Starting Over: Young father of 6 flees war-torn country, seeks refuge in Idaho
TWIN FALLS – Jean Claude Kwiganba’s story is like thousands of others.
Betrayed by his country, leaders, government and life, the 35-year-old father of six is seeking safety and refuge in Idaho.
Kwiganba was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he lived most of his life. He also spent time in Uganda and, for the past two years, has lived with his family in one of eight Ugandan refugee camps.
“There was war. There was insecurity. People were kicked out of their homes and many were killed,” Kwiganba recalls.
The young father was determined to somehow get to America and when he recently sat down with EastIdahoNews.com, he had been living in Twin Falls only 14 days.
“I came to America because it’s the (country) that gives me assistance for a new life,” Kwiganba says. “Americans are always good.”
A WORLDWIDE REFUGEE CRISIS
Every minute of every day, 24 people worldwide are displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations. The organization believes there are over 60 million refugees across the globe, and 85,000 will enter the United States of America this year.
Approximately 300 refugees are accepted into the College of Southern Idaho refugee resettlement program in Twin Falls each year.
“They’re looking for freedom and opportunity,” CSI Refugee Center Director ZeZe Rwasama says. “All they’re thinking about when they come here is, ‘How can I survive?’”
The nonprofit center has been in Twin Falls since 1980. More than 2,500 refugees from many countries, including Sudan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, have come to Idaho through the program.
“We want to help them become self-sufficient in a very short period of time, and we also help them become fully integrated in the community,” Rwasama says.
ARRIVING IN IDAHO
When refugees first arrive in Twin Falls, they’re met at the airport by refugee resettlement coordinators and language translators.
From the airport, the families are taken to an apartment that has been rented and furnished according to the guidelines issued by the U.S. State Department. Culturally appropriate food for three days is stocked in the refrigerator and cabinets.
Refugees immediately begin the process of learning how to live in America. Every day, they go to class and study English, life skills and how to work.
“We are able to place refugees in a job, on average, within two months,” Rwasama says. “An employable refugee is already working in two months.”
“You need to understand that coming here is their last hope,” he continues. “No one from their country has offered a solution or help and now you have America giving them dignity that they’ve lost for so many years. America is giving them hope.”
Many living in the Magic Valley have supported the refugee program over the years, but recently city leaders say there has been some opposition to the CSI center.
“We started to hear some vocal opponents of the program tying it specifically to the president’s initiative with Syrian refugees,” Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar tells EastIdahoNews.com. “We don’t have any Syrian refugees, we’ve not received any Syrian refugees and there are no plans to receive any Syrian refugees. The challenge has been that ‘Syrian’ has become synonymous with ‘Islamic,’ which has become synonymous with ‘terrorist,’ and that is the misconception.”
It’s a misconception Rwasama is often asked about and he’s prepared with an answer when it comes up.
“The vetting process of refugees is actually the toughest to pass,” he says. “There’s so many government agencies involved in this. The Department of Homeland Security is involved in the vetting process, the FBI is involved, the Department of State is involved and other law enforcement agencies.”
Rwasama says a terrorist would have a much easier time entering America on a business, education or travel visa.
“When you look at the vetting that happens to people in other groups, it’s very short,” Rwasama says. “Usually it just requires the embassy to decide. But the refugee-vetting process is very long and complicated.”
ADJUSTING TO AMERICA
Kwiganba lives with his wife, Patreca, and six children in a modest home near the CSI refugee building. He walks to class in the mornings and, when he returns home in the afternoon, his wife goes to class.
Although their home has four bedrooms, everyone sleeps on one side of the house in two of the rooms.
“When we were in the refugee camp, we built a small house and everyone slept in two rooms,” Kwiganba recalls. “We liked to be close, and we still like to be close.”
The family arrived in America with only a few small bags of clothing. Their furniture, appliances and other household items have been donated.
A few toys are scattered around the house for the children to use and, although they don’t have much, the family is content.
“The kids are so happy. They never got to play before. They are happy,” Kwiganba says with a smile.
Within weeks of his arrival, Kwingaba secured employment milking cows at a dairy farm. He earns $10 an hour and works 60 hours a week. He says it’s tiring, but he’s thankful to have a job and a new life in a country he calls home.
“This is my country too. I can call it my home. I’m feeling good and we love it here,” Kwiganba says.