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Congolese refugees adjust to Ogden, learn English and proper microwave use

By Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner - | May 2, 2018
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Freddy Shukuru, 4, plays in the living room while his parents prepare dinner in their Ogden apartment on Monday, April 12, 2018.

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Charlotte Bukeye plays with her sons, Britain, left, and Freddy in their Ogden apartment on Monday, April 12, 2018. Bukeye and her family originally lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before fleeing violence and ending up in a Ugandan Refugee Camp. They were resettled to Ogden in 2016.

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Freddy Shukuru, 4, plays with his infant brother, Britain, in their family's Ogden apartment on Monday, April 12, 2018.

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Amani Baraka plays with his infant son, Britain, in their Ogden apartment on Monday, April 12, 2018. Baraka was part of a group of multiple Congolese refugee families who were settled in Ogden in 2016.

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Maps, family photos and english lessons line the walls at Segafuni Muhanuka and Odetta Nyirabageni's Ogden apartment on Thursday, April 12, 2018.

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Freddy Shukuru, 4, plays beneath religious prints and a photo of his parents in his family's Ogden apartment on Monday, April 12, 2018. Freddy was born in a Ugandan refugee camp after his parents fled violence in the Congo.

OGDEN — Segafuni Muhanuka’s English is still evolving, but tapping his native Swahili, the message from the Congolese refugee now living in Ogden is clear.

Furaha, yes. Congo, huzuni,” he says, describing his sentiments after more than a year and a half in the city.

That is, “Joy, yes. Congo, sorrow.”

RELATED: Utah on pace for record low refugee arrivals

Since the arrival in August 2016 of Muhanuka and others in the first wave of Congolese refugees sponsored by Catholic Community Services of Utah, they’ve come a long way. The adults, by and large, have work, and the kids are in school and making inroads — some quicker than others — in learning English, perhaps the toughest of tasks.

Now numbering around 65, the Congolese transplants are learning to navigate the Utah Transit Authority system and adjusting to the cold winters. More significantly, they’re grateful for the relative peace here compared to the strife and violence rampant in their native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa.

“I’m so happy here,” said Amani Baraka, who lives in an apartment in northern Ogden with his wife, Charlotte Bukeye, and their two young children. “The United States is good because I work and I get money.”

RELATED: From the Congo to Ogden: Refugee family of 12 looks forward to a Utah community

Even so, some things take time.

Kay Healey of North Ogden, a volunteer mentor to Muhanuka and his wife Odetta Nyirabageni, has helped the couple navigate the health care system and assisted them in getting blank checks from their bank. She also tries to school them on more mundane things, like proper use of kitchen appliances, recalling an instance when she found metal inside the microwave, a no-no that can destroy such devices.

“I opened the microwave and there was a spoon in it. I said, ‘Nooooo!'” she said. She suspects improper placement of metal inside a prior microwave the couple owned ruined it and she’s since placed a sign on the appliance reading, “No metal in microwave/Danger!/or fire.”

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BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Segafuni Muhanuka, left, works on an English lesson with Kay Healey at Muhanuka’s Ogden apartment on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Muhanhuka and his wife are refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They regularly meet with volunteers from Catholic Community Services who help with acclimating to life in Utah.

Aden Batar, the CCS director of migration and refugee services, worries more about stricter guidelines governing refugee resettlement handed down during the administration of President Donald Trump. The group’s goal for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is to bring 400 refugees to the state — including 15 Congolese bound for Ogden — but the new rules are keeping them from entering the country.

“If we get more Congolese arriving, we will place them in Ogden,” Batar said. “We have the support of the community, it’s just that we don’t have the refugees.”

Some 65,000 refugees in all are living in Utah, most in the Salt Lake City area, according to Batar. The Congolese are the first refugees the group — encouraged to place them here by job availability and relatively low housing costs — has settled in Ogden since a contingent of Vietnamese in the 1980s.


Back in the Congo, the ex-refugees now here — many from camps in Uganda managed by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — faced more life-or-death challenges than they’ll likely encounter in Ogden.

In the Congo, you could face danger just by flashing a smartphone, a luxury sought by thieves for resale on the black market.

“In my country, you can’t get money. Somebody sees you have phone, they kill you,” Baraka said.

RELATEDNorthern Utah districts welcome refugee children into schools

His wife, Charlotte Bukeye, remembers marauders, terrorists and thieves who would come to her small town at times, setting the humble homes there on fire in anger or to make locals submit to their demands.

“It was scary. We go in the forest and hide,” she said. “The bad guys come at night and you go to hide every time.”

It’s hard to completely understand what exactly they faced given their developing English. But Healey says Baraka, Bukeye and others were frequently caught between government forces and terrorists or rebels, forcing them to flee to other countries like Uganda in search of refuge.

“There’s so many things that I want to ask them, like what were your experiences in the Congo?” said Kathy Nichols, a retired Weber High School English teacher who helps Healey teach English to Muhanuka and Nyirabageni.

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BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Kathy Nichols, center, goes through english flash cards with Odetta Nyirabageni, left, and Segafuni Muhanuka at their Ogden apartment on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Nichols is a retired english teacher from Weber State University who now volunteers with some of the Congolese refugees in Ogden. Nyirabageni is working on words related to furniture, clothing and shopping in order to help with her new job at Deseret Industries.

The Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook says several militias and armed groups, including a contingent from neighboring Rwanda, operated in the Congo, and that foes of President Joseph Kabila are behind sporadic street protests. The New York Times reported last month that 200,000 people in eastern Congo had fled their homes owing to a conflict between two ethnic groups, underscoring the violence rampant in the country.

“Congo is no good because more trouble … very dangerous. No sleep good,” Musambo Muhanuka said. He’s the son of Segafuni Muhanuka and Nyirabageni. He’s another Congolese refugee living with his wife and six kids in Ogden.

“They want money from you,” said his 14-year-old son Faustin Nfitemukiza, a student at Mound Fort Junior High.

Musambo Muhanuka drew a line across his neck with his finger, demonstrating the danger you face if you don’t give money when criminals, rebels or whatever aggressor you face demand it. 

“They cut your head off,” Faustin said.

Lina Wembi, a CCS case manager who works with the Congolese here, fled the Congo in 2005 after the killing of her husband, a colonel in the Congolese Army. 

“No security. No money. It’s like hell,” she said.

From her CCS office in Ogden, she pulled up reports of violence in the Congo on news websites, which featured graphic photos of victims. 

“Man and two little kids dead. All this is Congo,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s hard. … It’s sad.”


Baraka sometimes has nightmares about the violence he witnessed. 

“Sometimes when I’m sleeping, I see the people dying. I wake up,” he said.

Nevertheless, he and the other refugees — who face rigorous vetting before being resettled in countries like the United States — are generally upbeat, grateful for jobs at local companies and the opportunity to make a better life here. There are some 22.5 million refugees around the world, according to UNHCR figures, and only a fraction, like the Congolese contingent in Ogden, are resettled to third countries, like the United States.

“They’re the lucky ones,” said Batar, the CCS official.

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BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Amani Baraka, left, plays with his infant son, Britain, while his wife, Charlotte Bukeye, makes hamburgers in their Ogden apartment on Monday, April 12, 2018. Baraka, Bukeye and their family originally lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before fleeing violence and ending up in a Ugandan Refugee Camp. They were resettled to Ogden in 2016.

Indeed, from simple survival, the challenges they face have become decidedly more mundane — from government bureaucracy to figuring out English to learning the importance of using a refrigerator to preserve food.

“Our whole goal is to make them self-sufficient,” said Healey, drawn to help, like many others aiding the Congolese here, by a call from leaders in her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mostly, Baraka and the others express relief at being in the relative safety and abundance of the United States. They don’t give much thought to long-term aspirations, or at least don’t verbalize them.

“Congo is dangerous. They kill people, so I don’t want to go there,” said Faustin, the Mound Fort student.

But Batar, the CCS official, said it goes further. They have work opportunities here, the kids have schools where they can get an educational foundation and they’re no longer stateless refugees. They have a country that has accepted them.

“They can do what they want. They can become what they want to be,” Batar said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.


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