Refugee Family Grateful for New Life in Branford

Sally E. Bahner Photo There’s no doubt that the Trump administration’s immigration policies – both the executive order signed after he took office and the most recent iteration – have sent shock waves through local Connecticut communities and those who work with them.

But when Donald Trump talks about the need for extreme vetting, he should talk to John Semahoro.

Semahoro, his wife Jolly (pronounced Jo-lee), and their four children arrived in the US on Aug. 31, 2016, after years in refugee camps and after a vetting process that was indeed extreme. He is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a strife-torn, mineral rich part of the world. He fled the country to refugee camps in Burundi and Uganda, where both his mother and sister died. He met his wife there and all of their children were born there.

They first settled in New Haven, but moved to Branford a few months ago and have been taken under the wing of the town’s Refugee Welcoming Committee. The committee was working with another family from the Republic of Congo, who has since moved to Houston. They also sponsored families from Syria and Iraq.

The process of relocating is “very difficult,” Semahoro said, adding there are three determining factors for emigrating to the U.S., Europe, Australia, or Canada. The Eagle sat down with Semahoro and his wife recently to discuss an odyssey that began in Congo and ended in Branford. 

Semahoro said, “First, if you are sick and you can’t be treated where you are as a refugee, you’re given priority to relocate to another country where you can be treated. Second, if you’re in a refugee camp for more than 10 years, you have to be relocated to another country. Third, if you’re not safe and have run away, you can be relocated to another country where you can feel safe.”

Semahoro, who is 35, fits all of those conditions: He had been shot in the Congo and needed surgery and specialized care; he and his family spent two years in Burundi and 10 years in a refugee camp in Uganda and; and finally, the fact that he had also been shot again by rebels in Burundi while returning from his sister’s burial; she had lived in the Rugombo refugee camp.

“Rebels’ work is to kill innocent people – they do not mind,” he said. They took his belt, wallet, and shoes. The bullet ripped through his body and that was the last he remembered before he passed out. He has had extensive surgery and spent two and a half months in the hospital. He still needs follow-up surgery to repair damage. 

Nakivale Refugee Camp.  gizmodo.com From 2000 to 2003 he was in Ngagara refugee camp in Burundi. In 2003 he left Burundi and went to the Nakivale refugee camp in Western Uganda. According to an article in Gizmodo in 2013, the year Semahoro started his application process, Nakivale was one of the largest and oldest camps in all of Africa, with people from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea living alongside one another in the settlement. As a result of the wars in the Congo, some 70,000 refugees have fled to Nakivale, which has taken on the dimensions of a permanent city. It’s the only home known to young people who have fled the intense conflicts in Africa.

Semahoro said the vetting process – which started for him in 2013 – is so extreme that “people often die waiting.”

Working with New Haven’s IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), he is now starting the laborious process to bring over his father and his family, as well as his wife’s family. It’s an expensive process that requires various lawyers, and even a DNA test.

Life in the refugee camps is difficult, Semahoro said. Food is limited and residents are even forced to pound maize (corn) into flour. Now in the U.S., Semahoro said they’re still cooking African food, although they have discovered macaroni.

Semahoro’s Ministry

Semahoro turned his trials into a ministry while in the refugee camp and now in the U.S. He said he had a vision to alleviate the suffering among orphans and widows and to help people within the camps. He moved around the camps establishing various churches, a ministry that his father (a minister with the Free United Methodist Church) is now continuing. He wants to make Just Path Ministries international. One of his goals is to have American kids visit to Africa to experience what life is like there so they can appreciate what they have here. Semahoro is working on a Powerpoint presentation to gain support; he would like to return to school and to write a book about his experiences. His disability makes it difficult to work physically demanding jobs.

He keeps in touch with his family and his churches through the internet and “What’s App.”

“Being in the US has taken all the pressure off that I had from being in Africa,” said Semahoro.

The challenge is that he’s disabled and most of the jobs are physical, which brings financial challenges as well.

Kids Settle In

Meanwhile, the Semahoros’ four children, who were all born in the refugee camp, are settling into their school. Davis, 10; David, almost 8; and Emily, 4, started at Sliney Elementary School in November after receiving their vaccinations. Daniel, 26 months, is still at home with Jolly, who is attending English classes through Branford’s adult education program and looking for a job. Semahoro said the kids are adapting quickly and have received good reports from their teachers. 

Branford’s Refugee Welcoming Committee

Sally E. Bahner Photo Bill Hall (pictured), chair of the Refugee Welcoming Committee, said, “All hell broke lose with the Trump election.” The committee began helping the Semahoro family when they came to the First Congregational Church office for assistance. Hall said the steering committee, with 36 volunteers, has the “green light” to accept another family, but the administration’s new immigration policies have slowed down the process. However, Hall said they just got an email from IRIS saying that the appropriate bureau in the immigration department is now processing applications for refugees again.

Members of the First Congregational Church, First Baptist Church and St. Mary Church as well as various residents make up the Refugee Welcoming Committee. 

The committee has funds through donations and a grant from church to get families out of squalor and danger. “We still have a pool of funds… we’re ready” said Hall.

Once a family is brought into the community, the committee helps provide furnishings, transportation, educational opportunities, child care, access to the food pantry, town services, and medical care.

“Our purpose is to help them integrate into society to become taxpaying members of society,” said Hall. He said the plan is to support a family for six months, although in reality it’s closer to a year. The cost to get a family on its feet is approximately $8,000. Hall added that they have a great translator in Semahoro, who is fluent in several languages.

However in terms of finances, after six months, Semahoro must start repaying the $5,000 airfare cost for coming to the US. “If you don’t pay it back, you can’t do anything in the U.S.,” he said.

In addition, he was sending money to his family back in Uganda.

Semahoro has nothing but praise for the United States. “We were from hell. Now we are in paradise. It is amazing for me and my family to be in the U.S.”

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