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
The St. John’s volunteers hadn’t expected to take on such a huge commitment when they decided they wanted to do more to help resettle refugees locally. Over three years, the church had worked with Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSS) to fully equip several apartments in Prince George’s County for arriving refugee families, often with only a few days’ notice. LSS is a partner with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine agencies in the U.S. authorized by the federal government to provide refugee resettlement services. The nonprofit often works with local congregations, and its Good Neighbor program offers four support options, ranging from setting up an apartment to a commitment to provide for a family for one year, “where you are in charge of everything—finding them housing, raising the money, equipping, tutoring,” says Derse, a deacon and the community life coordinator at St. John’s, and a resident of Bethesda. “The goal is to get the families fully self-sufficient, independent, ready to launch on their own in 12 months. It sounds very ambitious, and it is.”
In early 2018, St. John’s organized a team of more than 100 parishioner volunteers, including retirees and families living in Bethesda and the surrounding communities. The church quickly raised $30,000 in parishioner donations to pay for rent and help support what the volunteer team expected would be a family of four to six people. The team also sought advice from members of other local congregations that had supported refugee families, including Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., and Bethesda Presbyterian Church.
LSS told St. John’s in early 2018 that it could expect to be assigned an English-speaking family from Afghanistan that would arrive on a special visa for those who had assisted U.S. troops. After undergoing background checks and training for the church’s role in the resettlement process, the team leaders waited to be assigned an arriving family. But as they waited, the Trump administration cut off arrivals for special visa holders, “which was heartbreaking, especially for someone like me who was a diplomat,” says Derse, a retired State Department employee who served as ambassador to Azerbaijan and Lithuania.
Over the past two years, the Trump administration has dramatically decreased the number of refugees allowed into the country, forcing LSS and other resettlement agencies, which receive government funding for the refugees they serve, to cut back on staffing. In 2017, LSS resettled about 1,600 individuals in the Washington, D.C., area; that number dropped to about 600 in 2018, says Mira Mendick, who left her job as the agency’s community relations director in mid-October. In Maryland, most refugees hail from Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Iran and Burma; nearly a quarter of those arriving speak English well and have at least a high school education, according to LSS.
After the Trump administration’s policy change, another nine months passed before the church was connected with a family. Then LSS called early in the fall. “They said there’s just one problem. It isn’t a family of four or five from Afghanistan; it’s a family of 10 from the DRC,” Derse recalls.
King and Adams gathered the volunteers to discuss whether the group had the money and the bandwidth to take on such a large family, one that would be arriving in just a few weeks. With some trepidation, especially regarding the number of young children, the team decided to move ahead. “If a wealthy community like Bethesda can’t help,” King recalls them saying, “where are they going to get the help that they need?”
Vital, 51, is sitting with his elbows propped on one of the two plastic rectangular folding tables that are shoved together in the dining room of his family’s home off Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a Sunday in September, his day off, and he’s tired from working the night shift six days a week at Taylor Farms, a salad-packing business two bus rides away in Annapolis Junction, which straddles the border between Howard and Anne Arundel counties. Seated next to him is his wife, Nzuba, who works the day shift packing lettuce at Taylor Farms.
They share the brick rambler on a quiet street with Imani, Esther and Dorika, as well as 16-year-old Eric, 12-year-old Sera, 11-year-old Ishara, and 28-month-old twins Benjamin and Benedie, who were born in the Ugandan refugee camp. The tables, covered with a plastic tablecloth, take up most of the dining room and are surrounded by a collection of mismatched chairs, as well as two high chairs in brightly colored patterns. Some of the kids sprawl on a couple of couches watching a flat-screen TV in the living room. In the small kitchen, two sheets of paper on the side of the refrigerator list the volunteer team leaders and their contact information, along with their photos and colorful graphics explaining their jobs, such as a pile of books to represent tutoring, and a yellow car for transportation.
As some of the younger children flit about, Imani and Eric join their parents at the table while they speak, mostly through an interpreter, about the difficult years before they arrived in the U.S. and how grateful they were for the church’s support as they adjusted to their new home. The interpreter, Jean-Paul Asereka, is a family friend and fellow refugee from the Uganda camp who arrived in 2016 and lives in Hyattsville. The volunteers often rely on Asereka, whose English is limited, and other interpreters during their meetings with the family. Because there are so many dialects of Swahili, “we don’t really know if we’re getting exactly what the family is saying, so it is a little bit of a challenge,” King says.
Nzuba says that when war came to their Congolese village, properties were looted and many people were killed, including her father. The family believed at the time that her mother also was killed, but recently learned through the American Red Cross that she is alive. After the attack, the family fled into the bush near the border with Uganda. During the day, they would search for food in the DRC; at night they’d cross the border into Uganda to sleep. Two of their children, born between Dorika and the twins, died while they were living in the bush.