- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Bertine Bahige hid under his bed while gunshots echoed throughout his hometown of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sound of his mother’s screams dimmed the pings of bullets when the rebel soldiers entered his home. He watched a rebel smack his mother unconscious with the butt of a gun.

Rebel groups fleeing Rwanda invaded the DRC in the years after the 1994 genocide. They were looking for child soldiers and shares of the country’s mineral wealth.

They kidnapped 13-year-old Bertine and one of his sisters in 1996. He hasn’t seen his mother or nine siblings since.

He was a child soldier for the next two years. Then he escaped to a refugee camp in Mozambique. Five years later, Bahige began an odyssey that brought him to America.

With the help of refugee resettlement initiatives coordinated by the United Nations, the federal government and nongovernmental organizations, Bahige was able to start a new life in a Maryland suburb outside Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He learned English, worked at Burger King and found a job as a teacher’s aide in a local school.

The University of Wyoming offered him a scholarship in 2006. He moved west and hasn’t looked back. Today, he’s a math teacher at Campbell County High School and married to a Gillette native.

Bahige would see glimpses of Western life on television as a young boy in Africa. He never let his imagination run too far with the fictional version of the American dream. But today, he’s deeply rooted in the middle class - a socioeconomic category unattainable for most in the DRC. Bahige owns a home, has two children and coaches soccer at the high school. Wyoming, he said, is an ideal place for a refugee to take roots.

Sprawling cities and congested suburbs are a far cry from life in Africa, he said. When he moved to Maryland, he felt detached.

“When you come from nothing, it’s not easy to find your way in a big community,” he said. “That’s the beauty of Wyoming: small and family oriented communities. If you fall, people will pick you up.”

The state, though, isn’t a landing pad for refugees who escaped torture, war, human trafficking and other horrors unseen in the United States.

Wyoming is the only state in the nation that doesn’t have a refugee resettlement program.

Bahige is hoping to change that.

He is Wyoming’s delegate for the United Nations Refugee Congress. Since 2010, he’s reached out to the Wyoming congressional delegation, state lawmakers and Gov. Matt Mead in hopes of creating a resettlement program in Wyoming.

Despite roadblocks, he’s pushed the ball in motion.

He’s working with the UW School of Law to draft a plan that Mead will consider for adoption.

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