Some nights in St. Paul she still dreams of Africa.
Not her homeland of Congo, which she escaped as a teenager in 1996 during the civil war. Machozi Rashidi dreams of the Tanzanian refugee camp where she spent two decades.
Life there was hard in its own way for Rashidi. But in the camp, she never had to worry about how to pay rent or feed her children, or get by using a foreign language. In her moments of doubt, she wishes she could return.
Sometimes when Rashidi, 38, confronts the demands of living in America amid the turmoil of the last year, "it's just too much to bear."
President Joe Biden is pledging to dramatically increase refugee admissions to 125,000 in his first year in office — among a series of actions to reverse his predecessor's hard-line immigration policies. President Donald Trump reduced refugee arrival limits to 15,000 for the past two fiscal years, the lowest in the history of the program.
White House policy became moot when the COVID-19 outbreak led to the suspension of refugee flights for months. Even now, it will take time to absorb a large number of refugees as the economy recovers from the pandemic and refugee resettlement agencies build back capacity after downsizing because of Trump's cuts.
In the meantime, the trickle of refugees who came in the past few years are struggling without the same access to jobs, school and assistance that newcomers have in ordinary times.
Rashidi and her six children were among 891 refugees who resettled in Minnesota in 2019. She knew they were part of a lucky minority: Several thousand refugees a year came to the state for most of the decade before Trump took office.
For the first time in her adult life, she was free. It felt strange to come and go without somebody else's approval. But as a recent widow with so many children — now between the ages of 4 and 20 — to support on her own, Rashidi quickly felt the weight of her obligations.
She studied English, then found a job at a company that supplied linens to hotels. Five of her children enrolled in St. Paul schools. The family joined a Pentecostal church where they sang in the choir and read the Bible in Swahili with other Congolese natives. Rashidi was happy. Hopeful.
Less than a year after she began, the linen company laid her off when the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the economy. By then, she had fallen out of touch with the agency that resettled her, the Minnesota Council of Churches.
"How are we going to be able to survive?" Rashidi wondered.
'It's the same thing'
She called up Kiloloma Kisongo.
He had moved here from Congo in 2002 and acted as a cultural broker of sorts to help refugees adapt to American life. Kisongo found his services increasingly needed as Congolese people replaced Somalis as the largest group of newly arrived African refugees.
Their numbers were small — 409 Congolese people resettled in Minnesota in the past five years — but growing. The year that Rashidi's family came, 150 Congolese refugees moved here, second only to the 391 Karen refugees from Myanmar. Still, they lacked the larger, established networks of the Somali and Ethiopian communities.
Kisongo helped Rashidi apply for jobless benefits and food stamps and negotiated with her landlord to stave off eviction. His wife sometimes bought groceries for the Rashidi family. (He also interpreted Rashidi's remarks from her native language, Kibembe, during interviews for this story.)
At the refugee camp, Rashidi did not worry that someone would take away her home. In America, she was learning, she only had a place to live as long as she could afford to pay the owner. She started to miss the certainties of the camp, where they had been assured of food. Here, she worried her family could go hungry.
Kisongo had worked with refugees from many countries and was used to hearing these sentiments. Even though life at the refugee camp was hardly ideal, they knew what to expect and felt they had more friends and family to help in hard times. They shared a common language.
When life went wrong in America, some new refugees felt stranded. They could hardly run to their neighbors for aid, they did not know how to drive and family could be far away — in Rashidi's case, her parents had resettled in Cleveland. Kisongo found those regrets diminished as refugees learned more English and their prospects advanced.
But soon after her layoff, Rashidi saw videos of George Floyd, a Black man, pleading for his life under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer and the riots that followed.
"We are running away from death and from war, from all these other problems, but here it seems like it's the same thing," Rashidi recalled thinking. She wondered if "maybe we should just go back."
The Rashidis had learned about the American slave trade in school, but little about the racial inequalities that persisted after emancipation. Rashidi had seen white visitors treated reverentially in Africa and assumed Black people would receive the same respect in America. But she feared white people after seeing what happened to Floyd.
Once, Rashidi's children were playing in the yard when a white girl across the street joined them. The girl's mother came to take her away, her face pinched in disapproval. Rashidi wondered if it was because they were Black. She was starting to believe that in the U.S., it did not matter if you had just arrived: Black people were treated as one.
Sometimes her 9-year-old boy cries.
His name is Abedi. He tearfully tells Rashidi that he cannot understand his homework.
Abedi and Rashidi's other children are among the 29% of St. Paul public school students who are not proficient in English, and support has been harder to come by with distance learning.
In normal times, St. Paul schools offer English learners the chance to participate in a more intensive language academy for their first three years. They can also get help in mainstream classrooms from educational assistants who pull aside English learners in small groups, though none of those staffers speak the Rashidis' languages of Kibembe and Swahili.
With remote learning, the district says that specialists work with teachers to incorporate English learning into regular lesson plans.
Rashidi's oldest son, 17-year-old Alumbe, said he's not getting any help with English these days. He thinks his family "had bad luck arriving in the U.S. and everything starting to shut down. So you couldn't go anywhere. ... You can't go to school in person. Getting assistance in learning English, you can't even do that."
Alumbe is still making A's and B's. He earned top grades in French — which he studied a little at the refugee camp school — and chemistry, his favorite subject. These days he teaches himself English by watching "Family Feud," YouTube and Nigerian movies.
The Rashidi children have never been to Congo; they spent their earliest years in a refugee camp. They are more hopeful about America than their mother. But they are all waiting for the pandemic to end, isolated by distance and language, "hidden in a small hole or a little prison ... that's how it kind of feels sometimes," Alumbe said.
"Has anyone had a job in the last three months?"
"Is there any income at all?"
Kisongo was answering the questions of a Ramsey County employee on Rashidi's behalf, trying to figure out why her benefits lapsed. Rashidi rested her chin in the crook of her elbow, leaning against the coffee table, her children gathered around on the couch.
She felt she had little choice but to turn to the government until she found another job — her stimulus check, savings and unemployment had run out — but the bureaucracy felt impenetrable sometimes. Kisongo finally reached someone just before offices closed for the weekend. The man determined that the Rashidis would be approved for $983 in cash assistance and more than $700 in food benefits for January.
By now, Rashidi's face was brightening in relief.
Kisongo likes to tell her that things will work out in time. He assures her that staying here is for the best — especially for the children.
"If there was a way for me to go back, I would go," Rashidi said. "But then I look at my kids and I feel like, what can I do? I just have to stay."