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Century-old Congolese refugee finds 'miracles' like washing machines in Buffalo

We call them "refrigerator," "washing machine," "sink" and "bathroom."

Rebecca Ngombwa calls them "God's miracle."

"It's like a miracle to see the refrigerator, and to have all the things in the house," she said through an interpreter in her native Kinyamulenge language.

Ngombwa, a Congolese woman believed to be 111 years old, never saw these home furnishings before July, when she came to Buffalo as a refugee after 20 years in a refugee camp.

She arrived with her daughter Zera Nagazyra, son-in-law Gabriel Bwanangoyi and 16-year-old great-grandson Mercure Rugazura seeking a new life. They are among 390 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have resettled in New York State in the first eight months of 2018, many of them in Buffalo.

The newcomers have reunited with 26 family members, who first began arriving in Buffalo as refugees in 2015.

Ngombwa is in awe of what most Americans have long taken for granted. That includes the ease with which she can turn a tap to have water stream from a faucet. In her native Minembwe village, Ngombwa and other villagers had to walk two miles to a river to get water.

Other fascinations in her home on the West Side: kitchen cupboards and soda pop.

"The good thing I found here are nice people, and Mountain Dew," she said with a laugh.

The International Institute of Buffalo, a resettlement agency, informed Mountain Dew of the product's newest and possibly oldest fan, and the company sent Ngombwa a package that included a hat and mug.

Before entering Buffalo, Ngombwa spent the past 20 years in a United Nations-sponsored refugee camp in Burundi.

Nagazyra said she has felt welcomed by other Congolese living on the West Side, where she resides.

"We feel comfortable because there is a Congolese community here," she said.

Briana Neale, a case worker at the institute, said the new arrivals have received a lot of support.

"It's always great to have family members and community members who are there for you, because they understand your culture and can assist you with what the process is really like in everyday life," Neale said.

Muzima Prince, 1 1/2 years old, with her great-grandmother Rebecca Ngombwa in Ngombwa's home on Buffalo's West Side. Ngombwa escaped war-torn Congo and spent 20 years in a refugee camp before resettling in Buffalo this year. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Life in a refugee camp

But all wasn't so well in Congo in the late-1990s, where warring tribes in the eastern region of South Kivu, close to the Burundi-Congo-Rwanda border, caused widespread death and destruction and rampant rape.

"We left Congo because we had to flee the war," said Ngombwa, who like others in her family were members of the minority Banyamulenge tribe, sometimes called the "Tutsi Congolese."

The refugee camp they went to was operated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They lived in a big tent with many others.

"The conditions were very bad," Nagazyra said. "There was not enough food — we could go one or two days without food. The water was not good. And we didn't have many clothes. We would wear the clothes one month without changing."

There was a tent at the refugee camp — "a movie theater for kids" — to watch films, but adults didn't go. Ngombwa saw television for the first time when she was interviewed by U.S. immigration officials earlier this year, and a TV was in the room.

The new arrivals are overjoyed and relieved to be in the United States.

"We left Congo because we had to flee the war," said Rebecca Ngombwa who spent 20 years in a refugee camp before coming to Buffalo. A family member said conditions in the refugee camp were very difficult and there was not enough food.  (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Thompson-Reuters Foundation this year listed Congo as the seventh most dangerous place in the world for women.

"Here it is really peaceful," Nagazyra said. "We can sleep nights without fear and no one can attack you. You can have everything you need here."

"We came here to look for peace," added her husband, Bwanangoyi. "We were living in a camp without hope, or knowing where we would be tomorrow. We were hopeless people."

They have been surprised by the diversity on the West Side.

"We thought that we would just find white people here," Nagazyra said. "We never thought we would meet other people from other countries. We are happy with all people here."

Other family members are also happy to be in the United States.

Byishimo Ngirumugizi, Ngombwa's 18-year-old great-grandson, said he is looking forward to attending Lafayette Academy this week. Ngirumugizi said the school at the refugee camp lacked books and other study materials.

"I am very excited" to go to school, he said.

Gentille Nyamutarutwa, Ngombwa's great-granddaughter, said what she appreciates most about her new life is security.

"We had none where we were living," Nyamutarutwa said. "Another thing is here you have rights, everyone has rights. And there is enough food for kids, for everybody.

"There are many great things here in America compared to where we came from," she said.

Wants to meet Trump

Ngombwe said she hopes one day to see President Trump.

"The president of this country is like my king," she said. "He is the one who brought me here, and I adore him."

Immigration has dropped dramatically since Trump, who ran on an anti-immigration platform, became president.

In 2016, 110,000 refugees came into the country in the last year of Obama's presidency. This year, the number was set at 45,000, with fewer than 20,000 refugees expected to be resettled, according to Adair Saviola, the International Institute's development and communications director.

The number has also dropped considerably in Buffalo, where immigration numbers were the lowest in 10 years.

Number of refugees moving to Buffalo plummets under Trump administration

Ngombwe's entrance was an "anomaly" due to her age, Saviola said.

"Most are far younger than she is," she said. "She may be the oldest client we have ever resettled. She had family members here, and it just worked that the family was able to be put together."

That's saying something, since this year marks the International Institute's 100th anniversary. The resettlement agency works with the Department of State in resettling people who are designated by the U.N. as fleeing danger in their country.

"We were thrilled to bring four generations of one family together," Saviola said.

Has no birth certificate

Ngombwa said she was born with the help of women elders in her village on Jan. 1, 1907. She was the second of four children. Because everyone was illiterate, and her birth didn't occur in a hospital, there is no certificate of her birth.

Official documentation received by the International Institute lists Ngombwa's age as 111, Neale said.

Ngombwa said she gave birth to eight children, four boys and four girls. She doesn't know the number of grandchildren or great-grandchildren she has, but says she has 453 descendants across four generations.

Her theory on why she has lived so long?

"I was rich," she said, referring to the many cows and goats on their farm, before the war broke out.

Ngombwa said she was unable to recall how old she was when she began having children.

Middle child Nagazyra said she was born in 1951, which would have made Ngombwa 44 years old when she gave birth. A son, Inusi Kimararungu, who died in Iowa one day before his mother arrived in the U.S., was believed to have been born in 1954 or 1955, Nagazyra said, which would have made his mother 47 or 48 years old when he was born.

But Charles Rwagasore, present as an interpreter, said he thought the family didn't know their ages well because it's not something Congolese paid much attention to.

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