Local woman dedicates life to helping African refugees

Sunday, January 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 6:46 p.m. CST, Monday, January 25, 2010
Caritas Habimana is developing a center to carry on her life mission of providing assistance to African refugees resettling in the Columbia area.

COLUMBIA — As the mother, father and five children step off the Greyhound, they greet Caritas Habimana with "God bless you" in their native language from Burundi.

“Imana Iguhezagire,” each of them say as they gave Habimana a hug.

Habimana kneels and zips up the coats of Christina and Angela, two of the family's young girls, as others begin to load up their belongings. It takes two cars and a van to get everything they own back on the road to another home.

Mariya Mpawengayo and Moyize Maniratanga are African refugees who brought their family to Columbia after struggling to find work — as well as integrating into American culture — in Jacksonville, Fla. 


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Maniratanga’s brother, Mukiwa Baramfumbashe, had been living in Columbia for a year, and asked Habimana to help relocate the family. Since they didn't come directly from overseas — this move was their second since arriving in the United States — an agency that services refugees in 38 Central Missouri Counties would not be able to help.

Habimana, who came to America after surviving the genocide in Rwanda 15 years ago, has taken it upon herself to work with African refugees in Columbia and provide them with the support they need.

"I was lucky to come here," Habimana said. "But I wanted to do something for my people. And I prayed God every day for 15 years. I prayed until God showed me that around me there were people that needed help. Why do I have to go to Africa when Africa is here?”

Habimana quit her day care job in February to work full time with African refugees. She works part time as an interpreter for the Columbia Housing Authority, teaches adult refugees English and operates an after-school program for children at the Imani Center.

She's also developing a center run by African refugees called Izuba, which meanssunlight in the Rwandan dialect of Kirwanda, to help families like Mpawengayo and Maniratanga's.

The family has been on the move since escaping war-torn Burundi in 1972. They lived in Congo until war broke out in 1996 and found sanctuary in a United Nations refugee camp in Tanzania for 12 years before being sent to Florida.

Habimana worked with Christian Fellowship, a local church, and Love Inc., a faith-based organization, to raise money for their bus tickets. A member of the Christian Fellowship donated a home. Other church members pitched in with clothes, blankets, furniture, cookware, a television and food.

"I just sat back and watched these miracles happen," Habimana said.

A path to safety

Most of the African refugees in Columbia were placed here by the United Nations from refugee camps. They don't have a choice about where they go, Habimana said, they just go where they are told.

Habimana had a much smoother transition after she came to the United States than most of those she's helping. She was speaking English fluently after one year, found a job at a local day care and raised three children.

Habimana has focused her energy on helping refugees from East African countries such as Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya who speak their local dialects but also share a common language of Kiswahili. All have fled their countries because of war.

Before traveling to Columbia, they register for refugee status. The United States invites a certain number of refugees, and the United Nations assigns a certain number to different resettlement agencies based on money and capacity.

Columbia’s Refugee and Immigration Services, a non-profit ministry sector of the Catholic Diocese in Jefferson City, has been placing refugees in central Missouri since 1974.

Refugee and Immigration Services offers a first-year intensive case management that includes transportation, day care, house calls, English classes and employment help. The agency also provides five months of housing.

After the first year, refugees are able to obtain their green card, and the organization assists each person through this process. Because of limited funds, all refugee services end after five years. The organization will help refugees apply for citizenship after five years, a service that's offered at a reduced rate.

But Refugee and Immigration Services can only do so much. Just this year, it received 215 refugees in the Columbia area compared to 155 in 2008 and 75 in 2007. Since 1975, refugees have come from Afghanistan, Armenia, Somalia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Burundi, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Eritrea, Iraq, Bosnia, Burma and Cuba.

Anne Zellhoefer, development coordinator for the Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbia, said the increase in refugees over the past couple years is making it more difficult to give every person the attention they need.

Zellhoefer also works to find private donations and grants, because the agency’s annual funding sometimes isn’t enough.

Refugee and Immigration Services is working with $85,000 from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and three federally funded grants provided through the state of Missouri that total $225,036. These funds are up for re-evaluation every three years.

“The number of employers and funds are not enough to help to the extent we would like,” Zellhoefer said, “and the last thing we want to find is that refugees are not being provided for.”

That is why Habimana wants to put together Izuba — to give people the extra assistance necessary so they can eventually feel at home. She is planning on teaming up with Love Inc. to provide funds and structure for the center, and is working on getting the non-profit tax exemption forms.

A learning experience

Refugee and Immigration Services has also partnered with the Adult and Education Center to provide refugees with free English classes. Andra Jenkins, who teaches the beginning language classes at Douglass High School, said most refugees get frustrated because they can't express what they want to say. "I also find it frustrating not knowing why they get stuck,” she said.

Habimana teaches in a makeshift classroom next to a laundromat surrounded by public housing in downtown Columbia. Posters of fruits and vegetables decorate the plain white walls.

She teaches what people need for everyday survival - words that can make them independent, help them find work and take control of their lives. She said many the refugees prefer her classes because she can speak their language.

“These are grown people,” Habimana said. “You can’t teach them like children. I teach them what they want to know.”

Habimana kneels down next to a woman from Burundi. Habimana grabs her hand and begins to loop the dry erase marker along the white board as the two spell out  L-E-O-C-A-D-I. The student turns and smiles at Habimana, proud to have written her name for the first time.

Habimana does more than teach English. Flipping through her calendar book, she points to her appointments: house calls, job-hunting for new refugees, translating for doctor’s appointments and buying groceries.

“Many women will still tie their groceries on their heads,” she says. “They walk through Columbia like they were back in Africa.”

A family in danger

Habimana spent her childhood in Lingala, Congo. Her father was a doctor, and made sure she went to good schools. Growing up, Habimana learned to speak French and Kiswahili, as well as other African dialects.

“We were not always an oppressed people," Habimana said. "There was a time when life was good.”

The French Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda offered Habimana a translating job, taking her away from home. There, she met her husband and had three boys. They even built a home with their savings, hoping it would be passed down for generations. When Hutu militias attacked Kigali, Habimana’s home was destroyed. Even worse, she is Tutsi and her husband a Hutu. They fled Kigali.

Her husband took the children out of Rwanda, and Habimana went into hiding. A relative suggested she go to the home of their deceased grandfather, now only occupied by the maid. But halfway through her stay, the maid’s brother, a Hutu militia, moved in and put her in danger again.

For three months, Habimana hid in a small room. Habimana said she lived silently, eating a little corn maze and drinking river water the maid brought on occasion.

“I lived for every second, every minute,” Habimana said. “I knew I would die.”

When Habimana was able to flee the house, she ran to the river for water, dying of thirst. When she reached the bank, she saw hundreds of massacred bodies in the once clean-flowing water.

On her way to a refugee camp in Kenya, she found her family after five months of searching. Habimana says she would pray with other refugees, as they waited for a new home. “In the refugee camps all you can do is pray, sing and hope.”

A place to stay

African refugees continue to pray through song and dance every Sunday afternoon at the J.W. “Blind” Boone Community Center.

Habimana started the weekly service for African refugees after two years in Columbia.  At first, the services were held in people’s living rooms. Habimana said the group kept growing, and they needed a larger place.

Habimana translates in both English and Kiswahili during the service. Those who come not only pray. They also tell stories of their troubles, hopes, success and happiness.

On one Sunday, church was cut short to celebrate the wedding engagement of Baharti Vandeline. Her mother and father, Perusi Ndayisenga and Bernard Mitabano are Burundi refugees who arranged the marriage with another refugee who lives in Colorado.

When Ndayisenga gives her daughter some words of advice, Habimana stands at her side to translate and hold her during the emotional sendoff.

“I don’t have anything to give you, but I have the word of God,” Ndayisenga tells her daughter. “I love you. You are my baby. Continue to respect others, sing for God and be happy with your new husband.”

Habimana makes her way around the room, greeting everyone and making sure they’re enjoying the celebration. She introduces refugees to other friends and translates in several languages that connect people and cultures.

“I think I was brought here to be tested, “ she says. “I guess I am winning.”

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