One night in August 2004, a young cattle herder named Innocent woke to the sounds of screams. Scrambling out from a crude, plastic United Nations tarp provided for the 27-year-old and his family, he realized their refugee camp in Gatumba, Burundi was under attack.
Innocent, his wife and their two sons scattered as violence raged around them. Rebel soldiers of Forces For National Liberation wanted the thousand refugees they’d already driven from eastern Congo dead – simply because their victims shared a common language with neighboring Rwandans. During the attack, more than 150 men, women and children would be slaughtered. Over 100 more were injured and left for dead.
In the chaos, Innocent could not find his wife or their boys, ages 5 and 2, again.
“I think, maybe Patrick, Esther and Moses die,” he recalled this winter, sharing his story across his dining table. “Many people die, so I left myself, and go to Tanzania.”
Escaping to the wilderness, Innocent traveled alone, on foot, without food or water, seeking refuge across the border more than 60 miles away. “I slept in the grass only and the forest,” he said. “I slept where the grass was tall, so the animals no find me.”
When he reached the Tanzanian border, he was interrogated by police before being approved for placement in another refugee camp.
Fallout from Rwanda
Innocent was raised by his father in the village of Uvira in the eastern Congo. He earned a meager living caring for a herd of cattle. When Esther had turned 16, he had paid one adult cow as dowry to her family, and the two who had never dated or courted anyone else became wed.
But trouble was growing in the region. Bloody ethnic wars raged in neighboring Rwanda, and a Congolese group known as the Banyamulenge people were associated with Rwanda’s Tutsis. Because Innocent spoke the Rwandan language, Congolese rebels considered him Banyamulenge. His family’s village was targeted three times for attacks. Each time, he and his family had escaped harm, into the safety of the wilderness.
The final attack, however, left the village destroyed. Innocent, Esther, Patrick and Moses fled on foot, with no choice but to make a four-day journey to seek refugee status in Burundi.
Now, Innocent had lost not only his home and livelihood, he was haunted by the fear that his wife and two sons had died in the Burundi camp attack. He spent nearly four frustrating years in a tent in the Tanzania camp among refugees from the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda itself.
“The UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency), they helped the refugees, they give us the food,” he said. “So we have no occupation, no work, no nothing.”
Then, one day in 2008, a “miracle of God” happened. Someone from the Tanzanian camp returned to Burundi, and in another camp, he met Innocent’s wife! He led the whole family back, on foot, to join Innocent in the camp.
“It was a miracle,” Innocent said with a big, toothy grin. “I was so happy to see my wife again; it was a miracle from God! I don’t believe that I see them…I was very happy…it was a miracle from God.”
For the first time during our chat, Innocent’s shoulders relaxed and he sat back in his chair, obviously cherishing a bright moment in the story of his journey.
Coming to America
The entire family was interviewed, and it was understood they could never return to their home country of the Congo. Innocent and his family were granted permission to apply to live in America.
More interviews in the camp followed, with American embassy staff from Nairobi as well as American immigration officers. Innocent and his family were tested for HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases. After eight months, the refugees were told to wait for a letter from the American government. During this time, Innocent and Esther celebrated the birth of their first daughter and third child, Rusi.
Finally, the highly anticipated correspondence from the American Embassy arrived! An interpreter walked with the family to their tent and read the letter to them.
“The America accept you, you have to go to America,” Innocent recalled. “We were very, very happy.”
The final step: the family waited for their name and departure date to be listed on a bulletin board. For some refugees, the wait time was as little as a few days; for others it would be almost a month. Seeing their name on the board was as exciting for Innocent as receiving the letter. The whole process had taken almost a year since the family’s reunion in Burundi.
Innocent, Esther, Patrick, Moses and Rusi departed Burundi camp carrying only a folder of official papers and the few items of clothing they owned. They were bussed to an airport and took their first airplane flights – to Nairobi, then with fellow refugees to London, then New York City.
In the airport in New York City, Innocent’s family learned the immigration department had set them up for a new life in California. Almost 30 hours after leaving the refugee camp, they landed in Los Angeles.
Leaving the airplane in Los Angeles, Innocent recounted that he had no idea where he was supposed to go. He and his family had no idea what to expect or what to do once they landed. Walking through the terminal, they were met by someone holding a sign with Innocent’s name and picture on it.
“You are Innocent!” the caseworker said in English.
“Yes, I am.”
“I am your caseworker.”
The caseworker was also African, but from Somalia, so they didn’t share a common language. An interpreter who was a native of Kenya and spoke Swahili was called to help them communicate. The caseworker worked for Catholic Social Services, who had been charged with the family’s settlement in California. CSS would work closely with Innocent and his family for three months.
Innocent spoke three languages, Kinyarwandan, Swahili and French. English would become his fourth language.
Leaving the airport, the refugees were taken to an apartment of their own in San Diego – furnished and complete with food in the pantry and a stocked fridge. This was the first time Innocent and his family had ever seen or used a refrigerator, stove, flushing toilet, light switch or thermostat. The many foods provided were foreign to them as well.
Innocent reminded me that many people in Africa live without technology, electricity, plumbing, cars, even without roads. In the refugee camps, the family ate a cornmeal mush and beans most days. Occasionally there were fruits and vegetables. In Los Angeles, they were given rice, fish, meats, and spaghetti. He laughed when sharing with me the first time they prepared spaghetti on the stove. It seemed he liked to say the word spaghetti and this learning opportunity brought him a fond memory of those early days in America. Fortunately, Innocent quickly met other Africans who spoke the same language and could show them how to cook and prepare American foods.
Innocent described those early days and weeks in San Diego as difficult. He said he was thankful for the help of the government, especially the job center in San Diego where he took some classes in English and began to look for his first job since herding cattle in the Congo almost five years earlier.
One fellow immigrant from the Congo shared news of a relative in Dayton. Innocent decided to move his family to the more affordable Midwest to be closer to others like them. In 2009, Innocent and his family arrived in Dayton. For some time, they lived in a modest duplex on Neil Avenue off North Main Street. Many African refugees and immigrants seemed to find one another around this neighborhood. Like their modest homes in the Congo or Rwanda, their doors were never closed. Neighbors come and go without knocking, and they share a vacant lot to grow vegetables. Everyone looks out for one another.
In 2010, Innocent and Esther became proud parents of a fourth child, an American by birth! Angie, born at Miami Valley Hospital, is like any other toddler you might know and love. Hoping for better schools and safer neighborhoods, the family soon relocated to Kettering. The two boys are in school, and although English is still their second language, each week their skills grow stronger.
Innocent works hard as a landscaper for a local company. He has no fear of labor or long hours. Esther works as a housekeeper with a local hospital network and enjoys her work greatly. They look forward to working to provide for their children and as a way to become more American and learn more about their new culture and language. The family attends a mainstream Protestant church on Sunday mornings, and gathers in the afternoons at an “African” church reminiscent of their old evangelical congregation in the Congo.
Innocent is eager for people to know he receives no government support, food stamps or insurance today – their only assistance is living in a subsidized housing complex. He is thankful for work and the opportunity to work toward citizenship.
Still, there is one area he and his family would love to receive help from their community. Innocent asked for friends to help teach the family English, as well as the customs and traditions of our community and country. It is clear that he wants nothing more than to be an American!
If you would like to help a family like Innocent’s, you can contact Catholic Social Services here in Dayton at www.cssmv.org/volunteer.htm or by calling Cathy Guerrant at 937-223-7217 x1146. You can also reach me at [email protected] for ways to get involved. Also check out Welcome to Dayton, an unrelated program but one that served as an inspiration for this project.
Writer’s note: This is the first of 12 interviews with Dayton immigrants. Dayton has a full and exciting immigrant community, and I am excited to share the stories of our neighbors who have struggled to arrive and join in our city. I hope you will learn something as we share this journey together and will consider embracing these neighbors who have come so far to live in this city we all love.