- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Two of Bismarck’s newest residents spent the past 12 years growing up under a tent on the other side of the globe.

The cousins, 22-year-old Kaswara Isingoma and 21-year-old Christiano Mwesigwa, were not yet teenagers when attackers from another tribe ransacked their village of Niakunde in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Everybody took off into the forest,” Isingoma said through a Swahili interpreter.

The cousins, then 10 and 9, stuck together as they fled by foot. Their siblings were nowhere in sight.

Left behind were the bodies of villagers murdered in the massacre. Among them, their parents.

Flash forward to this Thanksgiving: Isingoma, Mwesigwa and two other young Congolese refugees who arrived with them in August were set to wake up in the safety of their Bismarck apartment.

It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a solid roof over their heads and there’s milk in the fridge.

In Uganda where they lived as refugees for so many years, black tea was their go-to beverage. Drinking milk was a luxury only the wealthy could afford.

The cousins met their roommates, 19-year-old Patrick Ngabu and 18-year-old Yasini Ngabu, at a Ugandan hotel this summer just before their flight to the United States, the Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1MVzQXi ) reports.

The older of the brothers rested his head in his hand as he contemplated the events that led them to a Ugandan refugee camp a couple years ago.

“I cannot talk about leaving Congo,” Patrick Ngabu concluded.

Like the cousins, the Ngabu brothers lived under a tent while they attended school and worked, waiting for the day the United Nations would call them for an interview. That marked the start of a lengthy process of several more interviews as the international governmental organization determined their eligibility to resettle in a third country, such as the United States.

The men had no say in where they would go.

“When they told us we were coming to America, we were so happy,” Patrick Ngabu said.

The refugees attended cultural orientation before they left Uganda for good.

Some of the advice they received was practical.

“Some refugees come here and use a washing machine, and they put too much soap in,” Patrick Ngabu said. “It goes bust.”

Other lessons were directed at creating a sustainable life.

“They say we have to learn English, as much as you can,” Mwesigwa said, practicing his new language as he talked.

“They told us we had to work hard to have a good life,” Patrick Ngabu added.

That starts with covering their airfare. Refugees have six months to find their footing in the United States before they begin paying back the bill, said Turdukan Tostokova, refugee resettlement program site supervisor for Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, which has helped resettle the four men in Bismarck.

All started working at Cloverdale Foods Co. in Mandan within a month of their arrival in the United States. The men said they have enjoyed making Spanish- and French-speaking friends with the international staff.

Three other Congolese families reside in Bismarck, though they have not yet crossed paths with the newest refugees.

Here in the United States, the roommates do not have driver’s licenses. They live 3 miles away from Bismarck State College, where they practice English daily at the Adult Learning Center.

The Lord of Life Church gave them each bikes, which they ride to BSC before they head to Cloverdale to work the 3 to 11 p.m. shift.

With their first paychecks, they purchased warm clothes to make the bike ride bearable in winter.

“You feel your lips becoming so dry,” Mwesigwa said.

Patrick Ngabu interjected, adding that the men are doing OK despite the chilly weather. Volunteers from the church are also teaching them to drive.

Patrick Ngabu said he and his roommates often pick up on new pieces of American culture. For example, they learned it’s appropriate to keep quiet indoors so as not to disturb the neighbors.

The men make an effort to be considerate, even knocking on the other apartment doors to double-check that their late-night footsteps do not wake anyone up after they get off work.

Volunteers with the Bismarck Global Neighbors organization offered the men a chance to spend their first Thanksgiving around a dinner table with the usual American cuisine.

The roommates didn’t celebrate any holidays quite like Thanksgiving in the Congo or Uganda, but Christmas was a close second. They always gathered with loved ones on Dec. 25.

Now, they keep in touch with those people via Facebook and messaging services, such as WhatsApp.

Mwesigwa’s face lights up when he speaks of his older sister, whom he will be thinking about this holiday season. For the past 12 years, he assumed she was dead.

He got news she was alive elsewhere in Uganda right before he came to the United States.

“I wish I could see her,” he said.

He plans to get married in the United States and start a family. Like his roommate Patrick Ngabu, he hopes to play soccer and coach.

Ngabu first wants to obtain his GED certificate and college degree.

So, too, does younger brother Yasini, whose goal is to become a plumber.

And Isingoma plans to test for his commercial driver’s license to become a truck driver, which was his job in Uganda.

The men have no plans to leave Bismarck. Residents here have been nothing but welcoming to the new refugees, they said.

“I want to tell them we are good people,” Isingoma said. “Don’t be scared of us.”

This city on the prairie around the globe from Africa is starting to feel like home.

Speaking in English, Patrick Ngabu conveyed the sentiment echoed by his roommates.

“All my life is here,” he said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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