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Cover Story

From lost to found

4/23/2014

“When there’s a fire burning behind you, you don’t get to choose where to go. You just run.”

That’s how Wilondja “Willy” Msiando explained how a family gets separated while fleeing from the carnage of war and genocide. He, his wife and their children were forced out of their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996, as a civil war began to rage. The “refuge” he and his family were offered was the nearby country of Tanzania in what Msiando describes as a prison camp, where they faced rampant starvation, abuse, crime, poverty and oppression.

“We thought we would be there maybe one month, then go home,” Msiando said. “They’re still fighting over there.”

Four years later the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) transported to extract the Msiando family. They were transported to a second refugee camp in Mozambique where five more years went by before a final transfer landed them on American soil.

Today Msiando tells his story (along with “The Greatest Story Ever Told”) from a pastor’s podium at Living Water Evangelical Free Church — a congregation he started — in the Midwest Church Ministries building on Douglas Avenue in Des Moines. He says he was the first refugee of Congo to settle in Iowa, and now his church is filled with nearly 200 of his African brothers and sisters.

Pastor Wilondja “Willy” Msiando, a refugee from Congo, received the Immigrant Entrepreneur Leadership Award for his work to establishish Living Water Evangelical Free Church, which supports the African religious community and helps newcomers adjust to life in central Iowa.

Pastor Wilondja “Willy” Msiando, a refugee from Congo, received the Immigrant Entrepreneur Leadership Award for his work to establishish Living Water Evangelical Free Church, which supports the African religious community and helps newcomers adjust to life in central Iowa.

“Back then that was hard,” he recalled. “Because we were the first here, no one was here who spoke our language. I took our kids to the Des Moines University Clinics, and we watch people come in and go out, and no one saw us, no one help us.”

A white woman managed to notice the peculiar family of Africans sitting in the lobby and extended a chivalrous hand. She gave them a ride back to their apartment, and when she stepped inside, “she started crying,” Msiando remembered. “We had nothing: no dishes, no furniture, no bed.”

By the end of the night, the Msiando residence was fully furnished, “like a real home,” he said, and now it was his turn to cry.

“So I realized, as more refugees came, I had to help them,” Msiando said.

He started Living Water Church in a basement in May of 2007 with only 20 members. Now the church is wall to wall with attendees every Sunday, mostly refugees from various African nations. Msiando and his ministry team work full-time night jobs in order to volunteer daily at the church and manage various refugee advocacy programs.

“We had so many reasons to start this church,” explained elder Joel Maniriho. “We know where we came from, so we know people hurt, and there’s a lot of people to mentor, to help get established with a job, driver’s license, learn English, tutor kids’ homework. We do not get paid. We are glad to do that. God will pay us.” 

Living Waters leaders had experience in church and school foundation, having planted a few in African refugee camps years ago. They discovered both were invaluable in keeping morale alive within the camp walls, helping to make stress more manageable and offering social outlets and fellowship as a people.

                 

Lost

When he was 12, Maniriho’s parents were both killed in the refugee camp in which he was born, leaving him an orphan — alone and hungry and significantly diminishing his chances at survival.

“Tanzania was like a slave prison. Everyone spends the first six months in jail cells there,” he recalled. “More than 2,000 people were in my camp eating the same meal every day. Every two weeks you get your food rations for your family. But it only lasts three days — so only one meal a day.

“That’s why we lose so many kids. A hundred kids a day die because of malnourish. You cannot feed someone when you are hungry.”

Despite the dire conditions at the camp, Maniriho managed to earn his teaching degree at a refugee camp school independently built by predecessors. Local governments refused to assist in supporting any such efforts to bring education, religion or health care to the camp.

“We had to do it on our own,” Msiando said. “We did not want our kids to suffer. So those who were teachers taught, and those who were pastors preached. Now people are graduating from those schools that we started back in 1997 — graduating college!”

Unfortunately, those degrees and occupations translate to the American workforce about as well as their Swahili resumes. When/if they finally join the refugee settlement programs of countries like the U.S., Australia, Europe or Canada, the process is flawed.

                 

Found

While establishing these basic essentials, often refugees in Des Moines are alone — no family, no spouse, no parents or children. They begin the long process of tracking down their dispersed kin, hoping to reunite, under one country, one roof, and hopefully, in Iowa, they said.

“It takes a long time — sometimes never,” said Msiando.

Living Water Church leader Esperance “Espy” Barinakandi has worked toward the emancipation of her captive sister for the last 11 years since she arrived in America from a Tanzania camp. Her sister was left behind.

Burma is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with eight main ethnic groups and more than 100 sub-groups. Burma is also home to one of the world’s most repressive and abusive military regimes. According to Human Rights Watch in 2009, ethnic minorities are ruthlessly persecuted with human rights violations ranging from “forced labor, land confiscation, rape, detention, torture and death,” a conflict that has been raging for 50 years. 	An estimated 800,000 refugees from Burma have been forced to leave their home and land. Many fled to one of the nine camps along the Thai border, only to languish in the camps for decades. Others fled to neighboring countries such as Malaysia where they are considered “illegal” immigrants, and live in constant fear of arrest and detention. 	To date, the U.S. has resettled nearly 70,000 refugees from Burma. Ethnic refugees from Burma are the largest group resettled to Iowa every year for the past five years. According to the State Department, more than 1,000 refugees from Burma have been directly resettled to Iowa. EMBARC estimates an additional 4,000 have come to Iowa as secondary migrants looking for work, in the past three years. Secondary migrants often come to Iowa with little to no support and find work at meatpacking towns such as Columbus Junction, Marshalltown, Waterloo, Storm Lake and Postville. Source: Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center of Iowa

Burma is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with eight main ethnic groups and more than 100 sub-groups. Burma is also home to one of the world’s most repressive and abusive military regimes. According to Human Rights Watch in 2009, ethnic minorities are ruthlessly persecuted with human rights violations ranging from “forced labor, land confiscation, rape, detention, torture and death,” a conflict that has been raging for 50 years.
An estimated 800,000 refugees from Burma have been forced to leave their home and land. Many fled to one of the nine camps along the Thai border, only to languish in the camps for decades. Others fled to neighboring countries such as Malaysia where they are considered “illegal” immigrants, and live in constant fear of arrest and detention.
To date, the U.S. has resettled nearly 70,000 refugees from Burma. Ethnic refugees from Burma are the largest group resettled to Iowa every year for the past five years. According to the State Department, more than 1,000 refugees from Burma have been directly resettled to Iowa. EMBARC estimates an additional 4,000 have come to Iowa as secondary migrants looking for work, in the past three years. Secondary migrants often come to Iowa with little to no support and find work at meatpacking towns such as Columbus Junction, Marshalltown, Waterloo, Storm Lake and Postville.
Source: Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center of Iowa

“When the camp closed, she was moved two more times to Uganda, then to Kenya,” said Barinakandi. “The UNHCR give me a chance by sending me here, but I still have to help my sister. So half of every check gets sent back to her.”

Despite many local programs available, however, much is still to be done to improve the process globally, nationally and in Iowa, she said. Those who experienced the refugees’ path from lost to found, such as those at Living Water Church, offer a few ideas:

“Be more flexible,” Barinakandi said.

She explained everyone in a refugee camp is competing with each other for that elite ticket out. Transfer or extraction decisions are based on which refugees are in the most danger of persecution at the camp, Msiando said. They agreed UNHCR officials should use a waiting list instead.

Maniriho explained: “More than 2,000 people are in camp. When they came to take some, they only took 600, even though everyone wants to leave. People who are left are pushed back into parts of the country where they get killed.”

Policing and chains of command protocols are often rendered ineffective due to the contamination of corruption and deregulation.

“They’re supposed to distribute food rations out fairly, but instead they just steal it for themselves,” Msiando said.

Another important suggestion for improvement: “Move families together. Don’t split them up,” Barinakandi urged.

But the critiques don’t end at the federal and foreign operations. Once the process does finally move in their favor, established refugees in Iowa can reflect on ways the process could still be smoother for newcomers. A few suggestions made by Living Water Church leaders include:

Simplify the Green Card process so it’s more affordable;

Change the age for for free citizenship after five years from 65 to 50;

Offer illiterate refugees another way to take the citizenship tests, other than the standard written exams;

Make academic and professional credentials transferrable without requiring the original copy;

Increase the state and program assistance eligibility period beyond three months for finding employment and housing;

Establish more programs to aid in state-to-state migration for refugees reuniting with family and in search of jobs; and

Restrict a renter’s eviction capabilities for reasons such as multiple families or overpopulation in one rental unit.

                 

Why Iowa?

The answer to that question can be summed up with two words: Jobs and Ray. Regarding the latter, former Gov. Robert D. Ray established fame for the state as one of global humanitarianism with the implementation of the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement in 1975. The task force (now called Bureau of Refugee Services under the Department of Human Services) includes more than 30 Iowa communities, hundreds of churches and thousands of volunteers. That triggered a surge of diversity that would forever change Iowa’s Anglo makeup.

Gov. Terry Branstad visited Commercializadora Del Midwest last week as part of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit Small Business Tour. He made six stops in all, including Living Water Church, Community CPA and Associates, Ingersoll Wine and Spirits, Double Dragon Food Store and Diversity Insurance Inc. on April 17.

Gov. Terry Branstad visited Commercializadora Del Midwest last week as part of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit Small Business Tour. He made six stops in all, including Living Water Church, Community CPA and Associates, Ingersoll Wine and Spirits, Double Dragon Food Store and Diversity Insurance Inc. on April 17.

“Immigration has been the governor’s goal to raise family incomes and create jobs in the state,” said Jimmy Centers, communications director for the Governor’s Office. “These are good paying jobs available to qualified individuals who want them.”

Iowa’s job market has proven to be so comparably viable, refugees here face a new challenge: Competition. Though they have no control over where they are placed, once in the U.S., refugees are often permitted travel to either reunite with family or to go where there’s work. That means “secondary migrants” descend upon Iowa, specifically to meatpacking plants in communities like Waterloo, Marshalltown and Columbus Junction, where the companies recruit refugees and immigrants into the “dangerous and difficult jobs no one else wants,” explained John Wilkin of the Bureau of Refugee Services of Iowa.

“I’m not going to say it’s a negative for the state, but there are challenges that arise,” Wilkin said. “There’s an impact on the housing and job market, and there’s certainly been an impact on Polk County by putting a strain on the newly arriving refugees.

“That’s a major characteristic of resettlement in Iowa. Some states have a negative flow of refugees. Iowa has more secondary migrants here moving in than out; there’s a net gain.”

Wilkin estimates an influx of about 600 “planned” or “controlled” refugees will arrive to Iowa in an average year, compared to 1,800 secondary migrants who move in form other host states — all competing for the same homes, jobs and schools.

“Jobs is the hardest part right now, but DHS is helping to make that much smoother process than it is in Africa,” Barinakandi offered. “But, after three months, they (Catholic Charities of Iowa) walk away from you.”

                 

Economic impact

According to the Bureau of Refugee Services, arrivals are up, economics are down and per-capita grants are not increasing proportionately. For years the U.S. Department of State allocated a fixed $900 per person to its individual affiliates nationwide. In 2010, though, that amount increased to $1,800 with the caveat that $1,100 of that go toward refugee programs and services and no more than $700 be reserved for office operational expenses.

Wilkin estimates $1.5 million will be allocated to Iowa from the U.S. Department of State in FY2014. That projection is based on predicted arrivals: The more refugees, the bigger the sum. Of the 365 refugees who arrived between October 2013 and March 2014, all but 63 found permanent residencies in Polk County. Wilkin projects about 600 more to arrive in Iowa this year and expects that trend to plateau from there. How does that affect social services for all?

“In a general caseload, the number of individuals on FIP (Family Investment Planning) is anywhere from 400 to 430 people. The refugees make up a very small percentage of that,” Wilkin said. “I doubt they make up even 1 percent of that caseload.”

Most refugees are now enrolling in the new Iowa Health and Wellness Plan, which is a component of the Affordable Care Act, Wilkin reported. Only those below the poverty threshold qualify. In the last couple of years, about 20 percent of new arrivals have enrolled in the Medical and Cash Assistance program offered strictly to refugees, and those, about 80 percent take advantage of the mainstream FIP program.

                 

Money aside, what about the people?

As lucrative as refugees have proven to be in the long run for Iowa’s fiscal health, the U.S. economy has not returned the favor. Since the economic downturn of 2009, refugee assistance and resettlement programs have waned in both services and programs. For example, in the early years, refugees were allowed five years to become self-sustaining with the use of program assistance. That dropped to 18 months a few years ago, then 12, and now refugees have only eight months of services. With regard to the Cash Assistance program, for example, as it is today, a single person is allotted $183 per month for an eight-month period, in which time that person needs to find housing, a job, get a driver’s license, etc.

“I think everybody would tell you that’s just too short a time,” Wilkin said. “If you can’t achieve employment in eight months, it puts a huge strain on the success rate of getting people self-sufficient. So the pressure is on everybody individually to get them jobs as quickly as possible while that safety net grows smaller and smaller over the years.

“It’s not just a philosophy. It’s a reality,” Wilkin said. “They have to find jobs, and find them quick.”

But, in the last year, Wilkin reports employment rates are up among Iowa’s refugee population.

“There is solid evidence that with previous groups of refugees who came here, many became entrepreneurs and contributed economically to the state. They purchased property, started businesses, they have paid their taxes from the get-go. Clearly they’ve had a positive impact on local economies.”

Last week’s Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit Small Business Tour brought Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds to six metro businesses owned and operated by immigrants and refugees, including Living Water Church — all standing, viable examples that the refugees are a worthy investment in this state.

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“It would be a mistake not to practice humanitarianism,” opined Wilkin. “Refugees, unlike immigrants, are coming here because they cannot go home. It’s not a whim. As an individual Iowan, I personally support it as a humanitarian effort to help refugees, but as far as, does it make economic sense? I think it’s helpful to have services to provide them with support.

“I believe Iowans are enriched by diversity. Refugees have brought culture and diversity and a flavor to the state that I find invigorating.”

Anyone who doesn’t agree should check out a Sunday sermon at Living Water Church. Though American natives may not understand the words of the sermon, as they’re bellowed out in Swahili from the front of the room, the meaning is collectively understood. The pastors’ passionate storytelling and theatrical expressions — and with Barinakandi’s English interpretation — “invigoration” is just one word that fits the description.

“We decided to start this church to help people, to teach them the word of God so they can make other disciples that will become living water in the lives of others,” Msiando reminded. “If you help the people spiritually, it pays off.” Amina. CV

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