- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Twenty-six Congolese refugees, all relatives of First Presbyterian Church pastor Aaron Ruvugwa, had planned to reunite in Columbia by the end of April, bringing an end the nightmares they’ve endured for the past decade.

Instead, they remain scattered across Uganda and Kenya, most of them in refugee camps.

Ruvugwa, 56, closely followed President Donald Trump’s executive order on Jan. 27 that banned not only citizens from seven countries from entering the United States but also refugees from anywhere. Ruvugwa became even more confused about what would happen with his family when Judge James Robart of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington blocked that ban almost a week after it was issued.

Robart’s ruling allowed 60,000 visas to be released, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, but Ruvugwa’s relatives remained in no-man’s land.

The situation remains unpredictable. On Monday, Trump released a new order lifting the ban on immigrants from Iraq and on current visa holders. Those changes are scheduled to take effect next Thursday. Refugees, however, will remain barred for 120 days, after which the Trump administration will decide which countries it will allow refugees to come from.

“We don’t know if there’s going to be an opening after 120 days,” Ruvugwa said. “My brother calls me every day asking me what’s happening here, and I don’t know what to tell him.”

Ruvugwa, who helped create the Presbyterian Church’s Agape African Fellowship to provide aid for refugees, became a refugee himself when he fled from the war-torn Congo to Rwanda in 1994.

“It’s not a safe country for me,” Ruvugwa said of the Congo. “There is hunger and sickness.”

After 10 years in Rwanda, Ruvugwa came to the U.S. in 2004. His family had hoped to follow his path and start a new life here, but Trump’s orders are getting in the way.

The Columbia Missourian (http://bit.ly/2nABIN6 ) reports nine of Ruvugwa’s relatives - including his brother, David Mberabagabo, his partner and their seven children - lived in a Ugandan refugee camp for almost nine years before moving to the country’s capital, Kampala, a year ago. Mberabagabo’s daughter, Sandra Nisingizwe, said the situation is unbearable.

“It’s very sad, but the worst thing is waiting,” Nisingizwe said. “We don’t know when we’re going to receive news.”

“We can’t go to school. We don’t have enough food to feed our family,” she added. “It hurts us to see how other people go to school when we need to stay at home. We can’t live this life any longer.”

Mberabagabo’s children can’t go to school because they can’t afford the fees. They’re currently living in a two-room house they rent for the nine of them. However, they’re afraid the landlord will kick them out.

“The landlord doesn’t like us because we are too many,” Mberabagabo said. “Sometimes we delay to pay, so she’s tired of us,”

Meanwhile, Jeanne Nyahoza, Ruvugwa’s cousin, is living in a Kenyan refugee camp with 12 other relatives, including her children and brother. The family fled their hometown of Goma, Congo, in February 2011 after Mai-Mai rebels broke into her house and killed her husband and her two older brothers. Nyahoza has suffered from heart problems since. The group had hoped to come to the U.S. this spring.

The Mai-Mai rebels also shot Nyahoza’s son, Jean Claude Bigirimana, who was a student at the time. Although he survived, he still has shrapnel in his head, but doctors refuse to do surgery.

“The fragments are too close to his brain,” Nyahoza said. “He can’t sleep, and he faints twice a day.”

Janvier Migombano, another of Nyahoza’s brothers, summed up the family’s plight: “There’s no more happiness.”

Their living conditions don’t cultivate hope. The 13 relatives share a one-bedroom house, and once a day they eat posho, a type of corn flour with beans, Nyahoza said.

Nyahoza’s family lives in Nairobi, where Ruvugwa said Congolese refugees are even in more danger due to their physical similarities with Somalis.

“In Kenya, they take people from Somalia and put them into jail. They kill people, too,” he said.

Anna Nyakigazi, Ruvugwa’s aunt, has spent four years in refugee camps throughout Kenya. The Missourian was unable to reach her.

African refugees face a long, complex process to apply for a U.S. visa. A limited number of refugees are accepted each year for resettlement in the U.S. In every case, the last rung on the ladder involves an interview with officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There are numerous obstacles that come before that, though.

First, an anchor relative in the U.S. who also is a refugee or has asylum is necessary. In normal cases, refugees must be outside their home countries to be eligible. For that reason, Ruvugwa’s relatives start the ladder one step ahead.

There are three different paths to the final interview with USCIS: Meeting with either the Resettlement Support Center Africa, the U.S. Embassy or the U.N. Refugee Agency is compulsory. The problem is that the process isn’t the same for every refugee, and it frequently changes.

Mberabagabo has met all the requirements but continues to wait for a visa so he can fly to Columbia with his wife and children. He doesn’t know why his visa hasn’t arrived, and the new Trump order would prohibit his family from coming to America anyway.

Nyahoza, Ruvugwa’s cousin, isn’t quite as far along. She started the process to get a visa in November and was rigorously screened by officials at Resettlement Support Center Africa. But she faced an extra obstacle. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sent her case to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

The embassy phoned her to let her know that her interview would be Feb. 3, but the interview never took place.

“My cousin has been going repeatedly, and the offices are locked,” Ruvugwa said. “She’s not getting any response.”

Anna Nyakigazi, Ruvugwa’s aunt, has been unable to even arrange a first-step interview with the U.N.

“When Trump banned refugees, the offices were closed,” Ruvugwa said. “They weren’t working anymore. Everything stopped. The U.N. was locked.”

Apart from leading worship at the Agape African Fellowship every Sunday, Ruvugwa takes care of his family by sending them money using a transactions app called M-Pesa. He is paid from funds collected and disbursed by the presbytery, according to the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“They are helping me to survive,” Ruvugwa said. “My family can live because we support them. They use the money to pay everything,”

The money he sends help them pay for health care, food and rent.

“Sometimes I have difficulties to pay my bills, too,” Ruvugwa said. He admits feeling frustrated and confused, and he fears for his family, even though he thinks they’re safe for now.

The ideal plan in Ruvugwa’s mind was to host his relatives with the help of the Missouri Department of Social Services, which is already accommodating immigrants from Asia and Europe. That is still in the air, since Ruvugwa said he doesn’t know every detail.

He wasn’t worried about getting jobs for his relatives. Ed Hander, one of the ruling elder members of First Presbyterian Church, said housekeeping jobs are typically available.

Marvin Lindsay, senior pastor at the church where Ruvugwa sometimes leads worship, wrote a letter on Feb. 3 to U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and to his constituent services representative Elizabeth Behrouz asking them to oppose Trump’s order.

Lindsay complains in the letter about the hardship and humiliation refugees already face.

“Pastor Ruvugwa doesn’t understand why the president has barred his Congolese Christian relatives from entering in the U.S., and neither do I,” Lindsay wrote. “It does not make our country any safer. It is an affront to both civic and Christian values.”

He never got an answer.

Blunt has offered his opinion about Syrian and Iraqi refugees on his website: “Our first priority is to keep Americans safe, and that means preventing terrorists from exploiting our refugee system to enter the United States and carry out attacks within our borders …,” he said in a news release. “Even if one percent of refugees who come to America wind up being belligerent, that’s too many.”

Lindsay also invited U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler R-Harrisonville, to meet the African refugees who worship every Sunday at Agape African Fellowship. Hartzler showed interest and said she would try to visit next time she’s in the area, Lindsay said.

Lindsay appreciated her response but said he’s disturbed by the lack of help for Ruvugwa’s relatives.

“I don’t understand why we don’t help people in need,” he said, “giving them the opportunity of a better life, where they can work hard, worship God and live a quiet life.”

___

Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com

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