Welcome the stranger? Gov. Abbott declines resettling refugees in the “friendship state”

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

January 21, 2020

Lusambya Mkuma and Apendeki Mbeleci
After fleeing war-torn Congo in 1996, Lusambya Mkuma and Apendeki Mbeleci lived in a refugee camp in western Tanzania for 23 years before being resettled in Fort Worth with help from Catholic Charities Fort Worth. (photo courtesy of Katelin Cortney, CCFW)

FORT WORTH — After living in a refugee camp in western Tanzania for 23 years, Lusambya Mkuma and Apendeki Mbeleci received some very welcome news. They were approved for resettlement in the United States and could look forward to starting life again in a new home.

With help from Catholic Charities Fort Worth, the married couple moved into an apartment with four children, found jobs, and began experiencing a stability they hadn’t known since escaping war-torn Congo in 1996.

“We were literally afraid of being killed because of the war,” explained Mkuma with help from a Swahili interpreter. “The rebels who invaded the Congo were conducting mass killings.”

A medical aide/nurse in his homeland, he was part of the persecuted Wabembe tribe. His wife was targeted because she looked Rwandan.

“Millions were killed, and women mutilated,” he added.

Compared to years spent in the crowded, tent-filled Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania — one of the largest in the world — Mkuma considers living in Fort Worth “a paradise” and sending his children to school “a dream come true.” But the 53-year-old meat packer employee still has one overwhelming concern. A sister, who is physically disabled, remains in Nyarugusu.

“She was attacked in the camp and I’m desperate to get her here,” he pleaded.

Efforts to bring his sister to Texas could prove difficult in the future. An executive order, issued by the Trump administration last September, gave state and local officials veto power over refugee resettlement in their communities after June 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced Jan. 10 that Texas would no longer resettle refugees — a move that generated outrage from faith-based agencies, like Catholic Charities, which routinely assist newcomers to the U.S. as part of its ministry.

Texas was the first state to reject the resettlement of refugees, according to Catholic News Service.

Lusambya Mkuma holds a photo of his sister
Lusambya Mkuma holds a photo of his sister, who remains in a refugee camp in Tanzania. (photo courtesy of Katelin Cortney, CCFW)

On Jan. 15, a federal judge temporarily halted the administration’s policy that gave states the ability to opt out of resettling vulnerable people fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. In his 31-page opinion, Judge Peter J. Messitte of the U.S. District Court in Maryland said the executive order is likely “unlawful because it flies in the face of clear congressional intent” and undermines the role of resettlement agencies by leaving the decision to receive refugees solely in the hands of state and local government.

The Trump administration is expected to appeal the ruling. Refugee resettlement in the U.S. has declined during this administration, from approximately 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 to about 30,000 refugees in 2018.

Texas accepted more refugees than any other state. In 2019, the number of resettled refugees calling Texas home was 2,460, according to State Department data.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth hopes to manage 225 refugee cases this year.

Following Gov. Abbott’s announcement not to participate in refugee resettlement, the faith-based nonprofit was flooded with messages supporting the agency’s work “welcoming the stranger,” according to CCFW CEO Michael Grace.

He believes detractors may not understand what defines a refugee.

“A lot of people are conflating the refugee issue with undocumented immigration. That’s our fear,” Grace explained. “They don’t understand the refugee issue on its own merit.”

In a letter presented to Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and members of the Commissioners Court on January 14, the CEO outlined how fear of civil war, famine, and genocide forces people to leave their home countries.

“These individuals have survived against incredible odds. They need safety and the chance to move forward,” he wrote.

Refugees chosen for resettlement undergo intensive security vetting and do not choose where they are relocated.

“But those placed in Texas consider it a godsend,” Grace continued. “Once here, they build careers, purchase homes, gain citizenship, and become vital members of the community. And we are proud to be part of their story.”

The Catholic Charities leader also gave Judge Whitley a copy of a statement by Bishop Michael Olson urging Gov. Abbott to reconsider his decision. Ninety-six percent of refugees resettled in Fort Worth by Catholic Charities reach self-sufficiency and employment within six months of arrival and “made our communities even more vibrant,” he asserted.

During the meeting, county commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0, to opt into the refugee resettlement program.

Ru Hta Dun, a refugee from Myanmar, tells Bishop Olson her storyRu Hta Dun, a refugee from Myanmar, tells Bishop Olson her story
In 2017, Ru Hta Dun, a refugee from Myanmar, told Bishop Michael Olson her story about fleeing Myanmar by night with her young daughter and living in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being resettled in Fort Worth. Bishop Olson urged Gov. Greg Abbott to reconsider his decision to no longer allow refugees to resettle in Texas in this statement. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

 

Susan Hensley observed firsthand the trauma that followed refugees to their new country. The retired educator spent most of her career teaching English to young students who arrived in Fort Worth from Myanmar, Nepal, Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam.

“Most of them were born in refugee camps so they didn’t know any other life,” she explained. “They would talk about kidnappings or living in the forest after the refugee camp burned down.”

Encouraged to express their thoughts through writing, the students crafted autobiographical stories that captured the horrors their families endured. One young woman described being born in 1994 during the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis by the ethnic Hutu tribe in Rwanda. After an uncle was killed and her mother disappeared, the author was cared for by a grandmother. She was only two months old.

Reunited with her mother 15 years later in the U.S., the refugee remembers her grandmother’s departing words as she left Africa — “Help everyone, no matter what. Treat everyone as you want to be treated, and always go for your dreams.”

Many of Hensley’s students achieved the dream of higher education and became doctors, teachers, and school administrators.

“I learned more from my students than they ever learned from me,” the former ESL teacher said. “It was amazing to teach those kids and see their strength, love of family, and appreciation for the opportunities they were given.”

 Seeing America through the eyes of a refugee makes you realize how blessed we are, Hensley pointed out.

“They come here not to take from our country but to give. They always told me they wanted to give back to their family and give back to this country.” 

Ru Hta Dun speaks with Bishop Olson

FORT WORTH — After living in a refugee camp in western Tanzania for 23 years, Lusambya Mkuma and Apendeki Mbeleci received some very welcome news. 

Published (until 1/21/2035)