CORVALLIS — When the Rwandan genocide spilled over into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996, Andre Sungura and Binwa Masoka were among the thousands of Congolese who fled for their lives.
The young couple, barely out of their teens, abandoned their small farm and spent a week traveling by foot and boat with their 2-year-old daughter Christina before finding sanctuary across the Tanzanian border in the Nyarugusu refugee camp.
With more than 100,000 displaced people struggling to survive, the sprawling camp was no one’s idea of a good place to raise a family, but the family couldn’t go back to Congo without putting their lives at risk.
Nyarugusu would be their home for the next 20 years.
Finally, one country opened its arms to them: the United States. In May 2016, the family — which had grown to include two more children and a grandchild — was allowed to immigrate to Oregon.
With help from the government and a nonprofit resettlement agency, they began to build a new life in Corvallis.
“Everything here is better,” Binwa said, speaking through an interpreter. “Africa is nothing but problems.”
The U.S. has long been a beacon of hope for people driven from their homes by war, famine and other disasters, both natural and man-made. But that may be starting to change.
Since sweeping into the White House on an “America first” platform, President Donald Trump has taken a number of actions aimed at stemming foreign immigration into this country.
During his first year in office, Trump held refugee admissions down to about 54,000 — roughly half the number approved by his predecessor and down sharply from the 84,995 taken in by the Obama administration during the previous fiscal year. For fiscal 2018, Trump has asked Congress to cap admissions at 45,000.
That has refugee advocates worried.
“We have definitely abdicated our position as the global leader in resettling refugees,” said Danielle Grigsby, associate director of Refugee Council USA.
‘WE RAN FROM WAR’
Andre and Binwa’s long journey to the United States began in the fall of 1996, when Rwandan forces invaded eastern Congo to hunt down groups of armed exiles associated with the country’s 1994 genocide.
In the midst of all this, Andre and Binwa had two more children, a girl, Moshi, and Saidi, a boy. At 10 months of age, Moshi fell ill in an outbreak that killed many of the children in camp. While she survived, the disease ravaged her body, leaving her unable to walk, speak or feed herself.
After 18 years at Nyarugusu, Andre and Binwa were flagged as candidates for resettlement. Asked where he might like to go, Andre said his preference would be the United States.
“My father had a friend who was an American,” he said, smiling at the memory. “This man said there weren’t problems here in this country. It was a good place.”
It would be two long years before the family received approval to immigrate to the U.S. But once they cleared the exhaustive vetting process (including security checks by the FBI, Defense Department and Homeland Security), things happened quickly.
They were given one month’s notice that they would be moving to the States, to a place called Portland, Oregon.
Refugees accepted for resettlement into the United States must be sponsored by one of nine non-governmental organizations under a contract with the State Department, which provides funding to help the new arrivals get established in this country.
Andre and Binwa’s family is sponsored by Church World Service through Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees, or SOAR, an arm of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.
Most refugees who come to Oregon are resettled in the Portland area, but SOAR decided to place the Congolese family in Corvallis with the assistance of a local volunteer group called WITO. (Pronounced “we too,” the acronym stands for Welcoming Immigrants to Oregon.)
WITO set Andre and Binwa’s family up with an apartment, connected them with a Swahili-speaking interpreter and got the kids signed up for school. The group also helped them apply for Social Security cards, get social services such as Medicaid, food stamps and welfare benefits, and access programs to help them become self-sufficient, such as English classes and employment assistance.
Andre, now 43, and Christina, 24, got jobs in food service at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. Saidi, who’s now 18, enrolled at Corvallis High School. Moshi, 20, has received extensive medical treatment through Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland but still needs assistance with everyday functions. She attends a program for young adults with special needs at College Hill High School. Binwa, 43, is paid by the state to be Moshi’s full-time caregiver, and she’s taking classes in English and computer literacy through Linn-Benton Community College.
They’ve applied for green cards, which confer resident alien status, and after five years in the country they’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship.
Since its formation in 2008, WITO has helped several families — refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan — start new lives in the mid-valley.
“We’re very proud. All of those families have driver’s licenses, they have citizenship and they have jobs,” said Paula Krane, a longtime member of the group.
Andre and Binwa’s family is making progress but still needs a lot of support, she added.
“Our responsibility when we take a family from SOAR is for a year, and in the past a year has always been enough,” Krane said. “(The Congolese) have been much more special needs than any of our previous families. Even after a year and a half, they still need help.”
But WITO volunteers are happy to provide that help, she added, noting that her own grandparents came to this country as refugees from Europe around the turn of the last century.
“We’re all families of refugees,” Krane said. “This is what this country stands for . we’re a melting pot.”
CLOSING THE DOOR
Historically, Oregon has made room for refugees from all over the world. According to statistics kept by the Department of Human Services, the state has accepted more than 65,000 refugees since 1975.
Over that span, the state has taken in an average of more than 1,500 refugees a year, including 1,780 during fiscal 2016, the last year for which accurate totals are available. Under the new limits proposed by the Trump administration, however, that number is set to plunge to just 700 people during fiscal 2018 — the lowest total in 40 years.
“There was a dramatic decrease this year based on the ceiling that was placed by the president,” noted Dawn Myers, the refugee coordinator for the state.
The steep cutback is troubling for people like Vesna Vila, resettlement program director for SOAR in Portland.
“Everything’s up in the air right now,” she said. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
The lower refugee ceiling means less federal funding flowing to agencies such as hers, which could translate into staff cuts and less capacity to help new arrivals and those already here.
But even more troubling, she says, is what the new restrictions mean for millions of refugees around the world hoping for a fresh start in the United States.
“These are the people who are suffering the most,” she said. “Some people have been waiting 10 years (or more) in a camp — you can imagine the impact on them.”
Refugee advocates say they’re not giving up the fight.
The Refugee Council USA’s Grigsby said her organization, a coalition of 25 resettlement agencies and advocacy groups, is pushing the Trump administration to raise its proposed ceiling on refugee admissions to 75,000.
“We are going to continue to ask the president to resettle within historic norms,” she said.
And if the current occupant of the Oval Office won’t change his policy, Grigsby added, the voters may decide to make a change at the next election.