Safe from Congo violence – refugees still feel it at home in Atlanta
The news from Radio Okapi - a station based in Kinshasa, Congo - is always on these days in the suburban Atlanta living room of Congolese refugees Minnick Lenge and Felix Mulamba.Day and night in the home of Dawami's best friends, Swahili Internet radio broadcasts about the country's escalating war and 250,000 internally displaced people fill the low-lit room. Minnick and Felix's diplomas are displayed on the mantle; twin fishtanks flank the fireplace. At the center of it all rests their daughter, Jemimah Peace Onalola, in her bassinet. Jemimah turns seven weeks old today. In that short time, she's seen a world of change.In their apartment five miles away, Dawami's husband Hassan, a Congolese refugee who's been in the US two years now, catches up on the news when he can. With no computer or Internet access, he's limited to TV news. The current violence in Congo is 700 miles from Lubumbashi, where he grew up, and which he fled when it was consumed by war a decade ago.
So the masses of displaced people on TV are at once familiar, and a world away from relatives who remain in Congo, and from Hassan's night-shift job at a Georgia chicken plant.
His sons, Bill and Igey, take pride in saying they're Congolese - though they were born in a Tanzanian refugee camp and have never set foot in Congo. They have no idea about the current crisis. Despite the privations and challenges their family faces in its adopted homeland, the boys identify more with the American kids they see on Nickelodeon than the Congolese children on CNN.
Minnick and Felix, meantime, have been in the US for eight years. They've established themselves here: become naturalized citizens, learned to speak good English, bought a house, joined a church. Their older kids, Grace and Martin, sound thoroughly American.
In a way, the family's distance from their refugee experience has given them space to reflect on it as violence again erupts in their country. Minnick, who works as a geriatric nurse, calls friends and relatives in Goma when she can for updates. "They don't know what to do. It's like they go from the rain into the lake," she says, "they're still wet."
Nearly a decade ago, she fled like them. "If right now I'm going back to Congo, they will kill me," she says.
Jemimah, a mellow baby in a pink jumpsuit that says, "Princess" in rhinestones, hears all this. But as her eyes come into focus, she sees something else, too. In the room where the wide-screen TV is always on, muted images of the son of a Kenyan, soon to be America's president, have been flickering across the screen.
The morning after election day, her parents, grandma, and Dawami took a break from listening to the Congo dispatches to watch the local TV news.
"Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States ..." read the host.
"African-American," crowed Dawami.
"Yes we can change!" said Minnick. She and her husband are Jehovah's Witnesses, and don't believe in voting themselves - but they were celebrating all the same.
"See that?" her grandma asked Jemimah, nestled in the crook of her arm. "Baba [Daddy] from Kenya."
Jemimah took it all in, wide-eyed.