Michigan becomes haven for Congo refugees

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Samaritas' Christina Field, left, supervisor for employment and post settlement for New Americans, offers the children donuts. The Amani family lives in Warren now after spending 20 years in a refugee camp. Despite the few refugees resettling in Michigan, Congolese from the Dem. Rep. of Congo have been resettling in large numbers.

Warren — Riobert Amani and his wife, Asende Msoshi, knew they had a decision to make when war broke out in Congo in 1996: stay and risk being swept up by warring forces or escape their beloved homeland.

Frightened, unprepared and exiled by the government for not joining the rebels and regime, they fled from their village of Baraka to Tanzania in search of safety. Among 300,000 others, they lived in a refugee camp for 20 years, initially enduring unfamiliar routines and stuck in limbo. There, they had six children, but life still seemed torn, unstable. 

"The fight was everywhere," Amani, 50, said of his homeland.  "...The regime would raid and forcefully demand things and take whatever they want. They were raping kids, girls. Everywhere was a disaster." 

They arrived in the United States as refugees last July, a move that has helped repair their fractured lives, they say.

The family was lucky, as were hundreds of others who found a haven in Michigan.

The Amanis represent a growing presence of Congolese refugees in southeast and west Michigan, with Grand Rapids "the No. 1 place" for such immigrants. The areas are fast becoming hubs for people from the Central Africa country, resettling agencies say. The influx is the exception, they say, and comes despite waning numbers of refugees to the U.S. from other countries in the past two years.

Of the 490 refugees who resettled in Michigan from October through March, 319 are Congolese. Other war-ridden countries like Iraq and Syria have had just 33.

Congolese National Police arrest a man at Majengo neighborhood in Goma, on Dec. 27, 2018.

Resettling in numbers

The United States is on track to take in the fewest number of refugees in four decades, according to U.S. State Department data, and the steep decline is reflected overall in Michigan. The State Department estimates 18,000 to 20,000 refugees will be resettled nationally this fiscal year.

That would be the smallest number since Congress passed a law in 1980 creating the modern resettlement system.

The Trump administration set the number of refugees allowed into the country at 30,000 this year, below last year's cap of 45,000 and roughly a quarter of those granted entry in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2016.

At the end of March, the U.S. had resettled more than 10,000 individuals -- 5,800 were Congolese.

For all of 2019, Michigan officials initially expected to take in 1,032 refugees, said Karen Phillippi, director of the Michigan Office for New Americans. 

"It is possible we could reach that, but 800 to 900 is more realistic ...," Phillippi said. 

Michigan resettled 650 refugees in 2018, Phillippi said. Southeast Michigan is among the largest resettlement hubs in the U.S. An average of 3,000 refugees a year — 30,000 in the last decade — found homes here.

Growing refugee community

Resettlement agencies including Samaritas and Bethany Christian Services say Michigan is third behind Alabama (2,000) and Texas (500) for resettling Congolese from October to March.

Between October and March, 319 Congolese refugees were resettled in Michigan.

"We will continue to see growth, especially in west Michigan," said Kristine Van Noord, manager for Bethany Christian Services' refugee adult and family program. " ... We're seeing the No. 1 place they are requesting to come is Grand Rapids."

Van Noord said Grand Rapids has about 8,000 refugees from Congo and 11 Congolese churches. Experts say more of the nation's refugees are resettling in the city because they follow their families in a process known as secondary migration.

"A lot of well-known pastors, especially from Rwanda, are in Grand Rapids, so it’s drawing people here as well as our good jobs," Van Noord said. 

The high intake has dominated the case work for Bethany Christian Services.

"Last year, Congolese were 47% of our arrivals," Van Noord said. "This year, they’re 82%, and that's mainly because of the secondary migrants and family ties."

Van Noord said on average, most of the families that make it to the U.S. have spent at least 20 years in a refugee camp, like the Amanis. Educational or medical needs often were second thoughts, she said. 

"Many adults 35 and older are not literate in their first language," she said. "Those are big barriers. Kids don’t get much education, I’ve met 18-year-olds who only went through fourth or fifth grade or never learned how to work for the first time."

Last year, with 1.2 million refugees worldwide, less than 5% who were in imminent need were resettled, Van Noord said.

"We noticed 68% were survivors of torture, half of which were children," she said. "... Congolese, the vast majority are eligible for our Survivors of Torture program. We’re probably serving about 60 people and constantly adding more."

The agency works with more than Congolese refugees, but the numbers don't compare to the 82% from Congo: 14.5% from Burma, one individual from South Sudan and one from Afghanistan.

Riobert, left, talking through an interpreter, describes the differences of the U.S. from the Dem. Rep. of Congo as his son, Msimbi, and granddaughter, Neewa, look at the 16-year-old's cell phone.

Policy changes have curbed refugee admissions to the U.S. in recent years. President Donald Trump's executive order banning arrivals from several majority-Muslim countries cut the cap on admissions and suspended a program to reunite families.

"In the past, we resettled everyone," Van Noord said. "We haven’t received a Syrian since February 2017. It's not because we’re receiving Congolese. We’re able to receive both, but changes of security screening process and intentionality of getting those groups here impacts that. Congolese have a lot less restrictions than the Syrians and Iraqis."

Resettlement agencies across Michigan have closed offices due to the shortage of refugees accepted to the country, but Van Noord said Bethany is on track to resettle its expected number of people this year — 290 — or even surpass it. 

"We’ve heard that we’re one of the only agencies that is expected to meet their goal, and it’s because of Congolese," she said. "We may exceed that number for this fiscal year because of the large number of refugees that we are resettling who already have family in west Michigan."

The reduction in refugee arrivals has had an economic impact in the state, said Phillippi of the Michigan Office for New Americans.

Former state Rep. Steve Tobocman, D-Detroit, who is executive director of Global Detroit, a proponent of immigration as an economic development strategy, has studied the numbers.

"The true economic benefits of refugee resettlement are felt each year and increase over time as refugee workers, refugee spending and refugee businesses become more integrated and more impactful in the economy," he said. 

Fewer resettlements also mean partner agencies have had to lay off staff and reduce social service programs, Phillippi said.

"This is particularly true in southeast Michigan, who resettled just over 100 refugees last year, compared to 1,500 in 2015 and 2,400 in 2016," she said. 

Vesna Cizmic, Samaritas program manager, said Congolese refugees are drawn to  resettle in areas where there is an established community of their brethren, like in Grand Rapids or Lansing.

"We're so used to having big Middle Eastern communities to resettle in and it's easier for them to get adjusted, but for Congolese, we want to make them feel as comfortable as possible."

Samaritas' Christina Field, left, supervisor for employment and post settlement for New Americans, tries to fix the track pad on the family computer, to no avail, as Riobert (seated) and his children lie on the floor (left to right) Gido, 6, Estella, 3, Sofia, 12, and Msoshi, (standing), 9, listen.

Family recounts struggles

Msoshi and Amani traveled by boat to Tanzania in 1996 to escape their native country. They arrived at a United Nations refugee camp, where they settled for 20 years and had six children: Balongelwa, 19, Msimbi, 16, Sofia, 12, Msoshi, 9, Gido, 6, and Estella, 3. Balongelwa’s daughter, Neema, 2, has never seen her mother's homeland.. 

"We lived there all our lives," Amani said recalling his time at the camp. "This was a challenge because there was no land and we couldn't even farm. We ate beans and peas every single day."

Amani said many in his family returned home after years in the camps, but he couldn't bear the thought of facing what they had lost, or stood to lose, including their children being swept into the fight.

"If we went back, they'd take the kids. If we have land, houses, they were already gone," he said. "We didn't want to go back."

The family arrived in the U.S. on July 18 with only the clothes on their backs and fabric to make more. They were placed with Samaritas, which resettled them in a four-bedroom home in Warren.

Amani found a job, but no other Congolese live in Warren, according to Samaritas, and the family's transition has been difficult.

"The biggest challenge is the language, and it's very lonely here. You don't see people outside," Amani said.

"Also, the weather," he said. "It's very hot and then it's cold and slippery. One day, I fell down and I thought I was going to die." 

The children are enrolled in the Warren Public Schools, where they have a translator who helps them with their studies. They also are enrolled in English as a Second Language classes. Their mother, Msoshi, attends ESL classes, too, through Samaritas. She is pregnant with another child due in July. Amani works at a nearby hotel in housekeeping, making beds. 

Asende smiles during the interview as she wears a traditional African dress sewn by her husband.

The family relies on Samaritas, the hotel, neighbors and friends from churches in Detroit and Lansing to provide transportation. 

"We are so grateful to be here and to have friends who pick us up and take us to a community to sit with people when the streets here feel so empty," said Msoshi, 35. "We wish there were more people like us to have around to talk to."

Christina Field, Samaritas case manager for the Amani family, said less than 1% of all Congolese seeking refugee status make it to the U.S. 

"After living in Uganda for a couple of years and visiting the conflict war zone, I know those camps are directly affected by policy changes in the U.S.," Field said. "These camps overflow. When there are policy changes, everything stops, basic needs are not met, there's barely any water.

She said the Amani family has shown resilience and determination.

"That's an understatement, but they still struggle too," she said.

The family recently received a donated sewing machine and Amani made his wife an orange dress, Field said.

"They still need computers and things for their growing children as they continue to adjust."

(from left) Siblings Gido, 6, Msimbi, 16, Msoshi, 9, and Balongelwa, 19, look at the family computer. The Amani family lives in Warren now after spending 20 years in a refugee camp. Despite the few refugees resettling in Michigan, Congolese from the Dem. Rep. of Congo have been resettling in large numbers.

U.S. and Congo

Meanwhile, there's reason to hope their homeland can be repaired after decades of war. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, made his first official visit to the United States last week.

Robert Palladino, deputy spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said the two countries are "interested in developing strong relationships."

"... We’re committed to working with him to advance his agenda to combat corruption, strengthen the rule of law, enhance security, protect human rights and promote economic growth through increased foreign investment and trade, particularly with the United States," Palladino said.

Tshisekedi met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other cabinet-level officials to discuss cooperation on a range of issues, including efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo.

The family says the journey has strengthened their bonds.

"We are all we have," said Amani. "I look to my children's future ... my son wants to be an engineer, my eldest daughter wants to be a nurse and another daughter wants to be a police officer. We are happy and feel safe, that's what matters."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_