Anna Mongo wasn’t sure how they all ended up on the shelter doorstep. She just knew it was her job to help them.
Mongo is the chief program officer at Vive Shelter in Buffalo, New York, a facility designed for people seeking refuge in the United States and Canada. Two weeks ago, she’d been expecting eight families from central Africa – about 25 people total – to arrive at Vive, needing shelter, food, and medical and legal services.
The shelter was already close to full.
“Even saying we would take 25 was a stretch,” Mongo said in a phone interview with Direct Relief.
Instead, about 100 people, primarily from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, showed up over the course of several days. They’re part of a larger influx of several hundred African migrants who have arrived in the United States in recent weeks.
A change, but still the same
Vive, run by Jericho Road Community Health Center, generally houses about 100 people per night. In addition to food and a place to stay, the shelter provides both an initial medical assessment and additional health care when it’s needed. It gives residents access to legal aid, enrolls children in school and adults in ESL or computer courses, and helps those who are eligible apply for health insurance.
Direct Relief has provided support – including funding, medicine, and supplies – to Jericho Road’s work around the world since 2015.
After the initial shock of receiving so many new arrivals, Vive’s staff and residents simply adapted. An activity room and prayer room were turned into additional sleeping space. Residents placed on cooking duty were encouraged to make foods they enjoyed for the rest of the shelter, which included both Congolese and Central American people.
“It turns out rice and beans are extremely cross-cultural,” Mongo said.
Brendan Raleigh, a Jericho Road doctor who treats the people staying at Vive during twice-weekly clinics, says there are just more asylum seekers than usual from the region.
“It’s a headline to everyone else, but there have always been a lot of Congolese people here,” he said. “The stories are kind of depressingly unchanged.”
“They’re hard to listen to,” Mongo said of the stories she’s heard.
“When they lost their lives, it hurt.”
The people who have arrived Vive shelter – who are primarily Congolese – first traded one danger for another.
Fleeing poverty, disease, and political violence in their native Democratic Republic of the Congo, they first traveled by boat or air to South or Central America. There, many of them found work and tried to settle down, including Kahamba, who identified himself only by his first name.
Kahamba’s father had been an unpopular leader in his village, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kwango province. When the community turned on his family, Kahamba fled first to Angola, then Brazil, leaving his mother and brothers behind.
But in Brazil, Kahamba encountered what he describes as untenable violence. Disillusioned, he joined a group of central African asylum seekers headed for the United States.
He describes a harrowing journey north, including a boat ride to Colombia that was fatal for many of his fellow travelers.
“The boats are not well equipped for that kind of journey. Lots of people lost their lives, including children,” he said.
“I felt like they were my brothers because of the journey we were taking. When they lost their lives, it hurt.”
Arriving in San Antonio, Kahamba was questioned and assigned a court date. A judge will ultimately decide whether his circumstances qualify him for protection in the United States.
Crisis, or opportunity?
Customs and Border Patrol said in a June 5 press release that the United States has seen a “dramatic rise” in people arriving from Africa; the release quoted a chief patrol agent, Raul L. Ortiz, who called the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”
Asylum seekers from central Africa have been arriving in San Antonio, Texas, after being arrested at the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector. From there, they’ve traveled in large numbers to Portland, Maine and to a number of other cities – including Buffalo.
Vive is welcoming the new arrivals with open arms. “We at Buffalo consider this to be an opportunity,” said Mongo. She explained that Buffalo actually needs workers in a number of different sectors, from medicine to education.
“There’s a wider community belief here in Buffalo that immigration is largely responsible for what eventually turned into a community revitalization,” she said, referring to an ongoing effort in Buffalo to create a more innovative, enticing, and financially sound city.
Dr. Raleigh agreed. “Our immigrant refugee community has really boomed in the last 30 plus years,” he said. “It’s become an important part of the fabric of the city.”
A community responds
According to Mongo, community support for the Congolese asylum seekers has been tremendous. So many people bought items from Vive’s online wishlist that the shelter took it off the Internet. Diapers, blankets, and other supplies have overwhelmed Mongo’s office.
“My high school chemistry teacher showed up and said, ‘This is great work you’re doing. Here’s a hundred bucks and a stroller,’” she said.
There may be more asylum seekers to come. The UN announced on June 18 that more than 300,000 people have fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo this month due to an outbreak of violence in the country’s northeast.
Mongo said Vive would welcome more Congolese residents – as many as the shelter can fit. Jericho Road, the larger organization to which Vive belongs, plans to reach out to the city about potentially finding accommodations for more people.
“Jericho Road wouldn’t mind triaging,” she said.
Life at the shelter
Among those arriving at Vive, Dr. Raleigh said he’s seen a number of pregnant women who have received no health care throughout their journey, some needing treatment for tropical illnesses, and people who have experienced traumatic events and need behavioral health care.
But for the most part, life continues along at the shelter. “It’s a little hectic,” Mongo admitted. Residents, wherever their origin, take turns with cleaning, cooking, and laundry. Children are enrolled in school and adults in ESL courses or training. Regular activities, like acro-yoga and hula-hooping, keep kids active.
“During the day, the building is kind of emptied” as people go about their business, Mongo said.
Kahamba said the shelter has given him and his fellow travelers a warm reception. “There are people like the woman who’s helping me right now,” he said, referring to Mongo. “May God bless her for what she’s done for me.”
Asked what he’d like to do in the United States, Kahamba said he’s anxious to be able to work. He’ll have to wait, though, because asylum seekers aren’t eligible for work until they’ve been in the country six months.
Through his travels, he’s maintained a treasured hope: “I want to study, because the world changes at a fast pace.”