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RED TAPE

A refugees struggle for PEACE


By Julie Bonnin

Sometimes the stress of refugee life is too much to bear and all Maxamillion Ndacayisaba can do is close his eyes and rest.

t is a Sunday afternoon in Central Austins Ramsey Park, and a refugee named Maximilian Ndacayisaba, from the blood-smeared African country of Burundi, is learning about softball. Dressed in black wingtip shoes, argyle socks, neatly pressed khakis and a loud shirt, Max sits on the bleachers while middle-aged players in ball caps and sweaty T- shirts choose sides, then get on with the game.Oh, Smokey, someone says, thats your pitch, man. The bat connects with the ball, which sails off with a loud crack. Max, 31, is barely watching. In 11 months, he knows America, or a piece of it. Hes made donuts at Fiesta. Watched Jerry Springer and Geraldo. Stumbled through more governmental red tape than most U.S. citizens can imagine. With the stroke of a pen, some immigration official decreed that his boat would drop anchor in Austin. He is a Tutsi taking a stand against tribalism from a rented room in this citys suburban south; a world citizen shipwrecked in a place where few people have bothered to learn to pronounce his family name: Da- CHA-ee-sa-BA. According to the law I am all right, he says. I am not on the street, even though I have no cash in my pocket. I entered (the U.S.) legally. If there is a mistake in a computer program, they fix it, he says, referring to a bureaucratic glitch that stopped his Medicaid payments for two months before reinstating the benefits. But in Maxs eyes, he is anything but all right. Separated from people he loves, he is unable to make enough money to help them survive. In debt with no income, he is foundering in a city where there have been genuine attempts to help him. Having nearly run through the few resources offered refugees by the federal government, Max has seemed at times paralyzed by depression, culture shock and poor health. In desperation, hes gone from church to church. Hes gone head to head with those whose job it is to advocate for him. He may be tenacious, stubborn or both. He may expect too much. Or do we? The United States has its own struggling citizens to worry about. His needs are immense, and he is one refugee among many. Americans value self-reliance and will expect you to take the initiative in building your life in the United States. Success in your reset tlement will depend as much on your attitude and efforts as on the type of help you receive.--from Welcome to the United States, a guidebook for refugees. He comes from a place where killers sing as they swing machetes at people, hacking them to death in their beds. To Americans who bother to keep track of international news, the reports of Hutus risen up in revolt against ruling-class Tutsis have come as distant, if disturbing, bulletins from a savage land. To Max, they are images of home. His first memory of the violence that has torn apart his and neighboring countries for decades. A man who lived next door was killed by a nail hammered into his head with the butt of a gun. Max and his mother watched. Max, the fourth of 12 children, grew up in Giteranyi, then a village in the small Central African country of Burundi. Buffalo, hyenas and lions occasionally roamed the area until growth in the 1980s drove them deeper into the bush. Now Maxs house and most of his family are gone, too, casualties of a tribal clash that has been going on for decades but intensified in the past few years. In 1994 alone, at least 500,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed. Maxs mother, father, grandparents, countless friends -- all dead. His youngest brother, he

When you are a refugee you dont have the right to oppose anything.

phors. Our speech is blunt and precise. In Kirundi, his native language, even a word like wife becomes something lyrical and descriptive, as in the one I walk with. Instead of saying I am not optimistic, he notes, one might say, Akaza gusha karatagata. Roughly translated: How quickly water boils depends on the contents of the pot, the level of heat. And it is up to the cook to figure out what keeps the water from boiling. From a yellowed paperback copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, he pulls a letter from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. In tiny type, overlaid with the image of the Statue of Libertys torch, the letter says it will take 86 to 116 days to process his request to visit his wife in Africa, something he has desperately wanted to do since she became ill several months ago. After that interminable wait, the INS will give him an answer. From a yellowed paperback copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, he pulls a letter from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. In tiny type, overlaid with the image of the Statue of Libertys torch, the letter says it will take 86 to 116 days to process his request to visit his wife in Africa, something he has desperately wanted to do since she became ill several months ago. After that interminable wait, the INS will give him an answer. In every life, personal decisions are tempered by external forces. Max has not always made the right decisions, and the winds buffeting his thin, battered hull have at times been capricious and mean. After months of struggling in the United States while his wifes physical and mental health deteriorated in Nairobi, Kenya, Max has reached a point of desperation. He is considering jeopardizing his refugee status in order to return to her, a plan no one recommends. If he leaves now, without proper authorization, the INS could refuse to let him return. Whats more, in Kenya, Max could face violent repercussions from those who dont approve of his pacifist views.Yet Maximilian Ndacayisaba is determined to leave this place that cannot help him enough for another equally uncertain future. He knows he cannot stop the wind. He is trying to steer the boat. The United States is a nation of immigrants who brought with them a variety of cultural tradi tions and practices. The process of learning about American behaviors and values and coping with them is part of cultural adjustment. For several months, Max has rented an upstairs bedroom from a man who lives with his children off Brody Lane in South Austin. A curtain hangs off-kilter on an unstable rod at the window. There is a twin bed, a television, a particle- board table and a wooden desk piled with books covering religion, language, The Evolution of the World, and the lives of Napolean and Eleanor Roosevelt. On a wall hang two rosaries, postcards, snapshots and hand- written reminders of appointments. Occasionally, the youngest boy who lives here will come home from school and knock on Maxs door, asking to watch cartoons. Or Max, a former church choir director and organist, will play hymns on the familys electronic piano downstairs or exercise in the fenced back yard. But usually, he stays in his room. From this home base in a suburban neighborhood, Max still spends most of his time thinking of Africa. Where, in another life, he attended Catholic seminary, taught French and music to disabled children and the elderly and attended a university. Where he fathered one biological son and acted as father to his wifes son. Where he lived in a refugee camp and coped with the brutal deaths of parents, other family members and friends.

Photography by Sung Park

Max executing the, new to him, task of grocery shopping.

from a Pennsylvania-based Baptist agency that sponsors refugees. The letter said the organization would sponsor Max if he received official status as a refugee. By the time that happened, he had been assigned to another agency, which asked an affiliate, Austin-based Caritas, to sponsor him. But Max continued to think he was headed for Pennsylvania, and based on what he had heard about church-based sponsorship of refugees, he expected to be taken under someones wing. Sometimes you find a family which has prepared everything for you, he says, explaining his vision of what life would be like. They were saying you will get a family which will be like your parents. Coming from a poor country where others give so freely of themselves to those in need, he also expected many helping hands in affluent America. If, in much of Kenya and Burundi, corruption is endemic, the antidote is widespread generosity, Max says. When you get something, he explains, you cant sleep when someone is suffering. Today its you, tomorrow it may be me. Dont ask, Who are you? If someone asks to eat, give food now, ask later. But there was no family to meet him at the airport when he arrived in Austin nearly a year ago. Instead, Max was greeted by caseworkers from Caritas, a caring but overburdened nonprofit group that helps the homeless and also works with 150 to 200 refugees annually. Cecily Peeples helps refugees sponsored by Caritas receive medical benefits. Among those newly arrived immigrants, she says, theres a real misconception. The streets are not paved in gold. Youre poor, poor, poor until you get on your feet. Degrees from your home country dont matter. Getting a job does. There are two federal programs that provide assistance to refugees. Both are contingent upon finding work immediately.If every refugees early months are difficult, Max had several added problems. Besides his caseworker and a few refugees, he didnt know anyone who could show him around or give moral support. It took two or three months before he learned that the Spanish-speaking people who lived around him in an apartment complex near Airport Boulevard even spoke English. Although Max speaks English, his understanding and pronunciation of the language are limited -- a real stumbling block in a country that values quick, efficient communication. He came to the United States suffering apparent complications from surgery for an ulcer that an Austin doctor says has been made worse by constant stress. And his wife, Hellen, who was well when he left, became ill and was hospitalized a few months after he arrived. To make matters worse, she has been abandoned by family members who didnt approve of their marriage, which took place days before Max left for the United

years in the same position. At the same time he was reacting to the cultural upheaval, Max was dealing with being apart from his wife. He had left Kenya believing officials who told him to just go, that his wife and her young son would follow once he came here. But once here, Max says, he was told that getting them here would not be easy, that it was useless to pursue it until he became a permanent citizen. (What Max did not know is that a lawsuit settled last year changed the rules about reuniting refugees with their families. In the past, INS did not allow refugees who married after being given refugee status to reunite with a spouse until the refugee became a permanent citizen. Now the application process can began sooner, though it still takes six to 12 months.) Max couldnt put his feelings aside easily. Following the operation hed had before coming to the United States -- a procedure in which much of his stomach was removed -hed suffered on and off from severe stomach pains, cramping and nausea. In December, his stomach problems recurred; no food stayed down. He went to Brackenridge Hospital for the first of several vissured to be allied with one political movement or another, even in Kenya. You wish to greet some Hutus, he explains. In your heart you like them. You want to live what you feel. I was always praying to God. Take me to live where I feel whats in my heart. He had also come here hoping to find solutions to personal problems. A nearly 6-year-old child he fathered while he was a seminary student has lived in a Burundi orphanage since his mother died in the war. Max thinks the boy is better off with Catholic nuns to look after him than he would be trailing in the uncertainty of his fathers life. Eventually hell return for him, he says, but not now. I am still like in the air. I dont yet feel on the ground. I am always running, finding a new solution. To rebuild a life requires pa tience and hard work. Your days will be very busy, but the more ac tive you are, and the more you take responsibility for your own life, the more successful you will be in reset tlement. Since he has been in America, Max has held assorted jobs, which frequently have been cut short by illness, the need to go to doctors appointments or transportation problems.

requested from Brackenridge Hospital still had not arrived, making an accurate diagnosis and treatment of Maxs problems difficult. Frustrated and angry, he may have alienated some people who would have helped with some of his smaller problems, people who sympathized with his desire to be reunited with his wife but discounted it as unrealistic. When you are impatient, Max says, you reject quickly. It was easier to walk away from those people than to tell them what he thought. You keep your silence, he says, but it is in your heart. In the United States, Max has learned what it means to be beholden. When you are a refugee, he says, you dont have the right to oppose anything. He has also learned the meaning of desperation: I am between four walls, he says. I dont even know how to jump. Resettlement is a long process. You may need from two to five years to adjust fully to life in your new community. Max is clutching a cup of water, seated on a crushed velvet couch in a church choir practice room where he is telling his life story to yet another person, a man who has volunteered to be Maxs friend through a program of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church. The other man is leaning forward intently as he takes notes on a yellow legal pad. As Max talks, his long, thin hands sweep and circle, dominating the space around him. But in repose, he has barely a profile, his body a gaunt imitation of the L-shaped couch. Max makes two important connections in August. He begins attending the Catholic church, the church of my childhood, he says. Victor Neshyba of the churchs Community Ministries Office pays a medical bill for Max without having met him and arranges for Max to participate in the Befriender program.Needs will show up, Neshyba says. Just walk in the door. My job is to take care of quick fixes. Maxs problems are bigger than that, Neshyba knows. Its gonna take more than one church throwin in a few bucks. Max also begins a relationship with Sacred Hoop Healing Center, which among other things provides holistic health care to indigent people. He meets Ryan Rose, a licensed professional counselor. Rose was struck immediately by how immense his needs were, he says. I saw that we could do some counseling work, but it just didnt seem adequate. It would take a long time. It wouldnt change a thing as far as his wife getting over here. This man, Rose finally concluded, needs hope. He doesnt need counseling to near the degree that he needs hope. Rose also supplies Max with aloe vera juice to ease his stomach problems. A doctor has prescribed antidepressants and, in September, orders more tests to explore the root of Maxs stomach pains. Roses wife,

You keep your silence, but it is in your heart.

An effort to raise money by one of Maxs Sacred Hoop supporters also is postponed. By the close of September, Max is feeling desperate again. His eligibility for food stamps has run out; he owes money for rent and utilities to his landlord. Now I am at a point where I am ashamed to ask for help. Every month is bringing other bills. I am responsible for my life before others. I am responsible for the people I love. How long have I been here? I have tried since January. I have been saying this and saying this. We are now at the end of September. When I try to look back, what should I find? No problem will have been solved, I tell you ... Max likens getting used to America--a place he once thought of as full of opportunities--to getting used to conditions in the refugee camp in Africa. Any moment, any second, I wish to go to Kenya. Refugee Maximilian Ndacayisaba-plagued by health problems, depression and cultur al barriers-sits in a South Austin room for which he has trouble paying the rent. Max practices yoga af ter getting up in the morning-a form of exercise he uses be cause his health prob lems preclude more strenuous activity. Max and his wife, Hellen, in a wedding day snapshot. Unable to bring his wife to America with him, Max is now desperate for a visit. The morning sun finds Max stretching as part of his yoga routine. A snapshot of Maxs natural son, Jean-Bertrand, living in an orphanage since his mother died in Burundis fighting. Barbara Lightheart says goodbye to Max after a spaghetti dinner at Trinity United Methodist Church, which raised the money for an operation needed by Maxs wife, Hellen, back in Kenya. An ex-choir director, Max plays his landlords keyboard. He also speaks seven languages. Maxs ulcer makes it all the more difficult to find the right kinds of food -- one of the routine tasks that complicate the life of even a health refugee. Suffering from stomach problems after surgery for an ulcer, Max makes a plea about Medicaid coverage to Travis Benford of the state Department of Human Services. The coverage was restored after being cut off for two months. Max has a blood sample taken at a clinic in South Austin. Ulcer surgery that took much of his stomach and left him with continuing health problems also has employment implications: Maxs ability to work is diminished, and a job could make him ineligible for certain public health aid. Max reflects in his bedroom after a phone talk with his wife, whose uterine tumor was a key source of stress until she had surgery for the condition this month. Max is considering a trip to Kenya to see her. Max checks on the health of his wife, Hellen, during a phone conversation with her. The cost of calling Kenya allows them to talk but rarely. v

Max was able to send money to his wife from January to April. She called and wrote, desperate to hear some news that they would be reunited. Other Africans wrote requesting money. By May, Max wrote a letter to Caritas requesting help in returning to his wife, who doctors say needs surgery to remove a uterine tumor. He believed if he could go there, help her become officially classified as the wife of a refugee (an official designation she never received because they married so soon before he left), that she eventually would be able to come to the United States with him. Throughout this period, Max leaned on a variety of churches for moral and financial help. As always, the connections he made were circuitous. During the winter months, he called and wrote to the American wife of an African man living in Utah. A Mormon, she arranged for him to get cold-weather clothes and put him in contact with a local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints congregation. There he met Dalen Frederickson, who now says, I know his situation has been a very difficult one. I wish we could have helped more. In fact, the parishioners did a lot. Every month, members fast for a few meals, then turn over the money they would have spent on food to a fund for those in need. They gave Max the fasting proceeds several times. Frederickson invited Max to his home for meals and took him to job interviews. He heard good reports from Maxs temporary employers. But some job offers fell through, usually because Max didnt feel well enough. Eventually the relationship with church members fell apart. I think he had good intentions and high hopes, Frederickson says. I think he came from a situation where his expectations were very different than what he found. Over the course of the next few months, Max continued to go from one church to another as he stumbled financially and emotionally. Again and again, he would

The best treatment is to avoid stress. We take tablets, but that is nothing if we dont have peace.

Max having his blood drawn at an Austin clinic, which is a common occurance due to Maxs ulcers.

Being an ex-choir director, Max finds solace in playing his landlords keyboard.