Background

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is located in central Africa, the DRC is a vast country with a land area about the size of Western Europe or the United States east of the Mississippi. 

  • The DRC is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet contains an abundance of natural resources. 

  • With a population of roughly 70 million people, the DRC is ethnically diverse, with about 250 ethnic groups speaking 700 different languages and dialects. The population is largely Christian but also includes Muslims, followers of traditional African beliefs, and Kambuangists—members of a native Congolese Christian sect. 

  • Most of the refugees being considered for resettlement are from the North and South Kivu provinces in eastern DRC. 

  • The highly complex conflict, which at times has involved the armies of nine countries and dozens of other armed groups, was touched off in 1996 when Rwanda invaded the DRC in pursuit of the génocidaires, the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide who had taken refuge in eastern DRC and were regrouping in order to retake political leadership in Rwanda. 

  • Years of conflict followed, including the first and second Congo wars, in 1996 and 1998. The 1998 war is sometimes called “Africa’s World War” because of the number of countries involved in the conflict.

  • Although a peace accord was signed in 2003, unrest still plagues eastern DRC, including the provinces of North and South Kivu, Orientale, and Katanga, as armed groups fight among themselves and with the central government for control of the region and its rich resources.

  • According to a 2012 U.S. Department of State fact sheet on the Congo, armed groups have committed “numerous, serious abuses with impunity—some of which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity—including unlawful killings, disappearances, mass rape, and torture.”

  • Sexual violence, used as a weapon of war, is so common in eastern DRC that human rights groups have called the area “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”

Culture and Life in a Refugee Camp

  • Among the Congolese, the nuclear family is only one part of a much larger extended family that includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, and even those not related by blood. 

  • Traditionally, family roles are well defined. Men protect and provide for the family, while women take care of the children and perform household chores.

  • It is said in the DRC—and throughout Africa—that a child belongs to the parents when still in the mother’s womb, but after birth he or she belongs to the community. 

  • A typical meal might include cassava leaves, beans, and a starch. This starch can be made of maize or cassava flour, or a mix of the two, and is referred to as ugali or fufu, depending on the location in the DRC. If a family has the resources, they may also serve meat like lamb or beef.

  • Western medicine is generally accepted and practiced in Congolese culture. However, the prolonged conflict in the DRC, and the nature and brutality of the violence, has had a clear impact on the refugees’ physical and psychological health. It can be assumed that most if not all Congolese refugees have experienced or witnessed violence.

  • According to RSC Africa, the five most common medical conditions among refugees in the overseas pipeline are tuberculosis, hypertension, HIV, vision problems, and heart disease. Less serious chronic conditions, such as arthritis and back problems, may be common and underreported among a population that is accustomed to these conditions by the physical hardships of daily life. 

  • There is little understanding of Western notions of mental illness and no tradition of mental health counseling. 

  • The refugees, mostly ethnic minorities from eastern DRC, are resettled out of neighboring first-asylum countries, where conditions are difficult and often unsafe.

  • The largest numbers are in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi. Conditions for the refugees vary greatly by country as well as within countries, but for most, conditions are harsh, unhealthy, and unsafe.

  • Some refugees have spent more than a decade in the camps. Prolonged camp stays with little or no opportunities for work or recreation have led to a breakdown in social order and to high rates of sexual and gender-based violenc (SGBV), prostitution, early pregnancy, and school dropouts.

  • Uganda hosts the largest population of Congolese refugees. Refugees live in sprawling rural settlements or in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. The settlements resemble agricultural village life back in the DRC, with small plots available for farming. Yet the vast size of the settlements forces women to walk long distances to fetch water and firewood, exposing them to a widespread problem in the settlements: sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). 

  • In many ways, life in the camp has been like that in any other African village, with the youth living in clusters that serve a family-like function.

  • Religion plays an extremely important role in the lives of Congolese in general and refugees in particular. Religion is considered a refuge, a place of great comfort and peace that provides a solution to personal problems. Because of the important role of religion, religious leaders are highly respected. 

  • Religious affiliation among the refugees is somewhat different from that of the Congolese population as a whole. Whereas 70% of the DRC’s population is Christian, the Congolese refugee caseload is overwhelmingly (96%) Christian. 

  • Although the population is diverse in work experiences and skills, most share a strong desire to succeed economically in the United States. 

Adjusting to Life in America

  • Congolese refugees may struggle to learn the importance of time and of keeping/making appointments in the U.S.

  • Congolese may often call a distant family member (or even someone not related by blood) their son, daughter, brother, or sister. This wider use of biological terms has created confusion both for overseas processing and for establishing legal relationships in the United States.

  • They will need help in setting realistic goals, managing time, making decisions, and maintaining a positive attitude.

  • Not unlike other refugee groups, the Congolese are able to draw on a deep reservoir of personal qualities, values, and community resources in their efforts to adjust to their new communities. They are said to exhibit the capacity to maintain morale under difficult circumstances, coupled with a hard-working nature and a strong desire to succeed in the United States. 

  • For Congolese communities, churches can be tremendous resources, providing comfort and companionship. During times of turmoil in the DRC, the church was a place of sanctuary, and in the United States it is serving a similar function. .