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Brother and sister refugees from Congo arrive in Buffalo

Even the small cadre of media that greeted Kayambi and Kalombe Mutata Tuesday at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport was enough to unnerve them.

The brother and sister -- refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa -- had been in transit from a refugee camp in Zambia since Wednesday.

It wasn't certain until almost a week later that they were not going to be included in President Donald J. Trump's temporary ban on all refugees entering the country.

The 120-day moratorium still bans refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

However, Trump administration officials announced at a briefing Tuesday that they would allow 872 refugees who were already considered to be in transit to enter, through the end of the week.

Dan Regan, a case manager at Jewish Family Services, was at the airport Tuesday to greet Kayambi, 23, and her brother, Kalombe.

Among other details of the trip, their flight arrived nearly 1 1/2 hours late.

"Bonjour. Bievenue. Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez vous Anglais? Hello. Welcome. I don't speak French. Do you speak English?," Regan asked the pair, as they arrived through the doors leading from the gatehouse to the concourse.

Kalombe does not speak English, only French and Swahili, Regan said. In addition to those two languages, Kayambi speaks a bit of English, but was not really in a mood to talk to strangers with cameras and microphones. Both smiled meekly and kept their focus on Regan, who would be transporting them to their lodgings in a brand new country.

"Even without the news crews, a lot of the refugees come off and they're very nervous and skittish," Regan said.

Regan said the situation involving the pair had been confusing for almost a week. After years of waiting, were they going to be allowed into the country after the president signed an executive order temporarily banning all new refugees to the U.S. -- or would they make it in under the wire?

"Thursday and Friday, we were told no new arrivals. Cancel the apartments. Don't purchase new things. Then Monday, I got a call saying we are have new arrivals. They're coming tomorrow at 2 o'clock," Regan said.

Apple Domingo, director of New American Services at Jewish Family Services, said the siblings fled their native land on Jan. 1, 1999, in the midst of a civil war. They were still pre-teens when the war first broke out in 1996.

"They registered as refugees Oct. 15, 2010," she said.

"They're a free case here in Buffalo, meaning there's no U.S. ties or affiliation to anybody in Buffalo," Domingo said.

It's not uncommon for refugees to have lost many of their other family members in the midst of war and civil strife, Domingo said, recalling one woman who lost track of her entire family. She eventually married a man she met in a refugee camp and had two children before they all were eventually allowed to settle in Buffalo.

"It took her a good 16 years to find out all of her sisters had died, because they all got separated. She was single when they fled. Some people are in different parts of the city when outbreaks happen and you kind of just run with everybody else and you get separated from family," Domingo said.

She said members of her agency obtained a leaked copy of President Trump's executive order about a week and a half ago.

"Initially, we knew that this was happening but not to this extent. So we weren't prepared for the worst," Domingo said .

Before they had seen a copy of the executive order, they thought it would pertain only to seven countries in the Middle East and Africa with Muslim-majority populations: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Sudan and Libya. 

"We thought we would still be able to settle the Burmese, the Congolese, the Nepali. Lo and behold, we saw it was a moratorium for all refugees for 120 days. That was something we did not anticipate," Domingo said.

"We didn't know what was going to happen, if at the port of entry they were going to send them back or if they were going to allow them to come in because they were already in transit. So that was sort of like a waiting game for us as well. Our network is very good on tracking the flights and where they are and what's happening to our cases. So we were given a heads up that these cases were still coming in and that their point of entry and that they were allowed to continue on. We've heard before that they were taking people off the planes. I think these are the last two we're going to get for a while. We have five more Syrian cases that were supposed to come this week but their travel was cancelled," she added.

Kayambi and Kalombe Mutata are among the 872 new refugees being allowed into the U.S. through the end of this week under the new immigration order, after which all new refugee admissions will be suspended for 120 days.  Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely.

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