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Refugees find freedom, fresh start in Spokane

With midnight approaching, three weary travelers shuffle down the ramp past airport security to the baggage claim.

The 5-year-old girl grips her mother’s hand and tries to hide behind her as a Middle Eastern woman greets them – their only link to their new lives in Spokane.

As checked bags pass along the conveyor belt, the family searches for a single suitcase stuffed with clothes and knickknacks that made the same two-day journey: Namibia to South Africa to New York to Utah and finally Spokane.

The girl, Dakie Tshilobo, makes a playground from a row of chairs while her parents talk of their travels and, before that, a combined 20 years as refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“We are here to reinvent ourselves,” 37-year-old Patrick Kazadi says.

His family is among Spokane’s growing community of people offered a fresh start: Each week new families of refugees from all parts of the world arrive here, fleeing persecution of some kind, full of hope and trepidation about their new lives.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported last month an 8 percent increase in the number of people seeking asylum worldwide from 2011 to 2012. Last year’s total was the highest since 2003.

Some come with carts piled high with luggage, others with barely enough to fill a single suitcase. The children enroll in local public schools where teachers and aides accommodate diversity that includes 56 languages.

As world conflicts ebb and flow, so do the numbers and types of refugees seeking new homes in the Inland Northwest.

U.S. accepts more refugees

A local branch of a national Christian organization, World Relief, helps refugees resettle in Spokane.

The United States makes resettling refugees a priority, accepting 10 times more than any other country.

Resettling refugees remains a matter of foreign policy – a distinctly different issue from the immigration debate dividing the nation, said Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit founded in 1911 to advocate for refugees. Refugees make up just 5 percent of all immigrants to the United States each year.

While the White House limits how many refugees the United States will accept each year, the practice of helping oppressed people enjoys support that spans the political spectrum.

“Deciding that we’re not going to help rescue anyone anymore is sort of a betrayal of our core values,” Limon said.

From a political standpoint, accepting refugees helps the United States’ image abroad and addresses concerns from Americans about people of their same heritage.

“The Jewish community in this country was very concerned about Jews in the Soviet Union,” Limon said. “The Cuban community in Florida can sway an election.”

World Relief has resettled about 12,000 people in the Inland Northwest during the past two decades, about 100 of them Congolese like Patrick Kazadi and his family.

For each family, World Relief sets a goal: financial independence after six months.

The local office hits that mark in about 75 percent of cases.

Driven from college to refugee camp

Patrick Kazadi speaks five languages, including English, studied chemistry in college and grew up planning to be an engineer. He left his home in a southern province of the Congo to attend college in the east.

He wasn’t supposed to have a life of poverty.

And yet after witnessing the violent killings of many of his colleagues as they sat in a college chemistry class, he found himself fleeing rebel militants.

“They shoot around and then we ran,” Patrick said. “We leave everything at school. We ran. Everyone ran.”

It wasn’t long before he was captured and conscripted into the rebel army. In a camp, he went four days without food and witnessed men killed and women raped. Some of the women killed themselves to avoid being attacked.

After two weeks, Patrick and about eight other men slipped a few soldiers the equivalent of about $10 to let them escape.

He made it home only to find it empty. There was no sign of his family.

Rebels captured his group a second time, but they again managed to escape and headed for the Zambian border.

Patrick traded his shoes to get his group a three-day boat ride across a crocodile-infested lake and into Zambia.

From there they trekked south to Namibia and into the life of a refugee.

Camp was a learning experience

Patrick once hated the word “refugee.” “I didn’t want to be a refugee,” he said. “That was not my purpose.”

It was a label he learned to wear proudly, however.

The traditional image of refugee camps full of tents and people wearing rags is shattered by families like Patrick’s. Decades of war, hunger and political strife have created permanent camps that mirror many cities in the developing world.

When Patrick first arrived in the Osire Refugee Camp in Namibia, there was no running water or electricity. But within a few years a construction company hired him to build housing. He would get up early before work to stand in line to use the Internet.

Patrick involved himself in the political circles of the 20,000-person camp, advocating for refugee rights and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

In 2004 officials arrested Patrick and 11 others in the camp after a protest calling for better treatment in the camp. Half of those arrested were released after two weeks, including Patrick; half were charged. A Namibian refugee organization called the arrests an abuse of power.

It was soon after that a friend of Patrick’s from Congo offered him a chance to escape to South Africa.

“I’m a politician now,” Patrick said. “I decided I cannot go to South Africa. I’m defending refugee rights.”

Patrick learned English, worked construction and taught French lessons on the side.

He also met Jolie Ngenda, who had escaped Congo with her family.

The two married and had a daughter, Dakie Tshilobo.

After spending the first five years of her life in a refugee camp and in Namibia’s capital, Dakie has grabbed every opportunity in America to be a kid.

She opened every door, punched every button on the television and even pushed around a dust mop in the World Relief apartment where the family spent their first night in Spokane.

On Dakie’s fifth birthday, the family moved into their more permanent home.

She celebrated by leaping from her parents’ bed to her bare twin mattress and back again, her dark braids flailing as she bounced.

“Make my bed pretty too,” she begged her mother.

Patrick has a few friends spread across the United States, but he, his wife and daughter have no family here.

He located one sister with help from the Red Cross, but has no idea what happened to his parents or his other eight siblings.

The loss no longer haunts him.

“Now I’ve got a new life.”

‘I want to work’

When they first arrive, each refugee family is given $925 per person – a stipend to pay for hotel rooms, if necessary, a down payment for housing, rent, groceries and anything else they need.

Later in their first week, the families are able to apply for food stamps and other government assistance until they are employed.

Supporting refugees is an issue of foreign policy, said Limon, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. While there are not reliable statistics on how many refugees end up on some kind of government assistance years after resettling, Limon said as a group they want to pay back their debts to America.

“They know they have to work to live,” Limon said. “They also know they won the lottery and they want to make the best of it.”

Patrick – an athletic karate enthusiast who can always be found wearing some kind of baseball cap – has spent four hours a day, four days a week in English classes for most of his time here.

It wasn’t time especially well-spent, he said; after taking classes in Namibia, he already spoke a high level of English before coming to the States.

He has spent the rest of his time working with World Relief to find a job.

“I want to work,” he said.

Patrick quickly learned that the skills required for most American jobs are not ones learned in his English classes or in his college chemistry courses.

His first challenge was to learn to use a tape measure. With the rest of the world using the metric system, coming to the United States and learning inches, feet, yards and miles is a challenge.

World Relief set Patrick up with a job interview at a window factory in Spokane Valley. Before the interview, Patrick spent three days practicing using a tape measure.

He landed the job, but it turned out to be a poor fit and he quit.

“Maybe new chances are coming,” he said.

He’s applied for other jobs but hasn’t found anything yet.

He knows he needs a job now. With a background in construction, he said he is familiar with the concept of hard work. And he’s willing to perform menial tasks – for now. But he doesn’t want to be cleaning toilets in five years, he said. His childhood dream was to fly airplanes, ever since a pilot he met told him how freeing it was to fly. He took aviation classes before starting his chemistry degree but quit when the fees became too expensive. Now that he is in Spokane, his sights are set on community college and a career as pilot.

“I know myself. I’m a serious man,” Patrick said. “If I want it I will get it.”

Until then, he is spending his time searching for work and playing with his daughter. Jolie and Dakie have found a few friends in the area, mostly other Congolese people, and make frequent trips to parks. Patrick said Dakie loves to rehash her day, and he revels in every detail. He warns her to stay inside after dark by teasing her there are lions outside at night.

Dakie asks frequently when she will go to school, as she did briefly in Namibia.

“I tell her ‘tomorrow,’ ” her father said.

She could have enrolled in kindergarten right away, but her parents elected to wait until the fall.

Although he struggles with not having a job, Patrick is confident opportunity lies ahead. Any struggle he endures now will likely never come close to what he went through escaping militants in Congo and living as a refugee for 12 years.

And although he got used to the refugee label, he’s ready to be rid of it.

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to be refugees forever.”