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.”

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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.

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.

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If you have any questions about the story, the Storymakers Award, or the Creatavist platform please contact me.

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.

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.

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.