Greensboro, North Carolina – On a recent afternoon in a small lecture hall here at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Natacha Nikokeza, a resettlement agent, met with a group of young women refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 25 who attended the meeting came dressed in brightly patterned garments, and about half of them had either a baby bundled into their chest or a toddler bouncing on their lap. Their purpose for gathering was to hear a letter from a director at the Africa bureau for the UNHCR (best known as the UN Refugee Agency). This letter was in response to one the group had sent to the director last month. In it, the women had outlined some of their grievances about resettling in the U.S., many of which were specific to their status as refugees who had suffered gender based violence in their home country.

“It’s very hard to adjust as a refugee anywhere,” said Nikokeza before the gathering. “But for these women, it is even harder since they suffered such extremely violent and often sexual forms of trauma.”

Women-at-risk refugees are bound to become a more pressing issue for resettlement agencies, specifically within the U.S., as the country plans on resettling 50,000 Congolese in the next three years.

In 2016 alone, the U.S. took in 16,370 refugees from the Congo. This was a huge jump from the mere 2,560 refugees they were resettling annually back in 2013. The explanation behind this increase is the renewed hostilities between the government and armed groups in the eastern Congo. This intensified conflict has come out of years of a civil war that has by some estimates killed upwards of 5 million people. The war officially ended in 2003, but the lasting tensions have proven to be harder to shake off.

And of those expected to arrive in the next few years, 20 percent are predicted to be women-at-risk.

The women-at-risk category is a designation given to women presenting vulnerabilities in their case that are specific to their gender. This can include rape survivors and single mothers who are thought likely to be victims of crime because of their gender. The UNHCR will expedite resettlement of women in this category.

At the reading of the letter, Nikokeza said that some of the changes the women wanted to see would not be implemented in time for this next wave of refugees.

“I just doubt that much will change on the policy end,” she said, “so we as a community will need to pick up the slack.”

 

After arriving in the U.S., refugees are given three months of support from their resettlement agency. This includes a $925 stipend from the federal government that the agency spreads out over rent, food, transportation and clothing.

 

Nikokeza says it isn’t long enough.

 

“The refugees are given some cultural training before departure and English lessons for the first three months, but the pressure is really on to find a job within those first three months,” Nikokeza explained.

 

Angelique Ndayisenga, 32, is one of the women in the North Carolina group. In retelling how she and her mother came to the U.S., Ndayisenga is calm, but she will occasionally relieve the tension of revisiting her past by breaking into an unexpected, but sincere, smile.

 

Before arriving in the U.S., she and her family were living in Gatumba, a refugee camp in Burundi. Two of Ndayisenga’s siblings and her father were shot and killed in a massive raid on the camp in 2004. The Gatumba massacre left 166 Tutsi and Banyamulenge dead before most had woken up for the day.

Ndayisenga, who was one of the targeted minorities, Banyamulenge, was shot on her backside and had burns trailing down her entire right side.

Despite the trauma that Ndayisenga has endured, she says that she didn’t need much in terms of psychological support when she first arrived, but that even if she did, she wouldn’t have known where to find it.

“I’ve seen people who needed more, and they didn’t get it,” she says. In order to receive counseling, your resettlement agency must first refer you to a specialist who accepts Medicaid, which, as the women here will attest, is rare.

What further complicates matters, explained Nikokeza, is that refugee Medicaid only lasts eight months. And by the time this runs out, refugees are no longer assigned to a caseworker.

For Ndayisenga, she really wishes that they just simply had more time.

“Even if they do have Medicaid, it’s not easy to go to [the] hospital,” she said. “For three months it’s just not enough.”

All the women in the group agree that the window was too short to help them bridge a massive culture divide. Most could barely speak the language after three months let alone navigate what was to them an incomprehensible system.

For instance, Clementine Avlath, a mother of two who came to Greensboro two years ago with her husband, said that she really “wishes there was more counseling available”, but, like Ndayisenga, she didn’t know where to find it after her three months were up.

And she could stand to benefit from some additional support or time with her caseworker. She is currently separated from her husband, but since the government still sees them as married, she cannot qualify for food stamps.

Her 18-year-old son recently approached her and asked if he could have a party with his classmates when he graduates in the spring. But Avlath, a 43-year-old full-time hotel cleaner, had to explain to her son that she could barely afford to put food on the table.

At the time of the interview, Avlath said she didn’t have more than $30 in her account.

“I wish we could have someone to follow up with us, know what we’re going through, or someone to refer us to the resources,” she said. So far, the only support she’s found is through Nikokeza’s group.

It is critical that caseworkers and resettlement agencies take the specific needs of high-risk women into consideration according to Maura Nswonsu, an expert in refugee resettlement and also an organizer for the group of Congolese women in Greensboro.

“Too often we only use economic self-sufficiency as an indicator for integration, but for these women that’s not the case,” said Nswonsu.

In a 2013 study of Congolese women-at-risk refugees across the country, “The Continuity of Risk”, Maura Nswonso found that, while some of the women have found jobs, they were still not what would be characterized as “integrated.”

“[They] were much more guarded, not only with Americans, but with Congolese who had come before them,” said Nswonso.

Refugee advocates worry these problems may be about to get worse. Under Trump’s administration the possibility that the funding that resettlement agencies receive from the federal government could be reduced, or even entirely eliminated, is a very real fear.

Trump has already expressed interest in overhauling Obama’s immigration policies, which makes women like Nswonso and Nikokeza unsure of what the future might hold for the incoming refugee groups that they tend to.

“We just pray that he will take time to learn more about the process to understand that refugees are not the enemies here,” said Nikokeza.

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