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American lives taking shape: For refugees from the Congo, life in Spokane is one of hope, heartache

Solomon Katumbi talks about his experiences as a young child living in refugee camps in Africa during an  interview last month. Solomon graduated from Ferris High School in the spring, where he was the star forward on the soccer team, and has started classes at Eastern Washington University. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Veronique Changa Changa recalls the night that she and her family began the long, long journey from the Congo to Spokane.

The 22-year-old burn scars on her leg remain to remind her.

That night, she and her family awoke to find their home in the crowded city of Bukavu, the Congo – a chaotic vortex of civil war and guerrilla violence for decades – engulfed in flames.

Veronique cannot say for sure who started the fire that night in 1997. They were not a political family, she said, and civilians were being burned out of their homes throughout the city. The region of the country was split apart with its own civil war, and violence was also spilling over the border from neighboring Rwanda.

“At the time it was something that was happening to everybody,” said Veronique’s daughter, Sarah Katumbi. “So everybody was running away.”

Sarah was translating the story for her mother, who speaks little English, during an interview at their home in the East Central Neighborhood. Veronique speaks French, Congo’s official language.

After the fire, Veronique, her husband and four children fled for their lives – among the millions of Congolese people who have been forced from their homes in recent decades by war and civil strife. Friends and family members helped them sneak to a small boat and float down the Ruzizi River to a refugee camp in neighboring Burundi.

Fast-forward four years, to the birth of Solomon Katumbi. Solomon lived his very first years in that camp, on a plot of land with a tent awning for a roof and dirty water. Now an 18-year-old freshman at Eastern Washington University, he is one of 11 members of his family who have made it to America, one of about 10,000 refugees who have become a part of the Spokane community, one of the tens of millions people worldwide who have been displaced in what experts call the worst refugee crisis in history.

That Burundi refugee camp is a long way from Spokane. But the experience remains close at hand for Veronique, Sarah, Solomon and their family.

“That camp was just … too much,” Solomon said recently. “You had to go far just to get water. School was … ”

He stops, as though it’s impossible to truly explain.

“It was a lot,” he said. “A lot.”

‘Trying to be fine’

Eleven members of the Katumbi family live here now – going to school, working, forming relationships and moving forward in a country that sometimes feels, they say, like a miracle.

Solomon and his brother, Elia, have graduated from high school, both studying, playing sports and juggling jobs. Solomon was the star forward on the soccer team at Ferris High, and played drums in the percussion band. Elia wrestled and graduated from Lewis and Clark High. One sister, Suzanna, now attends Rogers High. Sarah’s daughter attends Roosevelt Elementary.

Family members have gotten jobs and established homes. A sister married and moved to Portland.

Their American lives – their Spokane lives – are taking shape.

The catastrophe they fled was vast, even global, in nature, but they’ve recently experienced a more intimate, personal tragedy: The oldest son, Paul, who had become a family patriarch, died unexpectedly in late August, not long after undergoing a surgery the family believed would help rid him of a longtime pattern of seizures.

For all they’ve suffered, all the loss and strife, it was a unique blow, they say.

“We have been through hard times and all that, but we’ve never really faced this type of situation,” Solomon said.

Veronique said – through Sarah – that the family was just trying to move ahead in the face of adversity. As usual.

“We just trying to be fine,” she said. “No matter what happens. It’s not an easy situation but we’re trying to be strong.”

People in Spokane who know the family have rallied around them with support and financial help. Keith Currie, a photographer who takes portraits of refugee and immigrant students in Spokane every year, has started an online fundraiser to help offset funeral expenses and other costs for the family.

Solomon, in part because of his soccer stardom but also because of the force of his personality and dedication, has become well-known in several Spokane circles. Currie met Solomon about a year ago, and – like most everyone who knows him – is effusive in praising his strength of character, his work ethic, his determination and his positive disposition.

“I just fell in love with the kid,” Currie said.

Currie started a GoFundMe page – “Solomon & Elia’s Family Need Our Help” – after seeing a video on Facebook that the family posted, saying their goodbyes to their brother.

“It was just so heartbreaking,” he said.

A global crisis

The Katumbis arrived in the Burundi camp in the midst of a massive refugee crisis afflicting the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Congolese people were fleeing civil war in the eastern part of that country by the tens of thousands; Rwandans were fleeing by the millions.

The uncertainty and complexity of the different conflicts and refugee relationships in that region over the past two decades is difficult to untangle. Some refugee camps in the region became militarized; it was not unusual for people to become refugees from refugee camps. Efforts to repatriate refugees by different countries in the region became entangled in conflict.

About 887,000 Congolese refugees are living in other African countries as of August, according to the United Nations. Another 4.5 million are displaced within the country. More than half a million asylum-seekers live in the Congo now.

An estimated 10,000 Congolese refugees live in America.

This is the context in which the Katumbis essentially were homeless for more than two decades after that night fire in Bukavo and their escape down the Ruzizi River. And they arrived here to find a different kind of context: a country whose president wants to dramatically slash the number of desperate people fleeing war or crisis who find refuge here.

Mark Finney, director of World Relief Spokane, expressed concerns about that in a story in The Spokesman-Review last week. In particular, he said, it had a corrosive effect on refugees who live among us now – on our neighbors.

“They don’t feel as welcome in the community,” Finney said. “They feel like maybe there’s hostility in the broader society. That they don’t belong here.”

Many people in Spokane – a town with a long, proud record of welcoming and helping refugees – are sending the opposite message to the Katumbis: You belong.

Life in the camps

Veronique and her family lived in the refugee camp in Burundi for a decade. On a little plot of land they were assigned, under a tent awning. Walking every day to get dirty water. Her husband had begun to learn shoe-making and other skills, and taught them to young people in the camp.

Sarah said these efforts attracted negative attention from others. In a hostile, conflict-heavy environment, she said, those who tried to rise above the circumstances sometimes provoked anger and hostility from others.

In any case, the family’s father fled for his life, and they haven’t seen him since. In 2007, Veronique and her family – by then she had nine children – moved to a camp in Uganda. That camp was more organized, included shelters and more services. In Sarah’s words, it was “not really bad.”

There were schools there, but you had to pay to attend. Veronique couldn’t pay for everyone to attend. She suffers from high blood pressure, and was sometimes ill. Paul was having seizures, and though they had access to some medical facilities, they couldn’t help him, Sarah said.

It was there, in that camp, where the Katumbis first met workers with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees program. Having seen the family’s struggles, the UNHCR began looking into the possibilities of them seeking refugee status in the U.S.

“They saw Mom couldn’t help all of us,” Sarah said. “Everything was really hard. They were saying they could help.”

In 2015, the family left Uganda and came to Spokane, with the help of World Relief. The Katumbis came here, thinking it looked like cities on TV – New York or San Francisco – only to find a much different environment in Spokane. Among the first things that caught Solomon’s attention was the public education system – everyone can go to school here, free.

“That’s the first thing I loved about America,” he said.

‘The value of what I have’

Currie has seen plenty of folks in Spokane give of themselves to help the Katumbis. Many in the family are working, but it’s still a struggle for them to meet basic needs sometimes, and Paul was the primary breadwinner in the family, Currie said.

Families in school networks have helped them with mattresses and fans during hot weather, and with other supplies. Currie gave Solomon a drum kit when he found out Solomon liked drumming. He set a $5,000 goal for his GoFundMe account, and it’s reached $2,900 so far.

Mandy Manning met Solomon and two of his siblings when they first attended the Newcomer Center at Ferris, which helps immigrant and refugees enter the school system. Manning, recall, was named 2018 National Teacher of the Year for her work in the Newcomer Center. She carried a message of positivity about refugee and immigrant students to President Trump when she received her award at the White House – in the form of a package of letters written by her students.

The Newcomer Center helps students improve their English skills before moving into other classes. Solomon arrived for his first day at the center without knowing a word of English, he said.

Asked if she remembered Solomon, Manning laughed.

“There’s no way I could possibly forget Solomon,” she said. “He was always very excited to learn, and he was a leader from the very beginning.”

She knew that he and his family were sometimes struggling, but he wasn’t one to ask for help or complain. He brought a “very intense perseverance” to everything he did, she said.

“Solomon’s always had this amazing, optimistic, hopeful outlook,” she said.

He joined the soccer team, and quickly became a star forward. In the 2019 season, he was the leading scorer in the Greater Spokane League, leading Ferris to a fourth-place finish at state.

Solomon just began classes at Eastern Washington University, where he hopes to study business management. He continues working as a health care aide in the Spokane Valley. On a recent morning, during an interview in the apartment on the South Hill he shares with one of his brothers and his wife, he brought out a large portrait of his brother, Paul, that he keeps in his room.

It helps to remind him of his brother. But it’s also too painful for Veronique to keep in her home right now, he said.

He’s now living in a place he first began imagining as a boy – a boy born as a refugee, a boy who left one camp for another, a boy for whom America was a distant, nearly imaginary place, a boy for whom going to school would be something to love.

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