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By CAROL ANNE BLITZER, Advocate staff writer
Published in The Advocate: Mar 5, 2011
On Dec. 4, Celestin and Jeannette Kasongo and their 10 children arrived in Baton Rouge to complete a 12-year journey to freedom.
Through the work of Migration and Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and with the assistance of a group of dedicated volunteers, the family is making the transition from hunger and misery in a refugee camp in Zambia, Africa, to a new life in America.
Sally James, an LSU student, and her mother, Jeanne James, have made the Kasongo family an important part of their lives since first meeting the oldest son, Mulumba Kasongo, at a high-school dinner Dec. 18 at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
There were several leftover pizzas, so members of the church brought the pizzas to the Kasongo family.
“Everyone was charmed by them,” Jeanne James said. “They saw that they had so many needs, all things we take for granted.”
They were also moved by the story of the Kasongo family beginning with the parents, Jeannette and Celestin Kasongo, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and were married there in 1987.
From 1965 to 1997 under the leadership of Mobutu Sese Seko, their homeland was a fairly peaceful place, Celestin Kasongo said.
After anti-Mobutu rebels invaded from several neighboring countries and the rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila emerged as the new president, living conditions for the Kasongo family deteriorated.
“Celestin’s dad was in the army of Mobutu. The government considered them threats,” Sally James said.
Kabila sent his soldiers throughout the country killing those whom he saw as troublemakers.
Fearing for their lives, the Kasongos and their four sons and one daughter fled their homeland in 1999 for safety in the neighboring country of Zambia.
Mulumba Kasongo, the oldest son, recalls that on the journey, the family escaped death “only by the grace of God,” when they stopped overnight in a small compound.
Soldiers of Kabila raided the compound during the night. Hearing their threatening yells to the people in the adjoining room, the Kasongo family escaped just minutes before the soldiers entered their room, said Mulumba Kasongo, the only member of the family fluent in English.
His parents speak French, although their native language is Chiluba. They all also speak Swahili.
When the Kasongos finally made it to the station to catch a train to Zambia, they were told they did not have enough money to make the trip.
“There were no options. We did what we needed to save ourselves,” Mulumba Kasongo said. “We had to walk to live.”
The trip was made even more difficult because the Kasongos’ second son, Patric, suffers from neurological damage caused by meningitis, which was misdiagnosed as malaria for more than a year.
Their third son, Ntumba, who was 5 at the time of the trip, also developed meningitis, and although he was properly treated, he still suffers from moderate neurological damage.
The younger children, Elizabeth and Cedric, who were 3 and 1 at the time, had to be carried.
The family walked for two months until they reached Zambia, Celestin Kasongo said. There they were taken by U.N. workers to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.
Because they had no money, they were forced to enter a refugee camp in Meheba, where they lived for the next 10 years. In the camp, the Kasongos had five more children — a girl and four boys.
In the meantime, Mulumba Kasongo completed his education and moved to Solwezi. In January 2010, he married his wife, Lilian, who is now expecting a baby.
Life in the camp was hard. There were food shortages and only limited medical care. Celestin Kasongo’s health was failing.
About eight years ago, the Kasongos began the process of applying to be resettled.
“Since 9-11, resettlement in the United States has been an incredibly rigorous process,” said Kristi Hackney, Louisiana state refugee coordinator and director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities.
The process begins with the certification of a group of people as refugees through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“A team analyzes a population and certifies that the people are refugees,” Hackney said. “To be certified as refugees, there has to be a situation that causes a group of people to be displaced.”
The number one cause is religious persecution, she said. Second is ethnic conflict. The third cause of displacement is the decision by a government to act against a part of a population.
If a population is certified as refugees, camps are then set up through the International Organization for Migration, a group formed by international agreement.
This organization works first to return the population to its original home. If that is not possible, it attempts to settle the group in the host country, the country of the refugee camp.
“The third and last option is the ‘durable solution,’ of settling members of the group in other countries,” Hackney said. Most of the resettlement is done in North America or Western Europe.
“Right now there are some 15 million refugees waiting in camps for a durable solution,” Hackney said. “People are staying in camps longer and longer times.”
The huge number of refugees has led to shortages of food, supplies and services.
“They take the cases most expensive to support and put them in line first to be resettled,” Hackney said.
The Diocese of Baton Rouge has operated a successful resettlement program since the 1970s, when the local community accepted many refugees from Vietnam.
“We see it as part of Christ’s mission of welcoming the stranger,” Hackney said.
Catholic Charities receives its families through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Potential candidates go through an intense screening process.
On Nov. 26, the Kasongo family received the news that they were being resettled in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, Mulumba Kasongo’s wife and unborn child were not included in the application process.
“The family was overjoyed, but Mulumba had to make the sacrifice of leaving Lilian,” Sally James said.
“I knew I had to go with my family. My family could not stay in Africa any longer,” Mulumba Kasongo said. “My father was not in good health and would have soon died, and the younger children would have probably passed away because of no food.”
Since their arrival in Baton Rouge in December, the Kasongos have settled into life here. They live in Jubilee House, a small house donated to Catholic Charities by St. Aloysius Catholic Church in 2005 in celebration of the parish’s 50th anniversary. The house is used by Catholic Charities for its resettlement program.
Resettled refugees receive limited funding from the U.S. government. “They get $900 a head to help them get settled,” Hackney said. “It’s a one-time assistance.”
The Kasongos must find a way to support themselves.
Jeannette Kasongo has already found work in housekeeping at a nearby hotel. Celestin and Mulumba Kasongo are both looking for work within walking distance of their home. Mulumba Kasongo is also hoping to raise the money to bring his wife and child to America.
The school-age Kasongo children are now in school, and everyone in the family is medically stable.
“Catholic Charities set up health appointments for them all,” Jeanne James said.
Jeanne and Sally James have enlisted their friends and neighbors to help. Members of St. Aloysius Catholic Church have been extremely generous. So many people have answered the call that volunteers have been divided into committees.
Volunteers assist with transportation. Others have helped with food and clothing. A group of friends is fixing up the house. People have donated school supplies. Others are tutoring the children and helping them learn English.
“So many people have wanted to help with the tutoring that we had to make a schedule,” Sally James said.
Even though the Kasongos sometimes miss their family in Africa, they know their life will be better in America.
“I am so grateful that God chose us to come here,” Mulumba Kasongo said. “God has care for everybody. He brought us here.”
One of their most-pressing needs has been transportation, especially to Mass. Their Catholic faith is important to them.
“It’s very moving to watch their family worship,” Jeanne James said. “You can tell that they are a faith-filled, devout family.”
While American children would normally pass time watching cartoons and comedy shows, the Kasongos keep their television on the Catholic Channel.
“After the family comes home from Mass, their dad puts Mass on television,” Jeanne James said. “They are a very spiritual family.”
Jeanne James said that the volunteers are so impressed with the dignity of the Kasongo family. “They keep the house beautifully. They have a lovely demeanor,” she said. “They are a gift to those who have a chance to be a part of this.”
How to help refugees
To assist with the local refugee resettlement program, contributions can be sent to the Migration and Refugee Services Program of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, 1900 S. Acadian Thruway, Baton Rouge LA 70808. If contributions are to be made for a specific family or purpose, please put that information on the memo line of the check.
For information, contact Catholic Charities at (225) 336-8700.