Turmoil behind them, Congo refugees find new lives in Mass.
LOWELL >> Michel Kawaya's father worked in President Mobutu Sese Sako's government around the 1980s.
That meant life in what was then called Zaire was pretty good.
He recalls the luxury of going to school in a car he called "turtle." He watched as he drove by the other children who didn't have a car.
But Mobutu, regarded as a corrupt dictator, had enemies. When he was exiled in 1997 during Kawaya's adulthood, things changed for Kawaya's family.
Kawaya, now 45, doesn't speak much English.
But his eyes grow big as he explains to a French-speaking translator the dangers to his family. Anyone linked to Mobutu's government was at risk.
His father was murdered. With his 2-year-old daughter, Claudine, he had a decision to stay or flee.
"He has me, a young daughter of 2 years old," said Claudine, now 18 and a student at Middlesex Community college. "He has to make a plan, he has to decide whether I stay or I go. 'If I stay I will die, my daughter will die. ... What will I do? I have to run away.' "
He left behind a country, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, still racked in violence and turmoil, as political parties jostle for power.
It's an area where sexual violence prevails, with rape used as a weapon of war.
And this year, the Human Rights Watch wrote a pleading letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling for action against a crackdown by President Joseph Kabila against any opposition.
Parts of Kawaya's own story make him pause. His French comes out hesitantly, as some details of his journey are too painful and delicate for him to share.
But he and his daughter are among nearly half a million DRC refugees who have fled their homeland, according to 2013 numbers from the UNHCR.
Since October 2015, 315 Congolese have settled in the state, with 100 placed in Lowell, according to the latest U.S. Department of State statistics.
And though public attention has focused on Middle Eastern refugee populations, the Congolese are a sizeable portion of refugees coming to the Mill City. They made up 46 percent of the International Institute of New England-Lowell caseload in fiscal 2016.
"Actually, our Congolese are one of our largest populations and they're often overlooked," said IINE-Lowell Director Cheryl Hamilton. "One of the differences in the Congolese specifically is that they've been displaced for a long period of time."
That means they could have experienced all the other tribulations of refugees — trauma, sexual violence, torture, imprisonment —for a long amount of time, Hamilton said.
In the DRC, instability reaches as far back as the 1990s, with the violence of the neighboring Rwandan genocide pouring over into the DRC.
"The genocide and its aftermath had enormous consequences on the eastern Congo, displacing millions of people and disrupting the lives of many families," said Michael Boyce, a Refugees International advocate whose work has focused on the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Many of these refugees don't have any hope of integrating into the countries where they have been living for decades, he said.
"They have been living for years, generations in some cases now, in countries where they really don't have basic rights as local citizens," Boyce said. "They don't have the opportunity to work legally, they may not have the right to buy land. They often don't have the right to obtain citizenship in the country where they are displaced."
The country continuously struggles with peaceful transfer of power from one government or president to another, Boyce said. People affiliated with an outgoing leader may be targeted for violence.
"There are people affiliated with past governments who have committed serious crimes and who should be held to account," he said. "But there are also people who were just bureaucrats or were affiliated with the same ethnic group as the previous government or the previous president, and they may be targeted for violence and prosecution simply on that basis.
Kawaya fled with his daughter to Cameroon, where they lived before he applied for refugee status. There, he met his current partner Marianne Ndgock, who gave birth to their daughter, Rachel.
They arrived in Lowell four years ago and had a second child, Thomas, now 2.
Claudine, who hopes to become a chemical engineer, views her father with reverence.
"He gave me a lot," she said. "Today I am in school, I'm in college, I can speak English, I can do a lot of things. That's because he made a great choice."
She learns of her native country only through the stories her father tells her. One day, she'd like to go back.
But the violence against women makes her father uneasy about the idea.
In Lowell, the family is assimilating into society. Rachel attends school while Claudine juggles a job at Hannaford and classes.
Kawaya works at UMass Lowell in food service, while Marianne works at the Inn and Conference Center. They each make $11 and $12 an hour, respectively, he said.
The family gets by with $300 in food stamps, they say. They've also been blessed with a new Habitat for Humanity house on Dalton Street that makes Kawaya's face light up.
"I'm a winner," he says, snapping his fingers with a broad smile. "I am winner."
In his own car, Kawaya drops his children off and picks them up from school. Thomas is in love with the car, just like his father was as a child.
Life goes by really fast, he explains to the translator, IINE-Lowell Case Specialist Sabyne Denaud.
"He wants to be like his father, so he has big dreams — go, go, go, go, go, don't stop," she said. "The only thing is, he's not going to be like his father. They're not going to kill him for the progress that he's made."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.