“I was there…”

Ajuwa and Imani were born in Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu province, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Growing up, they had a happy life in the city: Ajuwa with his parents and four siblings and Imani with her parents and six siblings. “We were living good in Bukavu. There was work. We could go to school.” Everything changed in 1997. 

After the Rwandan Genocide, conflict among rebel groups and various governments arose in eastern Congo. War broke out, and Ajuwa and Imani were no longer safe. “Almost every day, people were killed. Usually, they would come at night. They come with guns to take things, kill people, and taken people away.” The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in natural resources. “We realized it was a game on a high level that we cannot understand.” Ajuwa says that all the leaders were vying for control over those resources, especially uranium. 

In the midst of an attack in 2008, Ajuwa fled for his life and was separated from his parents, three brothers and sister. “It was not like we were sitting there and decided to leave.” Violence erupted and families and friends were scattered. Ajuwa fled to Malawi, and it took him five years to get back in touch with his family. While his brother fled to Tanzania, his parents and other siblings remain in Bukavu. When he last spoke with them, they said it is increasingly dangerous.

 Imani fled her home in Bukavu in 2011. Her father had disappeared earlier, so she lived with her mother, two brothers, and four sisters. She fled to the same refugee camp in Malawi where Ajuwa was.

Both Christians, Ajuwa and Imani previously had met each other in Bukavu at various church conferences. In 2011, they decided to get married in the camp even though life was hard. Their wedding picture now hangs in their Greensboro home. 

“In Malawi, life was too difficult in the refugee camp. There are no jobs. You can’t do anything.” Although there was a free clinic in the camp, the doctors and nurses could not help everyone. When Imani gave birth to their second child, she went to the maternity ward for a nurse. No nurse or doctor was available. The nurse showed up at their home after Imani had delivered her daughter.

 Before leaving the camp, their 18-month child weighed only 8 kilograms (about 17 pounds). They took her to the hospital to see what was wrong with her, but the doctors did not know. “We received 12 kilograms of maize, a small cup of beans, and sometimes vegetable oil.” They had to learn how to cook with the limited resources they had, to get money to buy charcoal, and to wash their clothes. With no job opportunities, however, money was hard to obtain. 

At the same time, they had a growing family with four children. For Imani, taking care of children limited her ability to attend trainings or search for jobs. The camp of about 50,000 was filled with refugees from various tribes within Congo as well as from other countries. They did not know anyone and did not have help from neighbors. Everyone was trying to survive. “There was witchcraft. We saw people dying in confusing ways. And then there were people who were traumatized from their past experiences.” 

While in the camp, Ajuwa attended a two-year Bible school, where he picked up English. He had always helped teach Sunday School and worked with children in his church. Although he did not feel called to be a pastor, he wanted to study scripture. For Ajuwa, learning about the Bible was a way to help other people. Through attending the Bible school, he also found a job with a non-profit that serves refugees in Malawi. Because he speaks Mashi, Swahili, French, Chichiwa, and English, he was able to interpret. 

Although Ajuwa started the process of applying to be resettled as a refugee in 2014, they did not arrive in the United States until February of 2018. “By the time we heard that we would be resettled in Greensboro, I was already exhausted. It had taken four years.” Refugees must undergo a medical examination before being resettled in the United States. Because the process for Ajuwa and his family took so long, their medical examinations kept expiring before the process finished. As a result, they had to have three medical examinations by the end. As the process dragged out and he and Imani found themselves alone in the camp with their children, Ajuwa said, “I thought, ’Maybe I’ll go back to my country and die there’…In the Bible there is a proverb, ‘When you wait for something for a long time, the heart is broken.’ My heart was broken.” 

Once they arrived in Greensboro, however, things began to look up. “I found many people here—Africans and Americans. Many people were helping me.” A fellow Congolese refugee told him to apply for a job at the company where he worked. Ajuwa applied and got the job soon after arrival. “It is hard work—standing for 8-10 hours a day. But we are used to it now.” The worst part is the schedule. He would leave at 3:00 in the afternoon every day, just twenty minutes after his daughters arrive home from school. When he returned home, they were already asleep. 

One challenge they faced after arrival was weather. They arrived in February, and it snowed twice. “That was difficult. I remember the children were crying.” Since arriving, they have experienced snow, tornadoes, and hurricanes. 

The main challenge, however, was adjusting to a new culture. Ajuwa mentioned that greetings are different, for example. In Africa, when you meet someone who is older than you, you might bow your head a little. “You do not look at them straight in the eyes. It is different here in America.” They have also been surprised by the differences in work that men and women do in the United States, especially with household tasks. “Sometimes men can help—but not all men—some of them. When [Imani] delivered the babies, for the next three months, I was cooking and cleaning.” When they went to a friend’s home, they were surprised to see the husband and son-in-law cooking. “It was surprising. The challenge was to adapt to the culture.”

 Their two oldest daughters are also having to adjust to U.S. public schools. The oldest is especially shy, but her teacher has told them that she is playing with other children and trying to communicate. “They don’t know English. They never spoke it in their life.”

 Though Ajuwa found his own job when he arrived, he still attended job class at CWS because he wanted to learn more about work in the United States. Recently, CWS Employment Specialist Ghaisha Mohamed secured a job interview for him at Thompson Traders in Greensboro, a local business that specializes in artisanal copper products. They offered him the job, and he started last week. Instead of driving an hour to work every day, he lives only 10 minutes from his workplace. Most importantly, he is home with his family in the evenings.

 Through a partnership between Wheels for Hope and CWS, Ajuwa and Imani purchased a car, which has made their life easier. With the help of his CWS Match Team volunteers, Ajuwa studied for the driving test. He received his drivers’ license several months ago. Imani is studying for her drivers’ permit now.

The Match Team volunteers not only helped Ajuwa learn to drive, but they were present at the birth of their fifth child. Ajuwa smiled when he spoke of them, “They are our friends.” When asked what advice they would give to newly-arrived refugees, Ajuwa and Imani had a few thoughts. Imani said that to succeed, refugees must be culturally flexible. “They must learn what is good in this new culture. Keep the parts of their culture that are good…but you have to adjust.” 

Both emphasized the importance of hard work. Ajuwa expressed his shock at finding that homelessness existed in the United States. “[Refugees] must work hard so they will not find themselves homeless.” Ajuwa said the most important piece was language. “If you do not know English, it is too hard.” Ajuwa does not only want to improve his English though. In addition to the 5 languages he already knows, he plans to learn Spanish. 

Finally, they tell married couples to try to understand one another. Once refugees find employment and start receiving their first pay checks, they feel the pressure to send money back to family members who are still trying to survive in camps. This tension of supporting two families is hard on refugee couples. The wife wants to send money to her family and the husband to his. “We try to help our families back home because they are leading hard lives. My advice is to be one.”

 To the US-born individuals in Greensboro, Imani and Ajuwa also had a message. “Be attentive to refugees…When you meet a refugee, it is better to help them.” They asked that Americans remain aware of what is happening around the world and in other countries. “You cannot help if you do not know what the problem is.” 

Finally, Ajuwa made an appeal to the United States, “My request—please remember those people who are still in the camps. They are suffering. I was there, and I know they are suffering.” 

This story was the third in a series that CWS shared with the community leading up to Giving Tuesday (Nov. 27). Church World Service Greensboro is grateful to refugee neighbors like Ajuwa and Imani who bring their own wisdom and perseverance to Greensboro, and we are grateful to all our supporters who through their time, prayers, and money make the transformative opportunities such as forming friendships, securing jobs, and obtaining drivers’ licenses possible for newly-arrived refugees.