By Guest Nicole
LOWELL — The Congolese refugees huddled rapt around a stove in the early morning darkness. They had never used one before, and they watched in their new home Friday as a resettlement worker flipped the burners off and on.
They had never used a refrigerator, either. Or seen water pass through a faucet. Or been told how to lock a door. Or adjust a thermostat. Or even how to squeeze shampoo from a tube.
Twenty years in a refugee camp in Uganda will insulate a family from everyday conveniences that Americans take for granted. But here they were, bewildered and grateful — a mother, father, and five children who received a waiver from President Trump’s ban on new arrivals.
“We heard no more refugees could come to America. So, for us to come to America, we are very happy,” the 43-year-old matriarch, Vanisi Uzamukunda, said through an interpreter as she held a sleepy 7-year-old.
After Trump’s executive order last week barred new refugees for 120 days, the family worried whether this day would ever happen. But they were allowed entry because government officials determined that a delay in their scheduled journey would have caused significant hardship, resettlement officials said.
Hardship has been a constant. Their lives were shattered two decades ago when the parents fled unending violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But here was a fresh start only a 28-hour, continent-hopping odyssey away from their home in Uganda.
The family landed late Thursday night in Manchester, N.H., and then were ferried by resettlement workers to a two-floor apartment in Lowell. But even that simple drive showed the chasm between their former life and the one unfolding before them.
They did not know how to open the car doors, or how to fasten a seat belt. And when they finally stepped out of the cars into 20-degree temperatures, they saw snow for the first time.
“Now that we are in Lowell, this is our destination. We are finished,” said the oldest child, 20-year-old Nyirakabanza Muhawenimana, who took the lead in questioning workers from the International Institute of New England, the resettlement agency.
She asked whether the family could wash clothes in the tub. No, take them to a laundromat, replied case manager Sabyne Denaud, who emigrated from Haiti.
And so it went: Here is where the trash goes, make sure you lock the doors at night, do not let the children out alone, and call 911 on the apartment phone if there is an emergency.
“This is the first time they have lived in a house,” said Suad Mansour, a Lowell High School teacher who was one of four people to greet the family at the airport.
Suad Mansour explained shampoo to Nyirakabanza, 20, and her family at their new home in Lowell.
Mansour, who immigrated to the United States from Jordan, led the family on an initial tour of the apartment about 1 a.m. Friday. After they slept for a few hours, Denaud arrived later in the morning and refreshed their memories.
“You don’t have to worry about the new president,” Denaud said. “You don’t have to worry about anything. You are safe here.”
The family will receive a one-time $925 stipend per person from the federal government to help pay for rent and other basic necessities, but they are expected to become self-sufficient within six months.
“You have to keep your house nice and clean,” Denaud said. “You never know who’s going to come to the apartment.”
The International Institute, which last fiscal year resettled 623 refugees who had fled war and persecution in several countries, will help the family find work, enroll in school, register for Social Security, and learn English.
The challenges are daunting — the family does not speak English, for one. But regular follow-up will ease the transition to a strange country, said Tea Psorn, a program manager from the institute who came to the United States as a Bosnian refugee in the 1990s.
“These people only want safety,” Psorn said.
Their vetting process took nearly three years, the family said. A total of 684 Congolese refugees arrived in Massachusetts from 2011 to 2015, according to the state Department of Public Health.
In Lowell on Friday, after hours of explanation and advice from Mansour and Denaud, 16-year-old Maria Uwimana floated a final question: Where can we find a church?
The family members are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Maria’s query was answered a short time later when a small group of well-wishers suddenly entered the living room and welcomed the new arrivals with hugs and conversation in Swahili.
They, too, are Jehovah’s Witnesses and had been at a gas station only a block away when the day’s interpreter, former Congolese refugee Kafila Bulimwengu, called to tell them about the newcomers.
Approximately a dozen Congolese have already joined Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in nearby Chelmsford, said Markus Lewis, who is part of a church group that has learned Swahili to communicate with African worshipers.
Lewis shook hands with Sendegeya Bayavuge, the family’s 52-year-old father, who gradually began to relax as the day wore on. At the airport, sitting with his children after the grueling trip, he appeared exhausted and apprehensive.
But in the apartment, as each new wonder was demonstrated, the creases in Sendegeya’s face began to soften.
“There will be safety here. There will be a difference,” said Sendegeya, who had been a farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some worries remain, however: One daughter still lives in a Ugandan camp.
“Life was very bad in the camp; there were many problems,” including food shortages, Sendegeya said. “We pray to God to help those who are still in the camps to come here.”
Still, Friday was a glorious day for this close-knit family, which seemed humbled into silence by its introduction to the United States.
Nyirakabanza, the oldest child, was the outgoing exception: asking questions and trying each new knob and handle for herself.
She even practiced putting a trash bag in place.
“It’s a new life,” she said, breaking into a broad, beaming smile. “I feel happy to be in America.”
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