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
After a few years, they moved to the refugee camp in Uganda, where they lived in a shelter they constructed out of plastic sheeting. In Congolese families, older children are responsible for caring for their siblings, so Imani would wake at 6 every morning to help the younger kids, washing their clothes and preparing food. “Sometime I go to school, my parents see if they can find something to eat, and look for food,” she says. “It’s hard, difficult in the camp. It’s so hard.”
The family applied to leave the country, joining a long list of refugees who wanted to get out. When they were finally notified that they would be going to the U.S., they saw it as “the will of God,” Vital says, “because many people applied and they don’t get the chance.” As the family waited to fly to the U.S., the St. John’s volunteers scrambled to find a home for them.
As part of its commitment, the church agrees to financially support a refugee family for a year, gradually decreasing the assistance as the months go by. The team chose the house in Bethesda so the volunteers could have easier access to the family—even though the $2,800 monthly rent was higher than in other communities where refugees live, such as locations in Prince George’s County. On the day the family arrived, dozens of volunteers moved in donated furniture—including a couch, armchairs and a bookshelf for the living room, and dressers and bedside tables for the bedrooms. KindWorks, a Bethesda nonprofit, helped equip the home, and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rotary Club provided money for new beds, which members delivered and assembled, according to Derse.
At the airport, Derse, King and Adams greeted the family in the baggage claim area with a colorful paper banner made by a fourth grade Sunday school class that read, “Welcome to the USA.” They helped the children put on socks, boots, warm jackets and gloves for the ride to Bethesda.
Soon after the family arrived, King was in the international admissions office of Montgomery County Public Schools, helping to calm a distraught Esther as a nurse prepared to give her six vaccinations. King had brought the six older kids to the Rockville office to get the vaccinations required for enrollment. While LSS handled the administrative tasks of scheduling medical appointments and enrolling the children—mostly in schools that offer a special program for English language learners who have had limited or no previous schooling—it was up to the volunteers to transport the family members and help them through the process.
King and Adams, along with other volunteers, spent hours on the phone and filling out paperwork to help connect the family with county services and federal programs, such as food stamps. Because of the hut fire, the family didn’t have any of the documents required for enrollment in school and social service programs. Without documentation to consult, the United Nations assigned a Jan. 1 birth date, a common practice, for four of the kids, leading to some confusion as county officials and others dealt with their forms. The U.N.’s documentation says Nzuba is 37, but, according to King, she says she is actually 42.
King, an oil painter who lives with her husband in Bethesda and is the mother of three adult children, and Adams, a retired international trade negotiator from Northwest Washington, D.C., had agreed to lead the volunteer team because both were interested in helping refugees. While King was living in Hong Kong with her family—her husband is an economist with the International Monetary Fund—she worked on refugee issues and learned that having a congregation sponsor a family provided the most effective support. So when she and her husband returned to live in Bethesda, she got involved with St. John’s efforts, led by parishioner and Chevy Chase resident Melanie Folstad, to furnish apartments for refugees. When the church decided to sponsor a family, “it just seemed like something, in the aftermath of the Trump election, that you could do that would be a positive contribution,” King says.
Adams was willing to take on a leadership role, mindful that her parents—her father was a college professor whose job took the family overseas—were “very giving and very engaged people” no matter where they lived, and her family had supported a refugee family from Austria when she was young. “When I came home and I retired and I was so appalled by the new policies of the government that I cared so deeply about, and we had this chance to help a family, particularly because I’d lived in the Middle East and worked in the Middle East, I was interested,” says Adams, who was in charge of finding housing.
A few weeks after setting up the house, the volunteers helped the family decorate a Christmas tree, stringing colored lights and ornaments. They also held a dinner party at the church, which the family attended. Parishioners showered the parents and kids with gifts. At one point, King recalls, Nzuba banged on her glass to quiet the group so that she could say thank you.
During a recent meeting of team leaders, Folstad, who heads the finance team, explained that some volunteers meet monthly with the family to talk about finances and budgeting. Still, misunderstandings persist because the family had never dealt with such issues before, she says.
Other volunteers talk about teaching the family “lessons in daily living,” as Derse describes it, such as regularly sweeping or vacuuming, and eating at the dining room table to help keep the house clean. The family didn’t realize that leaving windows open while the air conditioning was on would result in higher utility costs, which weren’t included in the rent. One woman says she invites the four oldest kids to spend Friday nights with her family and “watch what we do” to help them learn about home life, such as how to mow a lawn.
Volunteers often do the driving, including last-minute trips to school when one of the children has missed the bus. King recalls Sera’s reaction one day when she realized she wouldn’t be punished for her late arrival. “She said how nice it was that when you get to school late here, they don’t beat you” like they did in Africa, King says.
The volunteers try to be mindful of cultural differences—such as accepting that Vital doesn’t want his daughters leaving the house unaccompanied, and helping the family find places to buy goat meat, a staple in their native country—and to remember that nearly all aspects of everyday living, including electricity and plumbing, were foreign to the family. Volunteers have made mistakes, including buying canned food—which the family doesn’t like to eat—and assuming they knew how to use kitchen appliances. “They’d never used a refrigerator,” King says. “The first week they were there, I came over and I saw opened cans sitting on the shelf. A whole watermelon in the freezer. Ice cream in the refrigerator.”
The volunteers’ growing fatigue over ongoing challenges is tempered by the family’s gratitude and the joy they experience as they are introduced to American traditions and holidays. “Everybody is very huggy,” Adams says. Team members have taken family members to festivals and local landmarks, including Great Falls, invited them to gatherings at their homes, and taken the kids trick-or-treating. Earlier in October, they piled the kids into cars and took them to Homestead Farm in Poolesville, where the children went on a hayride, picked apples and petted farm animals. “The kids were having a wonderful time,” King says. “It was great to see them doing something I did with my kids when they were young.”