Congolese refugees settle in York area

Sean Philip Cotter
  • An extended family of Congolese refugees will settle in the York area over the next few months.
  • A young woman and her daughter have arrived in the area already.

Eliza Abeca and her family fled their home country in central Africa 20 years ago, when she was about 4 years old, and have lived in a refugee camp ever since.

Until now. She and her 2-year-old daughter, Mlasi, landed in central Pennsylvania on June 29, and they eventually will make a permanent home for themselves in the York area.

Her family fled conflict in her home country so long ago the place now goes by a different name: In 1996, the equatorial country was Zaire, but a year later it became the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. Internal conflict within the country started in the mid-'90s, eventually drawing surrounding countries into a multi-year war that authorities believe has claimed 5.4 million lives.

Escaping the bloodshed, Abeca's family fled to the neighboring Tanzania, a more stable country in eastern Africa. They lived in the Nyaragusu refugee camp, which Google Maps indicates sits about 50 miles from the DRC border, for the past 19 years.

Soon, they'll live in a two-bedroom apartment in Spring Garden Township.

Moving Yorkward: Abeca and her daughter first stayed with a Seven Valleys-area family. They were there until Saturday, after which they moved on to a different family for another little while.

It's unclear how many of Abeca's family members are still back in the camp, but six of them will land in the York area by September. They'll be counted as a different family unit, but the goal is to settle them near Abeca and her daughter.

Kim Albert, the Seven Valleys-area woman who hosted the pair for their first few days in the country, said a few days before they arrived that she was "excited and nervous."

Christine Baer of Church World Services, right, speaks to York-area volunteers about their duties helping refugees settle in the area.

On June 26, three days before Abeca and her daughter landed, Church World Services, the organization settling them in York County, held an informational meeting about what the 15-or-so York-area volunteers helping out will be up to over the next several months.

Christine Baer, who works for the organization in Lancaster, led the discussion. This isn't Baer's first rodeo; her organization has settled 33 refugees around central Pennsylvania over the past 12 months, she said, so she was able to tell the attendees both in theory and in practice what things are going to be like. She went through all of the various responsibilities, with some people helping provide food, others transportation, others health services.

"This is certainly kind of this nebulous thing right now," she told them at the meeting. "But you will feel surprised by how strangely ordered it feels when Eliza comes."

One of Church World Service's main goals, Baer said, is working through the process in a way that empowers the refugees. The goal is for them to be able to handle their own affairs in a relatively short amount of time.

After fleeing civil war, refugee starts family in York

"We work toward everybody being employed within three months," Baer said. "Our ultimate goal for Eliza is for her to be self-sufficient."

But right at the start, right now, it's important to provide friendly faces and a hand in making sure she's set up well.

"The first night we're just gonna make sure she feels OK," Baer told the volunteers.

It's an understatement to say it's hard to be a refugee, she said — to come to a new place where people don't speak your language, don't have your culture, don't know you.

"A lot of it's not knowing who to reach out to," she said. "And that's what this program alleviates."

Eventually, the refugees will take cultural orientation classes to help settle into American life. There's going to be a wide variety of differences, she said, from the obvious ones such as language to others that aren't apparent at face value, such as the importance Americans put on keeping track of time.

Abeca, a member of the Bembe people, speaks Bembe and Swahili.

The refugee camp:An Al Jazeera article from May about the camp Abeca came from highlights the dangers of sexual violence for women in the camp. It talks about how two to three women a week report being raped when they go outside the camp in search of firewood. The article quoted an International Rescue Committee spokeswoman as saying: "Women face particularly high risks each day, traveling long distances in the blazing heat outside the camp to fetch firewood just to feed their children."

The camp intended for about 50,000 people now holds about 150,000 after Burundi refugees flooded in over the past couple of years, fleeing political violence in that small country, which is also nearby. Baer said the quality of schooling is in the camp is poor; especially for young women, it's common for people to have only a third-grade education.

The Al Jazeera report contains photos of the camp, showing people carrying firewood back to a cluster of tents, many with "UNHCR" — United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office — emblazoned in blue on the sides.

Refugees have become a hot-button topic in the country and other parts of the world recently, with the number of Syrians seeking refuge in other countries since civil war and the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State turned much of that country to turmoil. Some in the U.S. and other western countries have feared that terrorists could claim to be refugees and therefore sneak into America or Europe undetected.

Baer noted that the State Department runs background checks on all refugees before they come to the United States and that there's a long waiting period before anyone seeking refuge ends up being settled in this country. Abeca and her family's wait is about average — it's normal for refugees to remain unsettled for 17 to 20 years, Baer said.

She said there haven't been any issues in either direction between refugees and locals.

"We have not had any community difficulty," she said.

— Reach Sean Cotter or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.