Faustine is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he and his wife, three children, and in-laws have been living in Providence about a year. Our interpreter, Erneste, and I arrived at their apartment on one of the hottest days of the summer. As with Gervais’s family, we were welcomed in with such immediacy and generosity that I was taken aback. So nervous to provide an accurate story of another refugee turned employee (for Faustine, we had learned, has now been hired for his first US job), I had neglected to remember how welcoming and easygoing refugees are to newcomers in their home.
I tried to gather my thoughts as we entered the living room and sat down. Faustine immediately offered me a cold can of beer, which I politely turned down. I was thinking something along the lines of, “I have to drive home in an hour,” and, “probably not a good idea to mix work and play.” Typical college student idea – that alcohol can only serve the purpose of having fun at a party.
Faustine’s instant disappointment – and the lonely beer can sitting on the table in front of me, while he sipped at one – told me that I had made the wrong choice. Accepting the beer would put him more at ease, which would make our conversation much smoother. So I decided to be a good guest and cracked mine open as well. And, after a short session of me motioning for him to clink drinks in cheers, we began our dialogue.
I started with the basic premise of why I’m there. “To help connect our community to refugees, to help us better understand each other.” I explained how much we at Beautiful Day had loved hearing a bit of his story at our recent donor appreciation event a couple of months ago.
Before I can go any further, Faustine speaks up, and Erneste interprets for me: “More work!”
He loves what Beautiful Day and Keith have done for him. He enjoys working in the kitchen and making the granola. But now, he is looking for more hours to earn more money. I ask about his interview with a company the week before. "It went well," he says, but they could call on him at any time, no fixed schedule. And the position will be temporary. But it will be more hours than the Providence Granola Project can give him. We feel pleased that Faustine feels ready to move on to bigger things.
“Where are you from and why did you come here, to Providence?” I ask him.
"It’s a bad situation in Congo." They traveled to find safety.
They ended up in a Ugandan refugee camp.
"How long were you there?”
"16-17 years," he says. But his wife interjects; “19 years,” she says.
I barely have time to gasp before his brother-in-law jumps in too, arguing that it was 15. There is jittery debate for a few minutes. “We ran around the Congo in ’96, then arrived in the camp in ’97.” The other two nod in agreement.
“What did you do in the camp for 17 years?”
Worked distributing the food. When the trucks brought food, he took it from the truck and distributed it throughout the camp.
“What was it like in the camp? Why did you stay for so long?”
The Congo still had a bad “problem,” so he didn’t want to go back. In the refugee camp, there were no "problems". But a refugee camp is like a prison (I’d heard a similar comparison speaking to Gervais, a refugee from Burundi). No freedom. They needed to go somewhere with freedom.
"Here, you have freedom. If you have money, you can go anywhere."
Sometimes people in the camps had no food, no wood for fires. Sometimes no water. Sometimes you had twenty liters of water per family per day. Here, sometimes you have one hundred liters or more a day. (Erneste points to a gallon jug on the table, doing the math. Five of those gallons, per family, per day.) You need it to cook, to eat, to drink. So no showering! There were some pools five miles away. You go there to clean your clothes; you carry them five miles to clean, then carry them five miles back.
“Why couldn’t you go back to the Congo?”
"You can’t go back to Congo, you will get in trouble. You can’t go back. My father, my mother and my brother all got in trouble. I never saw them again."
According to the International Rescue Committee, from 1997-2007, over 5 million people in the DRC have died from war and war-related causes.
“How did you decide to leave the refugee camp and come here?”
"Some people came to see who had been a long time in the camp. They asked if maybe some people wanted to leave. They came and did interviews, many times. Some get the chance to leave, some don’t."
Over the next five years, the UNHCR expects to refer a total of 50,000 Congolese refugees for resettlement, from the countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
“What did you expect when you learned you were going to come to America?”
"It was a happy time, to know." They were very hungry. They thought in the US they could get food, anything. They could get help, anyone would help. "When you do nothing in your house, it’s not good." Now he goes to English class, and he is always busy.
“When do you go to class now?”
Every day. Start at 9:00, come back at 3:00. 3:30 Monday and Tuesday he goes to work to make granola, until midnight.
"Do you have more freedom here?”
Now Faustine frowns when Erneste repeats my question. They all spend a few minutes discussing the concept of freedom. I hear the word multiple times amidst the Swahili that passes back and forth. Finally he turns back to me…
"Here, more than Uganda. There was no school for the children. Nothing could improve. There is also medicine here." Erneste explains: Here, Faustine may not understand everything in class, but he gets by, learning a little every day. Because he hadn’t been to school before, now that he's in class, he’s having difficulty catching on. But he likes learning English. Now he understands a little bit. Now he knows how to write his name! (I can’t help but smile.)
“Are all the children in school?”
Not the youngest, but the two older boys are. All of them like it. It’s also their first time being in this apartment, this new neighborhood (Faustine’s family has moved a few times over the past year). The children have an easier time learning than adults. When you are totally new, it’s hard. But the children are improving fast.
“How can we be better hosts to refugees?”
This is a difficult question. I’m trying to understand how we can improve our system of refugee welcome. I don’t expect him to have the perfect answer. In fact, I expect him to show all politeness and, even if they did have a problem with our community, he would be unlikely to voice it. Especially to a young stranger.
Faustine interprets the question in a different way, answering that his goals are to continue to improve his family’s life here. He wants to keep up with his classes. To make money for his children to complete school.
But he also has immediate needs. Now it is summer, they have no fan. He needs a fan. But he has no money to get one. He needs to be working more. (He’s waiting to start his new job.)
“How many people were in the refugee camp where you were in Uganda?”
Ten thousand. There are Burundians, Somalians, Eritreans. But there are a lot more Congolese.
According to the UNHCR, Congolese represent the largest number of displaced persons on the African continent, with over 2.7 million Congolese displaced within the DRC and another 500,000 living as refugees in neighboring countries.
Morgan Wilbur was Beautiful Day's Communications Intern for the summer. This is his third blog post interviewing refugee trainees of the Providence Granola Project. Morgan is in his senior year as a Creative Writing major at Wheaton College in MA. In his spare time, he enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and entertaining his friends on the bagpipes.