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.

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:

Infographic: New Americans in Maine

Check out this fact-packed infographic produced by the Immigration Policy Center about the foreign-born population in Maine. My favorite stats:

  • 3.4% of Mainers are foreign born
  • 56.6% of immigrants in the state are eligible to vote
  • Immigrants are 2.8% of the state’s workforce
  • 83.1% of children with immigrant parents are proficient in English

Immigration Policy Center Infographic

Source: “The Political and Economic Power of Immigrants, Latinos, and Asians in the Pine Tree State.” Immigration Policy Center

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 Congolese Diaspora in Maine

From the stories pouring out of Maine, from the influx of Somalis in Lewiston to the high demand for asylum assistance in Portland, I was under the impression that Maine’s cheap housing and low crime rates were attracting a large percentage of immigrants.

Over 4,000 new immigrants have moved to Lewiston since 2001, read a Newsweek article from January 2009. At the time the article was posted in 2009, almost 1,000 students were enrolled in ESL classes at Lewiston’s adult education center. An April 2012 article from the Portland Press Herald stated that in 2010, fully 13 percent of Portland’s population was foreign born.

But upon closer investigation, I realized that Maine was trailing – big time – with their immigration numbers. What many have referred to as “America’s whitest state” isn’t technically true, but it’s close.

The state capitol building in Augusta, Maine

The state capitol building in Augusta, Maine

According to the Immigration Policy Center, 3.4 percent of Maine’s 1.27 million residents are foreign born. This population, estimated at 42,747 in 2011 by the Migration Policy Institute, ranks Maine 45th out of the total 51 in the country (MPI counts the 50 states plus the District of Columbia).

Despite the news headlines generated by the massive influx of Somalis in Lewiston and the growing diversity of Portland, the increase in the foreign-born population between the years 2000 and 2011 was one of the lowest in the country as well, ranking 47th out of 51.

As a percentage, the foreign-born population in Maine has changed 16.5 percent between 2000 and 2011, from 36,691 to 42,747. While this is a big jump from the previous decade in Maine (from 1990 to 2000, the foreign-born population changed only 1.1 percent), it is still much lower than the national percentage, which from 2000 to 2011 changed 29.8 percent (from 31.1 million to 40.3 million).

The jump from 1.1 percent to 16.5 percent, however, is the largest jump in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, only five states (Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Maine) experienced an increase in immigrant population growth from the decade earlier, and Maine’s increase was by far the largest.

Another interesting discrepancy was the immigrant populations of Portland and Lewiston compared to the rest of the state. With a total foreign-born state population of 42,747, and the 13 percent foreign-born in Portland (a total of 8,633), approximately 34,000 immigrants are left for the remainder of the state. Furthermore, if you take out the estimated 5,000 Somali and Bantu population of Lewiston, only 29,000 remain over the remainder of the state. With a population of 1.2 million (the total state population minus the populations of Portland and Lewiston), you’re looking at an immigrant population that comprises roughly 2.4 percent of the total population. The drastic difference between Portland’s immigrant population (at 13 percent) and the immigrant population of the rest of the state (2.4 percent), you can see how different the immigrant experience could be depending on the person’s geographic location.

The population of illegal immigrants is small in Maine. According to an estimate in 2007 by The Federation for American Immigration Reform, only about 0.3 percent of Maine’s overall population were in the U.S. illegally.

Maine is known as "The Vacation State."

Maine is known as “The Vacation State.”

The majority of immigrants in Maine are either Asian or Latino. The Immigration Policy Center’s website states that the Latino share of Maine’s population grew from 0.7 percent of the total state population in 2000 to 1.3 percent in 2010; the Asian share of the population grew from 0.7 percent to 1.0 percent over the same time period.

Despite the large share of Asian and Latino immigrants, 11.5 percent of the foreign born population in Maine are from Africa. This percentage is much higher than the national percentage, in which only 4.1 percent of the total immigrant population in the U.S. is African.

Although it is hard to pin down the specific number of Congolese immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are a number of statistics that hint toward an estimate.

According to the 2000 census, there were 3,885 Congolese Americans who were born in the DRC. Although the 2010 census has not come up with a specific number for foreign born from the DRC, the American Community Survey estimated that in 2010 a total of 11,000 Congolese Americans resided in the country. Fronteras reporting adds to this number, stating that an additional 3,000 immigrants came to the U.S. from the DRC in the year 2010.

Between the years of 2000 and 2004, according to Statemaster.com, there were only 64 refugees to settle in New England from the DRC, and of those 64, 11 settled in Maine.

Although I couldn’t find any other statistics about the Congolese Diaspora in the state of Maine, there are anecdotes I’ve come across that paint a rough picture of the population. In a 2012 article from the Portland Press Herald, Congolese immigrant E’nkul Kanakan is quoted as saying there were only five other families from the DRC when he arrived in Portland in 1996, and today there are between 150 and 200 families of Congolese origin in the city.

In the coming weeks I hope to travel to Maine to report on more stories about the Congolese immigrant and refugee experience in the state. I would love to tell stories about life as a Congolese American in Portland as well as life as a Congolese American in other towns and cities throughout the state. If you live in Maine and want to contact me please send me an email or Tweet.

Boston Globe Questions Program to Track Illegal Immigrants

Screen shot from The Boston Globe

An article in The Boston Globe today caught my eye. Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti raises questions about an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program to track illegal immigrants in Massachusetts.

According to the article, private company BI Incorporated has been tasked by Homeland Security to monitor immigrants facing deportation with methods that include GPS devices connected by ankle monitors.

These methods have been implemented as a more humane and less expensive alternative to detaining immigrants slated for deportation.

Sacchetti states that 29 percent of the 21,000 immigrants in the BI program wear GPS monitors, where in Massachusetts fewer than 3 percent of convicted criminals on probation and 5 percent of parolees wear monitors.

I’m very interested to know if any Congolese immigrants are a part of this program. If you know of any information please contact me.

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.