Narrow Escape

Plus: Havard Pleads Guilty

Narrow Escape
Asylum seekers find the door to the U.S. is closing
With a sly smile, Daniel Komayombi shows off his drawings of Texas cowboys and snow-covered African volcanoes. Some of his pictures are remarkably complex for a second-grader. All six Komayombi children--Nadia, 18; Rosine, 17; Jean Yves, 15; Grace, 12; Maria, 9; and Daniel, 8--have some artistic ability, whether with pencils or beads. As refugees fleeing war and persecution with their Congolese parents, they've found it pays to have luck as well.

Unlike millions of other families, Pascal and Francoise Komayombi and their offspring made it through a stringent screening process allowing them to be resettled in the United States. But budget cuts by the State Department and new security screening measures as a result of 9-11 are making it harder than ever for refugees like the Komayombis to be granted sanctuary.

"It can take up to 15 years," says Marianne DeLeon, resource developer for the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee, the largest non-religious resettlement organization in the country. "Some people live in refugee camps their entire lives."

The Komayombis' journey started in 2000, when they fled their home in Goma, a city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For the last seven years, the DRC has been embroiled in a vicious conflict that has been called Africa's "First World War."

For four years, the Komayombis lived in limbo in Nairobi, Kenya, unable to return home, waiting to hear if their request for asylum would be granted. Finally, last August, after an exhausting 36-hour airplane trip from Nairobi to London to Los Angeles, the Komayombi family arrived as refugees in Dallas to be resettled by the IRC. They came with little more than the clothes on their backs, a wooden crucifix and a poster of the Virgin Mary.

An estimated 3.3 million people in the DRC have been killed by fighting, starvation and disease since 1998 as rebels and government troops from nine countries battled over the country's mineral wealth, with tribal conflicts often used as smoke screens to cover plunder of gold and diamond mines. According to studies by the IRC, more than 2.2 million people are currently displaced within the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, and 340,000 have fled.

To be accepted into the United States, refugees like the Komayombis must prove that they have fled their country of origin because of religious, ethnic, political or social persecution. They must apply from a "country of first asylum," not their home country. And they must show they cannot return home for fear of further harm.

After 9-11, the number of refugee admissions in the United States plunged, from 85,000 in 1999 to 27,000 in 2002. "I think there's some kind of stigma involved with being foreign since September 11," DeLeon says.

The number of refugees slated to be resettled in 2005 was set at 55,000. "About January we heard that because of widespread budgetary cuts, we would only see about 34,000 to 35,000," says Lisa David, regional director of the IRC, which handles 12 percent to 14 percent of the refugees settled in the United States. Because 60 percent of its funding comes from the federal government, the IRC was forced to lay off workers and scale back operations. But, last week David learned that an emergency appropriations bill attached to the "Real ID Act," passed by Congress last week to create a national identity card, will make up the difference.

Founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, the IRC has 25 offices internationally and 21 in the United States. It resettles about 500 refugees in the Dallas area each year. In recent years, most refugees arriving in Dallas have fled African countries in turmoil.

When they arrived in Dallas, the Komayombis were met at the airport by someone from the IRC. For six months, the IRC helps refugees get established. Volunteer mentors work with the family and tutor children in an IRC after-school program.

"Our mission is to ensure that refugees are self-sufficient within six months of arrival," DeLeon says. "We have an 80 percent success rate with that."

Crammed into a cheap two-bedroom apartment in the Vickery Meadows area of Dallas, Pascal and Francoise Komayombi and their children still don't have much, but in only nine months, they are thriving in a culture that delights and sometimes mystifies them.

Pascal, a veterinarian, does odd jobs at an international school. Francoise, a teacher, cleans rooms at Presbyterian Hospital. They declined to talk about why they were forced to flee Congo, fearing that their past could follow them. But they agreed their children could talk to the Dallas Observer.

The three oldest children attend Hillcrest High School; the three youngest go to Dan D. Rogers Elementary. The children arrived speaking French, Swahili and Lingala, a tribal tongue, but virtually no English. They've adapted quickly. Not only have they progressed in English, several are picking up Spanish to talk to classmates.

Nadia, who found a part-time job at La Madeleine, wants to become a nurse practitioner after graduating next year. Rosine and Jean Yves plan to attend medical school. Grace is on the honor roll and wants to be a fashion designer and an actress. Maria plans to be a teacher. And Daniel wants to draw "characters."

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