Guest column Judson Brown: Refugee family: ‘Thank you is my song’

  • Circle of Friends volunteers, from left, Cathy Wanat, Vicki Baum-Hommes, Sara Hunt and David Reckhow surround Maombi Mujawimana, at right, and her son, James. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 4/23/2019 6:30:16 PM

It was almost exactly two years ago on a cold and drizzly April night when a group of volunteers from Northampton were at Bradley International Airport in Hartford to greet the arrival of a family of three Congolese refugees — mother and father and a 1-year-old boy named Wilson.

Wilson we could not actually see. He was just a wrinkled, wriggling bundle, which mother, even as she was emerging from the cab, busily was wrapping up in a bright textile and strapping onto her bent back. A long taxi ride from the airport in Newark, New Jersey had been the last leg of their epic and exhausting journey from a refugee camp in Rwanda.

The greeting party was a half dozen of us white people, members of the St. John’s Episcopal Church “Circle of Care,” as we called ourselves, holding up bright-inked posters saying “Welcome” and “Murakaza Neza” (welcome in their native language of Kinyarwanda.)

Their smiles lit up the darkness, but no amount of smiling could disguise the exhaustion etched on the faces of Albert and Maombi.

Two years later, here we were at a reverse ceremony, where a standing room only farewell party looked like a little United Nations crammed into the family’s apartment. A few days later, the family — which now includes James, born Jan. 19, 2018 at Cooley Dickinson Hospital — was driven to Logan International Airport in Boston and loaded onto a flight to Salt Lake City.

That is where Maombi’s mother, siblings, nieces and nephews and a large group of her and Albert’s cousins and countrymen, fellow Kinyarwanda speakers and former neighbors in the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda, have been resettled — Maombi’s mom just last year.

It was a bittersweet parting, for we had grown strong and loving bonds with and around Maombi and Albert, Wilson and James. Their sweet and open natures were a magnet that drew in just about anyone who met them. The circle grew well beyond the bounds of St. John’s.

“Thank you is my song,” Maombi memorably said on one occasion.

Family lessons

This family taught us a lot about trust, about gratitude, about the arts of welcome and hospitality.

A full-throated and full-hearted “Welcome!” was what we heard every time we knocked on the door of their apartment. No matter the time of day, a visitor would be invited to share sticky golden Fufu or some of Maombi’s savory stews of potatoes, beans and kale. Kinyarwandan gospel music always filled the air. We feared the family was giving up a lot materially in leaving us. We knew we were losing something larger, deeper and harder to measure.

A lot had evolved and much had been achieved in two short years. The big event was the birth of James at Cooley Dick with our volunteer pediatrician, Jane Cross, shepherding a volunteer birth support team who worked closely with the pediatric and women’s health professionals at the hospital.

Wilson was thriving in preschool at the Montessori School in Northampton, which had offered him a full scholarship. Prior to that he had attended a very warm and supportive family day care center in Florence operated by a Lebanese woman named Miriam Fatallah, who had offered full-day care at a fraction of the usual fee. Thanks in part to Miriam’s initial encouragement, both boys were receiving early intervention education services from the Reach program in Northampton.

Albert was making close to twice the state minimum wage, with benefits, at the River Valley Coop, which was also an easy commute (by bicycle or with a lift from a co-worker) from Meadowbrook where they had actually found a rent they could manage. The co-op has hired many recently arrived refugees and bent over backward with on-the-job training. Maombi was busy with her infant at home, busy with sewing and clothes making, while enthusiastically pursuing English language instruction at the Center for New Americans.

The children were enrolled at Northampton Area Pediatrics located right around the corner. The whole family had received pro bono dental care from Wohl Family Dentistry, also within walking distance of their home.

The family had to bid farewell to their church family here — at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, located in Florence Center. We at St. John’s had no idea this thriving church, the majority of whose members are African-American, even existed prior to the family’s arrival. Elders in the church, including Lance and Evita Wilbur, are principals at the Pulse Café, a vegan restaurant in Hadley, which shortly after their arrival offered Albert his first job.

Circles of care

St. John’s is one of 12 circles of care, and 358 volunteers, who have been organized in Northampton since mid-2016, and lately also in Amherst, under the umbrella of a project called Welcome Home Northampton, a partnership between the city and the Catholic Charities agency in Springfield to provide material and moral support to incoming refugees.

Nine families comprising 46 individuals, mostly Congolese, who formerly lived in refuge camps in Rwanda and Burundi, are currently receiving support from circles of care, as well as, to varying degrees, from professional staff at the agency.

Each of these circles has their own list of helpers and helping entities from all over towns who were moved to participate in an ever-widening circumference of care. The attraction was something intangible yet irresistible that the families brought with them as a gift to us – a profound and uniquely African way of thinking about community summed up in the Zulu word Ubuntu, best translated, “I am, because you are, because we are.”

The stories are inspiring, while at the same time the process has often proven fraught with difficulty, frustration and stress.

The list of hurdles is long: learning serviceable English when work and home demands allow for little time to study, finding affordable housing (rare in Northampton), managing transportation when appointments and jobs are not synched to bus schedules or routes, translating the impenetrable jargon and navigating the maze of the state bureaucracy in order not to lose small but vital and disappearing state public benefits, finding jobs at a living wage and on a bus route, obtaining child care, and, finally, the myriad of small challenges of acculturation from shopping to bill paying to lining up cable accounts.

The underfunded resettlement agency’s staff are stretched thin; volunteers fill a million gaps.

These gaps are sorry proof in many cases of the parlous state of our public infrastructure and social ” safety net.” The poor and unfortunate among us know all about this, of course. For many of us upper middle class volunteers, it’s been an eye opener.

“When I tell people that helping a family adjust to life in Northampton entails about 30 people, they look at me as if I’m crazy. Thirty people for one family? ” said Sara Weinberger, a leader of the Congregation B’Nai Israel/Beit Ahavah/Laurel Park/Village Hill Circle of Care, to a gathering at the synagogue.

“But when you really think about what it’s like to come here without a word of English, no family or friends, no job, no knowledge of cultural norms or laws, no transportation, no home, nobody to look after your children, no knowledge of bill paying, credit, how to access medical care or communicate with your child’s school etc…why even the most competent people would need a lot of help.”

“It truly takes a village,” she says.

Or a small city.

Judson Brown is a writer and picture taker and all purpose volunteer, formerly a Gazette reporter.


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