When the Rwandan genocide spilled over into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996, Andre Sungura and Binwa Masoka were among the thousands of Congolese who fled for their lives.
The young couple, barely out of their teens, abandoned their small farm and spent a week traveling by foot and boat with their 2-year-old daughter Christina before finding sanctuary across the Tanzanian border in the Nyarugusu refugee camp.
With more than 100,000 displaced persons struggling to survive, the sprawling camp was no one’s idea of a good place to raise a family, but the family couldn’t go back to Congo without putting their lives at risk.
Nyarugusu would be their home for the next 20 years.
Finally, one country opened its arms to them: the United States. In May 2016, the family — which had grown to include two more children and a grandchild — was allowed to immigrate to Oregon.
With help from the government and a nonprofit resettlement agency, they began to build a new life in Corvallis.
“Everything here is better,” Binwa said, speaking through an interpreter. “Africa is nothing but problems.”
The U.S. has long been a beacon of hope for people driven from their homes by war, famine and other disasters, both natural and manmade. But that may be starting to change.
Since sweeping into the White House on an “America first” platform, President Donald Trump has taken a number of actions aimed at stemming foreign immigration into this country.
During his first year in office, Trump held refugee admissions down to about 54,000 — roughly half the number approved by his predecessor and down sharply from the 84,995 taken in by the Obama administration during the previous fiscal year. For fiscal 2018, Trump has asked Congress to cap admissions at 45,000.
That has refugee advocates worried.
“We have definitely abdicated our position as the global leader in resettling refugees,” said Danielle Grigsby, associate director of Refugee Council USA.
‘We ran from war’
Andre and Binwa’s long journey to the United States began in the fall of 1996, when Rwandan forces invaded eastern Congo to hunt down groups of armed exiles associated with the country’s 1994 genocide.
On Nov. 26, when the fighting came too near their home, the couple grabbed their daughter and made a desperate bid for safety, scrambling to stay one step ahead of the men with guns.
“We ran from war,” recalled Binwa, speaking through a volunteer Swahili translator.
“When we heard artillery or guns were shooting, we ran. We didn’t eat or drink, we were just running.”
After several days on foot, they were able to book passage by boat across Lake Tanganyika, ultimately arriving at Nyarugusu, a camp set up by the government of Tanzania and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
One of the largest refugee camps in the world, Nyarugusu currently has a population of about 135,000 displaced persons from Congo and Burundi, according to the UN.
Accommodations were spartan, with food, water and medicine often in short supply.
“People were just thrown in the bush,” Binwa said. “It was one problem after another.”
The family was given a tent, but it soon wore out, so they cut grass to build a house. They had no money for clothing. Daily living could be chaotic, even dangerous.
“Water came in a tanker truck,” Binwa said. “People were pushing. If you dropped your child, it would die.”
And there were periodic outbreaks of political violence.
“People from Burundi would come,” she said. “They were breaking down doors and killing people.”
In the midst of all this, Andre and Binwa had two more children, a girl, Moshi, and Saidi, a boy. At 10 months of age, Moshi fell ill in an outbreak that killed many of the children in camp. While she survived, the disease ravaged her body, leaving her unable to walk, speak or feed herself.
Christina grew to adulthood, got married and became a mother in the camp, giving birth to a son named Dieu-donne, French for “gift of God.”
The family hoped for a better life, but there was little they could do to change their situation. Resettlement opportunities are extremely limited, and refugees can’t apply for the program — they have to be selected by UN officials based on personal circumstances and risk factors.
After 18 years at Nyarugusu, Andre and Binwa were flagged as candidates for resettlement. Asked where he might like to go, Andre said his preference would be the United States.
“My father had a friend who was an American,” he said, smiling at the memory. “This man said there weren’t problems here in this country. It was a good place.”
It would be two long years before the family received approval to immigrate to the U.S. But once they cleared the exhaustive vetting process (including security checks by the FBI, Defense Department and Homeland Security), things happened quickly.
They were given one month’s notice that they would be moving to the States, to a place called Portland, Oregon.
“We had no idea what this place was like,” Binwa said.
Added Christina: “We just thought it would be OK.”
Refugees accepted for resettlement into the United States must be sponsored by one of nine non-governmental organizations under a contract with the State Department, which provides funding to help the new arrivals get established in this country.
Andre and Binwa’s family is sponsored by Church World Service through Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees, or SOAR, an arm of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.
Most refugees who come to Oregon are resettled in the Portland area, but SOAR decided to place the Congolese family in Corvallis with the assistance of a local volunteer group called WITO. (Pronounced “we too,” the acronym stands for Welcoming Immigrants to Oregon.)
WITO set Andre and Binwa’s family up with an apartment, connected them with a Swahili-speaking interpreter and got the kids signed up for school. The group also helped them apply for Social Security cards, get social services such as Medicaid, food stamps and welfare benefits, and access programs to help them become self-sufficient, such as English classes and employment assistance.
Andre, now 43, and Christina, 24, got jobs in food service at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. Saidi, who’s now 18, enrolled at Corvallis High School. Moshi, 20, has received extensive medical treatment through Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland but still needs assistance with everyday functions. She attends a program for young adults with special needs at College Hill High School. Binwa, 43, is paid by the state to be Moshi’s full-time caregiver, and she’s taking classes in English and computer literacy through Linn-Benton Community College.
They’ve applied for green cards, which confer resident alien status, and after five years in the country they’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship.
Since its formation in 2008, WITO has helped several families — refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan — start new lives in the mid-valley.
“We’re very proud. All of those families have driver’s licenses, they have citizenship and they have jobs,” said Paula Krane, a longtime member of the group.
Andre and Binwa’s family is making progress but still needs a lot of support, she added.
“Our responsibility when we take a family from SOAR is for a year, and in the past a year has always been enough,” Krane said. “(The Congolese) have been much more special needs than any of our previous families. Even after a year and a half, they still need help.”
But WITO volunteers are happy to provide that help, she added, noting that her own grandparents came to this country as refugees from Europe around the turn of the last century.
“We’re all families of refugees,” Krane said. “This is what this country stands for … we’re a melting pot.”
Closing the door
Historically, Oregon has made room for refugees from all over the world. According to statistics kept by the Department of Human Services, the state has accepted more than 65,000 refugees since 1975.
Over that span, the state has taken in an average of more than 1,500 refugees a year, including 1,780 during fiscal 2016, the last year for which accurate totals are available. Under the new limits proposed by the Trump administration, however, that number is set to plunge to just 700 people during fiscal 2018 — the lowest total in 40 years.
“There was a dramatic decrease this year based on the ceiling that was placed by the president,” noted Dawn Myers, the refugee coordinator for the state.
The steep cutback is troubling for people like Vesna Vila, resettlement program director for SOAR in Portland.
“Everything’s up in the air right now,” she said. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
The lower refugee ceiling means less federal funding flowing to agencies such as hers, which could translate into staff cuts and less capacity to help new arrivals and those already here.
But even more troubling, she says, is what the new restrictions mean for millions of refugees around the world hoping for a fresh start in the United States.
“These are the people who are suffering the most,” she said. “Some people have been waiting 10 years (or more) in a camp — you can imagine the impact on them.”
Refugee advocates say they’re not giving up the fight.
The Refugee Council USA’s Grigsby said her organization, a coalition of 25 resettlement agencies and advocacy groups, is pushing the Trump administration to raise its proposed ceiling on refugee admissions to 75,000.
“We are going to continue to ask the president to resettle within historic norms,” she said.
And if the current occupant of the Oval Office won’t change his policy, Grigsby added, the voters may decide to make a change at the next election.
“It’s important to note that administrations come and go,” she said. “Forty-five thousand (refugees) is nowhere near what the U.S. is ready and willing to accept.”
For the new Congolese residents of Corvallis, the decision to slash refugee admissions strikes home in a very personal way.
Binwa’s sister is still living at the Nyarugusu refugee camp, along with her family. So is Christina’s husband, Dieu-donne’s father.
Binwa wants people to know that she and her family are grateful for the opportunity they’ve been given.
“Thank you, America. We have been received very well, and we would like God to bless you for that,” she said.
“It’s such a big help to the world when you do this.”
Her husband, Andre, feels the same way. But he also has a message for those who see refugees as a possible threat or a burden on society.
“I would like to tell them refugees don’t have a safe place to go, and this is a safe place,” he said.
“We’re just humans, and we all should be helping each other.”