Freedom To Be With Our Children
Bashegwa Byenga is sitting in a conference room at the International Institute of St. Louis, showing me his scars.
“They cut me here,” he says, turning his head so I can see the thin white line in his scalp. “And here. And here. When the rebels came, they killed my brother and his wife and took their bodies away. They beat me and tried to kill me. They took my house, took everything in it. They beat me until they thought I was dead, and then they left.”
“You see this eye?” he adds, pointing to his left eye, which is disfigured. “I’m having an operation on it this month. It’s been like that for eight years.”
Byenga is a 44-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Central African country where the population has endured relentless violence since civil war broke out in 1996 following the arrival of rebels who aimed to depose dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Battles between multiple militant groups claimed the lives of more than five million citizens between 1998 and 2007, while over two million fled the country as refugees. The worst violence was and remains in the DRC’s Eastern region, where Byenga and his family lived until 2008.
“I am from Goma,” he explains, referring to an Eastern city on the border of Rwanda, where genocidal wars in the 1990s helped fuel the DRC conflicts. “I had to leave my wife in Goma when I went to Kampala [in Uganda] as a refugee. That was in 2008. Then my wife and children came too. We were in Kampala for six years.”
He gestures to two young girls next to him, who are quietly playing with toys as they listen to their father’s story. “Vanesa and Sefora were born in Kampala,” he explains. “My wife and I had three babies there. We have nine kids. We had babies in St. Louis too.”
Byenga smiles whenever he talks about his children. That smile fades when asked about his memories of life in DRC, where prior to the violence he struggled to make a living selling plastic shoes and jewelry.
“I can’t remember the good Congo, because it’s gone,” he explains. “It’s too much, it’s too much. I can’t remember because… .” He trails off. “I’m here now,” he says finally. “I don’t have these problems here. I have my family; I have food to eat; my children can go to school. That’s my life. That’s fine.”
For nearly 100 years, St. Louis has been a primary relocation site for refugees. In recent decades, the city has become particularly attractive because a low cost of living makes it easier to start over compared to affluent coastal cities. The International Institute, founded in 1919, has played a vital role in providing adjustment services, including English language lessons, citizenship classes, job training, and trauma counseling. Between 1979 and 2015, the Institute sponsored 22,347 refugees from around the world.
In turn, refugees have helped revitalize St. Louis, playing a vital role in keeping neighborhoods afloat as the city suffers a general population decline. In the 1990s, thousands of Bosnian refugees arrived, transforming deteriorated parts of the Bevo Mill neighborhood into a thriving “Little Bosnia.” A new wave of refugees from war-torn Syria began arriving a few years ago, and in 2015 Mayor Slay announced his support for a resettlement program to sponsor our “fair share.” Those new St. Louisans began participating in civic initiatives, some helping to remedy December 2015 flood damage mere weeks after their arrival.
But the largest group of recent refugees the International Institute has served consists of immigrants from the DRC, like Byenga and his family. Since the mid-1980s, Congolese refugees have arrived in St. Louis in waves as new conflicts and wars have broken out, with a sharp uptick over the last few years as the refugee crisis in that country has worsened.
More than 100 Congolese refugees arrived in St. Louis in 2015 alone. The influx speaks to the severity of the DRC situation and to a growing East African community in St. Louis, with refugees arriving not only from DRC but from other countries like Burundi. As was the case in the Bosnian community, St. Louis’ Congolese community has also attracted fellow Congolese from other parts of the US.
Byenga lives in a small apartment in South City. When I visited, he and his wife, Josephine, and their nine children—the youngest an infant, the eldest 17 years old—were sitting on the couch watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon. There are few traces of life in DRC on display in the home. Instead, images of better times here in America—class pictures, a photo of one of the kids joyfully posing with a woman dressed as Cinderella line the walls.
Although the family members say they are satisfied with life in St. Louis, their transition has not been easy. They arrived in August 2014, in the middle of the Ferguson crisis—an event they said they found frightening—and spent their first week glued to the television, unnerved that the city they had fled to from a war zone was wracked with violent conflict over race.
They also struggled with their initial housing in the Hodiamont area of St. Louis, where the large family was separated into two neighboring apartments that Byenga claims were in deteriorating condition. He tried to get money and permission to fix it—“I have a mind from Africa,” he explains. “I can fix what’s not good for my children”—but was unsuccessful. After a legal dispute with the landlord, who refused to upgrade the property, the family relocated to their current home in early 2016.
Employment proved a challenge as well. The International Institute helped Byenga find a position at Volpi Foods, but he left after sustaining an injury on the job. He now works as a housekeeper at a hospital, putting in long hours at a salary that barely covers the needs of his large family. He dreams of a better job with higher pay.
Josephine, his wife of 20 years, stays home with the children. In halting English, she describes St. Louis as “nice—people here are friendly” and says the family plans to stay in the region for the long run. Like the rest of the family, she does not want to talk about the past. “Congo is no good,” she says with a shudder as she nurses her youngest child. “No good. St. Louis is good.”
After a difficult adjustment period, the family found its footing. The children attend public schools with a large number of immigrant students, including fellow Swahili speakers from other African countries. But navigating St. Louis’ sociocultural dynamics is not without its own challenges.
“Our school is good, but it’s very different,” says Wivine, Byenga’s eldest daughter. “In our country, you would never see a student yelling at a teacher. Sometimes I get scared of the students, they’re so crazy. We have kids from all over the world, but they don’t always get along. People here won’t be friends with people from other races.”
Byenga’s son, Mandela, 16, is more positive. “I like the school,” he says. “There are kids from a lot of different countries—Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya. We have a lot of African students and we play soccer together.” Mandela and five of his siblings are part of the Umoja Athletic Club of Saint Louis, a soccer organization started in 2012 by refugees and immigrants including Fred Maboneza, a fellow Congolese refugee. “Umoja” is Swahili for “unity.” The club provides athletic services for boys and girls who arrived in St. Louis as immigrants or refugees from varying countries, with a stated mission to “be the best soccer club in the USA” and “uplift our communities through sports, by God’s grace.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a majority Christian country, and Byenga’s family are among many Congolese families who attend New Covenant United Methodist Church, a ministry in South City. On weekends, families from DRC and other African countries gather not only for sermons and services, but to perform and watch concerts by fellow members of their community. Some are dressed in traditional African clothing, others in American sports gear. They speak and sing in Swahili and English, mixing the traditions of their homelands with their new St. Louis life.
Though Byenga’s family enjoys the African religious and cultural organizations of St. Louis, Byenga emphasizes that what matters to him most is his family. “I have nine children,” he says, laughing, when asked about his friends. “My children are my friends. The oldest take care of the youngest—we are our own community.”
When asked what he likes best about St. Louis, Byenga struggles to come up with the words.
“I like St. Louis so much. We have … what is the word, liberté?”
“Freedom?” I offer.
“Yes. Freedom. Freedom to be with my children. To have a home where people can visit us. We have freedom here.”