Note: This is the second installment in a series written by students at Duke University working with professor Deb Reisinger and journalist Geraldine Smith in a service-learning course helping central African refugees in Durham.
In the small living room connected to the kitchen, Eliza-Victorina Bushiri sits on the carpet with her oldest daughter, learning English with two volunteers.
The walls are bare except for a post-it note with the days of the week translated from Swahili into English. Near the door lie shoes of all shapes and sizes, from a tiny pair of bright pink sandals to adult sneakers. Nobody wears them inside. Children are running in circles around the two-bedroom apartment, laughing and chasing each other.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eliza, Olomwene, and their five children are living in an apartment complex minutes from the Durham freeway.
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In 2015, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 381 people from the DRC arrived in North Carolina, out of a total of 2,475 refugees. After the Burmese, they are the biggest contingent of new refugees.
Most of the Congolese families fled an ongoing deadly conflict in the eastern part of their country. They stayed for years in refugee camps in Uganda or Kenya, often without heat or running water, before getting a chance to move to the United States.
With language difficulties and very few resources, navigating the maze of house hunting, rent payments and lease contracts in English would be extremely challenging for refugees.
This is where local agencies such as Church World Services (CWS) come in. A resettlement agency working with 250 refugees a year, it taps federal and state grant programs eligible to refugees, helping to find housing a month before the families get here, furnished largely by donated pieces of furniture and home items.
The Bushiris were accompanied to their new home in Durham right upon their arrival in North Carolina. They pay $885 a month for their 940 square-foot apartment.
In another complex where many African refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic and DRC live, the mother of a family of six says they pay $850/month for a two-bedroom apartment. They were able to get a small discount at the expiration of their first one-year lease.
“The place is not great, especially because of the cockroaches and youngsters hanging out smoking,” the mother said. In addition, the school bus does not provide service for afterschool programs, meaning that children whose parents do not own a car or cannot pick them up at a later time cannot participate in extracurricular activities.
In many African countries, family homes have a space that is used as a waiting room for expected and unexpected visitors. Small American apartments make such an allocation of space difficult to organize: the living room is also a dining room, an office, a family room. Kids do homework on the floor. Teenagers often hang out by the staircases.
“But it’s OK, the mother said. “Coming from where we come, we can’t complain. One step at a time.”
Jourdi Bosley, community resources coordinator at CWS, says many refugees feel less isolated living within their respective cultural communities:
“People are comfortable among things familiar to them,” she explained. “It feels really good to walk around and hear your own language spoken.”
For now, the Bushiris’ rent is fully covered. But refugees who participate in fast-track programs are expected to pay for their own housing by the end of a set time period. This is a significant challenge in North Carolina, where statewide rents have gone up by more than 5 percent over a three-year period. In 2014, the American Community Survey estimated the median gross rent in North Carolina to be $803. For larger living spaces, the prices are well over $1,000 a month.
Despite these challenges, most refugees are able to continue paying for housing even after financial assistance expires.
“Self-sufficiency and empowerment are the foundation of this program,” Bosley said. Most of the refugees have a strong desire to become independent as soon as possible. They take advantage of the free English and job classes, and most find a job within three months that enable them to pay their monthly rent. Within six to ten months, a refugee is likely to be self-sufficient, she said.
Stable income doesn’t mean having enough to afford a bigger or nicer place, but it is enough to start dreaming. When asked about their dream house, everyone has a different answer.
“I, myself, prefer a house (to an apartment), because there is a lot of space. You are at ease, you can play music, walk around,” said Zita.
Olomwene gives a more abstract reply: “Every human in the world dreams of a good life. A good life means a house, quality education for children, a stable job.”
“How can I find the good life? That is the question.”
Gloria Zhang and Alina Pak are a Duke seniorand junior respectively.
About the refugees
Since 2002, a total of about 345 refugees have been resettled in Durham from the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. About 80 percent of them have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the countries are former French or Belgian colonies.