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Refugee couple reunited in Chicago after five years on different continents: ‘It’s been a very, very long time’

I’ve never really understood the antagonism toward the refugee program during the Trump years. Welcoming refugees is America at its best, taking in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They make good Americans.

Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, center, waits with his wife Mapenzi Mweniake and son Mussa Mrisho, 12, outside of O’hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, center, waits with his wife Mapenzi Mweniake and son Mussa Mrisho, 12, outside of O’hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Congolese refugee Mapenzi Mweniake came to Chicago in 2016 with her son and her extended family to begin a new life after spending 20 years in a Tanzanian refugee camp.

Her husband, Mwenebatu Mwenemkamba, was forced to remain behind in the camp, waiting for clearance that never came as the Trump Administration dismantled the U.S. refugee program before COVID-19 erected its own roadblocks.

On Wednesday, the couple was reunited at last at O’Hare International Airport, both husband and wife saying how happy they were for the chance to start anew.

The reunion didn’t go exactly as choreographed. Mweniake, a small group of supporters and a media contingent waited expectantly more than an hour outside Exit A of the international terminal, Mweniake clutching a bouquet of roses and her son Mussa, age 12.

But Mwenemkamba emerged from a different door and suddenly was standing there before her. Just as quickly, she found and embraced him, burrowing into his shoulder.

“I’m very happy, very happy,” she told reporters.

Mussa Mrisho, 12, and Mapenzi Mweniake wait at O’hare International Airport’s Terminal 5 for Mussa’s father and Mapenzi’s husband Mwenebatu Mwenemkamba, Wednesday,
Mussa Mrisho, 12, and Mapenzi Mweniake wait at O’hare International Airport’s Terminal 5 for Mussa’s father and Mapenzi’s husband Mwenebatu Mwenemkamba, Wednesday,
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mwenemkamba had more to say.

“I’m very happy to meet my wife again because, you know, it was a long time, five years, we were not together. I’m very happy, and I thank the Lord,” he said.

“America is a new country. I don’t know America. I think to do the best in America in order to succeed my life. With the grace of God, I will succeed.”

Mweniake, 29, and Mwenemkamba, 34, will now start over in their own Rogers Park apartment with help from RefugeeOne, Chicago’s largest resettlement agency, and from members of First Congregational Church of Western Springs, which is co-sponsoring the family.

When I spoke to Mweniake earlier in the week, her excitement was evident.

I suggested that it might be difficult for the couple to reconnect after so long apart, but she wanted none of my negativity.

“I’m really, really excited,” she emphasized.

Mweniake said one of the first things she wants to do with her husband is take him to see the animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo. First, though, she wanted to give him that big hug.

Mapenzi Mweniake, left, hugs her husband Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Mapenzi Mweniake, left, hugs her husband Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“It’s been a very, very long time,” she said.

When things settle down, she plans to school him on what I would describe as being street smart.

“When you get here, you have to be careful. In my country, we like to help each other,” Mweniake said, suggesting in so many words that one needs to be more careful about who they trust in America.

Mweniake and Mwenemkamba met in the massive Nyarugusu refugee camp where she had lived since she was one year old after her family fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also had been stuck at at the camp since 1996.

Mapenzi Mweniake, standing at right with “ROZEN” on her blouse, is shown with her extended family at the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania before coming to Chicago in 2016.
Mapenzi Mweniake, standing at right with “ROZEN” on her blouse, is shown with her extended family at the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania before coming to Chicago in 2016.
Provided

“Refugee’s life is very, very hard,” Mweniake said. “Sometimes we didn’t have food, medicine.”

By comparison, life in Chicago has been very good, she said.

“Everything for me was new. I can eat. I can sleep. My son is going to school,” Mweniake said.

Not to suggest the life of the refugee here is easy.

“You have to work hard to pay your bills,” Mweniake said.

Still, she appreciates the opportunity to do so and hopes for a better future for Mussa.

“I wish my son would be a doctor,” she said.

For now, Mussa is more your typical, quiet 12-year-old, eager to play video games or soccer.

Mweniake works in housekeeping at Misericordia, studies English at Truman College and sings with a musical group, GGB, which stands for God’s Grace Band.

The band, originally formed by church members in the refugee camp, has made some music videos that can be found on YouTube. I became an instant fan of their joyful sound.

Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, right, stands with his wife Mapenzi Mweniake and Mussa Mrisho, at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, right, stands with his wife Mapenzi Mweniake and Mussa Mrisho, at O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Just as the past five years have been stressful for Mweniake without her husband, it’s been much the same throughout the refugee resettlement world as the U.S. pulled back from its commitments.

RefugeeOne went into survival mode, reinventing itself to better support the refugee community already here until America was ready to open its arms again, said Melineh Kano, the organization’s executive director.

Clare Kralovec, whose husband is senior pastor at the Western Springs church that will be looking out for the family, said church members have learned through more than 30 years of sponsoring refugees that they benefit from the program as much as the newcomers.

“You feel really honored to be there at a time in their lives that is so tender and vulnerable,” Kralovec said.

Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, center, walks with his wife Mapenzi Mweniake, third from right, out of O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Mwenebatu Mwenemkaba, center, walks with his wife Mapenzi Mweniake, third from right, out of O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5, Wednesday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

I’ve never really understood the antagonism toward the refugee program during the Trump years. Welcoming refugees is America at its best, taking in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Refugees by definition are people who have been displaced from their homeland by tragic circumstances such as wars or natural disasters — and can’t come here without permission.

They make good Americans.

After some foot dragging and fumbling, the Biden Administration has raised the annual limit on the number of refugees who can be admitted to the U.S., with a commitment to go higher in the years ahead.

That’s a welcome sign, and it would be made easier if Americans took the time to understand who is coming here and why.