UPDATE: African refugee reunites with family after 11 years

Thursday, July 18, 2013 | 11:00 p.m. CDT; updated 9:55 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 19, 2013
After 11 years apart, Nene Rwenyaguza met his family Thursday evening at Columbia Regional Airport. They were separated because of a rebel army had invaded his village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002.

Editor's Note: The Missourian conducted earlier interviews with Nene Rwenyaguza and Charlotte Gaddy. The family did not wish speak to reporters at the gathering Thursday.

COLUMBIA — About 50 people chattered excitedly in the arrivals and baggage claim section of the Columbia Regional Airport on Thursday. They circled around Nene Rwenyaguza, who silently teetered from foot to foot with 13 red roses in hand.

At 6 p.m., Rwenyaguza's family entered the room, amid cheering and tears from the crowd. Without saying a word, Rwenyaguza drew them into his arms. After 11 years, he was finally able to hug his wife and four children.

On a night in 2002, a rebel army invaded Rwenyaguza’s small village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The men ran in one direction out of the village, and the women and children ran the other way. They planned to meet up after the raid.

But after more than a decade of separation, the family is finally reuniting in Columbia, where they have been received as permanently resettled refugees. On Thursday night, Nene, his wife, Francine, daughter, Aline, and sons, Clode, Kwezi and Fredy, returned to their three-bedroom apartment with their friends to celebrate the family’s homecoming. Nene said he was excited to cook mandazi, an East African recipe similar to doughnuts, for the party.

“My family will have a very positive view of the United States,” Nene Rwenyaguza said. “It’s a blessing for them.” Although, he added, they will probably be overwhelmed at first.

Rwenyaguza has been given two weeks of vacation from his job as a custodian at Boone County National Bank. He is excited to use this time to get to know his family better and help them adjust to life in a new country, he said. There are many things he will get to teach them, such as how to use their washing machine, dryer and microwave.

His teenage children will start school in Columbia in the fall. Their commute to and from school will be easier in Columbia than in their native home. In the Congo, they would rise at 6:30 a.m. every day to walk one hour to school in a dangerous area. Columbia community members have donated bicycles to the children in order for them to get around the city.

“It’s going to take them several weeks to adjust,” said Charlotte Gaddy, one of Rwenyaguza’s closest friends. “They just need time to exhale and know that they are safe with their father.”

After years of waiting for his family to arrive in the U.S., Rwenyaguza said he can’t imagine a time when they could safely return to their home in the Congo. However, he hopes his family will one day be able to visit their native country.

Supervising editor is Jake Kreinberg.

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