By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
A family of three — mother, father and young child — finds refuge in a new land. With the approach of Christmas, the parallel with the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is easy to make. It’s a story being repeated worldwide because of the refugee crisis but for each family, resettlement must seem like a miracle.
In their small Iowa City apartment, a Congolese husband and wife, married three years ago in a refugee camp, talk with a reporter about their miraculous journey to the United States. As Nyota Kitungano and Bugoma Kiza share their story, a big-screen TV shows a program featuring African singers and dancers. A china cupboard next to the TV displays neatly stacked everyday dishware. The couple’s son, Clovis, 2-1/2, looks bashfully at his parents’ visitor.
“We are the first family” resettled in Iowa City by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Davenport, Bugoma says gratefully. The journey began years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where violence provoked by civil war made life dangerous. Nyota, now 23, fled with her two sisters in 2009, leaving behind parents she hasn’t seen since. Bugoma, now 26, fled the Congo in 2007.
“What I’ve read and watched about the conflict in the DRC, children in particular were vulnerable and so in some instances you had children whose parents had either disappeared or had been murdered. Children took it upon themselves to flee, in some instances by themselves,” said Kent Ferris, director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities for the Davenport Diocese.
Nyota and Bugoma met in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, which houses 163,000 displaced persons. Both were fortunate to obtain jobs at a health clinic there and were married in July 2013 in a Christian chapel. The huge refugee camp wasn’t meant to be a permanent home. Kenya, in fact, has threatened to shut down refugee camps because of the enormous burden on the country.
The couple petitioned for refugee status, a process that required patience and perseverance. At the point they obtained refugee status, they listed references in countries that would grant them status, Kent said. “For Nyota and Bugoma, it was a friend in Iowa City. He was listed as a possible anchor person for them and was agreeable to provide moral support if they were allowed to resettle in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, Edmond Bigaba, who works exclusively with Congolese refugee families in Iowa City, contacted Kent. Through his work with Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, Edmond found Lapanda and Tulizo, who served as witnesses at Nyota and Bugoma’s wedding. It was an amazing discovery considering that an estimated 2,000 Congolese and 500 Sudanese refugees live in Iowa City.
Lapanda and Tulizo offered to open their home temporarily to their friends. “The thing that struck me is that they lived in a three-bedroom apartment. I think they have five of their own kids. They were willing to host a family of three for a short time,” Kent said. Nyota and Bugoma arrived April 28. “Within three weeks we had them in their own apartment,” Kent added.
Nyota and Bugoma paid the favor forward, helping other Congolese refugee families just moving into Iowa City. “Because we did not employ translators, we would not have been able to provide the services and support without Nyota and Bugoma’s ability to translate and to explain much of the process,” Kent said. “To have things explained by a fellow Congolese, somebody else from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was doubly helpful.”
Helping others and visiting the sick are important expressions of her religious faith, Nyota says. “I (was) born Catholic. I’ve learned so many things in many groups (such as Bible sharing). I’ve been baptized and confirmed. It keeps me in this way of charity, going to visit sick people, to help people in need.”
Because of their proficiency in English, Nyota obtained a job stocking shelves at Walmart and Bugoma acquired a job at Whirlpool in Amana, Iowa, assembling refrigerators. Kent and others shuttled them to appointments that helped with resettlement. Wakiza Gamez, who serves on the Peace and Justice Commission at St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, volunteered to drive Nyota to the 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass. It’s a standing invitation, Wakiza said.
Father Jeff Belger, the parochial vicar at St. Mary’s, talked about a tradition that has developed among Congolese Catholics after Mass. “After nearly every Mass I have with them, they want to take pictures with me. The family back home in Africa wants to know they’ve been to Mass. So they get their picture taken with the priest!”
Nyota and Bugoma are still adjusting to life in a cooler climate, trying to figure out what kind of clothes to purchase each season. Living in an apartment also takes getting used to. “People are not so much social here. Kids play in the house. In Africa, we socialize with neighbors. Here everybody is in the house. You don’t even know your neighbors,” Nyota observed.
Asked what he appreciates most about his new homeland, Bugoma said “security.” He is also grateful that he and his wife have jobs; both express gratitude to Kent. “He was wonderful to us. For any questions we could call him and he helped us on any issues,” Nyota said.
She also appreciates how welcoming Catholic Charities has been to the family and is encouraged to see so many Congolese families in Iowa City.
Nyota and Bugoma will celebrate their first Christmas in Iowa City with a couple of those Congolese families, beginning with evening prayer Christmas Eve in one family’s home. On Christmas day, the families will cook and share food with staples they’ve purchased from the African grocery store.
“As we talk about Advent and preparation and what Christmas brings as a gift,” Kent said, “the refugees’ gift to us is that under incredibly adverse situations they are thinking about how they can help others.”
A generous response
Catholics throughout the Diocese of Davenport have welcomed refugees in ways that amaze Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities. People have helped with rides to medical appointments and to Mass. They’ve donated furniture and other household items, paper products and toys. Deacon candidate Chris Kabat and his family, members of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, helped organize a house blessing for a Congolese family of seven. The parish’s pastor, Father Gary Beckman, blessed the house. “That meant a lot to the family,” Kent said.
Through the Diocesan Works of Charity collection, Catholics made rent and deposit payments possible, until the federal government could reimburse the diocese. “We could not have helped these refugee families get established without that support,” Kent added.