Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill family finds hope, fresh start 6,000 miles from African home

Berthe Mairounga (from left) and her daughters, 12-year-old Iréne and 15-year-old Elodie, enjoy a lighter moment outside their home in Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood. Mairounga has been in the United States for five years, after fleeing civil war in her native Chad and living for four years as a refugee in Cameroon.
Berthe Mairounga (from left) and her daughters, 12-year-old Iréne and 15-year-old Elodie, enjoy a lighter moment outside their home in Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood. Mairounga has been in the United States for five years, after fleeing civil war in her native Chad and living for four years as a refugee in Cameroon. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

Berthe Mairounga has faith that her family will overcome the scars of civil war and find a better life in America.

The 39-year-old native of Chad, Africa, shares a three-bedroom apartment with her children – Prosper, Moustapha, Job, Elodie, Iréne and Janvier – who range in age from 6 to 19. Two other children died in Africa, she said.

From her home in Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood, it’s just a short bus ride to the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals, where Mairounga has had 10 surgeries and grafts of skin from her leg to repair the damage inflicted by government soldiers who tortured her during Chad’s civil war. Many more surgeries are ahead, she said.

Medicare won’t pay for the prosthetics that might give her more use of her hands, but she has learned to adapt. It’s been a hard life, she said, but she has hope.

“I sing and I dance every day,” she said. “I can still cook for my children, and I can clean my house. God gave me the medical (help).”

She’s also learning to read and speak better English at the Hill Center in Durham. Mairounga recently applied for U.S. citizenship; she wants to vote and work to support her family. She recently took computer classes sponsored by the Kramden Institute, also in Durham, and the town of Chapel Hill.

While she can no longer sew by hand, Mairounga is looking for a new sewing machine to replace the one that broke. She’s also looking for a store willing to sell the African garments that her mother sends from Cameroon.

Central Africa may be half a world away now, but its people are never far from her mind. She has fasted, joining others once a week to pray that God stops the fighting.

Chad largely ended its 45 years of civil war, but conflicts and refugees from Sudan, Nigeria and the Central African Republic have been spilling over its borders. The government is working with international groups, meanwhile, to bring home at least 10,000 child soldiers from Sudan, and with the U.S. government to target Islamic insurgents.

An African life

Mairounga’s father was a farmer, until his death in 2012, earning enough money from his land to buy houses for both wives. Mairounga is the oldest daughter of five children; her father’s other wife had many more, she said.

Much of the food was sold at the markets in Cameroon, she said, but her father also fed many families who didn’t have enough to eat. They would cook outside, using peanuts, avocados, rice and other produce grown on the farm, and the chickens, cows and goats they raised.

The pineapples and mangoes would grow red-orange on the trees, until they were falling-off sweet, she said.

“I came here, and I bought the pineapple ... it’s sour. It’s like lemon,” Mairounga said. “I said, why did the people make me lose my money.”

She married at 13, common among the women in Chad. She would walk for miles to get water – until the villages got public pumps – carrying a bucket on her head and babies in hand. Her husband, Samson, would pack his vegetables into a cow-drawn cart to go to market.

More than 80 percent of the people in Chad are farmers, and about half the country remains impoverished. Since oil production started in 2003, however, it has grown to about 60 percent of the nation’s export revenues.

Their life changed when Samson was conscripted to fight the civil war, Mairounga said; he deserted after a couple of months and returned home.

“He said, ‘I’m Christian’,” she said. “How can I do bad things to people?”

Dozens of government soldiers came to find him, grabbing Mairounga and demanding to know where he was hiding. They beat her, Mairounga said, and the soldiers tied her hands together, holding them and her head to an open fire outside their home.

Her eldest son Janvier, then 10, ran to put the fire out, but it had seared Mairounga’s right forearm to her bicep and curled her fingers until no longer recognizable. The soldiers found her husband, she said; the family fled to Cameroon and never saw him again.

Mairunga grew still as she talked about that night. She has forgiven the soldiers, she said, eyes misting over, but she doesn’t like to think about those things or watch news of the fighting in central Africa.

“It makes me sad,” she said. “I cry. I don’t want to see the blood.”

Life as a refugee was hard, Mairounga said. School for the children was expensive and she couldn’t work. She dated another man, but resisted getting married again.

“I just (sat) in the road to ask the people for the money to raise my children. People gave me a lot of money,” she said. “I looked rich, but I didn’t like it. To sit and ask for money, it would not make me happy.”

She wanted her children to get an education, she said, and had heard there were people in the United States who would help them. It was hard to apply, however, because the papers that proved their identities were in Chad. Family and friends told her to stop wasting money on it.

She asked God to help, Mairounga said.

‘A joyful spirit’

Church World Service, a nonprofit worldwide charity, relocated them to Durham four years later, providing English classes, enrolling the children in school and helping Mairounga with food and housing assistance.

Mairounga speaks her native Lakka – one of more than 120 dialects in Chad – and French. French and Arabic are Chad’s two official languages.

Ellen Andrews, the office director for Durham’s CWS branch, said they serve roughly 650 clients a year from across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Up to 250 of those are newly resettled refugees, she said.

“Refugees are really some of the most resilient people in the world,” Andrews said. “Most of them do a good job acclimating to the language and to the culture.”

Mairunga has been helped by a network of friends and churches. The family, wanting less-expensive housing in a safe neighborhood, moved to Chapel Hill in 2013. They have a good life here, she said, supplementing their food stamps with weekly visits to the Heavenly Groceries food pantry at St. Joseph’s AME Church. Janvier is now immersed in his business studies at Chowan University in eastern North Carolina.

The other children are too young to remember their time in Africa.

Iréne, now 12, was only 3 when they fled to Cameroon. She has heard her mother talk about what happened and thinks she is “brave,” Iréne said. She does not think she would be as courageous in the same situation.

She and her sister Elodie, 15, dote on their mother, sharing hugs and laughter. They help out with meals and their rambunctious younger brothers, in between texts with friends. Like other teens, they tell mom when there’s a new gadget or shoes they would like to get.

Mairounga smiles and looks to the heavens. They don’t understand things cost money, she said.

The family depends, for now, on the bus and catching rides, but Mairounga said she wants to get her driver’s license and a handicap-accessible car. The Christ UMC van picks them up for church, where she volunteers, and the children sing, play the handbells and join in youth activities.

She recently learned that her mother may able to join them in Chapel Hill later this year.

Mairounga has “a joyful spirit,” her friends said.

“She is just always eager to give me a hug,” said Maggie Ivancic, administrative assistant at Christ UMC. “During worship, she always has a unique perspective,” sharing the story of how God has helped her family.

She wants to tell everyone her story, Mairounga said.

“Many people ask me, why, Berthe, you don’t think about your hand and you start dancing and (are) happy?” she said.

“I know God. He loves me and he sent his son Jesus for me.”

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