In a dimly lit living room full of donated furniture on the western edge of the Beltway, using an outdated laptop he salvaged from a neighbor’s garbage pile, Pirachel Dieudonne clicks through photos from a past life. In one, the 10 members of his exhausted family huddle beneath dirt-ridden blankets on the streets; in others, you see the hellishness of refugee camps, of child soldiers and camouflaged men piled into pickup trucks—to Western eyes, the unending jetsam of African conflict.
Dieudonne, quiet, his faint beard flecked with grey, clicks through his photos quickly—he’s seen them a thousand times before—until he comes to an image from his hometown in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His soft eyes tighten and a faint moan escapes his lips.
The photo shows a pair of steely-faced men, rebel fighters in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops, brandishing machetes and Kalashnikovs and posing beside a row of severed human heads, the victims proudly displayed like the spoils of a fresh hunt. It is humanity at its maddest, and though he is clearly pained by the image, Dieudonne does not look away.
“Sometimes, when my children struggle in school, when my family is having problems, I show them these photos,” he confides. “I say, ‘Look at where you came from. Look how far you have come. You study hard so that your life may be better one day.’”
Dieudonne knows what it means to struggle. For him, the struggle began on the day in 2002 when he decided to play a song on a radio station in his hometown of Bunia, a muddy city of 360,000 and the capital of the northeastern province of Ituri. Dieudonne was a pastor in several churches and a regular on the radio at the time, and the song—which called for peace between the DRC’s warring tribes—was played on radio and TV. He was branded a troublemaker. For much of the next decade, until he and his family arrived in Houston last summer, the Dieudonnes were targets, forced to shuttle from one refugee camp in Uganda to another, unable to return to the DRC as one of the most brutal civil wars in modern history raged, a conflict that has drawn in multiple countries and so far killed 5.4 million people, according to United Nations estimates.
When they weren’t interred in Ugandan refugee camps, the family lived on the streets of Kampala among thousands of Congolese refugees, scrounging for food and performing odd jobs to survive. Over the next several years, Dieudonne’s two daughters, both teenagers at the time, were sexually assaulted, a grandchild died due to illness and, in 2008, the entire family was attacked by several truckloads of baton-wielding police outside a UN food station, where they were sleeping alongside several other refugee families. One of Dieudonne’s daughters was beaten so severely she was left with permanent brain damage, and his wife suffers to this day from her injuries. And yet he considers his family lucky because local journalists wrote stories about the police beatings, which brought the Dieudonnes to the attention of UN officials, who in turn granted them official refugee status.
Every claim of abuse the family made was scrutinized during a grueling, yearlong vetting process. Multiple meetings with officials at the American embassy were required, and Dieudonne traveled to each and every one of them on foot, an eight-mile trek. He has, he says, “a heart of patience,” a habit forged during a difficult childhood as the son of a mentally ill father and a mother who abandoned him to his grandfather. Getting the chance to move his family to the United States felt almost like winning the lottery, and when US officials finally agreed to let the Dieudonnes settle in America, in 2013, it was exactly like winning the lottery.
“In Uganda, I felt like maybe one day there will be a possibility that things will be okay,” he says, noting that he spent three years trying without success to convince the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to grant his family refugee status. “I had to be patient and hang in there because of my family.”
Dieudonne’s story, however remarkable, is not uncommon, and neither was his destination. For the past two years, thanks to a thriving economy and low-cost housing, Houston has become the country’s number one refugee resettlement city. In the last few years roughly 2,500 refugees from all over the world have been brought to the greater Houston area by organizations such as Catholic Charities, who assisted the Dieudonnes, helping them find their apartment in the Memorial area, as well as jobs for Dieudonne and one of his daughters, schools for the other children, and more. It is these organizations, whose programs often receive limited funding from the federal government, that help refugees take an already crowded road to assimilation. Since 1978, more than 70,000 refugees from all points on the globe have relocated to Houston.
The Monte Carlo Apartments, two-story, stucco with red trim, sit on the urban edge of a leafy, middle-class neighborhood sandwiched between Briar Forest and the Sam Houston Tollway on the city’s far west side. Neither luxurious nor rundown, they are, like so many such places on the city’s fringe, virtually indistinguishable one from the next, crammed as they are into a car-clogged streetscape of fast food restaurants, half-empty strip malls, and gas stations.
It is here, squeezed into a four-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a building near the back of the complex, that all 10 members of the Dieudonne family —ranging in age from 3 to 51—have begun their new life in Houston. Outside, restless packs of teenagers collect in a courtyard and a few neighbors relax on porches with six-packs. This was once a haven for drugs and prostitution too, but new management has cleaned up the complex in recent years; its owner remains one of the few in town willing to accept large refugee families without a rental history or immediate employment, caseworkers say.
Lacking a car, and with the kids’ schools and their father’s job only a few blocks away, this small slice of the city is, in fact, the only America that the family really knows. They have seen downtown Houston from a distance but never visited, and because they can’t afford to eat out, McDonald’s has been the extent of their culinary exploration. Dieudonne would like his children to experience more than just the courtyard outside their apartment, where most evenings they can be found playing soccer with neighborhood kids. As for the children, seeing a movie and going to an ice cream shop are high on the long list of things they’d love to do someday. At the top of his own list, Dieudonne says, is seeing the ocean for the first time.
“My children heard at school that there is a beautiful beach in a place not far from Houston called Galveston,” Dieudonne says. “They would like to travel there someday very badly.”
Refugees, many of whom have been languishing in camps for years, are by necessity resilient, but adjusting to a sprawling city like Houston—penniless, car-less and often without language or job skills—presents a new kind of survival challenge. Government regulations allow charities to subsidize a refugee’s rent for no more than six months after their arrival, which means that the clock is ticking from the moment they step off the plane.
“We get a large variety of people,” Margaret Ayot says. She supervises the refugee resettlement program at Catholic Charities in Houston and has worked closely with the Dieudonne family. “Some people arrive with a PhD and lots of professional experience, but others were living in rural areas or in conflict zones and have never been to school or worked in their lives.”
In both cases there are challenges, Ayot adds. “They come to this fast-paced society, which expects them to work as soon as possible and fit in as soon as possible.”
Those who don’t adjust fast enough, especially if they lack family or other support systems, can end up in homeless shelters or, in at least one case Ayot recalls, a mental healthcare facility.
Those who survive have to make mental adjustments. Skilled professionals often find themselves working at fast-food restaurants, Ayot says, because companies are reluctant to hire someone whose work experience is not easily verifiable. “I tell them, in America, even Bill Gates used to work at McDonald’s. Now, he is a very wealthy man.”
Ayot also finds herself challenging new arrivals to construct what she calls a personal narrative. This is especially important, she says, when refugees are fleeing conflict or have spent years in limbo. Their lives back home were often plagued by insecurity and trauma, so possessing anything like a long-term goal was unthinkable. But here it is crucial, she says. Imagining a future life of continued upward mobility—imagining the American Dream—is as important for new immigrants as the rest of the population.
“You have to give them a story to make them see the future,” Ayot says. Keeping such dreams in mind is critical as new arrivals navigate their transitions into disciplined work environments and become inured to the rhythms and pace of a city like Houston. Among those who posit a goal and keep it firmly in mind, Ayot says, “we find that after one year they’ve usually caught up, and they’re driving cars and speaking on cell phones and aggressively building a life.”
Those days seem far in the future for the Dieudonne family. “I would like to find work in a hospital taking care of people,” says Dieudonne, who was a nurse’s assistant, as well as a pastor, in the DRC, “but for now I … put food in the grocery bags or I place the cans on the shelves,” at the Food Town on Wilcrest Dr. Though grateful for the 25 hours of work the market gives him each week, he wants to be doing the work he was trained for.
As it is, Dieudonne’s part-time hours and low wages don’t even cover the rent, much less pay for things like clothes, school supplies, dishes, cell phones, children’s toys, or Internet access. Vicky, the family’s 20-year-old daughter, has a job, as does 21-year-old son David, which helps, but Komwinzara, Dieudonne’s wife, does not. She is still plagued by back problems stemming from the family’s police beating six years ago, the same beating that left Dieudonne’s eldest daughter, now 22, too mentally impaired to work either. Meanwhile, three children and one grandchild—ages 7 to 16—are enrolled in local schools, where they are struggling with English so they can learn everything else. A second grandchild, three years old, stays at home.
A year ago, as the family readied to board a plane (their first) to the United States, life was far more precarious, but they drew a great deal of support from a small community of friends, mostly from their church’s congregation. Life in Houston, Dieudonne quickly realized, would be different. This was a place where “there was no people in the streets,” a place where they “spend most of their time indoors and travel by car.” These were not Africans, who “walk everywhere [and] make friends and talk to people.”
Dieudonne’s complaints are familiar ones, of course, shared as they are by almost every new arrival to the city. But while his sense of isolation may not be unique, the level of frustration and disillusionment is.
“Most refugees are coming from community-oriented societies, [where] if you don’t have a network you have nothing,” says John Eppele, a research consultant who works closely with international communities both locally and abroad. The success of families like the Dieudonnes, he says, will depend to a large extent on their ability to escape isolation, something that can’t happen unless both immigrant and non-immigrant communities reach out to one another. “When you have one friend, let alone a network, that opens up all this additional knowledge that you just can’t find on your own when you are new to a society.”
On a recent evening, a visitor to the Dieudonne household senses the stress immediately. It is a school night, for one thing, and after long days spent at work and in the classroom, most of the family is squeezed into their living room. As a family of Swahili speakers gathers around the TV to watch a Mexican soap opera in a Texas living room, the smell of Komwinzara’s slow-cooked cassava leaves wafts in from the kitchen. The teenagers are finishing homework on the laptop their father found in the neighbor’s garbage, and Jemima, Vicky’s 3-year-old daughter and Pirachel Dieudonne’s granddaughter, is bouncing from lap to lap. A somber recognition of struggles past and struggles yet to come is etched on all their faces, all save Jemima, smiling and laughing and oblivious to it all. To look at her face is to see not worry or pain but the promise that the struggle will all be worth it. To look in her eyes is to see the American Dream staring back at you.
“When we found out we were coming to America we started imagining our kids would go to school, we would be able to eat good food and we would get jobs, we would have our lives back.” says Dieudonne. “Now that we are here I think these things will be possible.”