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.

US Refugee Numbers Don’t Reflect DRC, Syrian Refugee Crises

Refugees from the Congo war have increased by more than 350,000 in the last few months, says a UN report released on September 30. The current conflict in Syria has led to 2.1 million refugees and an additional five million internally displaced.

Yet statistics from the US refugee processing center show a disconnect from the number of refugees worldwide. At the close of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which ended last week on September 30, refugees from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Cuba represented 81 percent of the 69,930 refugees that were resettled in the US. Refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo represented 27 percent of the total, although the numbers were significantly front-loaded in the fall of 2012 and dropped as the fiscal year progressed.

And refugees from Syria? This group represented 0.5 percent of the total, with only 36 total Syrian refugees coming into the United States.

Barring an extended government shutdown, the new fiscal year beginning October 1 will provide an opportunity for the United States to to increase the number of refugees it accepts from Syria and the DRC from its allotment of 70,000 refugees total.

In August, Foreign Policy reported that the United States agreed to allow 2,000 Syrian refugees into the country in the upcoming fiscal year. These refugees, however, will not be coming right away. The resettlement process will also include a screening for terrorist ties, a process that will make an already laborious process even more unwieldy.

This inflated number of Syrian refugees, in addition, holds the danger of taking coveted refugee spots away from other applicants, such as from applications among the estimated 440,000 Congolese refugees waiting resettlement in Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

As the situations escalate in both Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and refugee numbers rise, the repercussions of this redistribution of numbers for the US refugee program remain to be seen.

New Haven Works to Welcome Refugee Family from DRC

Check out this fantastic profile of a Congolese refugee family in Connecticut , written by Rachel Chinapen of the New Haven Register.

Chinapen’s story captures the struggles of both this family of ten as well as the agencies and organizations responsible for their resettlement. New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS), who were tasked with resettling the family, had only five days to prepare for the family’s arrival.

Click the headline below to read the story in its entirety.
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Work Ethic in Refugee Camps

I’ve been working to produce a video piece that illustrates the post-resettlement life of a young Congolese refugee, who arrived in Massachusetts last August. I found quite quickly, however, that it was impossible to tell his story without understanding what he’d been through – in the DRC and in his almost decade-long stay at a refugee camp in Tanzania.

While researching the piece, I’ve learned a lot about the life of Congolese refugees waiting for resettlement in camps. Like the fact that there are over 3 million Congolese refugees and internally displaced around the world. And the fact refugees live in camps an average of 17 years before resettlement. Or the fact that less than one percent of the world’s refugees are lucky enough to get resettled at all.

A recent article from caught my eye, about how refugees in the Mugunga 3 refugee camp in eastern DRC would rather work than be charity cases. I’ve seen that sentiment firsthand, with the subject of my video documentary. The subject of my video, a 26 year old man named Issa, expressed pride in the jobs he held in his camp. “I am strong at any work,” Issa told me. “I can work at anything. Usually men like me who have been through my experience, we are able to do anything, to use our hands to survive and do any job.

Click the headline below to read the full story from

Fifty Refugees to be Resettled in Nashua, New Hampshire

The New Hampshire Union Leader is reporting that 50 refugees will be resettled in Nashua in the next few weeks, an addition to the 200 refugees currently being resettled in Manchester.

Tensions between the two cities, as well as the resettlement agency, the International Institute of New Hampshire (IINH), are evident in the piece. Paul Feely’s article also gives some context around the numbers of refugees in the Granite State:

The Queen City has been the top resettlement location for refugees in New Hampshire. Between 2002 and 2009, Manchester received 1,807 of the state’s 2,966 new refugees, about 60 percent, while Nashua, the state’s second-largest city, received 70 refugees over the same time. Concord and Laconia each received 778 and 260, respectively.

No more information about the ancestry of the 50 refugees was given.

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.