A refugee family tells Columbia "thank you"

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COLUMBIA - A village wrought with violence; three nights in prison; and 14 years living in three different refugee camps - reflecting on their time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was not light table talk for Felix Nzoyiramya Mashako and his family. 

The family came to Columbia, Missouri in 2015, seeking refuge from a civil war that began in 1996 on the eastern side of the DRC.   

“I remember when my parents told me stories about it, because I was very young," Felix Nzoyiramya Masako said. "They [rebel armies] brought some wood for fire, and they said they are going to burn the boys. All of the boys.”  

His parents, Lydia Nyirabatutsi and Rutubuka Mashako, remembered a time when the DRC was at peace. They said, when they were young, they were farmers and cultivators.

"It was so good, and peaceful. There were no problems, and it was very nice,” Felix Nzoyiramya Mashako said, translating for his parents. 

But rebel armies backed by Rwanda and Uganda vied for control over the country. Felix Nzoyiramya Mashako and his brother, Thierry Nehemie, believed the conflict stemmed from two differences. One dealt with a language barrier. Language experts say 211 languages are listed for the DRC. The second difference revolved around culture. 

“Many people have different cultures. When you have different cultures, many times you don’t listen to each other. So at that time, it started the war and it killed people. They don’t respect it, so the fight started,” Nehemie said. 

Family members agree what got them through the tumultuous time was faith.

“We didn't have any help from, maybe the government, or other people. The only thing we did was pray to God ‘please help us,’ because it was a very dangerous situation,” Felix Nzoyiramya Mashako said.  

The family's story is not unique. According to the Refugee Processing Center, there are close to 2000 refugees placed in Missouri by the U.S. Department of State. Most have come from Somalia, the DRC and Syria. 

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says a refugee's journey is “a lengthy, and difficult process.” The committee breaks down the process into several steps necessary for resettlement in the United States: 

  • Become legally recognized as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a country of asylum
  • Seek admission to the U.S. Resettlement Program, which entails interviews with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) officer and an application
  • If the UCIS approves admission, refugees are matched by the Refugee Data Center with a resettlement program in the United States. Before refugees travel to the U.S., they go through medical and security clearance, as well as a cultural orientation

Refugees from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen have a longer process due to President Donald Trump’s travel bans, which rolled out in January. The Associated Press reported the Supreme Court justices will decide the legality of the travel ban on October 10.

The Mashako’s were “so happy” when they found out they were coming to the United States after completing the resettlement steps. 

 “We were in a difficult time, the situation was not good in Africa, it was not good in the refugee camp. It was very good news for us,” Mashako said. 

While the family completed the process of resettlement, it was still up against challenges upon arrival. The City of Refuge, a non-for-profit organization focused on helping refugees settle in Columbia, helped the family experience a smoother transition.

Barry Stoll is the executive director of the organization. He and other volunteers helped the Mashako family.

 “Everything from very basic needs of health, food, transportation and housing, all the way up to where they reach new levels of adapting,” Stoll said, "For example, home ownership, education and owning their own vehicles, all of the progression levels require assistance.”  

The brothers are licensed to drive. They also learned English within a year and have jobs. The parents also have jobs, despite not being able to speak English.

 “They can work, they can pay rent, utility bills,” Mashako said.  

 The family said it has an important message for the people here.

 “God bless Columbia, Missouri. Everybody, thanks so much for your support.” 

If you're interested in helping families like the Mashakos, visit the City of Refuge's facebook page