A Boise refugee raised $2,000 to save 15 babies. Now he wants to help rebuild their African city.

During his first trip back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 20 years, former refugee Fidel Nshombo held a lot of babies.

He traveled to his hometown of Bukavu last year to connect with family he hadn’t seen since he was 12. He and an estimated 2 million other refugees were forced to flee the nation when rebels regularly invaded homes and shut down schools during the Second Congo War – the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Seven African countries and eight years later, in 2006, Nshombo escaped dire homelessness and refugee camps and relocated in the United States as a 22-year-old refugee.

During his homecoming to the Congo in November, he brought $2,000 raised from the Boise nonprofit Boise to Bukavu to free from local hospitals 15 women and their infants who were being held in poor conditions because they couldn’t pay their bills to be released. Many women were crammed into rooms with five, six or seven other mothers and their babies.

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Fidel Nshombo, right, returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with about $2,000 in donations from Boiseans. With that, he arranged for the release of new mothers, who weren't allowed to leave the hospital until they paid their bills. Provided by Fidel Nshombo

Women who had been there the longest were forced to sleep on the ground without a bed or food. Some were forced into rooms with people who were seriously ill or fresh out of surgery.

“When I went there and was holding all these babies, I could see my own baby there within them,” the father of five young girls said. “Watching these women say thank you ... there were no words for them. It just kept showing me the hardship is beyond what I thought.”

Each woman Nshombo freed had a request as he dropped them off at their homes.

“They kept saying all they needed, despite the hunger and the poverty, all they needed was for me to take one of their kids and sponsor their child through school,” he said.

Through Boise to Bukavu, that’s exactly what Nshombo plans to do.

The evolution of a nonprofit

Founded in 2008, Boise to Bukavu is the brainchild of Nshombo and his friends Ruth and Keith York, who met Nshombo when he began attending Boise’s YMCA and speaking about his experience throughout Idaho and the nation as a Congolese refugee.

“Every one of those days would have been a life-changing experience for us in our cozy little homes,” York said of Nshombo’s refugee experience. “The murder, the violence ... there are still things Fidel can’t talk about. To take all of that into account, his No. 1 obligation is still to go back and fix stuff there.”

That’s the kind of man Boise can and should support, York said.

The nonprofit, which is largely supported by the proceeds from Nshombo’s poetry book sales, speaking fees and donations, was initially founded to financially support his immediate family and help them emigrate from Africa to Canada.

Now that the majority of his family has been relocated to safety, Boise to Bukavu has a new mission, one Nshombo is taking to heart – use land inherited from his grandfather to build a primary school for Bukavu’s children.

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Fidel Nshombo spent days in the hospital in Bukavu, holding babies, talking with mothers, and negotiating with the hospital to pay as many bills as he could with donations from Boiseans. Provided by Fidel Nshombo

While some progress has been made toward true stability, many families still face inadequate housing, basic services, health care and an inability to access education for their children.

“There’s so much that’s happening there,” he said. “I have a bigger vision that I want to introduce (to the public), and I want to get their support. We can get movement on this by (this) year.”

But a lot has to come together to make the school a reality, York said. The organizational team is researching what it will take to construct the school, what kind of curriculum is required in the Congo, how many teachers are available in that area and how to sustain the project.

The research team also needs to have a better sense of what other nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations are doing in the area, York said, to ensure there isn’t a duplication of ideas or services.

“None of the people on the project has ever built a school, so there’s a lot of moving parts here,” York said. “But (Nshombo) doesn’t let things like rules or normalcy get in his way.”

From proposal to primary school

To get the project off the ground, Nshombo estimates that $50,000 to $100,000 will be needed, because construction costs are much lower in the Congo than in the U.S. York said those are initial projections that could change with time as the team learns more about what it will take to develop the project.

The school would be about a 45-minute drive from the Rwandan border and 30 minutes from downtown Bukavu, which has a population of about 870,000. Nshombo hopes the school, which will serve kindergarten through sixth grade, will have seven classes with 30 students each. Preliminary plans for the school include a medical dispensary, community room, library and computer room.

Nshombo said it can take as little as $6 a month to sponsor a child to attend school for a month. He hopes half of the students could pay tuition, while the other half would be sponsored.

“If I take my children to a buffet, that would pay for one child there to go to school for year,” Nshombo said. “For what it takes to feed my children for a few hours, it could change this child’s life there. It changed my perspective really a lot. I went to make a difference, but I left thinking, ‘How can I centralize this help all in one place?’ 

More than anything, Nshombo hopes to be an example to the Congolese people. He hopes they see that with some determination, they can make a difference in their own lives rather than waiting for someone from a European or a North American background to make change.

“I don’t want our story to die just like that,” he said. “I want to build the school so my children, and their children, and your children, could say there was something that came through here, through Boise to Bukavu, and together, there is still something left.”

Christina Lords: 208-377-6435, @ChristinaLords

Fidel Nshombo’s work

▪ Received the Idaho Refugee Integration and Success Award from the Idaho Office of Refugees

▪ Poet and author of two books (“Route to Peace” and “Route to Peace 2”), who is working on his autobiography to benefit the primary school project

▪ Vice chairman of the United Nations Refugee Congress, a nationwide advocacy agency for immigrants

▪ Serves as refugee youth mentor

▪ Serves on the Mayor’s Refugee Steering Group

How you can help

To learn more about Fidel Nshombo’s story, go to BoiseToBukavu.org or email Nshombo at fidel@boisetobukavu.com. To donate to the primary school project, go to gofundme.com/fidel-builds-a-school.