Resettling Congolese Refugees — Lutheran Social Services of Michigan Offers Insights

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Resettled Congolese refugees  Photo Credit: ORR
Resettled Congolese refugees
Photo Credit: Office of Refugee Resettlement

LIRS resettles refugees from around the world. This year, among other ethnicities, LIRS is preparing to resettle Banyamulenge Tutsis from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Once a month, I’ll share with you best practices and observations from LIRS affiliates who are resettling this group.

For the past 16 years, the Banyamulenge Tutsis have been violently persecuted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Persecution against the Banyamulenge began in earnest in 1994. That year in neighboring Rwanda, Hutu extremists murdered nearly 1 million Tutsi. Hutu perpetrators then fled to the DRC and encouraged Congolese to attack the Banyamulenge Tutsis. Since then, violence against the Tutsis in the Congo has been regular. In 1998 a rebellion broke out; some Banyamulenge Tutsi families were imprisoned, several for their own safety. A year later, the United States resettled a number of these imprisoned families. This was the first group of Congolese to be resettled in the United States.

Hostility towards the Banyamulenge Tutsis has not subsided. In 2004, due to a clash in the Congolese national army between the Banyamulenge Tutsis and non-Tutsis, Banyamulenge civilians were forced to flee to a refugee camp in Burundi. Just a few months after arriving in the camp, a coalition of different military groups came and massacred more than 150 Banyamulenge Tutsis and injured 107. In 2007, the United States began resettling the survivors of this ruthless attack. This year, another wave of these survivors will be resettled in the United States.

LIRS has been active in resettling the Banyamulenge and is preparing to resettle this new group. They will be resettled by various LIRS affiliates, including Lutheran Social Services of Michigan in Grand Rapids (LSSM/Grand Rapids). LSSM/Grand Rapids has experience resettling Congolese refugees since 2007. Chris Cavanaugh, Program Manager of Refugee Services at LSSM/Grand Rapids, was kind enough to share some of the challenges they’ve encountered, best practices, and what service providers should be aware of with this new group.

Service providers and volunteers should be aware that because this group has spent a significant amount of time in Rwanda in refugee camps, they identify very strongly with Rwandese, Cavanaugh says. Often, he says, “they identify more as Rwandan than Congolese.”

Cavanaugh explains that many members of this group have survived traumatic experiences together, are in tight-knit groups, and are often “hesitant to work even with other Congolese.” Added to this, they often speak little to no Swahili. “This is pretty remarkable,” Cavanaugh explains, “considering they come from Eastern Congo where Swahili is dominant as the primary language.” This group, he says, is most comfortable with Kinyarwanda, the primary language in Rwanda. Due to language differences, trust issues, and other factors, Cavanaugh says that LSSM/Grand Rapids “ensures that initial housing is appropriate and not mixed with other Congolese of different tribes when they first arrive.”

The biggest challenge for the group, however, is medical and mental health. “They had experienced high levels of trauma,” Cavanaugh says. To overcome this challenge, LSSM/Grand Rapids has reached out to the medical and mental health community. LSSM/Grand Rapids and the local health community formed a Refugee Health Collaborative. Cavanaugh explains this as “an organized group of service leaders assigned to developing new and enhancing existing relationships and opportunities for care.” Other than health issues, Cavanaugh adds that cultural orientation is a challenge, especially when it comes to agency expectations and financial literacy. He says he believes the group best understands financial literacy and expectations when they are given repeated opportunities to familiarize themselves with the new information.

LSSM/Grand Rapids and the Congolese refugees they walk with in the resettlement process have some astonishing success stories. Cavanaugh shares that after being in the United States for only three years, one refugee bought a house. “Now, he rents it to incoming Congolese families.” Another, Cavanaugh says, came to the United States in 2010 and now has joined the US Air Force.

As we welcome Congolese refugees to the United States, if you have any best practices to share or questions, please leave a comment below!

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