The story of a Congolese Refugee

For some, including myself, the world is a small place. I have friends and family who reside in the States, Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia. We stay connected with the help of internet, phones, long haul flights and road trips. We log onto twitter and get a minute by minute rundown of a friend’s day. Or Facebook and get tagged in 300+ photos of your nephew’s first birthday party. We run up massive phone bills and promise to talk less next time. We fly across the world for a family’s wedding.  We plan annual trips back home.

If we can afford to stay connected like this – it’s usually something we’re taking for granted; the means to keep together even though we are far apart.

When I met Geremie – a young refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo – I learned how his sole purpose is to get his family back together, in one place. Because staying connected like we know, is simply not possible in his world.

                          Geremie                       DRC Map

Geremie was 17 when he left the Congo. For the first part of his life, he had been well cared for in the way of education, shelter and food.  His mother and father were happily married and he got on well with his 3 younger siblings.  They owned a small plot of land and grew maize for a living in the eastern region of the Congo bordering Rwanda and Burundi.

Although family life had been good in the early years, safety had always been an issue. The Rwandans and the Congolese had a hostile relationship that resulted in thousands of deaths.  During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu Rwandans fled to the DRC and attempted to settle.  Disputes regarding cattle theft became a major cause of conflict as well as the big grab for Congo’s natural resources. The Congolese wanted them out while the Rwandans had decided to stay at all costs.

Estate 024           Sister in laws

Geremie lost 2 uncles in 2 separate attacks on his village. He says the Hutu’s would come at midnight and would knock on your door. Minutes later, your entire family would be gunned down or butchered in a bloody attack with panga knives. Everyone would be dead by morning.

On other occasions, rebel and legal militia would conduct raids on schools, forcing anyone they thought old enough or big enough to undergo military training. Geremie remembers the day they came to his school. As the men in uniforms stormed the classrooms, grabbing girls and boys, he managed to escape through a window and fled into the bush.

He paused for a second while telling his story, then looked at me with eyes that know too much and said, ‘if you are taken, you will never come back.’

With a stable family life, shelter, schooling and food – he could overlook the danger of being attacked or taken for military training. Besides he was only a child, he had other things on his mind – like fishing, mud fights and football.

But when he turned 12, his life would be shattered. Geremie lost his mother to Malaria and everything would change.

Three years later his father came under the spell of an evil woman who would later become their stepmother. The stepmother was into black magic and had threatened Geremie and his siblings with their lives. She had no intention of ever caring for them and wanted them gone. She paid a witch doctor to erase their father’s conscience when it came to his children. And it worked.  They were forced to leave the home and to fend for themselves. When he pleaded with his father for help, his words were that when their mother died, they died too.  

Medicine man

Traditional African medine

At 17 Geremie was at the ripe age for military pickings. He was also the new head of the  family – the one who needed to protect and support his younger siblings. If he was taken by the military, there would be no future for his family.One day he heard about the country called South Africa. He was told it was a land full of opportunity. He dreamed of being able to provide for his family, to send them to school and to keep them well fed.  He would go to South Africa and once settled, would return for his family.

Geremie made it to the north of Mozambique. On his journey south, he was robbed of all his belongings. By the time he reached Nampula, he had run out of money and could go no further. He ended up staying in a refugee camp in Nampula for 3 years. In that time he learned Portuguese and how to be a hair stylist. He also got married to a fellow Congolese woman and had a baby a year later. He opened a small salon and made enough money to continue South down to Beira.

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

                                           -Nelson Mandela

Beira from the slums           Lighthouse and Shipwreck

Geramaie's Salon                    Hair stylist ii

Geremie is now 22 years old and has decided to make Mozambique his home. He has secured himself a job at a college that  teaches the students skills such as hair styling, sewing and carpentry and is renting a small family room. He also works at a salon to make some extra cash.

The Salon      Young Africa

It’s taken him some time, but he has managed to get one of his sisters and her child down to Beira. The other 14 year old sister has managed to get as far as Nampula.  Geremie says she is being taken care of by a pastor’s widowed wife, but desperately wants to be re-united with her family. The youngest brother who is 19 is still in the Congo and lives with friends. Geremie has not spoken to him for 3 years and does not know how he is making a living or where he is.

Congolese family           Family man

Very slowly, Geremie is making a new life for himself and his family. When I speak to him about his siblings who are not with him, a look of pain transforms his face and he says, ‘One day, we will be together.’

                                “At any given moment in our lives, there are certain things that could have happened, but didnt.

                                      The magic moments go unrecognized, and then suddenly, the hand of destiny changes everything.”

                                                                                                        -Paulo Coelho

Salon Owner


17 replies »

  1. Wow. What a heart-wrenching and inspiring post and young man. There is so much that we take for granted in the “western world.” And black magic is scary stuff. And very, very real. Thank you for continuing to bring these stories to light, Lianne. You inspire me!

  2. My dream is to one day make my way to Africa and help in any way that I can. This story is beautiful and heart wrenching and I appreciate the time you took to share this.

  3. I truly appreciate the portraits you share, in photo and in writing, of the “average” Mozambican. There is no such thing as average. Everyone has a story and you are telling stories that would otherwise not be heard. Thank you for the time effort you put into your postings! It is a labor of love for the people you highlight and I am so encouraged to know that you are taking the time to get to know them and share the beauty of their personhood, not just highlight the tragedies of the past.

  4. Very impressive and courageous story, definitely makes you rethink your own privileges in life!
    Hope Geremie gets reunited with his family, thanks for sharing.
    Greetings, Ron.

  5. I am so glad for Geremie that he is able to make a living, support his little family, and maybe gather up all of his siblings around him. Some guardian angel must have been looking out for him…thank you for sharing his story and your poignant photos.

  6. Stunning, stunning post even though it yanked my heart strings. We do take so much for granted and I noticed that even more while I was in Mozambique in September and saw how Mozambican people accept their lot without whinging or standing begging on street corners for handouts. They simply get on with the business of living and with a smile on their faces. Blessings Geremie, to you and your family. May you all be together soon!