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.”

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.

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 1.48.50 PM
If you have any questions about the story, the Storymakers Award, or the Creatavist platform please contact me.

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.

Managing Expectations

The other day I asked Viviane Kamba, program manager at the Congolese Development Center, what – apart from language – was the biggest challenge for refugees and asylum seekers she sees.

“The American dream,” she told me simply. “Their expectations of the American dream.”

When refugees and asylum-seekers arrive in Massachusetts, they are put in housing that is often difficult, whether it be with no heat, difficult roommates, or an unfeasible rent. They are told to expect almost immediate employment.

Photo credit: Flickr / ladybugbkt

Photo credit: Flickr / ladybugbkt

“They come with big expectations. And when they arrive, it’s just… not what they were thinking,” said Kamba.

There is a lot of handle, upon first arriving. They have to deal with benefits that didn’t go through, transportation hurdles, and overwhelming culture differences.

“The first thing we do, we sit down with them and just to help them set up realistic goals,” said Kamba.

It is a heartbreaking idea, that of having to manage ones expectations of the American dream. But it is a challenge that Viviane Kamba has to manage on a daily basis.

The Work of the Congolese Development Center

This week I visited the Congolese Development Center in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Center occupies two offices on the fourth floor of 20 Wheeler Street, a floor buzzing with action, emotion, confusion.

The Center is one of seven partner agencies of the New American Center (NAC),
It joins the Bosnian Community Center for Resource Development, the Haitian-American Public Health Initiative, the Jewish Family & Children Services, the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center, the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts, and the Southern Sudanese Solidarity Organization on the busy floor. All seven agencies help run English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, literacy classes, job preparation help, and one-on-one support with new Americans and their families.

Viviane Kamba is the program manager at the Center. A Congolese immigrant herself, Kamba came to the United States a decade ago with her family. In 2006, Kamba and her husband, Eric, were approached by the New American Center. NAC needed an agency for the French-speaking African community, Kamba explained. The Center was founded with Viviane and her husband at the helm, with one medical volunteer and two case managers. Everyone was part time.

Despite the Congolese Development Center’s name, Kamba works with refugees and asylum-seekers from all French-speaking countries in Africa: Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Cameroon, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.

The Congolese Development Center, a nonprofit, helps refugee and asylum seekers from the period when the resettlement assistance ends until five years later. The Center’s intended role is to help the refugee and asylum seekers transition to normal life after their eight months of assistance from the resettlement agency, but Kamba says that her organization is usually forced to step in before the eight months are up.

“Each of them may have a different way of adjusting,” says Kamba, recognizing that some need more guidance than others. Some resettlement agencies say they cannot work with the new arrivals for the full eight months, due to a shortage of staff or lack of communication.

The Center only works with refugee status or asylum seekers, although immigrants occasionally qualify for support from Kamba and her coworkers. Kamba liaises with schools, city hall, and other local community agencies to advocate on behalf of her clients. “Most of the local agencies when they deal with an immigrant situation they usually call us and request our help,” she tells me.

In addition to these services, the Center offers a Gardening Project, where residents can garden in an assigned plot. The Center works with The Food Project to train participants in correct gardening techniques, and provides them with the land and the seeds for growing. The participants also take part in a cooking lesson and a field trip to a local grocery store where leaders demonstrate how to shop and stay healthy. In 2010, funding for Gardening Project ran out, but the program has continued despite the lack of money. This year, the Congolese Development Center is managing 12 plots.

This year, Kamba’s workload has increased. There are more refugees coming to Lynn, and Catholic Charities recently closed down its Lynn office. “All those who were served over there, they didn’t refer them anywhere. So they spontaneously came here,” Kamba says. “So that’s why the classes are a little bit overcrowded.”

Kamba says she works 20 hours a week, but is constantly on the phone or on her way to visit a client. She estimates that she is currently working with about 10 families. Her focus is on the medical aspects of her client’s life, making sure they have a primary care physician, assisting them in getting to their doctor on time and helping them understand their medical bills.

My discussion with Kamba exposed a lot of inadequacies – mostly due to lack of funding – in the resettlement process. The eight-month resettlement period, where a federally-funded agency such as the International Institute or Catholic Charities guides a newly-arrived immigrant, refugee or asylum-seeker through the process of establishing a life in America, ideally secures both housing and employment for the new American. “They’re supposed to have a place to stay. To be in a job search class… That is what resettlement is supposed to do. But unfortunately, it’s not done,” Kamba says.

About half of Kamba’s clients come to her from a resettlement agency with both a job and housing secured. But many times even the housing the agencies place the refugees in is unsustainable. Kamba says that often the resettlement agencies will place a refugee in an apartment with a rent of $1,000 or even $1,2000. The $1,200 rent is not something a refugee on a $400 monthly cash assistance program can afford, Kamba says.

And oftentimes, by the time the refugee is kicked out of the apartment for failing to pay rent, they are out of the resettlement agency’s hands.

Kamba and her colleagues at the New American Center face a daily battle against physical, financial, and emotional capacities. I will be returning to the Congolese Development Center in the coming weeks to learn more about Kamba’s work and the people that spent their lives helping these new Americans.