Ladislas Mihigo paced near Bethel Christian Fellowship church’s pulpit and bellowed into a microphone on a recent Sunday evening. His words about Biblical believers unfazed by violence resonated with the small audience — mostly natives of war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.
“If you trust in the Lord, you will never be shaken,” he told them in Swahili.
Mihigo is among a growing number of Congolese refugees who have resettled in Minnesota in recent years. Survivors of a brutal and complex civil war, they often carry trauma and sometimes a mistrust of both fellow Congolese and strangers. Many also arrive with language skills, work experience and a resilience that have allowed them to adjust to life here relatively quickly, resettlement officials say.
The Congolese remain a small fraction of refugees resettled in Minnesota, but some resettlement agencies expect their numbers to keep growing. At a time when overall refugee arrivals have slowed to a trickle, uncertainty about the Trump administration’s policies is tempering this forecast: If the hold on resettling refugees without U.S. family ties continues past this fall, it will affect the Congolese, one of the few nationalities who arrive in Minnesota without existing connections to the state.
Breakdown of trust
Congolese refugees have been coming to Minnesota on occasion for years. The death in a car accident of a college-bound St. Paul high school senior from Congo, who had lost both parents in the war, shocked east metro educators in 2012. But three years ago, local resettlement officials learned arrivals would surge as part of a national push to let in more Congolese.
A major increase hasn’t materialized, but the numbers rose steadily: from 10 in 2013 to 70 last fiscal year. A small number from Congo-Brazzaville — a neighbor of the sprawling Democratic Republic of Congo — have also arrived. Nationally, 16,370 Congolese refugees were resettled last fiscal year, a sixfold increase over 2013.
The past year has seen a major flare-up in the 20 years of fighting in Congo, considered the deadliest conflict since World War II. It has been fueled by a mix of ethnic divisions, a spillover of the genocidal conflict in neighboring Rwanda and competition over natural resources. The widespread use of rape as a weapon turned eastern Congo into one of the most dangerous places to be a woman.
“This has been an extremely violent, multifaceted civil war where nobody could feel safe,” said Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
The escalating strife is not a factor in the recent increase in refugee arrivals, which involves people who have waited in a slew of African countries to be resettled for years. Newland says various militias and government forces battle in Congo — but no extremist militants. For that reason, Congolese refugees have made it through the vetting process even as concerns about letting in would-be terrorists intensified.
Congo natives have made up a sizable part of the clientele at the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture, which also provided counseling and training in eastern Congo from 2007 to 2012. Casie Iwata, a social worker, says survivors once caught between a cast of brutal combatants can become wary of forging relationships.
“The communities they come from have been so violently decimated that it’s really hard to trust others,” she said. “We try to re-establish trust in community.”
After years of getting passed over for jobs as a refugee in Burundi, Janvier Ndakorwa found work as a machine operator three months after arriving here this year — a “miracle.” Fluent in English and French, he is bent on integrating quickly. But while waiting for his parents to join him, he says he can feel isolated.
“You have to be careful who you meet even here,” he said, adding that’s especially true of fellow Congolese. “Why would I want to meet the same people who caused the problem in my country?”
Sense of belonging
Mihigo and his family fled after their city in eastern Congo came under militia attacks. They spent six years in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, where he says refugees had an especially hard time landing scarce jobs. When Mihigo struggled to pay school fees, some of his children dropped out.
Mihigo, his wife and their seven children arrived in the Twin Cities last fall. The parents and their adult children have found jobs, from packaging fruit to helping customers in a thrift store. “Life is good because we are working,” said Mihigo, who was a pastor in Congo. “We are able to pay our rent, and all the children go to school.”
At the International Institute, a Twin Cities resettlement agency, Micaela Schuneman says many Congolese refugees have enrolled in English classes and certification programs for nursing assistants and hotel housekeepers.
“A lot of our Congolese clients have previous work experience and higher education,” she said. “We’ve been able to find employment for them pretty easily.”
They are also starting to find that sense of community. Mihigo and his family found it at Bethel, where a small African congregation worships, led by two Congolese pastors. One of them, Justin Byakweli, started a nonprofit that offers help with job applications, interpreting and more.
Several Congolese families have joined Brooklyn Park’s Grace Fellowship Church. Members have volunteered as “bus buddies” and interpreters, says Godwin Saporu, who leads the church’s refugee assistance program.
There’s much uncertainty about future Congolese arrivals. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court green-lighted Trump’s executive order pausing resettlement for at least four months — for refugees who do not have a “bona fide relationship” here. Most refugees arriving in Minnesota are reuniting with family members, but the Congolese are primarily “free cases.”
“If those who do not have U.S. ties are not allowed to travel, we assume we will see relatively few additional Congolese,” said Bob Oehrig of Arrive Ministries, a resettlement agency.
Agencies are waiting to find out the maximum number of refugees the president will set for the fiscal year that starts this fall. Total refugee arrivals dropped to 30 people in July, down from more than 300 in October.
Lydia, Mihigo’s 21-year-old daughter, hopes her husband will rejoin the family. She is working on getting her GED and thinking about college.
On that recent Sunday in church, she stood up with other Bethel members as Byakweli took the microphone. In suit jackets and bright patterned dresses, members lifted their arms amid shouts of “hallelujah.”
“I know you have been through a lot,” Byakweli said. “You have been shaken. You have been persecuted. But you persevered.”