have, but I can hear his frustration when he speaks about this and other events he organizes for his constituents. “They are only interested in how they can survive,” he explains. “Now, it’s about taxes. After that, they don’t want to learn more.”

Photo: Tory Starr

A poster from the “Love Your Neighbor” rally in Concord in August 2012.

Despite the fact that he has lived in the United States for more than a decade, Murenzi still seems frustrated by the complicated nature of… well, everything. “It’s too much to learn. Too much. And I don’t know if you Americans understand. It’s too much,” he tells me.

He feels overwhelmed by everything from the red tape and convoluted process of state politics to the overwhelming number of options for products to clean your rug. He tells me that there is money from the government but people don’t know to ask or even begin to figure out the process by which to get it.

“This country is a jungle,” he says. “For me, it’s a jungle. You Americans say that Africa is a jungle. But I find that you live in a jungle. You don’t know yourself, you don’t know your laws, everything you want to hide you write in small print letters.”

*

Murenzi soon has to drive up to The Heights, an area of Concord east of the Merrimack River, for an English as a Second Language class. Before he leaves, he points out a large mounted photo in the corner of his office. “Do you like that picture?” he asks me. It was a photo of a tiny African-American girl, covered in a black headscarf with white circles in the pattern, clutching one of the bright yellow “Love Your Neighbor” signs. Her mouth is open in a shout, and despite the tear rolling down her cheek, she looks happy.

The photo was from the last rally New American Africans held, after the third incident of hate graffiti in Concord. The rally was held outside the home itself, on Thompson Street, not far from where we sit.

The rally brought together several hundred neighbors, officials, and members of the public to voice their support of the Somali family that lived in the home.

“My wish was Boston, but now I am here, I am very happy. Despite what happened, because of what I do,” says Murenzi. “Sometimes, I say I’m going to leave this job. And then I see for example a kid like that –” he beckons to the photo by the window, “Smiling – all that’s good. And I feel that today I do something.”