Dec 13, 2012

Blurred borders, ethnic ties bring more African refugees to Springfield



(Photo by Father Bill Pomerleau)

By Father Bill Pomerleau

SPRINGFIELD – “When we were in Congo, they called us Rwandese. When we were in Rwanda, they called us Congolese,” said Christophe Niyibizi, a recently resettled Catholic refugee here.

Defining Niyinbizi’s citizenship, like questions about his ethnicity, was complicated in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, from which he arrived in Springfield in November.

The former church worker, along with his wife and three of his four children, was born in Kahira, a village about 80 miles from Goma, the besieged regional capital of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He considers himself Congolese, but explains that his identity is more complicated than that.

“My father was born in Kahira. My grandfather was born in Kahira. I’m a Rwandese-speaking Congolese,” he said in French to

Niyibizi’s native language is Kinyarwanda, a Bantu tongue which is called Kirundi in Burundi.  He is Tutsi, a designation which places him in what outsiders consider one of   the three ethnic groups of Rwanda, Burundi and parts of eastern Congo.

Until recently, people like Niyibizi simply called themselves Banyamasisi (“The people of Masisi”), after the region in what is now Congo’s North Kivu Province where their ancestors were resettled from Rwanda by Belgian colonial authorities over a century ago.

Groups with historical ties to Rwanda called themselves Banyamulenge (“mountain people”), in South Kivu Province, while both groups also called themselves Banyarwanda (“people from Rwanda”).

But after the 1972 mass killings of Hutus in Burundi and the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda brought refugees and militia groups across borders in the entire region, ethnicity became much more important in a region that has experienced near-constant war for 20 years.

(CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

Life was once relatively peaceful in the hills above Goma, where Niyibizi served as a catechist in the Nyakariba Parish. Like catechists in most of Africa, he not only taught religious education to children and adults, but also prepared parishioners to receive the sacraments and organized other activities in his far-flung parish.

“The parish had 12 missions. There were two priests, a couple of brothers and a few sisters, but they couldn’t possibly know everybody’s story. So if someone wanted to get married, it was our (the catechists’) job to find out if someone had been married before and was truly a practicing Catholic,” he explained.

But in 1996, civil war came to Congo. The Trappist Monastery of Our Lady of Mokoto, eight miles from the parish, was caught in the crossfire between local Hundes, Banyamasisi Tutsi and Hutus who had left Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

The monastery’s 30 monks – all Congolese except for three Belgians – sheltered and fed almost 1,000 refugees until a Hutu militia entered their grounds and massacred 100 civilians before their eyes.

The monks, along with several diocesan priests and religious in the region, fled to other parts of Africa and Europe.

The Niyibizi Family, which then included his wife, Thancienne Nukanutabana; his daughters, Colette Nukamana and Immaculée Dusabe; and his son, Patrick Iyamunemye, were among the tens of thousands of North Kivu residents who fled to Rwanda.

Niyibizi’s youngest daughter, Clementine Umwali, was born in the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. (Most Africans in the region do not inherit Western-style family names, but are given names by their parents that describe a quality or circumstance surrounding their birth.)

The 54-year-old Niyibizi returned to his native region in 2001 during a brief lull in the fighting in the Second Congo War of 1998-2003. But he quickly concluded that it was not a safe place for his family to stay.

(CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

To this day, more than 56,000 refugees from two Congolese wars remain in Rwanda. Thousands of new refugees have arrived there since May of this year, when a new rebel group known as M23, formed by disgruntled Tutsi soldiers in the weak Congolese national army, mounted a new attack on the Goma region.

It is just the latest chapter in a long-running conflict that has claimed more than 5 million lives in the last 15 years. Sometimes involving armies and mercenary forces backed by several African nations, the conflicts have been compared to Europe during World War I.

Unlike many Congolese in Rwanda’s four refugee camps, Niyibizi was able to continue his work as a catechist and as a gender violence educator for a relief agency. His wife worked as a cleaner in a maternity ward, while his daughters received high school educations outside the camps thanks to scholarships from a nonprofit organization.

But given the continuing violence in North Kivi, he concluded that he cannot go back to his native region. Fearing further instability, Congo has made it difficult for most refugees in Rwanda and Uganda to return, and has even revoked their Congolese citizenship.

Niyibizi accepted an offer of resettlement in the United States by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which arranged for his resettlement in Springfield by Jewish Family Service.

“It’s not just M23. There are now 40 rebel groups fighting in Congo. I want to stay in America, where there is peace,” he told

“We’re all taking English classes. Many of the words are the same in French, so I think I’ll learn it quickly,” he said.

The Niyibizis, who live in Springfield’s Forest Park neighborhood, attend Holy Name Church, and the occasional East African Mass celebrated at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Springfield. Christophe Niyuibizi already has been recruited to assist in liturgical planning and marriage preparation for East African Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield.

At least three families have come to Springfield from different parts of Congo in the last three years. Jewish Family Service also has resettled Rwandans who fled to Congo, the Central African Republic and South Africa. About half are Catholic.

Among this group are children who were born in nearly a dozen African countries. Depending on their personal histories, they may speak French, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda/Kurundi, Lingala or even English before they arrive in Springfield.

Teenagers among them have been known to answer, “It’s complicated,” when a curious American asks them, “Where are you from?”