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
Even with two working parents, county and federal assistance, and financial help from the church and other congregations, the family has struggled to make ends meet because of the high cost of living in the Bethesda area. The situation seemed poised to improve when LSS secured a higher-paying job at a big-box store for Vital. “So he quit his job at Taylor Farms. But [the store] never called him. He went for three hours of orientation, he went for drug testing, and then no one ever called,” King says. Vital went back to work at Taylor Farms.
Vital and Nzuba say they have found it difficult to learn English because they are older and because they need to spend their time working, rather than being tutored, so they can pay their rent and support their family, according to Asereka. “Due to their age, learning the language is not easy,” he says. “For the children, it’s easy.”
Nzuba stopped her English lessons when she got a job, but she is learning to write numbers from 1 to 10, and succeeded in writing her name over the summer. “For us, it was such a thrill,” says Anka Zaremba, a volunteer from Bethesda who tutored her. “She went from nothing to recognizing part of it, then writing her own name.”
The parents’ limited language skills and lack of literacy mean they can’t read bills or other mail. The family missed an August deadline to sign up for free school lunches because the notification letter was placed, unread, into a drawer, says King, who dealt with the problem after she found the correspondence.
Zaremba, an artist and art educator, and other volunteers have taken Nzuba on day trips to provide a break from caring for her kids. “One day, I said [to Nzuba], ‘Do you want to get out of here?’ ” Zaremba recalls. “We jetted down to the Potomac River, to the wildest part, and I’m telling her, ‘This is also Bethesda.’ As we walked along, I was given the tutorial that ‘in Africa, this would be firewood. We would be cooking dinner here.’ It was an absolute blast. I found out more through pantomime and play about her family, about how she used to spend her days.”
Imani, who was attending Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, had to withdraw from school in September so she could take care of the twins when her mother got the job at Taylor Farms. The volunteers, who were trying to find affordable day care for the toddlers, say they attempted to convince the parents that Imani should stay in school, but Nzuba wanted to work. “Every decision that’s made about the family is made with the family,” Derse says. “There’s nothing without them, so we have to do a lot of talking and consultation.”
In addition to helping out at home, Imani has been working in the produce department at Giant in downtown Bethesda for the last several months. Though she hopes to return to school, she understands it is her responsibility to care for her younger siblings. “Sometime we need to keep money…we need to see how we can live here, we need many things, and my parents want to work because if they cannot work, it is hard to pay the rent, the groceries, many things,” she says. “I leave my school because of them—to see how life can go.”
In Early December, King stood in the dining room of the family’s home, holding Benjamin while he napped on her shoulder. Asereka was helping interpret as volunteer Kate Tapley, who lives in Chevy Chase, gathered documents so the family could get Maryland REAL ID cards, a required step before applying for green cards. Meanwhile, Adams was walking through the house, writing the word “move” in black marker on clear packing tape that she was attaching to various items.
A week after the one-year anniversary of their arrival, the family was preparing to uproot their lives again. With the lease for the house set to expire at the end of the month, Adams and King had spent the past few weeks searching for an affordable housing option in Montgomery or Prince George’s County, where Asereka and other refugee families live. Though they came up with a couple of local options, Asereka had helped the family find a three-bedroom townhouse in western Baltimore County. The pastor of a Swahili Pentecostal church that the family began attending last fall lives in the same complex.
At $1,500 a month, the rent is more affordable long-term, which is important to Vital and Nzuba—even though the kids will have to change schools. The move to Baltimore County means the church’s involvement will be winding down, though a couple of volunteers hope to continue tutoring the family, King says. LSS doesn’t cover Baltimore County, so the family will have to seek assistance from the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian nonprofit.
Asereka says Vital and Nzuba are unhappy about leaving the volunteers who “have been part of their lives, but they are forced to do it” because they can’t afford the rent on their incomes. They hope the volunteers won’t forget about them once they move, he says.
Over the past few days, King made a final appeal for volunteers to help with the move and clean the house after it’s vacant, and to provide some needed furniture, like bunk beds, for the townhouse. As before, parishioners quickly signed up.
As she stood snuggling Benjamin, King had mixed feelings about the move. She, Adams and the other volunteers had bonded with the family through the highs and lows. The year had been “both incredibly exhilarating and rewarding, and exhausting,” Adams says.
King was hopeful that the family’s connections would help them settle into their new community, though she worried that the kids’ schools wouldn’t provide the same level of support. “They’re a lovely family,” she says. “People will get attached to them wherever they go.”
As Imani walks by, she offers to put Benjamin in his crib, so King reluctantly hands over the toddler. “I don’t want to give him up,” she says.
Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring and is the deputy editor of the magazine.