After 11 years apart, African refugee's family will join him in Columbia

Thursday, July 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:04 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 19, 2013
Nene Rwenyaguza awaits the arrival of his family, whom he hasn't seen in 11 years. Rwenyaguza was separated from his wife and children when his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo was attacked during warfare. He fled and ran on foot for two weeks until he reached Nairobi, Kenya. His family is expected to arrive Thursday.

COLUMBIA — Nene Rwenyaguza wrapped his hand around a pack of chicken-flavored Ramen noodles and pulled it down from the grocery shelf.

“All kids from Africa like these,” he told his friend, Charlotte Gaddy, during a shopping expedition Saturday at Sam's Club.

He was only speculating about children's tastes. Although he has three of his own, he has not seen them in more than a decade.

The last time he saw his daughter, Aline, and sons, Fredy and Kwezi, they were toddlers. 

Today, he will see them as teenagers.

His wife, Francine, and the children are due to arrive late Thursday night at Columbia Regional Airport, flying more than 8,000 miles from Nairobi, Kenya, to meet him. For 11 years, the family has been separated by distance, civil war and bureaucratic red tape. His wife has also adopted a third son, Clode, who is now 16.

The trip to the grocery store was Rwenyaguza's first opportunity to fill his apartment with what a family of six might need to live in a new country.

The flight from danger

The last time Nene Peter Rwenyaguza, 40, saw his family, they were fleeing in separate directions from their village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002. He described his journey partly in English and partly with the help of his interpreter, Rubin Byishimo.

He left the Congo, headed through Rwanda and eventually made his way into Kenya. For the next seven years, Rwenyaguza would not hear a word from his family.

When his wife and children were finally discovered in Nairobi by the U.N. Refugee Agency in 2009, he was already resettled as a permanent refugee in Missouri.

A U.N. representative called him to say that his family was alive, and he fell to his knees, crying and thanking God.

Life in America

In Columbia, Rwenyaguza lives in a three-bedroom apartment and works for a custodial service cleaning the offices at Boone County National Bank.

On Sundays, he preaches during the evening African worship service at First Baptist Church downtown. He ministers to the people in his congregation during the week, giving them rides or taking the kids swimming. He also takes English lessons.

After reconnecting with his wife in 2009, they began the daunting task of securing a way to reunite in America. They had to spend the next four years filling out paperwork and completing the necessary requirements to become permanent refugees in the U.S.

Despite Rwenyaguza's refugee status, bringing his family to Missouri remained a dream. Only about 1 percent of all refugees are referred to a safe third country for permanent resettlement, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

It wasn't until last summer that the family received clearance to join him.

An even longer separation

Still, they had to wait a year longer to get on the plane that would ultimately take them from Nairobi to Columbia. During that year, the family was given tickets to fly on three separate occasions. First a war, then a polio outbreak prevented them from making the trip.

Each time, Rwenyaguza was told to expect his family in Missouri. He said he couldn’t eat or sleep for days.

“Time went on, and I thought, maybe this is the month my family comes,” he said. “But then another month passes and I just keep waiting and waiting.”

Finally, on July 4, he got the call he had been waiting for: His family would arrive in Columbia in two weeks.

He celebrated again, he said, crying out with joy and praising God. For two weeks he lay awake at night, anticipating the day they would all be together again.

The tickets were booked for July 18.

A family torn apart by war

Eleven years ago, Rwenyaguza was living in Gatoki-Katanga, a small village of about 80 families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

He raised cattle, farmed corn, potatoes and beans, taught elementary school and studied theology. His wife stayed home to care for their children, then 1, 2 and 4 years old.

Although they seemed to lead a quiet life, the Congo (formerly Zaire) was in the midst of a civil war that had been raging for decades. Even before Rwenyaguza was born, rebels had held his mother and three of her children captive for three years. Two of the children died there.

“There was always war going on,” Rwenyaguza said. “War was always expected in the Congo.”

The ongoing conflict involved two ethnic groups fighting for political power and territory. Although the war began in Rwanda, militia forces spilled into the Congo in 1996 and launched a campaign to kill civilians, control the country’s mineral resources and overthrow the government.

One night in 2002, the rebel army invaded Rwenyaguza’s village without warning. The attackers burned all the grass huts and stole the livestock.

In an effort to save their families, the men in the village ran in one direction away from the village and they told the women and children to run the other way.

That was the last time Rwenyaguza saw his wife and children.

Never giving up hope

The night he fled, he decided to pick up his Bible and take it with him. As he ran from his hut, he turned to look back and saw his village engulfed in flames.

He headed for a hill where members of the village had gathered. When he reached the top, Rwenyaguza was told that the entire village had burned and his family was probably dead.

Leaving the others behind, he spent two days on foot until he found a church that offered him a ride to a refugee camp in Nairobi. He spent six years there, working, studying theology, praying and grieving for his family.

“In Kenya, I heard of people like me separated from their families who got so sad that they killed themselves,” Rwenyaguza said.

Although at times he felt sick with grief for his family, he could not accept that they had been killed.

“The Bible was the only thing that consoled me,” Rwenyaguza said. “I still felt in my heart that my family was alive. I thought, because I know Jesus, one day my family will be here.”

Finding a new home

With the help of the U.N., Rwenyaguza was able to relocate from war-infected East Africa to the United States. He arrived in St. Louis on Nov. 4, 2008, the day Barack Obama was elected the country's first African-American president.

Rwenyaguza had been hesitant to leave Africa and the possibility of finding his family, but he knew the chance to permanently resettle in America was rare. For a little more than a year, he worked in a restaurant in St. Louis. It was safer than the Congo, but he still heard gunshots at night.

One day, after attending the African worship service at First Baptist Church in Columbia, the members asked him to be their pastor. At first, he struggled to make a living at a restaurant that offered him only part-time work. Most of the money he made was going back to Kenya to help support his family.

One day, when he was trying to get a loan at Boone County Bank, Charlotte Gaddy suggested he apply to work for the bank’s cleaning service.

The two became closer friends after discovering they shared Christian beliefs.

“I asked him, ‘Nene, do you go to church?’” Gaddy said.

“He lit up and said, ‘You know my Jesus?’ "

"I said, 'Yes, I know Jesus very well.' And that’s really how we became friends.”

Just like family

Since then, the two say he has almost become a member of her family. He often eats dinner with them and keeps a small garden in her backyard.

Last summer, Rwenyaguza shared his story, and she quickly organized around 100 community members to help support his family. The group has donated furniture, money, clothing, school supplies and much more to provide the family of six with a comfortable place to live.

“His story is not uncommon among the Congolese,” Gaddy said. “It’s just that we got to really know his story. It’s amazing.”

Rwenyaguza will have to eventually pay back the expense of transporting his family to the U.S. He will also have to find a means to support them. But he only has positive feelings about his family’s arrival on Thursday.

“It’s a blessing,” he said. “God has given me so many miracles."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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