After Decades of War, Congolese Find Safety in Sioux Falls

For 20 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has had no peace.

It is a failed state in every sense of the phrase.

According to an article last month in the New York Times, aid workers describe the situation in this second largest country in Africa as “Fragmentation. Factionalization. Decay. Ungoverned space. Ungovernable space.”

In these two decades of fighting, the country has brought nine other African nations into its battles, seen the rise of more than 60 different armed groups with a wide variety of agendas, and witnessed 5.4 million people die.

In addition to these deaths, close to 3 million people have been internally displaced or have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

The crisis is mind-boggling – and there appears to be no end in sight despite multiple groups of U.N. peacekeepers who are trying to assuage the situation.  During the fighting a few years ago, refugees fleeing their homes told Oxfam workers, “We do not dare go home!”  Indeed, for the vast majority of the refugees, going home is not an option.

bbc congolese fleeing

Congolese fleeing their homes en masse.  BBC 2012.


Country is Poor, but Rich in Resources

Perhaps as an explanation for its many troubles, which arguably began when King Leopold II of Belgium first set his sights on conquering and owning the country’s resources in the late 1880s, the DRC boasts an abundance of natural resources, including diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, zinc, and coltan (important in cell phone construction).

Leopold first went after ivory and rubber. Now the desire is for minerals.  The ultimate goal remains the same: power and money.

The on-going horrors in the country – including child abduction, sexual assault, murder, and arson – cause the DRC to be among the top refugee groups currently being resettled in the U.S. In fact, in the coming months here in Sioux Falls, refugees coming from the DRC will be second only to refugees coming from Bhutan.

Here in Sioux Falls, LSS helped resettled 41 people from the DRC in fiscal year 2015, and the agency will likely end up resettling at least 55 people this fiscal year.

These numbers sound tiny in the midst of such a disaster, but it is comforting to know that Sioux Falls is helping in a small way to alleviate some of the pain of this huge catastrophe.

Rich in Diversity

We may think of citizens from a country as speaking the same language and having similar cultural identities, but nothing could be farther from the truth in the DRC.

According to the Cultural Orientation Research Center, the DRC, with a population of about 70 million, contains about 250 ethnic groups speaking 700 different languages and dialects. While  the population is mostly Christian, many adhere to Islam or traditional African beliefs.

DRC map

The Democratic Republic of Congo is as big as the U.S. East of the Mississippi River.

Here at LSS, we have been resettling three groups recently: the Banyamulenge speaking Kinyamulenge, the Bembe speaking Bembe, and the Tutsi speaking Kinyarwanda.  In addition to speaking different languages, they also come to the U.S. via different refugee camps in Africa, some from Uganda or Kenya, some from Tanzania, and some from Rwanda.

Now in Sioux Falls, these refugees have a chance to literally start anew. They will have access to jobs, housing, safety, and education.

If you have ever visited the Statue of Liberty in New York City, you may have seen inscribed on the pedestal this poem by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” I think of this poem often when I hear of new refugees coming to the U.S.

It is our country’s tradition – some might say, our destiny – to welcome the foreigner in search of a better life.

Welcome to the Congolese! May your future be bright and safe here in Sioux Falls!

Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson


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