Changes in U.S. immigration policy are keeping this married Congolese couple apart

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Twendele and Lukoji pose for a wedding photo in May 2015. (Photo courtesy of  Lisette Lukoji)

Twendele and Lukoji pose for a wedding photo in May 2015. (Photo courtesy of Lisette Lukoji)

Andre Twendele played dead through the early morning, until the sun was over the forest canopy and the security forces were far enough away.

It was November 2005. He was a law student at the University of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a massive country at the heart of sub-Saharan Africa best known to Americans for its brutal war crimes and its wealth of minerals harvested for iPhones. Pres. Joseph Kabila was running the nation in autocratic fashion, overseeing a perpetual state of regional and civil war, just as he is today. Twendele, young and politically minded, had helped lead a student protest against him.

Twendele belonged to the Union for Social Democracy and Progress, a party known for its nonviolence. For this rally, he was head of security. That put him at the front of the line when, according to Twendele, Kabila’s men arrived and began beating and arresting protesters. In jail, Twendele befriended one of the guards, and so when the students were marched into the forest and lined up to be executed, the guard made sure Twendele was last. The first seven were killed. Then it was his turn. The guard pretended to shoot him. He fell and played dead.

When the guards left, “I tried to touch all of my friends there,” Twendele remembered. “My friends, they died in my presence,” he said. “It’s a long time ago but I have that image, I remember everything. I have that picture in my head.”

Twendele was 23 years old. A dozen years later, we sat next to each other on a park bench near the apartment in Elizabeth, that he shares with two other refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was an early spring afternoon, and a few joggers passed by, but he looked straight ahead as he told his story.

“So I start a new life,” he said. “And it was not easy.”

Elizabeth is an industrial city just across from Staten Island that has long been a critical portal for immigrants escaping persecution and searching for opportunity.

Germans and Irish came in the 19th century; European Jews and then Cubans followed in the 20th. Since 2015, Elizabeth has settled 646 refugees — about half from Syria, and 95 from Congo. The city accepts more refugees than anywhere else in New Jersey.

Chris Bollwage, the seven-term mayor, traces his own history back 202 years to German immigrants. “The city of Elizabeth has been a melting pot, but it hasn’t been a melting pot for the last 25 years — it’s been a melting pot since the Constitution,” Bollwage said. Its residents are said to come from about 50 countries and speak 37 languages.

Twendele’s journey — 11 years in a refugee camp, then one lucky application for a visa to the U.S. — roughly traces the experiences of the three million other refugees admitted into the country since 1975. But that path is now narrowing as Pres. Donald Trump enacts the most severe curtailment of America’s refugee program in a generation.

Last September Trump set the annual cap for refugee admissions at 45,000, less than half of the amount that President Barack Obama accepted and the lowest by any president since the Refugee Act of 1980.

Credit: Clarisa Diaz/ WNYC

Twendele was fortunate to get to the U.S. before new refugee restrictions went into place. But he now lives with a greater burden: Lisette Lukoji, a woman he met and married in the refugee camp, is still stuck in southeastern Africa.

As a teenager, Lisette Lukoji had a daughter, Lorette, with a boyfriend who went to war and never returned. She enrolled in school to become a seamstress, raising Lorette and living at her uncle’s house in Lubumbashi. That’s where they came for her. She was 19.

Lukoji told me her story as we sat side by side on another bench — this one in the main room of her home at the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, a landlocked sliver of a country that borders Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. The walls were made of mud, sticks and plastic served as a roof, and an old sweatshirt was used as the doormat.

“It was around 6 or 7 p.m.,” Lukoji remembered of the day she was arrested. “I was preparing food in the kitchen. I saw people enter that weren’t wearing uniforms.”

Lisette Lukoji
Lisette Lukoji at her home at the Dzaleka Refugee Camp, September 2017 (Matt Katz / WNYC)

Whether they were militia or military or police, she doesn’t know. She recalls her uncle was aligned with Paul Joseph Mukungubila, a professed Christian prophet and politician who had run against President Kabila in 2006. As part of an operation to round up Mr. Mukungubila’s supporters, Lukoji said, her entire family was detained and imprisoned in separate cells. Lorette was stripped away from her.

“To this day, I don’t know where she is,” Lukoji said. If alive, she’s 6 years old.

One night in jail three soldiers came to Lukoji’s cell. She said they raped her, all three of them. Then they handed her 5,000 Congolese francs, about $3.50, and told her to leave.

“I walked, I don’t know how to explain for how long, but I walked for a long time,” Lukoji said. She had neither shoes nor identification. She ended up in a dusty town bordering Zambia. For days, she lived on the streets, using the little money she had to buy beignets, mixing the leftover sugar with water for sustenance.

A Tanzanian truck driver stopped to help her. He smuggled her into Zambia, where she got on a bus to Malawi, which has hosted refugees for decades despite being one of the poorest nations on the continent. Lukoji walked into Dzaleka barefoot. It took her two weeks to get a pair of shoes, she said. She had to find someone to take her in, or build her own earthen house. She had to collect her own food.

“I realized that life would be very complicated there,” she said. “Very complicated, really.”

Dzaleka Refugee Camp was built as a prison camp for about 10,000 people. But for more than 20 years it has been home to the displaced from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere, with a population that now exceeds 32,000.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that it receives less than a third of the $18 million it needs to care for Malawi’s refugees. Charcoal is hard to come by, so children ask strangers for empty water bottles, which can then be burned and used to cook food. Refugees build their own homes, which lack indoor plumbing, and the camp’s one medical clinic mostly serves the neighboring villagers.

Twendele graduates
Twendele (top row, second from right) celebrates his graduation. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Jesuit Refugee Service

Yet there’s life in Dzaleka. People gossip, argue and dance. There are churches, schools and hair salons. Refugees may be forbidden by the Malawian government from working, but an underground economy is driven by barter and cash sent from relatives abroad. Lukoji sells clothes that she makes, and Twendele tutored refugees in his native French and, later, English. He became fluent while living in the camp because he won admission to a competitive college equivalency program there. Six days a week for three years he took online classes through Regis University in Colorado, earning a near 4.0 GPA. and a degree in liberal studies.

Some months after he graduated, Twendele fell in love. He remembers the day well: He was playing Scrabble, in French, at a friend’s house when he first caught a glimpse of Ms. Lukoji.

“That girl!” Twendele thought. “I want to talk to her. I don’t know where to start, how can I talk to her?”

They were both devout Christians from the Luba ethnic group. At first, Lukoji refused to give Twendele her phone number. “I didn’t even know him!” she said.

Some refugees get cellphones through charities, relatives in the West, or the underground market. When Twendele finally got her number and called, she hung up on him. Not interested.

But Twendele, handsome with a shaved head, was determined.

“He said, ‘Even if you refuse, I am the one marrying you, there is no one besides me,’” Lukoji said. “That even if I hung up I would be the one he marries and the father of my children.”

Lukoji, short with a bright smile, was astounded at his persistence. Eventually she warmed to him and they began dating. They’d go for walks together, maybe buying sweet drinks and stopping to watch soccer games on the big dirt field near the camp’s entrance.

And in May 2015, they married, right there in the camp. Their church helped pay for his suit. She borrowed a dress. There was a big spread of food: beans, rice, sweet potatoes, chicken, fish, salad.

“It was like a dream,” Twendele said. “She was very happy that day.”

From the beginning, they both knew they would have to leave the camp, so Twendele applied to the U.N.H.C.R. to resettle in a new country.

On December 19, 2012 — he remembers the date — Twendele had his first interview with a refugee agency representative at the camp. More interviews followed, including two with officials from the Department of Homeland Security. In each, Twendele told his story of escape and provided biographical information. Refugee officers ran his name against terrorist watch lists. They took his photograph and his fingerprints.

Finally, on October 22, 2016, nearly four years after the first interview, Twendele received the news he had waited so long to hear: He was headed to the United States.

But it was in the middle of this process that he had met Lukoji, and he opted not to change his application midstream to take his marriage into account. He assumed, correctly, that it would delay the process. He also assumed, incorrectly, that she could join him in six months or so.

“I was crying like a baby,” said Twendele. “She told me: ‘Just go. I know that you are my husband, and you love me, and will do your best to help me so I can join you there in the USA.’”

The next day, Twendele landed at Kennedy International Airport, thrilled by the flight across the ocean. “You stay in one place — you are not moving, but the airplane is going,” he said. “I didn’t understand that technology.”

The International Rescue Committee arranged to have Twendele picked up and taken to an apartment complex in Elizabeth filled with refugees from Africa, the Middle East and South America. He would be sharing a room with two Congolese men in a brick building on the same street where Jared Kushner’s grandparents moved after fleeing the Holocaust.

On the day Twendele moved in, Trump was campaigning in North Carolina, attacking Hillary Clinton and her stance on immigration. “She wants, in her words, to have totally open borders, which would destroy America’s middle class,” Trump said. He called refugees “Trojan horses.” Thirteen days later, he was elected president.

The job of resettling new Americans falls on designated nonprofit agencies like the International Rescue Committee, which the State Department pays $2,125 per refugee to cover resettlement expenses, like a security deposit for an apartment and a few days of food in the refrigerator, as well as administrative costs.

Twendele at work
Twendele weighs fish at True World Foods in December 2017. Credit: Fred Conrad

The IRC also holds classes to familiarize refugees with the complexities of New Jersey Transit and the welfare system. And it connects refugees with employers, which is exactly how Twendele got an overnight job at Elizabeth’s True World Foods, a sprawling, bone-cold seafood distributor that abuts the New Jersey Turnpike at Exit 13A. He earns $11 an hour alongside immigrants from the Philippines, Liberia, Nigeria, and Congo, cutting and packaging fish from all over the world that becomes sushi at high-end restaurants like Nobu in Manhattan. Bundled up in ski pants and three jackets, Twendele handles fish that he won’t eat — though he loves seafood, he has yet to try sushi.

By about 4 a.m., in the middle of his shift, Twendele was in the break room. He was on his phone, trying to reach his wife on WhatsApp, which allows free international calls. He used his first True World Food paychecks to buy his wife a new phone. They speak multiple times a day, and for hours at a time on the weekends.

“When I speak to him, I feel like he is here, even though he is not here,” Lukoji said from the bench in the refugee camp. She had just spoken with Twendele and was still smiling. “He loves me, and he tells me this on the phone. Like today he said, ‘I love you, I adore you, you are the mother of my children.’”

(Clarisa Diaz / WNYC)

Nearly 50,000 Congolese refugees have resettled in the United States since 2010. More than 2,500 moved to New York, most ending up in Buffalo and Syracuse. Almost all Congolese refugees in New Jersey are in Elizabeth, the second-largest refugee group behind Syrians, and through word of mouth an unofficial Congolese community group has sprung up.

Last July 1, I joined Twendele at the group’s Congolese Independence Day party in a Korean church above a Dollar Store in downtown Elizabeth. Twendele marked his country’s 1960 victory over the Belgian colonial rulers by eating traditional African fufu with new friends who spoke his language. They prayed, danced and drank (Sprite for Twendele; Heineken for his roommates).

wendell cellphone
Twendele and Lukoji talk by phone in December 2017. Credit: Fred Conrad

At the party, Twendele opened his cellphone. His wife had sent a photo. Over the image, using the English version of his first name, Lukoji wrote: “I love my husband Andrew forever.”

Elizabeth, with its Colombian bakeries and kosher restaurants, is a model for those who believe that the U.S. should be a haven during what is now considered the worst refugee crisis since World War II — there are more than 22 million peopledesignated as refugees worldwide, with a notable spike in the last five years.

But Elizabeth is also home to a privately run immigrant detention center, filled with people accused of overstaying their visas or smuggling themselves over the Mexican border. Elizabeth may be their last stop before deportation.

And near the city’s train station sits a garbage can that serves as a reminder of the risk of terrorist attacks by disaffected immigrants. In September 2016, a month before Twendele arrived, prosecutors say an Afghanistan-born man named Ahmad Khan Rahami stashed six pipe bombs in a garbage can. Rahami was a naturalized American citizen who lived above his father’s First American Fried Chicken restaurant in Elizabeth. The Elizabeth bombs were found before they went off, but Rahami is now awaiting sentencing for the other explosives he planted that weekend that actually blew up — in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, injuring 31.

Trump, who was the Republican nominee for president then, blamed the attacks on the United States’ “extremely open immigration system, which fails to properly vet and screen the individuals and families coming into our country.” And yet since the current vetting system was put into place in 1980, no refugee has committed a deadly terrorist attack on American soil.

Twendele in church
Twendele worships at Union Baptist Church in Elizabeth, in December 2017. Credit: Fred Conrad

Trump’s changes to the refugee program have directly affected Lukoji. His administration suspended the visa program for so-called following-to-join refugees, which was her fastest path to reuniting with her husband. A federal judge has since lifted the suspension, but more stringent security requirements for the visa are expected, which could further delay her application.

Lukoji does have another option. Twendele has filed an “affidavit of relationship” to certify their marriage and initiate the vetting process, but his application has yet to be reviewed, according to advocates working on the case.

Lukoji longs to leave not just to reunite with her husband; her health depends on it, too. She has blocked fallopian tubes, a painful condition that has left her infertile, according to a gynecologist whom she sees in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. Their hopes for children — Twendele wants as many as eight — now rests in the United States, with the long-shot odds of gaining access to reproductive services, like in vitro fertilization.

He is 35. She is 26. He calls this “the beginning of life.” One day in his apartment, Twendele expressed confidence, as he often does, in the future. “I know that one day I will be with myself, my wife, my family — comfortable,” he said. Not long after, his phone buzzed. The name popped up: Mon cheri, my sweetheart.

For more information about refugee resettlement in New Jersey, contact the International Rescue Committee.

This story is a collaboration with PBS NewsHour Weekend and the “Chasing the Dream” initiative focusing on poverty and economic opportunity in America.

pbs newshourThis story was republished on NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to WHYY.

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