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The Journey of a Congolese Family to Casa Juan Diego

The family was interviewed and their story retold here by Allison Clifton, who often translates for us from French to English when we have new African guests. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Recently, Casa Juan Diego has received a number of families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries. Most of the families that have come to CJD during the past forty years have been from Central America or Mexico, so why is there such an influx of Africans? Why are they leaving their homes, and why are they coming across the border from Mexico to Houston? One family told their story to me, a Casa Juan Diego volunteer, last week. Martin told his story in Lingala, and Debora relayed that story and told her own story to me in French.

Debora was a nurse, and her husband, Martin, was an electrician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  With a group from his Catholic church, Martin participated in the protest against President Kabila (whose mandate as president had expired in 2016 and who had continued to delay elections) on February 25, 2018. The demonstrations were sanctioned by the Catholic church and other churches, and many people took part in organized groups after mass that Sunday.  At the demonstration Kabila’s army started shooting. Martin was taking pictures and filming on his phone as he saw people being killed. Someone denounced him to the military, saying that he had been protesting and taking pictures, so he was arrested along with many other people.

The military tied up the people they arrested and covered their eyes. They began torturing them, and this torture lasted from February 25th to March 3, 2018. They were tortured with water and were beaten. During that whole time, the prisoners were only given food twice. Martin was beaten with guns, in the chest (he still suffers from soreness in his chest and sometimes has trouble breathing) and in the feet, one of which is still damaged. They were also threatened with sexual assault (Martin got emotional here and was unable to tell exactly what happened). The men were handcuffed in pairs, and every night, one pair of men was taken out by the soldiers and killed.

Finally, one soldier pulled Martin aside and said that if he would pay, he could help him escape. As soon as Martin was arrested though, his phone and his money had been confiscated. So, the soldier said that what Martin had done, demonstrating at the protest march, was not really so bad (this was said in confidence because the soldier was secretly somewhat sympathetic to the cause), he would let him call his wife to ask her to get money.

All this time, Debora did not know where her husband was or even if he was still alive. She knew that he had gone to the protest, and when he did not come home, she had hoped that maybe he was in hiding. But she and her family had also called hospitals and had even checked the local prison to see if he was there.

When Debora got the call that her husband would be released if she could pay off the soldier, she called her father-in-law who arranged for a cousin to deliver the money. Martin had been photographed and fingerprinted, and he was told that he would have to leave the country because if he stayed, he would be tracked down and killed. Debora and their daughter were also threatened. So, his release was on the condition that he leave the country immediately and not return. When he was freed, he was put on a bus, and Martin changed buses to take one that would go to Congo-Brazzaville, a neighboring country also known as the Republic of the Congo).

Once Martin got to Congo-Brazzaville and it was safe to call Debora, she and their daughter immediately left to join him in Brazzaville. They knew that they were not safe there, so they took a flight to Brazil. Life in Brazil was very difficult; they were robbed on arrival, were mistreated, and were never able to send their daughter to school. They stayed in Brazil for one year before departing for Peru. They traveled by bus and on foot through Ecuador, Colombia, and then to Panama.

On the journey they were robbed three times and were especially savagely attacked in the jungle between Colombia and Panama (Debora got emotional at this point and was unable to recount exactly what happened, but she said unspeakable things took place, that one could not imagine the horrible things they had gone through).

Once they arrived in Panama, every border was shut down because of the pandemic, so they were stranded in a camp on the border for nine months. The conditions were terrible, and again their daughter could not go to school (she has not been to school in three years and is now nearly eleven years old).

Finally, they were able to get out of Panama and traveled through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, then through Mexico to the border of the U. S. where they camped out for three weeks. It got unbearably cold, so they started walking, not sure of what to do. They walked across a river but didn’t know where they were or even which country they were in. U. S. border patrol agents found them and talked to them, but the family could not understand anything that the agents said. Debora, Martin, and their daughter were put in a truck, spent one day in one detention place, six days at another, and then three weeks at a place called a family detention center. Debora showed me some badges and name tags from one of the facilities, but she did not know where they were located. Then, the family was released to come to Casa Juan Diego. Debora and Martin were wearing ankle monitors, and Debora said that it is uncomfortable and wakes her up all night long.

Houston Catholic Worker, April-June 2021, Vol. XLI, No. 2.