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In Cleveland, Congolese Refugees Find “Freedom to Live”

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With Support From U.S.-Born Americans, Newcomers Thrive In and Give Back to Their Adopted Home

Cleveland, OH  –  On Easter Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a poignant piece about the new lives Congolese refugees are making for themselves in Cleveland, and the ways that they are giving back to their adopted home.

“This is a truly American story,” said Lynn Tramonte, Director of America’s Voice Ohio.  “You have a group of people who are new to America, gladly embracing and living our values.  You have a group of U.S.-born Americans, working to teach these newcomers about their adopted home.  At the end of the day, each person comes away realizing what they have in common, rather than focusing on what is different.  This is also a success story, and one that is playing out in communities across Ohio.  It’s a reminder that we need more understanding and less isolation from each other.”

Below, find excerpts about just a few of the men and women profiled in the article – both refugees and Americans who are working to help them adapt to their new country.

[In the Congo] in recent years ethnic strife and war has claimed more than 5 million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. The conflicts have been particularly brutal, marked by mass rapes, abductions, forced recruiting, use of child soldiers and sexual violence.

Yet those who escaped this horror can still smile, according to officials of nonprofit refugee resettlement groups in Cleveland.

“They’re really some of the most gentle people, very family-oriented, very giving,” said Eileen Wilson, director of refugee ministries for Building Hope in the City, part of the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland.

“They’re very much looking toward how they can not just be in America, but how they can help America, how they can give back,” she added.

Wilson likes to quote a Congolese refugee who once told her, “In Africa, you can survive. In America, you can live. You have the freedom and ability to make a new life, not just existing.”

And they do.


Fanchon Salukombo was a government customs officer in Congo, providing a comfortable middle-class life for his wife and nine children, when war forced him to flee the country in 2001, fearing for his life.

Three years later he came to Cleveland and started life over on the bottom economic rung.

The man who once ran an office, supervising workers, found jobs washing dishes in a restaurant and cleaning at a downtown hotel.

But it was worth it, according to Salukombo, 55, who now works as an instructional aide for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and is pastor of the Light Mission Pentacostal Church.

“I knew that coming here, at least all my kids can go to school and they can have a good life,” Salukombo said. “It wasn’t about me. It was about my kids.”


Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo, 29, said, “When I came to America, the number one thing that was in my mind was just education.

“I knew what my parents had gone through, what they had sacrificed so we can get here, so we can get an education,” he added. “So my number one goal was to be the very best student I could be.”

Coming from African classrooms where there were no textbooks or computers, American schools initially seemed daunting. “So my first six months here I bought a book every single day just to improve my English,” Salukombo said.

Determination paid off and Salukombo went on to graduate from Lakewood High School, where he was a championship cross-country runner, and Denison University. Salukombo represented the DRC in the 2016 Olympics, finishing 113th in the men’s marathon.

He is currently working in the admissions office of Marietta College, and has visited his homeland where his nonprofit Kirotshe Foundation has built a learning center for children in the area of the Congo where Salukombo grew up, and a running camp where student athletes can train, possibly for a future bid at the Olympics.

In thanking his teachers and the community here, Salukombo said, “If you reach out to somebody, they were always willing to help you, and that is not common back in Africa. That just gave me enough inspiration and enough courage to say I can do anything. I can succeed.”

Mayele Ngemba, 24, who came to Cleveland with his parents and four siblings six years ago, said he resisted suggestions by a local relocation agency to get a fulltime factory job as soon as possible.

Ngemba said he had dropped out of school in Africa to help support his family, and when he found out he was coming to America, “I wanted to go back to school and continue my education. I knew that if I came, definitely there’s nothing to stop me.”

After graduating from Lincoln-West High School, Ngemba attended Cuyahoga Community College, then Cleveland State University where he is working on a double major in political Science and public management, hoping to graduate in 2019.

He currently works as a patient representative for the Cleveland Clinic, and runs his nonprofit group, Advocates for Peace and Change, to aid refugee youth in Cleveland.

Ngemba said he encourages these kids to pursue opportunities in higher education, and several youths in the program have earned college scholarships. Group activities include field trips to area colleges.

“We all come from places where education is hard to get,” he said. “But here, it’s easy as long as you work hard.”

He is also campaigning for creation of a community center where refugees could pool their talents and resources, and a housing assistance program that would help refugees own their homes (as he does).


Happy Wetshindjadi, 37, tutored French in the Congo before he fled the violence and civil strife in 2007. “I knew the importance of an education,” he recalled.

So when he came to Cleveland eight years ago, he attended Cuyahoga Community College and got an associate degree in accounting. He hopes to continue his education and get a BA in forensic accounting.

For now, he has a job with Wholesale Supplies Plus, but said refugees need to look beyond work that just keeps them financially afloat.

“Most of the people are in cleaning jobs or some type that limits your ability,” he said. “I appreciate whatever job they’re doing. They’re getting by. They’re making progress socially and economically.”

But, “America is full of opportunity if you have the key, and the key to all of this is education,” he added. “You don’t just dump them to the lower job market to be a dishwasher. Give them a chance to build a better future.”

He advocates creation of specialty training programs for refugee youth, and particularly women. “Most of the families here are women [but] they don’t know how to read or write,” he said.

Beyond classroom education there are lessons to be learned in America, according to Wetshindjadi.

“You need to speak up for your own good. America teach you to speak out about your rights. Don’t be scared about it,” he said. “You learn there is law and order.

“And another thing, the biggest one in America, is that whatever I want, if I work hard enough, I can get it,” he added. “America gives us hope.”


The economic impact of Congolese and other refugees was detailed in a 2017 report prepared for the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland.

The Chmura Economics & Analytics report noted, “The arrival of these refugees has bolstered the region’s population, increased demand for locally produced goods and services, and boosted the regional economy via their employment and entrepreneurship. These economic activities also generate substantial taxes for the state and local governments in the area.”

Enrique Muniz Jr. can see that impact every time he opens the doors to La Borincana Foods on Fulton Road, a grocery frequented by African customers for its imported foods from their former homeland, and workers including African immigrants.

Muniz said that African and Hispanic cultures are very similar in their choice of food, and he has a personal affinity to refugees because his own parents came here from Puerto Rico and initially endured tough times and poverty.

“I know what the African community is going through, and that’s why I open my doors to them. Because I know what my parents went through,” he said.

“My African employees make a big difference. They work really hard, and I also want to help them fulfill their dreams,” Muniz added. “Once you’ve worked with these people, they’re like the best friends you could ever have.”

One of his workers is store clerk Lydia Mugoli, 23, who was born in the Congo and lived in Rwanda but immigrated to Cleveland with her parents two years ago.

She said her family left her homeland because of the fighting. “Even today, they are still fighting,” she said.

Mugoli hopes that she and her boyfriend can someday open their own business – “a garage, because my boyfriend is a mechanic.”

For now she’s just happy that she’s here. “I like Cleveland. I feel glad that we are here now,” Mugoli said. “We are safe. “We have plenty of opportunity, and we live well.

“I thank God for everybody who help us when we come here.”


Some Clevelanders have helped the Congolese as volunteer mentors or host families.

These include Jennifer Thornton, founder of the Local Abundance Kitchen, an outgrowth of the Hope Center for Refugees and Immigrants. The kitchen offers cooking classes taught by local refugees.

Thornton mentored a Congolese family in 2016 and was struck by their resilience. “It’s pretty remarkable, the things they had lived through,” she said.

She also enjoyed helping the family get acclimated to a new culture, aiding in tasks that may seem basic to Americans – such as getting a cell phone or setting up TV cable – but can be perplexing to a refugee.

“They’re just so appreciative for any help, that someone would take time to show them how to do it,” she said. “It’s a really nice experience.”

The Cleveland Heights family of Michael Goldberg, an assistant professor in the department of design and innovation at Case Western Reserve University, has hosted two Congolese families in recent years.

Goldberg said he saw the effort as helping his children have a better understanding of other cultures.

“Mostly it’s about just trying to help be an extra set of hands and eyes and support for these families,” he said.

In addition to helping the Congolese navigate various educational, business, transportation and social networks, support can involve exposure to some surprising experiences.

Goldberg recalled that when he took one family to the Cleveland Museum of Art, “the favorite thing that they did that day was riding the escalator up and down, because they’d never been on one.”

Among the Congolese that he’s met, “there’s still a palpable fear of going back to the Congo,” Goldberg said. “So I think they’re embracing Cleveland and the United States as their home. They’re appreciative to be here, and they want to make contributions.”

He also has been impressed by the Congolese work ethic, such as the woman who routinely took three buses to get her children to day care, and work, every day.

Plus, “they’re starting at the bottom of the economic ladder, so it’s hard,” he said. But “their resilience in the face of a very challenging environment is incredible.”

Members of the Middleburg Heights Community United Church of Christ have been involved in a project that started with a fund-raising campaign to help a Congolese refugee repair a house that he had bought at a foreclosure sale.

Through that effort, which raised $30,000, parishioners got to know other families and now volunteer as tutors, helping Congolese children with school work and learning English, according to Pastor Vicki McGaw.

McGaw said the effort has not only aided the Congolese, but helped parishioners “understand the gospel in a deeper way.”

Sometimes she notices the lingering past in the Congolese.

“You can see moments in their eyes where you sense they’re living with some terror and some really horrific memories,” she said. “Yet I find them to be incredibly joyful people.

“They’re not bitter. They’re not angry,” she added. “They just work as hard as they can, and do the best that they can.”


David Mugongo, 20, who came here in 2010 with his parents and 12 siblings, said he joined a Marine Reserve unit in Brook Park as a way to re-pay the country that provided them with a new home. “It’s a privilege being here,” he said. As for the risks associated with possible deployment, Mugongo said, “At the end of the day, you signed up to protect other people regardless of the sacrifices you’ve got to make.”