To Refugee & Immigrant Seniors Graduating in 2020
March 2020 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
On the evening of February 7, a flurry of snow greeted a Greyhound bus as it pulled into the station on Union Avenue in New Haven. The arrival marked the end of a 53-hour ride from McAllen, Tex., and, for two families on board, an odyssey that started years earlier in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their journeys brought them to Brazil, then to South America’s northern reaches, across the deadly Darién Gap, and up through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border.
At the bus station, staff from IRIS and members of two co-sponsorship groups welcomed the families and took them to their new homes In New Haven and Madison. Both families are seeking asylum in the United States and have received temporary parole to stay in the country while their applications are processed.
Pastor Todd Vetter welcoming new arrivals
The arrival of the asylum-seekers presents a departure for both IRIS and its co-sponsors. In the past they’ve received refugees who arrive with their immigration status settled and government support provided until they land on their feet. Unlike refugees, asylum seekers are not immediately authorized to work, leaving them financially dependent on their co-sponsors and IRIS for a year or longer. IRIS has helped asylum seekers already in New Haven by offering them case management services, but this was the first time they’d be co-sponsoring them.
In late December, IRIS received word that Catholic Charities needed help with an influx of African families at the border. In their shelters, the charities had many asylum-seekers who had no place to go.
“We responded immediately that we will take five families,” said Chris George, director of IRIS. He arrived at that number, he said, “based on a combination of factors; our capacity, what is it going to cost, how many community groups do I think can help us out, and what amount of families would have a significant impact? IRIS has more resources in terms of community support and private funding than most refugee resettlement agencies. I felt that this would be a good way to use these resources.”
IRIS remains willing to accept up to five families, but as of now, Catholic Charities has needed to place only two. On February 2, Alexine Casanova, IRIS Director of Case Management, flew to Texas to meet the families, explain the co-sponsorship process, and arrange travel to New Haven. Because plans were made on short notice, it was too expensive to buy one-way air fares, so they all came by bus, with Casanova — a fluent French speaker — joining them on the trip through the South to Atlanta and up the East Coast to New Haven.
Before Casanova left for Texas, IRIS had reached out to its community co-sponsors. George cautioned that although this would be similar to refugee resettlement—they’d still have to find and furnish an apartment, provide interpreters and cultural orientation, and introduce them to available services—the co-sponsors would also need to support them for a year or longer.
“Employment authorization is a huge difference between asylum seekers and refugees,” George said. “They are not eligible for cash assistance, food stamps, and health care insurance. We can find places that provide free health care and we can connect them to food pantries, but who’s going to pay their rent and cover their utilities and all the other expenses? All that has to come from either IRIS or a community group.”
The Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement (JCARR) in New Haven and the First Congregational Church in Madison offered to take in the families. The Angolan family, father, mother, and three daughters would stay in New Haven with support from JCARR. The Congolese family, parents and a baby girl, are in Madison.
Both groups have volunteer networks that include retirees, as well as such professionals as physicians, social workers, financial planners, and teachers who can offer their services.
Jean Silk, who leads JCARR, said the decision to accept a family was made quickly, but required consent of higher authorities at its five member synagogues and the Jewish Federation. Despite concerns over the financial commitment, JCARR, which has co-sponsored four refugee families, agreed to take in the Angolan family, who fled religious persecution at home.
“There wasn’t a soul in the group who said no,” Silk said. “We have to. The Torah says 36 times that we shall welcome the stranger because we were once the strangers.”
The family has settled into an apartment in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Their oldest daughter, who is seven, has enrolled in kindergarten in a public school and her parents are eager to learn English.
The church in Madison took in the family who left a Congo wracked by rebel attacks. About 10 years ago, said Todd Vetter, senior minister, the church co-sponsored a refugee family from Iraq and last year went through training with IRIS to accept another family.
The Congolese family is living in a vacant in-law apartment while the church seeks a more permanent place in nearby Branford. Branford, Vetter said, is more suitable for its access to public transportation and the town’s programs in education and English as a Second Language.
“We were emotionally invested in helping someone and it didn’t matter whether they were a refugee family or an asylum-seeking family. The lack of access to public assistance and the ineligibility to work add a layer of complexity we’re still working through,” Vetter said. The church board approved the decision and a core group of volunteers prepared to receive the family. “There was universal approval and extraordinary enthusiasm for it. Every now and then, churches need to renew that sense of why we’re here and what it means to be a church.”
March 2020 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
A group formed in the wake of the 2016 election moves from protests to co-sponsoring a family.
It started with the defacing of a poster that declared solidarity with Muslims, the disabled, immigrants and other groups that face bias and discrimination. Just over three years later, a group in the Lower Connecticut River Valley that arose in the wake of the 2016 election has gone from activism to preparing to co-sponsor a refugee family with IRIS.
The poster was defaced after the 2016 election. It appeared at the home of an East Haddam resident and quoted civil-rights activist Shaun King, “Dear Muslims, immigrants, women, disabled, LGBTQ and all people of color, we love you boldly and proudly. We will endure.”
Before long someone had scrawled “Trump 2016” over it.
“It took a very nonpolitical message of support and politicized it,” said Wendy Fish, a resident of Deep River. “Someone had to do something about this.”
Within 48 hours, residents of the Lower Connecticut River Valley had spread the word through friends, churches, and synagogues and gathered a crowd of 350 for a two-mile march from Chester to Deep River to send their message of “support and advocacy for the dignity and human rights of all.”
They didn’t stop there. Calling themselves The Valley Stands Up (TVSU), the organizers applied for nonprofit status and organized book clubs and talks. They created six committees in charge of everything from finance to legislative action. They protested President Trump’s Muslim ban. They lobbied the state legislature on immigration issues. They signed on to a ProPublica project to document hate crimes.
In the summer of 2018, at an event related to the upcoming elections, TVSU organizers crossed paths with Will Kneerim, IRIS’s Director of Employment and Education. They invited him to speak to their group, which he did in January 2019, when he invited them to participate in the annual Run for Refugees. Somewhere along the way, Kneerim suggested that the group partner with IRIS to co-sponsor a refugee family. (The IRIS co-sponsorship program enables community groups like TVSU to welcome and resettle a refugee family to their area of the state.)
“It was easy to see that they had a lot of momentum, and a lot of very smart, very involved individuals,” Kneerim said. The group also had a diversity of age, skills and experience. “It’s a wonderful thing to connect a family with a co-sponsor group that has the possibility of having high school kids tutor kids who are entering school and parents who can more easily explain the challenges of paying an oil bill in the winter in Connecticut. We want people near retirement age who can pass down their wisdom in dealing with a school system or handling a doctor’s appointment. The makeup of TVSU made me feel that they had the diversity, the interest, and the passion to get involved.”
“We started thinking about that as a group,” said Mark Pierce, a retired physician and medical researcher, and one of the group’s founders. “The big issue was recruiting the members. That took a while.”
“It’s so important to find a community of people who are willing to commit to this and can commit a significant amount of time,” said Fish, who works as a technical writer.
The commitment means finding an apartment that’s affordable, near public transportation, and accessible to jobs and grocery stores. The group needs to furnish the apartment, typically with two or three weeks’ notice. It also means raising money to help pay for the family’s initial expenses in rent, utilities, and groceries. They also help the the parents find jobs and enroll their children in school. There are also scheduled check-ins with the family.
Pierce reached out to members of TVSU and to local churches and synagogues. In the end, TVSU recruited a team that included teachers, social workers, a physician, a real estate developer, and teachers of English as a Second Language. “You can’t believe the expertise of the people who have come forward,” Pierce said. Members of the group recently came to New Haven for a training session at IRIS.
In addition to skills, the group wanted some diversity that included people with children as well as retirees “who haven’t overcommitted,” said Paula Merrick, a semi-retired accountant.
The group has yet to be “greenlit,” IRIS lingo for vetted and approved. They were working on their application and fulfilling all the requirements to become a co-sponsor when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Connecticut. They have paused their preparations, due to the current public-health crisis, but are eager to resume as soon as they can.
Once they are greenlit, they will be offered the opportunity to resettle a newly arriving refugee family, and will have 48 hours to respond. They’ll have to consider the size of the family and whether there are any medical issues that may affect their decision. If they say yes, they’ll have a couple of weeks to prepare an apartment for them. And they do this in service of their mission.
“It’s a basic humanitarian impulse,” Pierce said. “We want to help people. We were offended by some of the things that we have seen related to immigration, like the family separation and the incarceration of non-accompanied children. This is a tangible way to do something in this area.”
And, said Fish, it has created new bonds and strengthened existing bonds within the valley towns.
“This is an outlet to work for your community,” she said, of the individuals, churches, and synagogues that have come together. “This is about taking care of each other.”
March 2020 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
Bahati Kanyamanza started organizing young people as a refugee at a camp in Uganda. Now he’s applying the lessons learned to youth in New Haven.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Bahati Kanyamanza sat in the cafeteria at the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street with IRIS staff and students from the Yale Refugee Project.
It was a weekly meeting to plan for IRIS youth programs the Yale students run for high school students, and Kanyamanza was there to learn about the program and the people involved. He started on January 29 as manager of IRIS youth programs and education advocacy and he’s still listening and learning about IRIS and the New Haven immigrant and refugee community. He’s visited IRIS programs and schools the students attend and has spoken at New Haven schools about refugees and immigration.
“One thing I’ve realized through the work I’ve been doing is that young people don’t know or appreciate the opportunities they have here, compared to young people around the world,” he said. “One of the things I want to emphasize is creating a program where young people learn as much as possible to benefit from all these opportunities around them.”
Kanyamanza has been organizing young people since 2005, when he was living in a refugee camp in Uganda and he and his friends wanted to do something about the forced and early marriages, prostitution, and drug use, as well as lack of access to education, that they saw around them.
“When we realized this was happening in 2005, we said we’re going to mobilize the young people to do productive work like farming, co-curricular activities, and sports,” he said.
They enlisted young people to help older camp residents with farming and household chores. They secured a plot of land from the government and started a primary school. In a nearby town they found a cheap house that they converted into a dormitory so students from the camp could attend high school. “We felt that education was the only way that would help us solve our problems in the future,” he said.
Kanyamanza finished high school in 2006 and went on to get a college degree, then a law degree while living in the camp. In 2016, after a six-year process, he came to the United States as a refugee with his wife and daughter.
He grew up in the town of Jomba in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His family—he was the oldest of nine children—were subsistence farmers, growing bananas, potatoes, yams, peas, sugar cane, and sorghum to make beer. Anything left over, they sold to pay for school and clothing.
In 1996 rebels raided his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, taking him captive and forcing him and other boys to haul away stolen food. Until he escaped three months later, his captors required him to do domestic chores, like washing their clothes. He was shot during his escape and at a clinic met a woman who took him in, until her village was attacked. For the next three years, he wandered from village to village, moving on after each rebel attack until he landed in the Kyangwali camp in Uganda in 1999. There he reunited with his father, who took care of him until his death in 2006. He wouldn’t see his mother and siblings for another 15 years.
In the United States, Kanyamanza and his young family settled in Elizabeth, N.J., until he enrolled in a program in sustainable development at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. He received his master’s degree in 2019 and took a job at a Boys & Girls Club in Dallas, Texas, before coming to IRIS.
At IRIS, he replaces Dennis Wilson, who’ll be transitioning to Director of Education.
“One of the clearly outstanding things about Bahati is the work he has done with youth and education,” Wilson said. “When he was a refugee in Uganda, Bahati was essentially running an NGO that supported and educated other youth who were in the camps.”
Along with encouraging immigrant and refugee youths to take advantage of opportunities in New Haven, Kanyamanza has another goal, character development.
“Having worked with young people for 15 years, I see our communities can prosper if you have the right leaders,” he said. “These are the future leaders we are working with. My belief is that the better we prepare them, the better the society ahead of us.”
January 2020 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
On December 25th of last year, Laye Camara and Fatoumata Sylla, along with their two children, moved into their new home in New Haven. They had arrived in New Haven just over three years earlier with the help of IRIS, after a decade as refugees in Morocco. They are the first IRIS clients to own a home through the partnership of Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven and its Shoreline community build group, Raise the Roof.
“This is my home, it’s my home,” Camara said of the two-story home he helped build in the city’s Hill neighborhood. It was a welcome change from the two-bedroom apartment they lived in nearby. They have more room and the monthly mortgage is less than they were paying in rent.
“It’s a very nice house. Thank you, God,” said Sylla, as she prepared a stew of fish, cassava, and peanut sauce in her spotless kitchen on a recent Sunday afternoon. “We came here and in three years we have a new house. I am going to bless God.”
Both are from Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa where coups, military rule, and political violence have been the norm. Camara was a student when political problems forced him to leave.
Since arriving in the United States, Camara has worked in a restaurant and a local medical device company. He is now a driver for Uber. Sylla runs her own hair salon in West Haven, specializing in African braids.
Starting last summer, Camara, Sylla, and friends contributed 400 hours of sweat equity to the three-bedroom house. Working alongside Habitat staff and volunteers, Camara wielded hammers, saws, and screwdrivers from Mondays to Wednesdays, then spent the rest of the week, including Sundays, driving for Uber. With his flexible schedule, Camara takes the children, six-year-old Marie-Pierre and three-year-old Yousouf, to school and medical appointments.
“They had a balancing act going on because they had two small children,” said Frank Walsh, a volunteer with Raise the Roof who served as the family’s partner on the construction project. “It must have been stressful for them to get in the hours and meet family requirements and job requirements. They certainly managed.”
The homebuilding was a joint effort of Habitat and Raise the Roof, which has sponsored and helped build 16 homes over 16 years. Prospective homeowners with Habitat contribute sweat equity on their home and on neighbors’ homes. After completing the required 400 hours and homeownership classes, families purchase a Habitat home with a 25-year, no-interest mortgage.
Houses are built from scratch, Walsh said, following a standard Habitat footprint—two stories, three bedrooms, with a kitchen and a living and dining area on the first floor. Both parents are still learning English, so when it came time to apply to Habitat for Humanity, they got help from John Nihoul, a retired engineer who has volunteered with IRIS as an interpreter, driver, and cultural companion. He met Camara at the IRIS offices when he heard him speaking French to his daughter. Nihoul is Belgian and French is his first language. Camara and his family had recently arrived, so Nihoul helped by interpreting as needed. When Sylla was in the hospital for Yousouf’s birth, Nihoul took care of Marie-Pierre. Although he has since moved away from New Haven, the family still calls to wish him well on holidays and on his birthday.
“He has quite a history of rising up to the occasion,” Walsh said of Camara. “It’s a wonderful story of how in the few years since he came to this country, he now owns a home. That is remarkable in and of itself.”
December 2019 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
Voices rose in song, love, and understanding in a Yale Divinity School chapel on November 19, as 100 people gathered to bless winter garments collected for refugees and immigrants in the New Haven community.
Since the fall of 2016, the Andover Newton Seminary at Yale, in partnership with IRIS, has held a winter clothing drive. For a second time, the seminary and IRIS joined in a service of blessing in Marquand Chapel. The gifts to be blessed included coats and fleece jackets, as well as wool hats knitted by seminary students. The seminary, originally based in Newton, Mass., merged with the divinity school in 2017.
“Today we are acknowledging the Warm Welcome project where our knitters knit year-round to provide warm clothing for our IRIS partners,” said seminary Dean Sarah Drummond, as she opened the half-hour service. “It is a time to celebrate life and love.”
The blessing took place during one of the daily worship services that are held while classes are in session, said chapel director Emilie Casey. At last year’s blessing, Ashley Makar, outreach coordinator at IRIS and a graduate of the divinity school, offered a sermon. Afterwards, said Casey, “there was a time for the worshipers to write notes of warm welcome that were attached to the items of clothing that were distributed to clients of IRIS.”
For this year’s blessing, Makar and her colleague Laurel McCormack, a current divinity student and IRIS staff member, brought members of the IRIS young women’s leadership group. The high school and college students from Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq meet twice a week for college and career prep classes, and for workshops related to leadership among women of color. The young women offered readings from the Scripture and the Qu’ran, as well as personal reflections. Divine Mahoundi and Noor Roomi, students at Gateway Community College, shared their perspectives on each other’s religion.
“We have found similar messages in the Qu’ran and the Bible,” said Mahoundi, a Christian from the Republic of Congo. “You have your religion and I have my religion. But let’s understand and love each other.”
“When we are far from each other, there are problems,” said Roomi, a Muslim woman from Iraq. “When we come together, we learn from each other.”
Throughout the service, the Marquand Gospel Choir, made up of students and faculty, performed several hymns. Many were written by choir director Mark Miller, a lecturer in Sacred Music at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.
The service closed with the blessing offered by Ana Kelsey-Powell and Jathan Martin, students at the Andover Newton Seminary.
“God, we come before you today asking that you would bless us with abundance,” said Kelsey-Powell. “Bless us, oh God, with an abundance of gratitude that we might be mindful of our privileges and advocate for others in all times and places.”
“Oh, gracious God, bless these garments with the warmth of your love. May it be, for those who wear them, a symbol of community support and solidarity,” said Martin.
They concluded by asking the congregation to raise their arms towards the clothing as a sign of the blessing.
“In this service,” said Casey, “our hope was to lift up these donated items and the people that offered them and the people that received them, offer them up to God in prayer.”
November 2019 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
When Fardeen Shahnan was five years old, his family left Afghanistan for a safer haven in neighboring Pakistan. Fifteen years later, after the U.S. invasion routed the Taliban, the family returned to Kabul. Unable to find a job in his field of civil engineering, Shahnan went to work as an interpreter for the U.S. military and military contractors. Because of his work, he accompanied troops on patrol, he began receiving threats.
“We were receiving calls from the Taliban, ‘we are going to kill you,’” Shahnan said. “They had my name, my picture, all my information.”
Based on his work for the military, Shahnan applied for a special immigrant visa. He and his pregnant wife, Spozhmai, came to New Haven in February 2014, where they were resettled by IRIS.
On Nov. 7, Fardeen and Spozhmai became citizens in a naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse on the New Haven Green.
“I’m feeling good, I’m excited,” Fardeen said after the ceremony. He and Spozhmai were joined by their 3-year-old son Yaqub. Their 5-year-old, Yusuf, was in school. Spozhmai is 37 weeks pregnant with their third son and Fardeen works in a New Haven hotel as an inspector in the housekeeping department.
“It’s great,” he said of the family’s life in New Haven. “People are so welcoming to refugees.”
In his remarks at the ceremony, Judge Robert M. Spector, welcomed the 32 new citizens from 19 countries, advised them of their responsibilities as citizens, and encouraged them to hold on to their heritage and culture.
“Those are the things that make you who you are. We don’t ask you to leave those things at the doorstep,” Spector said. “Your identity is not something you give up when you become a citizen of this country. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that.”
September 2019 | Written by John Curtis | Photography © John Curtis
In the past three years, refugee and immigrant resettlement has declined, deportations have increased, and the country faces a humanitarian crisis at its border with Mexico. At a meeting on September 19, members of the Valley Interfaith Council, a consortium of 22 faith communities, learned about local actions from those who have worked on aid projects, resettlement, and the sanctuary movement.
Niki Harvell, pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Oxford and the council’s chairperson, said increasing numbers of immigrants are moving into the Naugatuck Valley, and the council is looking for ways to welcome them. “I am hoping that people are inspired and aware of not only what is happening in the valley, but also that they are empowered with resources they can bring back into our faith communities and have a rippling impact,” she said.
Guest speakers at the meeting at the Seymour Congregational Church included Chris George, the executive director of IRIS; MaryJoan Picone, a Hartford area social worker and creator of the Emmaus the Migrant Advocacy Project; and Herb Brockman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden.
George offered a history of refugee policy, noting that since the election of President Donald Trump the number of refugees accepted into the United States dropped by 75% to a historical low of 30,000. “The numbers next year could be as low as 10,000, or maybe zero,” George said.
IRIS has a co-sponsorship program, he said, which trains community groups to resettle refugees. About 40 such groups are working with IRIS and have resettled about 320 people.
Picone does outreach to help migrant farmworkers in the Connecticut River Valley access basic health care. In Hartford she’s part of a team that helps asylum seekers, providing interpreters and accompanying them to court dates. And she has worked with humanitarian aid groups on the border in Arizona.
Brockman’s congregation helped resettle Jews leaving the Soviet Union, and, in 1996 resettled a Bosnian family. A few years later they resettled an Iraqi family.
After Trump’s election, clergy in Hamden considered how to continue to help immigrants and refugees. “This is not about politics,” Brockman said. “This is about who we are as a people of faith, who we are as Americans, who we are as human beings.”
With refugee arrivals declining, both George and Brockman said they have brought more attention to helping asylum seekers. One of IRIS’s co-sponsors has begun working with a family from Mexico that is seeking asylum, George said.
Brockman and other clergy have created a network of sanctuary congregations for people under threat of deportation. In 2011, he said, the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement established policies that houses of worship, as well as schools, hospitals, and rallies, would be considered “sensitive locations,” and as such would not be entered by ICE agents. “As people of faith we have houses of worship, and thereby we have protection for people who get deportation orders,” he said. Of eight people who have sought sanctuary in the New Haven area, he said, seven have secured legal relief.
After the presentations, council members asked about co-sponsorship. How great was the financial and time commitment to support resettled families? Only as long as needed to get them on their feet, George said, and no more than a year with a financial commitment of $4,000 – $10,000.
What does co-sponsorship training entail? A day-long session in which IRIS staff cover what’s needed to prepare for a family’s arrival and how to prepare the family for independence.
How long does it take refugees to find jobs? About 70 percent of refugees, George said, have work by six months.
For Tom Mariconda, deacon of Trinity Episcopal Church in Seymour, the meeting was about reaching out to others. “All we are hoping we can do is touch people’s hearts so that we would look at our brothers and sisters and see that we are all one and that the suffering of one is the suffering of all,” he said.
May 2019 | Written by Lisa Dilullo | Photography © Lena Kavalenko
It’s wildly colorful, and yet deftly organized. It’s bright and engaging, first stimulating and then calming as your eyes dart from the puppet theater to colorful learning aids, skip to the flags of many nations, and then linger on rows of books for the students who had just been dismissed.
Even empty of students, this tiny classroom for the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at the East Rock Elementary School feels electrically alive.
The architect of this sensory wonderland, teacher Norine Polio, stayed after school recently to discuss the ESOL program. Her ESOL tutoring assistant is Tamarah Shannah, an Iraqi refugee.
Their efforts are firmly supported by their New Haven Public Schools peers and administrators, a generous community of donors and tutors, and organizations like IRIS that help refugees and other displaced people establish new lives in America.
“It certainly takes a village to welcome these wonderful children,” Norine said.
With 38 years teaching experience, Norine understands the need for a diverse, supportive environment to enhance ESOL learning. She’s been teaching ESOL for 25 of those years, dating back to when East Rock hosted the district’s New Arrival Center.
Today, the East Rock ESOL instructional program hosts 60 children in grades K-8. Norine estimates about 20 are refugees; the remainder are immigrants or temporary residents whose first language is not English. This year, her students hail from 19 countries, and speak 11 languages.
The ESOL students have content classes, which the ESOL program is designed to augment.
“From my initial years at East Rock through the present, the administration has always trusted our subject area knowledge,” Norine said. “I so appreciate the supportive staff and caring teachers here. They, like I, see the enthusiasm for learning, motivation and family support these students embody.”
When Norine first started teaching ESOL at East Rock, she said children from Bosnia were the largest group. Throughout the years, the countries of origin have changed while other things have stayed the same: For example, the respect and care the staff shows by not questioning students about their backgrounds.
As the students adjust, Norine might learn more about life in their countries of origin. Some are stories of children being children.
“Just recently, we went outdoors to collect small rocks for a geology lesson,” Norine explained, pointing to the neat row of work papers and rocks lining the center table. “One of the children showed me a game they played in Syria, using the small stones in a game just like American ‘Jacks’. We have so much in common!”
Being in the field for decades has allowed Norine and her peers to follow the progress of ESOL students as they leave East Rock for high school, thrive in college, and later establish themselves in the community. “I’m continually amazed at how motivated these children are, and how well they do,” she said.
Again, though, Norine stressed the importance of “the village” in this success.
At any given time, the village may have an IRIS employee tutoring a promising student through temporary woes in math. It has a steady flow of Yale University tutors and generous donors. It has supportive families. It may have a New Haven business owner considering retirement, who recognizes a refugee’s incredible work ethic and honesty, and decides to sell the refugee his business.
Among the many families Norine has met during her 25 years in ESOL instruction, she said, “There are so many success stories.” Her eyes light up with energy, just like the room she’s sitting in. “I love it.”
April 2019 | Written & Photography © John Curtis
At first glance, Joshua Ruzibuka comes across quiet and soft-spoken. But when he steps behind the altar at the First Baptist Church in New Haven, his voice rises with fervor and he gestures like the Pentecostal preacher he once was. As his sermon moves from English to Swahili and back, his wife, Sandra, stands at his side, translating in both languages.
On the last Sunday of 2018, Ruzibuka filled in at the altar for Rev. Joseph Delahunt, who was away. About half the members of the congregation were, like Ruzibuka, Congolese. A choir of nine sang hymns in Swahili, before Ruzibuka offered prayers for the elections taking place the next day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo.) His sermon included verses from the Book of Exodus and the Book of John, references to Pontius Pilate, and hopes for the new year that was about to begin.
Although he now preaches in a Baptist church, Ruzibuka first ministered in a Pentecostal church in a refugee camp in Malawi. A nine-year odyssey that began in DR Congo when he lost his family to tribal warfare brought him there at the age of 15. In 2013, shortly after his arrival as a refugee in New Haven, he found the First Baptist Church. “I was looking for a way I could worship and keep my faith,” Ruzibuka said. “I was touched by how the pastor preached. The people showed me love. They have love and the Bible asks us to have love.”
Ruzibuka’s then-fiancée, Sandra, joined him at the church. Her sister followed soon after. Now 11 Congolese families comprising more than 50 people worship at the church on Livingston Street in New Haven. Their presence has revitalized a congregation that just a few years ago was on the brink of disbanding, providing a mission and sense of purpose as they sought ways to welcome the new arrivals to America.
“Before Joshua came, we were at a low point. Our congregation was demoralized,” recalled Kingsley Emerson, a retired pastor who is a member of the congregation. The church’s pastor had died, and the congregation had dwindled to about 40 people. “Now we have a vibrant community.”
“This church is going against the stream of older established churches, which tend to be in decline, as this one was,” said Delahunt. “A major reason why we are growing and there is a sense of energy here is because of this work. Other people join this church because of this sense of mission.”
For a time, the congregation considered co-sponsoring a refugee family, but soon members realized they had their hands full with what they were already doing. They also realized they needed help. They contacted Ashley Makar, IRIS’s community liaison. IRIS invited them to the same day-long training they provide to co-sponsors, who work with refugee families over the course of several months to help them settle into life in the United States.
“They wanted to know if they were doing the right things in terms of what services they were providing and how they were doing it,” Makar said. “It seemed like they had organized really well. They were doing great.” For more specific questions, Makar put them in touch with Linda Bronstein, IRIS’s senior case manager, who works with most of the Congolese families who joined First Baptist.
Congregants have organized a slew of services for the refugees, all of whom had been resettled by IRIS. The church offers limited financial support, conversational English, mentoring, help with shopping for groceries and clothes, planning a budget, teaching interview skills, and help with job searches. A physician in the congregation provides pro bono house calls. Every Sunday 18 volunteers drive people to and from church. Sunday school has seen a boom in attendance. With two small grants over the last three years from a benefactor committed to lifting people out of poverty, the church bought winter footwear for all the youngsters in the congregation at Payless on Black Friday. “Payless is already cheap, and everything was half price that day,” Delahunt said.
Ruzibuka has not only shared his new spiritual home with newly arrived Congolese families, but he also preaches there several times a year, on the final Sunday in any month in which Sunday falls five times.
His story begins in the 1990s in DR Congo, where his ethnic Rwandan family lived. The tribal violence between Hutus and Tutsis that first erupted in Rwanda recognized no borders and one night, Joshua, who is Tutsi, hid under a bed when a mob came for his family. He was six years old. He came out from hiding the next morning. “I saw my mom, my dad, my sisters,” Ruzibuka said. “I saw people running. I just followed them. I didn’t know where we were going.”
He followed the crowd to Rwanda, where a man took him in until it became too dangerous. Ruzibuka returned to DR Congo to live with family friends, until the threat of violence forced him move again. He spent a short time in Tanzania before landing at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, home to 12,000 people. He lived in a shelter made of plastic and subsisted on monthly rations that included a cup of sugar, some salt, a small bucket of maize, and two cups of beans. He had one large can that served as a stove and two others as cooking pots.
He was teaching hymns in Swahili to a church choir when the pastor took him aside. His voice, the pastor told him, was no good for singing, but great for preaching. He apprenticed with the pastor, then formed his own congregation, which grew to 250 people.
Eventually, Ruzibuka had a chance to seek asylum when representatives of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees arrived. After interviews and a lengthy vetting process, Ruzibuka waited to hear whether he’d been accepted to live in another country. Then a letter arrived. “I opened the envelope and it said, ‘Welcome to America.’”
Ruzibuka, now 27, is married to his fiancée, Sandra, who is also from the Congo. They have a 4-year-old son, Eldad Joshua Ruzibuka, and live in New Haven. Sandra is studying nursing at Gateway Community College, and Joshua works as a cook at the Madison Beach Hotel on the Connecticut shoreline.
“God is so amazing. God gave us an opportunity,” Ruzibuka said. “We have everything we need. You are free to do what you can. We are very happy. We enjoy life.”