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 DHS News June 2013    

Human Services Group Prepares for Refugees 

Papy Mukwita probably put it best:

“We walk together.”

Papy participated in a panel that met in the Human Services Building’s Liberty Room on May 22 for a workshop, “Welcoming Congolese Refugees to Pittsburgh.”

Organized by the DHS Immigrants and Internationals Advisory Council’s Cultural Competency Committee, the workshop drew about 150 representatives of health care, social service, community and refugee agencies, school districts and other human service providers.  

Barbara Murock, Immigrants and Internationals Initiative Project Manager, said 200 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are expected in the Pittsburgh region beginning in October.  

Previous experiences in resettling refugees, such as the Somali Bantu who came to the city about eight years ago, showed the need for education  about refugees culture and experiences so that providers know what particular needs they may have and how best to  address them, she said.

“We’re really glad to have developed to the point in our community collaboration that we can be ahead of the curve,” Barbara said.

Rosamaria Ponciano, a DHS intern and student at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, did much of the leg work to set up the event.

There are particular concerns with the Congolese refugees. The Cultural Orientation Resource Center based in Washington, D.C. and funded by the U.S. Department of State/Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, reports that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the site of “some of the world’s worst violence and human rights abuses in recent years.”

Workshop panel members agreed with that assessment. The panel included Congolese who came to Pittsburgh voluntarily years ago as refugees or for education and ended up staying in the region. They, and the approximately 100 other Congolese and who live here now support their ex-countrymen and said they are eager to help as refugees begin arriving in Pittsburgh. Two families have arrived so far, and were received by AJAPO, the area’s newest refugee resettlement agency.

Refugees are by United Nations’ definition people who cannot return to their country for fear of persecution or threat to their life based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion.

Papy, chairman of the African Christian United Fellowship, told attendees that Congolese have strong faith. The majority is Christian and church connections will play a large part in assistance.

Arlette Ambunga of Christian Evangelical Economic Development (CEED) said the Congolese traditional family structure means that women “must be empowered to contribute to income” in America, where two-income families are common.

Representatives of agencies in Pittsburgh who assist with resettlement said refugees are given financial support for three months and then must work.

Leslie Aizenman of Jewish Family & Children Service Immigrant Services & Refugee Resettlement said housing needs to be found near bus lines so the refugees can easily get to work. East Liberty has been a good location for refugees but housing there has become expensive and the market is tight, so investigation must be done to determine where housing can be had.

She said that she has heard that most of the refugees will be young, mostly parents with children.

Communication issues with children will need to be addressed, Arlette said. Congolese children are expected to not speak up, so getting information about school issues could be problematic.

Panelists said a variety of languages are spoken in DRC, although French is a primary language since the region, known for its rich mineral resources, was a Belgian colony in the 19th century.

Several panelists remarked on how cultural mores may present barriers to ensuring refugees get intervention they will need.

Widespread rape has been reported in the country. The Cultural Orientation Resource Center report, issued in March 2013, states that “Sexual violence, used as a weapon of war, is so common in eastern DRC that human rights groups have called the area ‘the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.’”

But discussing any sorts of health or trauma-related issues, and especially ones considered taboo, can be difficult for the Congolese, several panelists said.

“It’s not part of the culture,” Arletta said. “It’s not easy (for them) to seek help.”

Links to people who can do some hand-holding and say, “It’s OK. You can this,” will be vital, she added.

Yet several panelists spoke to the hardiness and good-nature of the Congolese.

“The resilience of some Congolese is staggering,” said Becky Cech of Congo Story, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Pittsburgh. Cech grew up in Congo and her family has served as medical missionaries there for generations.

Panelist Elie Kihonia, president of the nonprofit Afrika Yetuc  Inc. Cultural Organization, which builds cultural links between African immigrants and Americans, said the Congolese are traditionally peaceful. Violence and unrest has come from outside the DRC, he said.


Anicet Mundundu of the Culturally Responsive Arts Education program.   

Many spoke to the Congolese’s creativity, and love of music, dance and art.

Anicet Mundundu, who works with the
Culturally Responsive Arts Education program to introduce African culture in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, attended the DHS workshop wearing a brightly colored shirt and pants that are representative of exuberant African design.

Anicet is Congolese and came to Pittsburgh to study ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. He lauded the workshop and
added that he hopes that some means will be found to help youth ages 8 and up fit in at school.

Helping them do that “is very complex,” Anicet said. He urged anyone involved with schooling to prepare to help. “These conversations need to happen to make their learning experience more comfortable.”

Providers and panelists pledged support and resources, and a networking session concluded the event with the goal of follow up events and meetings around specific needs such as behavioral health services. The DHS Immigrants and Internationals Advisory Council has posted a list of resources, available on the Immigrants and Internationals Resources page of the DHS website. 

Barbara said she was heartened by the outpouring of interest in learning about the newest refugee group that the Immigrants and Internationals initiative generated.   “We can be the catalyst for helping the community to get organized,” she said.


  • The Cultural Orientation Resource Center’s report, “Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo,” issued in March 2013, can be read at the CulturalOrientation.net website.
  • Speakers at the DHS’ “Welcoming the Congolese to Pittsburgh” workshop invited attendees to “CONGOFEST: Break the Silence,” billed as a humanitarian concert, scheduled for 8 p.m. June 22 at the Byham Theater, Downtown. It will feature Pepe Felly Manuaku Waku, called the creator of Congolese pop style music, and a half dozen other Congolese dance and music companies.  For more information, visit www.trustarts.org.

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