Share this article

print logo

'Thank you, Lord': The painful — and legal — path one refugee family took to Buffalo

The story of Albert Makila Mangapi and his family illustrates how difficult and time-consuming the vetting process has always been for refugees who want to come to America, even before Donald Trump became president.

She collapsed to her knees in prayer, just as she did amid war back in Africa, just as she did in her modest new apartment in Buffalo.

This time, though, Micheline Kwanda Makila dropped to the hard tile floor of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where her prayers of the past 19 months would soon be answered.

Glass doors slid open, and Makila's 24-year-old daughter, Agath Mwamini, walked through, beaming. Mother and daughter met in an embrace and fell to the floor as two brothers and two sisters and a very proud father screamed in delight.

"Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Father!" Micheline, 47, cried as family members started singing a hymn.

This joyous scene played out 11 days ago, reuniting the family of Albert Makila Mangapi and finally bringing it peace.

That scene also brought an end to a saga that illustrates how difficult and time-consuming the vetting process has always been for refugees who want to come to America, even before Donald Trump became president. Most of the family endured a four-year wait interspersed with multiple interviews and background checks. Agath had to wait even longer after Trump ordered even tougher reviews of prospective newcomers.

Albert and his family fled war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 and lived for years in Kenya, sustained only by their faith and friends who share it. Albert, now 52, never knew they might qualify as refugees, eligible to resettle in America, until 2012.

His family of seven finally reunited in Buffalo on March 21.

Today they praise their new homeland, even though Trump's refugee crackdown delayed Agath's arrival. They say the family's separation was an understandable part of the complicated and lengthy process refugees must navigate to make it from their war-torn homelands to the American cities, like Buffalo, that welcome them.

Paul Makila, Albert's eldest son, was among the first of the family to arrive in Buffalo. He summed up the lesson the family learned through it all.

"It's easier to get through the gates of heaven than it is to get into the United States," he said.

Fleeing 'Africa's World War'

When the family left its homeland in 2011, it was as if they had fled the gates of hell. A sprawling land of rain forests and savanna straddling the equator, the Democratic Republic of the Congo long played host to regional rebellion. In the late 1990s, those conflicts morphed into a byzantine battle among nine warring nations and countless local factions.

Called the Second Congo War or Africa's World War, the conflict claimed 5.4 million lives between 1998 and 2003 – more than any war since World War II. Atrocities spilled across the countryside. Among the grim statistics U.S. researchers later documented: 1,150 women raped every day.

"Everywhere, there were people who could kill you," recalled Albert, a vocational education teacher back home. "I just felt we had to get away from the Congo – for security, for our lives."

More than a million people agreed, fleeing to other sub-Saharan African countries.

Paul Makila carries his sister Agath's suitcase as the family arrives home from the airport. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Albert and Micheline, children in tow, first rushed across the border to Tanzania, then to a refugee camp in Kenya – where they found the same divisions that brought war to their homeland.

"People were crazy, killing people in the camp," he recalled. "It was like the place I came from."

So in 2002, Albert and his family traveled to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where they settled into a life in hiding. An illegal immigrant not allowed to work, Albert preached and taught at a church in exchange for housing and sustenance as he raised his family.

So it went for a decade until Albert met with a representative from the United Nations High Commission of Refugees in 2012.

"I never expected or thought we could go to America," he said.

But the UN representative told him he could, and of course he wanted to.

Finally, he thought, he might find another home.

Then the questions started.

A tough vetting

Albert got a call from a nearby U.S. Refugee Processing Center, which does background checks on refugees who want to come to America. They interviewed him for three hours, asking for every detail about his life in the Congo and in Kenya.

Then they interviewed his wife and children, asking the same questions in a different way. The Americans were looking for liars – expats who came to Kenya for economic reasons, or criminal fugitives falsely claiming to be refugees.

Such liars aren't welcome in America, but refugees are. Under a humanitarian aid program formalized by Congress in 1980, the United States has welcomed tens of thousands of outcasts a year ever since.

But the government is careful about who it welcomes. Albert recalled being questioned about 10 times by U.S. government agencies doing background checks.

The U.S. investigates every refugee's case separately, so they proceed at different paces, said Apple Domingo, New American director at Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, which settled the family in Buffalo.

Micheline Makila squeezes her daughter Agath as they arrive home from the airport. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Federal agents got done vetting Albert and Micheline's eldest children first. So sons Paul Makila and Bodwin Mangapi and daughter Stephanie Makila moved to Buffalo in June 2016.

Two months later, Albert, Micheline and their youngest daughter Glory Lukelu got the go-ahead to go to Buffalo, but the U.S. hadn't finished vetting Agath. So as Albert and Micheline left Africa, they left their then-22-year-old daughter behind.

"We were crying so hard, we didn't even say goodbye," Micheline recalled.

The great wait

The family settled in a time-worn flat on Buffalo's East Side. Paul and Micheline and their three eldest offspring all found jobs, and Glory enrolled in Erie Community College.

They thought Agath would follow them to Buffalo shortly – but then, in November 2016, Trump won the presidency.

Vowing to reduce immigration, Trump imposed a 120-day moratorium on refugees coming to America and cut the number eventually allowed to come here by more than half.

It spelled a longer wait for Agath and agony for the family.

"Every time I call her, I begin to cry," Albert said through tears about a month after Trump's inauguration. "She will say to me: 'Dad, why did you leave me here?' "

Around the same time, Michelle Cioci, an editor at Business First, came across Micheline in the ladies' room at the downtown office building where she works as a cleaning lady.

Micheline was in tears.

"I told her: 'Micheline, don't cry. She will come,' " said Cioci, who has befriended the family.

In Kenya, Agath boarded with a family from church, killed time by taking hairdressing classes and grew more miserable by the day.

"I got ulcers," she said. "I never had ulcers before."

Time didn't heal anything. The courts delayed Trump's 120-day moratorium on refugee resettlement, but he was able to implement it last summer, meaning four months passed where Agath had no hope of rejoining her family. Then he toughened the vetting process, meaning agents had to double-check her family ties and social media posts.

Number of refugees moving to Buffalo plummets under Trump administration

The immigration agents working her case encouraged her, but she came to think she might get stuck in Kenya.

"I decided to just do what is right and pray," Agath said. "Crying wasn't making me fly to America. So I just decided to pull myself together and move on."

Then in January, a U.S. immigration agent called with good news. Agath would be able to come to Buffalo after a physical and orientation classes about life in America.

Shocked, Agath thought to herself: "God is great."

Agath Mwamini and her mother, Micheline Makila mingle, with guests during a welcome celebration for Agath at the Buffalo Temple of God in Christ Church of the Nazarene. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

'It's a miracle for us'

After a 21-hour flight and a raucous airport welcome that drew both smiles and stares from passersby, Agath stepped wearily into her new home to see a party waiting.

Micheline had spent the afternoon cooking, so Agath came home to a dining room table lined with fried fish, fried plantains, salad and fresh fruit. Meanwhile Albert lined up the beverages for the party: a 12-pack of Coke, a 12-pack of Sprite and a 12-pack of Sunkist orange soda.

His family didn't want to eat, though, not right away. Most people wanted to dance to the Congolese pop music blaring from the television. So they surrounded the coffee table and swayed to the beat while Agath, exhausted, collapsed on a sofa.

The next day, she had time to reflect.

"This city is – wow!" Agath said after a quick look at Buffalo. "It's adventure all around."

She hasn't decided what she wants to do – whether to work, go to school or both. For now, Agath is settling in, buying clothes and getting used to sharing a bunk bed with her sister.

Already, though, she knows what will sustain her in Buffalo: a community that shares her faith. About 100 people threw another party to welcome Agath on Palm Sunday at the Buffalo Temple of God in Christ Church of the Nazarene, a local Congolese church. Many from the church are among the 1,239 refugees from Congo who have settled in Buffalo since 2002.

"It was so great," she said afterwards. "I didn't expect that."

After all this, her wait is just a memory. Agath and her parents harbor no hard feelings toward Trump, saying it only makes sense for America to be careful about who gets to move here.

Instead of complaining, they praise their new homeland, where political conflict has but two sides and plays itself out on TV and social media rather than with daily gun battles in the streets.

"We are so grateful for the government and the American people," Micheline said.

And for good reason. America gives them hope. And finally, America brought them all back together.

"It's a miracle for us," Micheline said.

Her husband agreed.

"To lose one's daughter is not easy," Albert said. "It was like she was dead – and now she is alive."

There are no comments - be the first to comment