January-February 2020

A new beginning

When a Congolese family of 10 arrived here last year as refugees, a team of volunteers from St. John’s Episcopal Church made it their mission to help them

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Nineteen-year-old Imani picks up a bag of mandarin oranges at Giant Food in Rockville and uses an electronic scanner to find out how much it costs. “Very expensive,” she says, placing the $4.99 bag back on the display. Though the fruit is on sale, there are less than a dozen mandarins in the bag, hardly enough for her family of 10.

She steers the shopping cart to another aisle in the produce section, where her 14-year-old sister, Esther, is weighing two heads of cabbage. As 8-year-old Dorika, a younger sister, dances around, Esther puts the cabbages into a plastic bag and waits for the electronic scale to print out a price sticker.

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Soon, Esther is back at the scale. “Bananas?” she asks. Sheila Teimourian of Bethesda, who has accompanied the sisters on the shopping trip, confirms that she’s right about the name of the fruit, and Esther types the word onto the screen.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in late September, and the sisters have come to buy groceries for their family, which includes their parents, mom Nzuba Kabira and dad Vital Kambere, and eight children ranging in age from 2 to 19. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where large families are common, the family lived in a refugee camp in Uganda before coming to the U.S. in November 2018 through the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Since arriving, they have been living in a rented five-bedroom home in Bethesda under the sponsorship of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish, in Chevy Chase. Teimourian, a lawyer and the mother of two grown kids, is among the dozens of parishioners who have volunteered over the past year to help settle the family through the church’s refugee ministry.

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Imani and the girls fill the cart with staples, including four dozen eggs, two loaves of bread, a big jar of peanut butter, and cornmeal for making foufou, a popular dish in Africa and the favorite of Imani, who does most of the cooking. As they finish their shopping, Imani stops in front of a freezer case to get a treat. Her younger sisters immediately plead for their favorite flavors of ice cream. “Somebody needs strawberry, somebody needs chocolate, they drive me crazy,” Imani says, shaking her head.

As she follows the girls down another aisle, Teimourian marvels at their ability to speak English and how easily they navigate the store, comparing prices with her help. Except for the older kids who had picked up a little English before coming to the U.S., most members of the family only spoke Swahili when they arrived. For their first trip to the store, Teimourian printed out a list of items—eggs, onions, potatoes—and they used the Google Translate tool on their cellphones to figure out what she meant.

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Grocery shopping was just one of a seemingly endless number of challenges that church members faced as they helped the family adjust to living in the United States. “I don’t think any of us knew what this was going to take when we started,” Teimourian says.

On a cold day in late November 2018, the Rev. Anne Derse and volunteer team co-leaders Christie King and Nancy Adams armed themselves with bags of winter clothing and headed to Dulles International Airport to pick up the Congolese family, which was arriving after the long trip from Uganda.

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Years earlier, the family had fled their village in the province of North Kivu after it was attacked and their hut burned to the ground. They survived in the bush for a few years before making their way to Uganda, where they lived in a tent for five years before they became eligible for resettlement in the U.S. According to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, an estimated 4.5 million people have been displaced by years of civil unrest and violence in the DRC. Other African countries are hosting nearly 887,000 refugees from the DRC as of last August.

Refugees who go to Uganda live in sprawling settlements that can resemble agricultural villages, according to World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization. Life in the camps is difficult, and “prolonged camp stays with little or no opportunities for work or recreation have led to a breakdown in social order and to high rates of sexual and gender-based violence, prostitution, early pregnancy, and school dropouts,” according to the World Relief website.

Though Vital and Nzuba were grateful to leave the camp, they faced a new set of daunting challenges in the U.S. Nzuba couldn’t read or write, even in Swahili, and Vital had only rudimentary literacy skills. They had no income, no credit and no jobs. Before leaving Uganda, the family spent a couple of weeks in a hotel, learning basic skills about living in modern housing, such as the use of toilets that flush, according to church members.