By ASHLEY DILL, Herald-Journal

SPARTANBURG, SC (AP) — “It takes a village…” is a proverb that means a community of people must come together to support those in need.

Or in other words, be a good neighbor.

Brothers Jean De Dieu Ntihemuka and Jean Claude Asifiwe say it was the good neighbors of the Spartanburg community who welcomed them and enveloped their family in love and support when they arrived at Greenville International Airport- Spartanburg late at night in August 2015.

Jean De Dieu, Jean Claude and their mother entered the United States with few possessions, the inability to speak English and much hope.

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Since 2015, World Relief Upstate SC has been welcoming immigrants and refugees to Greenville and Spartanburg counties. Jean De Dieu, Jean Claude and their mother were approved by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while living in a refugee camp in Rwanda, Africa, for resettlement in another country.

The family learned a week before leaving Rwanda that they would be coming to South Carolina.

Jean De Dieu and Jean Claude were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rwandan genocide occurred between April 7 and July 15, 1994, during the Rwandan civil war. During this roughly 100-day period, known as the 100 Days of Massacre, members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, as well as moderate Hutu and Twa, were massacred by armed militias.

It is estimated that more than one million people died during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, according to the United Nations.

Jean De Dieu was then 7 years old and Jean Claude was only 3 years old. The family was forced to flee their native Congo and walk to a refugee camp in Rwanda.

“We didn’t just decide to leave,” said Jean De Dieu. “We left our country because of the civil war. At that time, we were considered Tutsis, and the people who were committing the genocide were looking for the same people. We walked from Congo to Rwanda, about 50-62 miles. It took almost a week and many died during this time. During the war, you have to find a safe way to walk, through the bush mostly at night.

Jean Claude says he doesn’t know how to adequately describe what life was like in the refugee camp. He felt safe from the genocide, but the two brothers said they could see how difficult it was for their mother.

“In Congo, we had a farm, a property,” said Jean Claude. “But they took all that, killed our animals and we had to flee. In the camp, there is no school, running water, electricity or food that we knew we had that day.

Jean Claude looks around the living room of the new house he, his brother and his mother now own in Spartanburg. Closing their own home last year, owning property again and in America, was a big step for their family.

“The house we were living in in the refugee camp, the whole space would fit in that one room,” Jean Claude said.

But being so young when they arrived at the refugee camp, the boys quickly adapted to their new life.

Many countries, including America, offer resettlement programs for refugees. A refugee is defined as a person who has been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. The number of refugees accepted into the United States each year is set by the President in consultation with Congress which must occur by October 1 of each year. According to the National Forum on Immigration, the presidential decision formally setting the refugee cap was released on October 28, 2020 for 15,000 refugees to be resettled in fiscal year 2021.

Jean De Dieu said resettlement of refugees in Rwanda is like a lottery and is determined by many factors. Refugees from their camp in Rwanda are sent to America, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia.

“We don’t choose where we go,” said Jean De Dieu. “They tell us. And to be chosen, there is nothing else to do but apply and wait.

Their family name was chosen in 2011.

“I no longer want to be treated as a refugee,” said Jean Claude. “I want to have a house, and now I do.”

But the process, from selection to boarding a plane and relocating, is long and can take up to five years. To be admitted to the United States, refugees go through background checks, screenings, and interviews under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).

The family discovered they were being relocated to South Carolina the day before the plane left Rwanda in August 2015.

Jean De Dieu, Jean Claude and their mother all received a $1,340 loan from the government for their plane tickets which they had three years to repay. It’s a way for refugees to start building their credit.

They were also in contact with World Relief Upstate who helped find housing for the family before they arrived. Their first three months of rent has been covered. World Relief and members of the organization Come Closer in Spartanburg met the family at the airport. Their role is to help refugees learn to shop, connect them with local volunteers, and call upstate their home. Even tasks as simple as showing the family how to use the stove or the microwave since it was the first time they had seen appliances in a kitchen.

World Relief Upstate office director Brandon Baughn says it’s a privilege to help refugees in these early days.

“We projected this image of helpless and vulnerable people,” Baughns said. “But they are the most resilient and hardworking people I have ever met. They have endured so much and still have hope.

Part of the resettlement process in Rwanda is teaching refugees how different their lives will be when resettled in another country. But the two brothers said that nothing prepares you for how different it will be. They now had to work for a living rather than working to support the day in Rwanda.

Both Jean De Dieu and Jean Claude got jobs at Belk’s distribution center in Jonesville as third-shift packers. Come Closer volunteers transported them to and from work until they could buy their first car.

They said learning the language was another big hurdle. They said watching YouTube videos and attending Summit Church in Spartanburg, listening to the service and having conversations with church volunteers helped them learn English.

“It was good to see people from the church,” said Jean Claude. “When you go to church, it was different. We are Christians and it was comforting to see people worshiping the same God as us even though the language was different.

Jean Claude attended Spartanburg Community College from 2016 to 2018 on a university transfer program, studying science. He said one of the proudest moments of his life was being accepted to Clemson University to study Civil Engineering in 2018. He is currently taking classes at Greenville Tech and will start working at AJH Renovations as deputy project manager this week.

Jean De Dieu is now employed at Kohler in Spartanburg and says being able to buy such a beautiful home in the Boiling Springs area for them and their mother in November 2020 was like a dream for him. The American dream.

“To live in a place that I can call home,” said Jean De Dieu. “Since we left our house in 1996, we no longer had a house. Now we do.

Jean De Dieu says he wants people to better understand what the refugee resettlement process is and how it works.

“I try to put myself in their shoes,” said Jean De Dieu. “I don’t want people from all over my country who haven’t been checked. I understand the frustration, but I want the government to communicate with the people about who we are. We are here to have a life. We will work hard and pay our own way. I will defend the Constitution and the Constitution will also defend me. I am grateful to have a place to be home.

For Jean Claude, being an American means being able to live the life his mother dreamed of for him. When his mother was the age he is now, she was fleeing her homeland because of a civil war. But now his sons are citizens of the United States.

“My future children will have privileges that I did not have,” said Jean Claude. “The next generation of my family will have a home and will never experience what I experienced. I found people’s hope here. Spartanburg did not become just hope for me. It became life . »

Jim Geyer, pastor at Summit Church in Spartanburg, attended Jean Claude’s citizenship ceremony in November. He was there when the family landed at the GSP airport in 2015 and has been through life with the family since they met, even returning to Rwanda with Jean Claude to visit his sister who still lives in the refugee camp.

Geyer was not allowed to participate in the citizenship ceremony due to COVID protocols, but was waiting just outside. He saw Jean Claude come out with his certificate and an American flag.

“It was one of those proud dad moments,” Geyer said through tears. “He was dancing and waving his flag. I told him he had to sing a song, and he sang “I’m proud to be an American”.

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