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.

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.

The Current State of Congolese Refugees in New England

Historical Background

The term “Congolese” refers to a person who is from either the Congo or the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Middle or Central Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, was formerly known as Zaire. The Republic of Congo, or simply the Congo, is a smaller country northwest of the DRC.

A Map of the DRC, from the Nations Online Project

A Map of the DRC, from the Nations Online Project

Congo was colonized in the late 19th century, when the Congo Free State was officially recognized by European powers in the year 1885. Belgians controlled the area for 75 years until the country was granted independence in 1960. That year, nationalist Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister but was overthrown within months by Congolese soldiers led by Joseph Désiré Mobutu.

Another crisis arose in 1964 when rebels threatened to take over the country. Mobutu was forced to ask for help, and European, United States and Belgian troops defeated what became known as the Simba Rebellion.

Just one year later, in 1965, Mobutu declared himself president of Congo, and was officially elected to the position in 1970. In 1971, Mobutu changed the name of the country to Zaire.

In the late 1970s and 80s, opposition parties and rebel groups began to gain power, but were suppressed by Mobutu until 1990, when the president finally agreed to a multi-party system called the Third Republic, complete with elections and a constitution. In response, soldiers looted Kinshasa, leading to the evacuation of over 20,000 foreign nationals. In 1992, a gathering called the Sovereign National Conference elected an official chairman (Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo) and prime minister (Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba).

A new government emerged in 1994, a union of the Third Republic system and an opposition government created by Mobutu. This new government, called the High Council of Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT), placed Mobutu as head of state.

The First Congo War occurred between 1996 and 1997, after the genocide in Rwanda spilled into Zaire. Hutu forces began to use refugee camps in Zaire as camps for invasion against Rwanda, and soon allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire. Supported by Rwanda and Uganda and led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Tutsi militias in the country (who became known as the AFDL) formed to defend themselves and rebelled against Mobutu. In 1997, Kabila took over the capital Kinshasa, declared himself president, and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Second Congo War followed in 1998, when the new leader Kabila lost his supporters and was attacked by a rebel movement led by Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba’s rebels, known as The Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), threatened Kabila’s reign and drew six African governments into the conflict.  Joseph Kabila took over for his father after the latter’s assassination in 2001 and brokered a peace deal, dividing territories and sharing power, thus ending the Second Congo War in 2003.

A transitional government was established in 2003 until 2006, when Congo held its first multi-party elections. After Kabila took only 45 percent of the vote (despite a clear majority), fighting occurred in the capital of Kinshasa, which resulted in the death of 16 citizens. A new election was held that October, and Kabila won this time with 70 percent of the vote.

In December 2011, Kabila was re-elected President of the DRC, despite some official tallies which showed a majority for the opposition candidate Étienne Tshisekedi. The credibility of the vote was questioned by the Carter Center, yet held until 2012 when ethnic Tutsi soldiers mutinied against the government.  The rebel group called “March 23 Movement,” also known as M23, took control of Goma in November 2012, the third largest city in the DRC with a population of one million.

As 2013 begins, the DRC government and M23 rebels have engaged in a dialogue to resolve their differences.

The Resettlement Process

By definition, refugees are those unable or unwilling to return to their native country because of persecution or a fear of persecution. Refugees are differentiated from asylum seekers only by location of where the person is when he or she applies to reside in the United States. (If a person is outside the United States when considered for residency, he or she is a refugee. If the person is on United States soil at the time, he or she qualifies as an asylum seeker.)

The process of resettlement is complicated but well regulated. A refugee begins his or her journey by seeking temporary asylum outside his or her native country, settling in a refugee camp or a neighboring country. According to the Refugee Health Assistance Center, at this time the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) works to determine if the person is eligible for refugee status.

Resettlement is always the last option for a refugee, and is very rare: on average, refugees live in camps for 17 years, and only one percent of the world’s refugee population gets resettled. If the person or group of people qualify for refugee status, the local refugee service center works to prepare case files and securities clearances, set up interviews with a United States immigration officer, conducts medical evaluations.

Once in the country, the U.S. Department of State provides placement services for the first 90 days after arrival, carried out by local affiliate agencies. Depending on resources, these agencies provide support extending past the 90-day window.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the lead agency for the resettlement process. The ORR works with the affiliate agency in the weeks before the refugees arrive, setting up housing and filling out the necessary paperwork. The agencies pick up the refugees at the airport and get them settled into their new homes. They then provide 30 days of core services, such as support for social security applications, English as a second language (ESL) enrollment, medical checkups, and basic lessons in culture.

After one month the government provides a grant program, an alternative to welfare. If after six months the refugee still doesn’t have a job, that person is referred to the Department of Health and Human Services. Normally after eight months, cash assistance runs out. Refugees can apply for lawful permanent resident status after one year in the United States.

Congo’s Refugee Situation

In the 1960s, Congolese came to the United States for mostly educational reasons, and emigration continued after Mobutu chose the United States as a place for refuge in the 1970s. Many of those that came to the United States for education in these two decades have been forced to stay because of instability back home. War refugees from the Congo began to come to the United States in the 1990s.

By the year 2000, a total of 5,488 Americans were descended from Congo. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the five states with the largest populations of refugees from Middle Africa (defined as the states of Burundi, Central African Republic, the DRC, and Rwanda) in 2000 were Maryland, California, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. These five states, combined, constituted 47.5 percent of the total foreign-born number from Middle Africa in the United States.

Because of the fighting between the M23 rebel group and the DRC government, the current humanitarian situation in the DRC is grim. As of November 2012, more than 2.4 million Congolese were internally displaced, with over 460,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

The tide of refugees from the Congo, although less significant numerically compared to the numbers of Iraqis or Bhutanese coming to the United States, is significant. According to Migration Information Source, the year of 2010 saw 3,174 immigrants arrive from the DRC, and 977 in 2011. The United States’ Congolese community will grow up to 20 percent in the next two to three years, according to Larry Yungk, the Senior Resettlement Officer for UNHCR.

New England Congolese Community

The Congolese community in New England is small. The Migration Policy Institute has stated that in 2000, the population of refugees from Middle Africa in New England was 2,426. According to Statemaster, from 2000 to 2004, 64 refugees arrived in New England from the DRC: 14 refugees to New Hampshire, 31 to Vermont, 11 to Maine, and four each to Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Migration Information Source ranked the DRC at #21 of the largest 30 countries to send refugees to the United States between the years of 1983 to 2004, with a total of 3,191 refugees. Boston ranks as #11 in the top metropolitan areas for refugee resettlement during this time period, with over 36,232 refugees from around the world.

As of the year 2000, Massachusetts held the largest percentage of refugees from Middle Africa of all the New England states, with 1,580 refugees. Connecticut served as the home for 356 Middle Africans; Rhode Island, surprisingly, had 282 foreign born from Middle Africa, and 111 lived in New Hampshire. The smallest Middle African populations in New England were in Maine (65 residents) and Vermont (32 residents).

The population of Congolese refugees and immigrants in New England largely reflects the immigrant population of these states as a whole. A recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies in 2010 ranked Massachusetts as the seventh-largest foreign-born resident population in the United States, with over 15 percent of the total population being foreign-born.

Another interesting statistic comes from the Center for Immigration Studies, which has tracked how long foreign-born residents are residing in New England states. The smaller populations of foreign-born seem to stay the longest: the foreign-born residents of Maine, for example, stay an average of 26.1 years, and the foreign-born population of Vermont has stayed an average of 22.7 years. The two lowest averages for time-spent in-state were Connecticut (average of 19.9 years), and Massachusetts (average of 18.9 years).

More resources on the history of the Congo here.