- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - The war is long behind them, as are their days living in forests and refugee campus, but life for Abdineko Mausa and Andjela Uredi’s family of 12 remains a difficult one.

For nearly two years, the Congolese family - with 10 children ranging between 2 months to 21 - have lived elbow-to-elbow in a tiny Johnson County apartment.

Some sleep on the living room floor, crammed between the couches and television, while the younger children sleep in a crowded bedroom with their parents. And, with a single bathroom, mornings before the school bus comes are a free-for-all for the shower and mirror.

“You have to wait - it’s so hard,” 19-year-old Situ, one of three members of the family who attend West High, said of the long line for the bathroom.

Said Emmanuel, 16: “It’s very difficult to live here because it’s a small house. Like me, I’m 16 right now - I have to sleep on the floor every day.”

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports (http://icp-c.com/1nWNHCV ) that will change this fall, however, when the family moves into a newly built six-bedroom, two-bathroom home - the largest ever constructed by Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity. The Iowa City-based organization has put nearly 100 families in homes over the past two decades - including many refugees - but likely none as large as Mausa and Uredi’s family.

“In our area, it’s so easy to forget there are a lot of people living in conditions like that, where it’s overcrowded,” said Laura Shoemaker, resource development director for Iowa Valley Habitat. “What can you do if you only have $600 or $700 a month to spend on housing? That’s not going to go a long way in our area.”

Mausa, 49, and Uredi, 39, and their six oldest children were forced out of their village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997 by war. For years, their lives were spent in a tent, living for a time in the wild, then for more than eight years in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

The older children, who speak English and translated for their parents in Swahili, can still remember those hard years living in a tent and often eating just one meal a day.

“I remember we used to run a lot, and we didn’t have food,” Situ said. “… It is a lot better (here), because in Africa, the life is so hard, the life is really hard - the education, and if you fell sick you don’t get good medicine to help you.”

Through the United Nations Refugee Agency, the family came to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2010. They eventually relocated to eastern Iowa, where they’ve lived since 2012. Mausa has a job on a factory line through a local staffing service, and they rely on government help, as well as local charities, to get by. The family’s three youngest children were born in the U.S., where Mausa and Uredi are currently working toward citizenship.

John Wilken, bureau chief for Iowa’s Bureau of Refugee Services, estimates that more than 50,000 refugees have settled in Iowa since the state’s program began in 1975. That number, however, doesn’t include refugees who have since left the state, or who - like Mausa’s family - are considered secondary migrants because they previously lived in another state.

Over the past five fiscal years ending in 2013, 2,580 refugees settled in Iowa, though just 31 were from the Congo. In recent years, the Burmese have been the top refugee group arriving in Iowa, followed by the Bhutanese and Iraqis.

Wilken said for refugee families, finding housing during the recession and the years after has been doubly difficult.

“Housing for families who would normally need three or more bedrooms is very difficult in Iowa,” Wilken said. “There really is a shortage for affordable housing, three bedrooms and up. That in and of itself is a huge challenge. … The economy has not been nearly as good, and they may not have had a lot of work experience that is transferable, or they’ve been in refugee camps for a long time and have almost no English. So for them it’s more difficult.”

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