Trial by Fire: Three Congolese immigrants face loss of home after leaving everything behind in Africa to pursue American dream

By: Nathan Hoy

Head ducked low, arm covering his eyes, Junior runs back into the small two story apartment that is now blanketed in heavy, black smoke making it impossible to see anything. Frantically, he looks around for anything to grab. Seizing the largest things in sight, he grabs his TV and laptop and makes a beeline for the exit as the intolerable heat chases behind him. 

It’s four in the morning and the unimaginable has just happened.

Sitting around the dinner table, I joke around with my family that if a certain political candidate were to win, I would move to Canada. I say this and don’t think twice about what I’m actually saying and the very realistic horror that this “joke” beholds. What I don’t realize is that almost 8,000 miles away almost 500 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo have fled their country to come make a life in Cedar Falls and Waterloo.

What doesn’t quite make sense is why lots of these people would leave because a great majority of them were professionals in their native country. They were highly trained people who had skills that took years to obtain.

In the summer of 2014, moving into a place right around the corner from our house in Waterloo, four guys from the Congo settled themselves into the middle of Waterloo not knowing much English, and for some of them, none at all.

They had almost nothing — no possessions, no cars, no money and no friends. One of the guys, Michael, has been in the United States for two years, and his English was already communicable when we met him. The others couldn’t understand a word anybody tried to get across to them, which made a new life just that more difficult.

For the next year their lives consisted of heading across the street to a small church that gave free English lessons, moving on to a language class at Hawkeye and going to work at Tyson. After completing the language classes, Michael enrolled full time at Hawkeye to get a computer degree. He and one of the roommates decided to then move into a house duplex while the other two also found other housing. Along with Michael and his roommate Junior, a young man named Barbie also moved in with them.

While they are here chasing the American dream, the reality is that they spend their wee hours of the morning slaughtering pigs at the local butcher shop doing work that many would find grotesque and unimaginable. As heartbreaking as these kind of jobs are, it hits a little harder when these men talk about their prior life back home in the Congo.

“I used to work at a television studio,” Junior said as he sat back in his chair and reminisced. “Photography and video are my passion and were my profession. I only work at Tyson for the money.”

The country of Congo is known for having a very corrupt government. Junior would take pictures and video of this corruption and expose them by publishing footage and pictures to the local news. Once the government found out about his work, they placed a price on his head and set out to kill him. For this reason, Junior applied for “the lottery,” an opportunity for a certain number of Congolese to enter the United States on a 10-year green card visa.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to continue my passion,” Junior said as tears started to fill his eyes.

Michael’s life at home was in fact quite similar to Junior’s. They worked at the same studio, and Michael directed as Junior shot the film. Michael loved technology, editing and directing, and he strived to own his own business in the states creating websites and working with computer design. “Also, I’d like to own a cleaning business because I like to clean,” Michael said with a huge grin.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 9.05.07 AMWhere his heart truly lies, however, is in music. He would play the bass in church back home and is now a part of the Orchard Hill worship team playing the bass for the local Cedar Falls church on Sunday mornings.

The last of the roommates, Barbie, has only been in the states for six months and is also from the Congo. He’s currently attending a level one English class at Hawkeye, and like the rest of them, works at the slaughterhouse.

Working hard and sleeping little, these men have done everything it takes to start a life in the United States. Coming with absolutely nothing, the possessions they have been able to acquire mean more to them than the average American. For the past two years Michael and Junior have slowly but surely started to build a foundation that sprouted a little bit of hope to what the American Dream is all about.

Going to sleep on the night of Feb. 8, the guys would never have guessed that everything they had worked for would be ripped out of their grasps and gone for good within an hour.

At 4 a.m., studying for a test that next day, Michael noticed smoke radiating out of the heater. He quickly woke up Junior and Barbie and called 911. For the next 60 minutes, the three young men sat in the warmth of their car while they watched everything they owned and had worked so diligently for go up in flames.

The firefighters, however, were an answered prayer and a true picture of kingdom on earth. They worked for 13 hours straight in the -4 degree weather attempting to put out the entire fire, which was trapped between the second floor and the first floor ceiling. They then took the time and effort to search Michael’s room for his papers and green card. After doing everything they could do to recover the lost documents, they salvaged a folder that had all of Michael’s important papers.

The firefighters then called it a day and headed back to the fire station while Michael, Junior and Barbie sat at our dinner table in shock and not believing what had just happened.

After the whole journey to the United States and overcoming hardship, being able to move forward and persevere is all they know best.

As Junior finally laid down to rest after a day full of shock and disbelief, he knew that things can only get better and that this was only a bump in the road. “God is good. He always has been to me, and I have faith he always will,” Junior said seriously in his strong accent with a look of confidence in his eyes. “God is good.”

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