I met Catherine for the first time at the top of a mountain in Rwanda last December, 2016. The view was stunning, although Catherine didn’t seem to notice. We were with UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, in a camp for refugees, a place Catherine had called home for most of her life. Catherine’s family had been forced to flee their homeland in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996 to escape extreme violence and civil war in Eastern Congo. It was an arduous journey on foot, but she and her family made it to a camp for refugees just over the border in Rwanda.
Horrifically, in 1997, the violence followed them to the Mudende Camp. One night, hundreds of refugees were killed in the middle of the night, within the camp borders by gangs with guns and machetes. Catherine and her family, along with the other survivors, were moved to a remote mountaintop in Rwanda, where a new camp was set up. The remoteness of the new Gihembe Camp kept the refugees safe, but also very isolated. So, while Rwanda has a very cooperative agreement with the U.N. Refugee Agency that allows refugees to work within the country, the remoteness of Gihembe Camp prevented access to jobs and transportation. This is where I met Catherine and her small toddler, Makena.
When we visited, Catherine kept her little girl strapped to her back most of the day. She was very capable and strong, as most of the women living in refugee camps are, but she was also sad. She told me that her entire family had been resettled to the United States in 2015 — everyone except for her and Makena. She couldn’t understand why. Four years ago, UNHCR had determined that Catherine and her daughter’s situation in the camp was especially vulnerable, so her case had been put forward for resettlement. She had been through countless interviews, medical checks, fingerprinting and security checks over those four years, yet she and her small child had been left behind while the rest of her family did get resettled.
Prior to meeting Catherine, we had been told by the authorities that Catherine and her daughter had finally been approved by the U.S. for resettlement, but we could not tell her specific details in case the status of her acceptance were to change. So we did our best to reassure her that she would be reunited with her family in the U.S. soon. She seemed to not believe us, having no power over the situation she and her daughter were in. She asked over and over, “But, when?”
As a single mother myself, I felt for Catherine in every way. Her daughter was happy and full of life when we sat down in Catherine’s mud brick hut, where the dirt floor was neatly swept. I kept wondering when she would put Makena down to play, since she had been carrying her all day. But Catherine told us that Makena couldn’t walk, and when we observed her daughter we could see that she had some form of disability – perhaps Down syndrome – but we weren’t sure. I could not help but to worry over this single mother, alone in the camp with a disabled child. I clung to the promise of the UNHCR staff in Rwanda that Catherine and her daughter would be coming to America in January 2017 to be reunited with her extended family, just as she was clinging to that same hope.
In January the news began to report about a big change coming from the new U.S. administration regarding refugees and I began to panic. When was Catherine’s flight? Who would be meeting them at the airport? What would happen if this young mother with a disabled toddler was not allowed into the country to join their family after traveling so far and coming so close? I frantically texted and emailed all of my friends at UNHCR to get updates. Because we didn’t know when the first “travel ban” would be signed, nor what it would say exactly, there were no answers. I prayed and worried. Finally we were told that Catherine and Makena had arrived on Thursday Jan. 26 — one day before the first travel ban was signed. I was so relieved that Catherine was safe with her child and reunited with her family.
Then, this March, I went to see how Catherine and Makena were settling in here in the United States. The family has been resettled in Kentucky, one of the top five states where Congolese refugees have been welcomed. They are among the few, as less than 1% of all refugees worldwide are resettled in a new country. It is such a long process, where first the U.N. Refugee Agency identifies the most vulnerable refugees — those who, in addition to having to flee their homes, have survived torture, sexual violence, have serious medical needs or have children who are at risk. Family reunification is also considered.
In Catherine’s case, her entire family had survived a massacre inside of a refugee camp and her daughter is disabled. UNHCR then refers these refugees to the U.S. government, which ultimately decides who is resettled to the U.S. The U.S. government interviews and does extensive vetting on every refugee being considered for resettlement — eight different U.S. agencies are involved in the vetting, including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and several intelligence agencies.
Each family selected to be resettled in the US must have an agency that sponsors them here, in the state they are placed in to live. The Episcopal Migration Ministries, a national non-profit agency, works in Kentucky through a local organization, Kentucky Refugee Ministries. KRM is on the ground, supporting Catherine and her extended family in their new community in Kentucky. The goal of their services is to teach refugees such as Catherine basic skills so she can enter the work force, and to help acclimatize each newly arrived refugee to our American culture. The work done by these non-profit agencies is a vital step in helping to make refugees a contributing and vital part of their new communities.
When I went to visit Catherine recently, I was overjoyed to see her and Makena together with her parents and brothers and sisters. Catherine’s face was beaming with happiness and pride as she showed me around the spotless two-bedroom apartment they share with her sister and niece. I couldn’t believe it – and it made me so happy to see that Makena is now walking, after only a few weeks in this new environment. Three of Catherine’s siblings, with the help of the skills they learned from KRM, are now working and the others are preparing and eager for their opportunity to do the same. Two work-night shifts cleaning office buildings, and they are so proud to have jobs and be contributing to their family and society. One of the goals that Catherine has is to find a job as soon as possible, so that she can start to pay back the loan that she, like all refugees resettled in the U.S., took out to pay for her and her child’s plane tickets. She also dreams of learning to drive.
I feel proud that in these times of change in our country, the basic kindness and welcoming spirit that I know to be woven into the national consciousness is still shining through. I was deeply moved by the incredible kindness and generosity of people in the community who welcome people who have suffered so much trauma. I saw wonderful Americans helping refugees in their communities with simple acts that make a world of difference, dropping off food, giving lifts to medical appointments or helping teach English.
I look forward to visiting Catherine and her family again in my new role as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. I have been eager to help the millions of displaced people around the world, in any way that I can. The U.N. Refugee Agency is the first line of support, the people who mobilize in times of need. They are the people who are there with a drink of water and a blanket when families first arrive at a camp after being forced to flee their homes with nothing, and they are there for refugees whatever the length of their exile, giving support and working on long-term solutions. At this time in our history when there are unprecedented numbers of human beings having to leave home just to stay alive, I feel it is imperative that we do what we can to help them. I take my new role as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador very seriously; it is a humbling and inspiring experience to meet our fellow human beings who have found themselves in the situation of having to become a refugee.
I will do my absolute best to live up to the challenge of bringing their stories to light and I start with Catherine’s story.
Written by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Kristin Davis