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Congolese refugees are now Minnesota's largest group of new arrivals from Africa, after the Trump administration redefined who is eligible for resettlement and slashed the number of people who come to the United States each year.

The U.S. welcomed nearly 13,000 Congolese refugees over the last fiscal year, more than any other group, as violent conflicts in that Central African region drive millions from their homes.

The Congolese population in the Twin Cities is still small compared to longer-established African communities rooted in the resettlement of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. So far, 775 refugees have arrived in Minnesota this year, up slightly from 2018, which saw the lowest refugee resettlement numbers in the state in more than a decade. The largest numbers now come to Minnesota from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Congo and Ukraine.

Espoir Senenda sought refuge from violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Mozambique and then South Africa before he arrived with his family in Minnesota two years ago, heartened by the success of other African refugee groups in the Twin Cities.

"You go in every office, you find a Somali person there, so they are in a lot of things," said Senenda, 36. "And they even have big shops and stores. I would also like to see our community get into [that]."

Senenda hopes that his late brother's wife and children will join him in Minnesota from South Africa. But the future for them and the burgeoning Congolese community is deeply uncertain after the White House this fall reduced refugee admissions to 18,000, the lowest number in history.

Just 7,500 slots are available for refugees from Africa and other parts of the world who do not face religious persecution and don't fall into other specified categories. Those refugees can mainly be admitted to unite with family members already in America or if they have connections at U.S. embassies. The Trump administration is also designating 4,000 spaces for Iraqis who helped the American government; 1,500 combined from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras; and 5,000 for those claiming religious persecution.

The administration said it must address the current burden on the immigration system, particularly the crush of asylum-seekers at the southern border, before resettling more refugees from around the world.

"A thing that is logistically difficult for the U.S. is to accept a handful of refugees from many parts of the world," said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's easier to allocate staff to resettle a larger number of refugees from one place."

With the lowered number of slots for refugees, she noted, "there's not really meaningful access to the program."

Search for community

The surge in Congolese newcomers, who are mostly Christian, comes as refugees from Muslim countries such as Somalia have slowed to a trickle. In Minnesota, 145 Congolese refugees arrived this year, compared to just 67 Somalis. The year before Trump took office and began cracking down on migration from Muslim countries, 1,410 Somali refugees came to the state, and usually at least several hundred arrived a year.

Another 50 refugees arrived from Eritrea this year, and 46 from Ethiopia.

"It's hard to make generalizations, but many [Congolese refugees] are coming from more rural areas originally and have greater needs for English than some other populations," said Bob Oehrig, executive director of Arrive Ministries, a refugee resettlement agency. "But also one of the differences is that they oftentimes have ready-made church communities that are welcoming them."

Justin Byakweli founded the Center for Employment and Education Development Services to help Congolese and other refugees become independent and navigate American bureaucracy, connecting them with jobs, reading their mail and coaching them on résumés. He noted that given their Christian background, many are not as well-served by organizations that cater to Muslim African refugees.

Most of the Congolese newcomers he works with face post-traumatic stress disorder — many women helped by the organization are single mothers whose husbands may have been killed. Others have children by rebels who raped them and so were ostracized by their communities back home.

"Africans are family oriented and connected to fellowship," said Byakweli, who is a pastor at Bethel Christian Fellowship, a St. Paul church that caters to the Congolese community. "When they put you in this country, they put you in an apartment alone. You don't know your neighbor. You don't know how to do things. You need your community."

Edwige Mubonzi agreed that America's looser social networks take many Congolese refugees aback.

"Back home everybody lives in a community, everybody checks on each other, and we have a very strong support system," Mubonzi said. "Then you come here, where people are loners. Nobody checks on you."

Mubonzi came to Minnesota seeking asylum in 2014 after facing threats related to her work as a doctor who did reconstructive surgery on rape victims in Congo. She plans to apply for medical residency soon.

She said it can be frustrating that education from Congo does not mean anything in the U.S. at first, and it can be costly to take exams and transfer credentials. It's hard to do on top of a full-time job to pay the bills, Mubonzi added. Mubonzi also had to learn that when people in America ask "How are you doing?" it's more of a "hello" than a sincere question.

"Back home when someone asks you how are you doing, they take time to listen and empathize with you," she said.

'What is our future?'

Kiloloma Kisongo founded the nonprofit Voice in the Wilderness Organization to build awareness of the Congolese in Minnesota and help refugee families with everything from school supplies to a summer camp to teach youth about the conflicts that brought them to the U.S. The group aids refugees in finding jobs, learning English and putting teens into a computer coding program.

Many of the refugees he knows are dogged by uncertainty about reuniting with family members. He knows of a Congolese man who was expecting his wife and children to arrive on a plane this year, but they were abruptly taken back to their refugee camp.

"A lot of people still have their family members and are waiting to be rejoined with them and now they're worried," said Kisongo. "People always ask what's happening, what's going on, and we don't have answers."

Byakweli said the lowered refugee admissions are affecting many Congolese families who were told their relatives were in the pipeline. Some question their place here after waiting so long in a refugee camp to come, only to arrive at a time when refugees are getting the message that they don't belong.

"When they hear this stop of refugees … they get frustrated," he said. "Those that are here ask, 'Now what is our future?' "

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210