Soft Landing explores plight of the Congolese

Paul Robinson, who was born in the Congo, fled with his family ahead of advancing rebel militia and spent time as a refugee. He went on to found the Congo Initiative and was the keynote speaker at Soft Landing Misssoula’s debut talk on refugees. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

When Paul Robinson was a child living in the Belgian Congo, he and his family were forced to flee ahead of advancing rebel militia. While the experience played out more than 45 years ago, the memories remain close, just as history repeats itself for a new generation of Congolese people.

Robinson, who founded the Congo Initiative in 2003, recounted his experience both as a child born in the Congo and as a teacher in the heart of Africa this week before an audience of hundreds at the University of Montana.

The first-of-its-kind program was hosted by Soft Landing Missoula – a grassroots organization that opened the doors to a new refugee resettlement effort in Missoula.

Under the guidance of the International Rescue Committee, four Congolese families have already made their way to Missoula, making the history of the Congo and life in East Africa’s refugee camps a sensible topic of local discussion.

“I want to suggest that we’re all connected, even if people are far away,” said Robinson. “The story of Congo is also our story, and our story is also their story. Congo is very closely associated with us, and has been for the last 400 or 500 years.”

Robinson described the Congo as a large and wondrous place with a land mass as large as the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. It’s currently home to 80 million people that represent 250 ethnic groups and 700 dialects.

The land is rich in resources, holding half of Africa’s known resources, from diamonds to copper. The agricultural opportunities alone could feed the entire continent, he said, and its hydro-electric potential is vast.

“And yet it’s a paradox,” Robinson said. “It’s per-capita income is less than $800 a year. It’s ranked 226th out of 229 countries in the world, placing it at the bottom of the poverty index.”

For hundreds of years, Congolese have been subject to outside influences – traded as slaves and dominated by colonial European powers. More recently, Robinson said, Congo’s resources have been subject to exploitation, and the U.S. has played a part.

According to a 2016 essay written by Congolese students at the Christian Bilingual University of Congo, strife and genocide have shaped generations. Robinson, who referred to the essay several times, helped found the university in 2003.

“The first and final genocides of the 20th century frame our identity,” he said, reading from the students’ essay. “Between 1885 and 1915, during the first 30 years of Belgian mastery over our country, 10 million of us were beaten, whipped, maimed and killed, forcibly prescripted to build roads, railroads and infrastructure for the colonial state.”

More recently, local armies have raped, slaughtered and terrorized the county’s people in a push to control its resources. It’s estimated that between 3 and 6 million Congolese lost their lives “in a conflict that still simmers to this day.”

“That’s more deaths than in any other war since World War II, and how many of us even know that?” Robinson said. “Nobody really knows how many Congolese died.”

Soft Landing’s debut program did not address Missoula’s refugee resettlement efforts, nor did it identify the Congolese families that have arrived in the city. It did, however, discuss life in the camps where Congolese refugees stay, hoping to escape war and violence.

Mary Short Carr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee office in Missoula, spent 15 years working with refugees in New York. She moved to Kenya in 2014 to help implement second language English programs in Rwanda and Tanzania.

“The refugees we see worldwide has expanded more than four-fold,” she said. “It is the largest refugee crisis we’ve experienced as a human race. One in every 113 people on the planet is currently a refugee.”

Carr’s position with the Church World Service took her to several camps within central Africa, including Gihembe in Rwanda, Nakivale in Uganda and Nyaragusa in Tanzania, the later housing more than 64,000 Congolese refugees.

She compared the camp’s population to that of Missoula.

“Day to day is a struggle – it’s a challenge,” she said. “It’s a very hard experience. Refugee camps generally are not safe. They have limited resources, and the individuals who live there and who survive there are the most incredibly strong individuals I’ve ever had the experience to work with.”

Refugee children, displaced by continued fighting in north Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), queue for food in the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town, 521 km (324 miles) southwest of Uganda's capital Kampala, July 13, 2012. REUTERS/James Akena
Refugee children, displaced by continued fighting in north Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), queue for food in the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town, 521 km (324 miles) southwest of Uganda’s capital Kampala, July 13, 2012. REUTERS/James Akena

Life in the camps very by region, Carr said, though they often share common themes, that being the scarcity of food, health care and education. The average caloric intake in most camps ranges from 1,200 to 1,500 calories.

In many instances, Carr added, children are malnourished – their health impacted by the availability of food provided by the World Food Program, a division of the United Nations.

“Often times the first thing to go when funding is reduced to support refugee populations is the amount of food refugees are given,” Carr said. “Recently, in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the daily caloric intake went from 1,500 to 1,200, because the amount of funding to go to the refugee population was decreased.”

Despite the conditions, Carr said, refugee children often thirst for education, though that too can be hard to come by. The longer one resides in a camp, the less likely he or she will have an opportunity to learn. The classrooms, she said, are often makeshift.

“One of the questions I’m commonly asked is, if refugees know they’re coming to the U.S., why don’t they learn English before they come,” she said. “The simple reality is, they don’t learn English because there’s no opportunity for them to learn English, outside some very small programming that’s being provided by humanitarian organizations.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com