Ronald Ntibarikure’s family went out to sleep in the forest on a cold September night in 1998 because it was too dangerous to stay home in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Families often fell victim to warring militia factions that would beat, loot and kill at night. But on this night, the father worried one of the children, a sick toddler, wouldn’t make it if they stayed out in the cold. So they went back home.
“When we slept, the militia came and broke down the door. When they came, they started beating me,” Ntibarikure said in Swahili through an interpreter. “They took me with them. They took me and we left my wife and children in the home.”
As Ntibarikure was dragged away, he heard gunshots and feared the worst.
After he was released, Ntibarikure found his village empty except for dead bodies. He walked about a day through the bush and forest to Uganda, where he found his wife and children alive in a small Ugandan church on Sept. 18, 1998.
By December 1998, the family lived in a Ugandan refugee camp. They stayed there until November, when the family of 10 arrived in Texas.
‘Extension of our faith’
While national arguments rage over Syrian refugees and their resettlement in Texas is questioned by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Fort Worth church is quietly welcoming families, including Ntibarikure’s, who have endured much in their homelands and in camps.
“People of faith believe that this is an extension of our faith — to make room for those who are without,” said Rector Carlye Hughes of Fort Worth’s Trinity Episcopal Church.
They came to their decision when the Syrian refugee crisis became a global issue. In September, when a photograph of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian child made news, hearts were touched at Trinity Episcopal.
“The terrible gift of that photo — of a young boy’s death — was that it reminded us that none of us are helpless and all of us can do something. If all of us all do one thing, it can make a difference,” Hughes said.
Last June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that worldwide displacement of people hit an all-time high at an estimated 59.5 million.
The church’s approach to helping refugees was threefold — raise money for the Syrian crisis, write lawmakers and help a family.
“There was an absolute belief that there are people who are in trouble, there are people who look like outsiders or outcasts and part of our following Jesus is that we model his behavior — which was always one that was loving to those who were outsiders, who were cast out, who didn’t have a place,” Hughes said.
The congregation of about 300 prepped for the arrival of Ntibarikure’s family with purpose and anticipation.
A collective gasp filled the church the Sunday Hughes informed worshipers the family was on its way. Hughes said the family was loved by the congregation even before they met.
“We have a family,” Hughes told her congregation. “We are going to pray for Ronald’s family.”
The church volunteers, or “Welcome Team,” gathered beds, bunk beds, chairs, dressers, clothes and groceries. They met on a Saturday to set up two apartments for the family. Several volunteers also waited at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in November for the family’s arrival.
Ntibarikure’s family is also receiving resettlement help from Refugee Services of Texas.
Life in a refugee camp
The family includes eight siblings ages five to 25 who speak Kinyabwisha and Swahili. The older siblings knew the danger of war as youngsters, while the younger children have only known the hard life of a refugee camp.
“Life at the camp was no good,” Ntibarikure said. He said they lived on 11 pounds of maize each month.
The Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa was formerly known as Zaire. More than 423,000 Congolese refugees are in neighboring countries, displaced by violence in their homeland, according to the UNHCR.
Texas, which received the most refugees in the nation in recent years, resettled 102 Congolese refugees in October and November, according to data from the U.S. Department of State. Congolese were the third most common refugees arriving in Texas in that time period, after Burmese fleeing Myanmar, and Iraqi refugees.
Laila Amara, area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth, said her agency resettled 32 Congolese last fiscal year. In Tarrant County, they join an established Congolese community, which creates “an extremely supportive environment for them,” she said.
Trinity Episcopal’s Welcome Team will host a dinner for the family and tutor them in English. They want to help the family apply for jobs so they feel “secure in their own income,” said Kimberly Cooper, a children’s minister at the church who is coordinating the Welcome Team.
Cooper said the family will always find a community of friends in the congregation. Once Ntibarikure’s family’s is more self sufficient, the church hopes to help more refugees.
“These are families who have their own dignity. It is our goal to help them find what they want to be doing here,” Cooper said.
‘Being in America’
Ntibarikure family stepped on airplanes for the first time to get to Texas. They never had a television or a refrigerator. Texas’ highways and fast cars are new, too.
In the first month in Fort Worth, Ntibarikure’s children had to apply for Social Security cards, get immunized and gear up for English As A Second Language classes.
“Being in America, I can see it is good,” Ntibarikure said. “We are limited because we cannot communicate in English very well.”
As they sat in the new comfort of a southeast Fort Worth apartment, a smile broke over his face.
“I will not have money, but I will have the best Christmas because I will be free with my family,” he said.