Boise refugee family reconnects after 5 years
Of the five years Dauda Balubwila spent away from his family, the final five minutes may have been the longest.
Balubwila stood in the Boise Airport at 10 p.m. last Tuesday, Aug. 2, wearing brown Oxford shoes, beige slacks, a yellow dress shirt and a yellow flower lei. He held a dozen red roses for his wife, whom he had not seen since he resettled from Kenya to Boise in 2012.
“I was nervous,” Balubwila said. “It felt like they would not come.”
Behind him, 18 International Rescue Committee coworkers and volunteers formed a greeting line and held signs to welcome the family.
Balubwila is a case worker at the Rescue Committee, one of three refugee resettlement agencies in Boise. He said he was repeatedly jailed and tortured in his native Democratic Republic of Congo as punishment for his activism for free speech. In 2000, he fled to Kenya, trading violence for a new home where a shortage of life’s basics — work, food, stability — became the new threat.
Thinking he would never see or hear from his Congolese wife and children again, he started a second family — the ones he separated from when he was resettled in Boise. This was the family he awaited Wednesday.
Dauda Balubwila approaches his Kenyan family at the Boise Airport. “I felt like I would explode,” he said.
He waited for years for the paperwork to be approved to bring them here.
As passengers trickled out through the security gates, Balubwila shifted his weight from one shoe to the other. Then four familiar faces rounded the corner.
His youngest children, Jeff, 11, and Samantha, 8, sprinted into his arms, knocking rosebuds across the floor. Jacqueline, 17, walked behind them, one hand over her mouth, tears forming in her eyes. Then came his wife, Elizabeth Ng’Ang’A. She paused to watch Balubwila wrap his arms around their children before joining the embrace.
“That was a wonderful moment,” Balubwila said. “Even in the moment I saw them, it didn’t feel like I was seeing with eyes open. I felt like I would explode.”
They are happy. They say it is good to be here.
He wrapped his arms around his family. He kissed his wife. They then retrieved their luggage, headed to his two-bedroom Boise apartment, and shared an Iraqi meal of rice, meat and cakes prepared by a Rescue Committee colleague.
Then they went to sleep. The newest Boiseans had spent 32 hours traveling from Nairobi to Dubai to Los Angeles to Boise.
The children speak English but will need to improve. Depending on how they test, Jeff and Samantha will most likely attend Morley Nelson Elementary School. Jacqueline will probably attend Capital High. Balubwila, 55, will continue working at the Rescue Committee during the day and at Walmart on nights and weekends.
Life is otherwise uncertain. Balubwila will begin searching for a three-bedroom apartment. The family will begin working through a raft of additional resettlement paperwork.
Ng’Ang’A worked in Kenya as a housekeeper when there was work to be had before starting her own business selling women’s products.
“She will have to work here,” Balubwila said. “She wants to work here to help the family.”
The children will go to school. They get used to things pretty fast. Everything will be all right.
And there is the complicated matter of Balubwila’s first family, the one he left behind in Congo.
The last time Congolese authorities came to arrest Balubwila, he said, they ransacked his home and beat his wife and three children. Thinking that he would not survive another trip to jail — a previous stay resulted in a serious leg injury and a three-month hospitalization — Balubwila fled to Kenya. Without means to communicate, Balubwila started over and married Ng’Ang’A.
47% of International Rescue Committee clients who have or will resettle in Boise in 2016 were reconnecting with family or friends already here
Balubwila and his Congo family reconnected digitally after he resettled here when a refugee friend put them in touch using WhatsApp, the free digital messaging program.
Balubwila hopes to bring his first wife to Boise, but U.S. immigration law may not recognize his first marriage. Two of his Congolese children are older than 21, too old to resettle as children of a refugee.
But his youngest Congolese child, a 19-year-old daughter named Farida Balubwila, is eligible for child-of-refugee status and is applying to resettle. Balubwila hopes she will live with him in Boise within the coming year.
Balubwila hopes to end a five-year separation from one family and a 17-year separation from another. Such prolonged waiting periods are common for refugees fleeing chaos through bureaucratic channels, said Julianne Donnelly Tzul, director of the International Rescue Committee’s Boise office.
In some cases, family members flee to different countries, Donnelly Tzul said. In others, parts of families end up in refugee camps for more than a decade, or they don’t know if other family members have survived.
Then there are legal hoops to jump through.
“For some tracks in immigration law, only immediate family members can bring their loved ones, even if, due to deaths or rapes during wartime, they have adopted or cared for extended family as if they were immediate family,” she said.
Balubwila said his Congo family quickly adjusted to the news that he had started a second family in Kenya.
“I don’t like to put people in darkness,” he said. “I had to explain the situation. They understand, and there is no problem now. They are so happy that I’m alive.”
Dauda Balubwila, center, yellow shirt, a refugee from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, poses with his children Jeff Balubwila, 11, right, Samantha Balubwila, left, 8, Jacqueline Waithera, far right, and Dauda’s wife Elizabeth Ng’Aang’A, middle, green shirt. Balubwila’s colleagues from the International Rescue Committee in Boise welcomed them.
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