An unexpected phone call
When his cell phone rang on February 6, 2013, the caller on the other end said: “Daddy?” Alphonse felt his heart stop beating for what felt like a full minute. His reply was, “Fiston…is that you?” He had longed to hear that sweet voice again. Fear told him that years of silence meant that his sons had been killed, but faith had kept them alive. Nearly five years had elapsed since he had heard from his two teenage sons. Could it really be that these were his lost boys on the other end of the phone? Time-out! Hold on! Back up! That part of the story is near the climactic conclusion. In order to appreciate this story, we must first press rewind and fully immerse ourselves in a story that only God could write.
An welcomed friendship begins
As Christmas approached in the winter of 2012, those involved with the non-profit called The 5:14 Initiative sought a way to give to a family in need. Tired of simply giving gifts and playing the role of Santa Claus, they decided to partner with The Newcomers School in Greensboro, N.C., which is a one-year school for refugee students. These students come from a plethora of countries and they all find themselves learning together at this international jewel. Through this connection, they sought to do more than bring Christmas gifts to a new American family. They wanted to be an advocate for a family and help them fully integrate into their new surroundings and culture. Their desire was not based in an act of charity, but was spurred on by their desire to love a family and see them succeed and become fully integrated into their new culture. They were not looking to give a hand out, but to help provide a family with friends who could help interpret and instruct them as they began to navigate their new matrix of systems in the United States. Before Christmas arrived, the Newcomers School matched them with the Kivura family who were from Congo, Africa. Shortly thereafter, the normal exchanges took place: a wish list, gathering, shopping, delivering, and opening of presents. Alphonse, the father, Charlotte, the mother, and their three boys were thrilled with their gifts. The family felt loved and encouraged and the givers felt fulfilled to be able to provide Christmas presents to at least one family who was in need. In most cases, this is the end of the story. All participants feel good about the interaction, the acts of kindness, and they go along their separate ways. However, this was not the end of the story, but the beginning of those involved with The 5:14 Initiative. The picture above is that of Alphonse preaching to the church.
How did the Kivura family arrive in the United States?
Shortly after Congo was granted their independence from Belgium in 1960, Alphonse was born in a small village known by the name of Bushumba. He was born on December 22, 1963. Like many in his village, and in Eastern Africa, Alphonse was born into a mixed family of Hutu and Tutsi. He was raised in this village and stayed there until he moved to the big city of Goma in 1990. By the time 1991, had drawn to a close he had met and fallen in love with Charlotte. After fulfilling the customary marriage requirements of giving cows to his future in-laws, Alphonse and Charlotte were married. Alphonse and Charlotte built a full life in Goma, with their five children. He grew a strong buying and selling business and grew to be a well respected man in the community. Through hard work, he climbed the social ladder to become an upper middle class citizen, and with determination he was able to send his two older children to a private Catholic school. A quick look at an African map reveals that Goma, Congo is very close to the border of Rwanda and they have long shared a common tongue and various cultural similarities. They come from the same bloodlines. As Alphonse explains: “there is no fence, there is no ‘border,’ we walk to and fro without concern for which country we are stepping.” Therefore, in the early 1990’s, when the heinous Rwandan genocide occurred thousands of refugees flooded into Congo fleeing for their lives. This exodus and re-rooting by the refugees raised ethnic tensions all around Congo. What was once a shared culture, now became a land divided by ethnic tension. Just as the Rwanda genocide was occurring in 1994 in Rwanda, the same, less publicized, version of ethnic hatred was being spread in Congo. Tragically, in 1997, because of this ethnic hatred, the Bashi Tribe murdered Alphonse’ father and mother in Bushumba. When this news made its way to Goma, Alphonse was shocked and devastated. His parents did not have enemies. They were a peaceful family, full of love and held in high esteem in the community. The anger and grief wore heavily upon Alphonse and he developed a deep mistrust for other African tribes. For eighteen years, Alphonse lived in Goma, raising his family and growing his business. Life was good for him, but this changed in October of 2008. For eleven years, rumors of war had been circulating and uprisings occurred regularly. In fact, during these eleven years, Alphonse had been targeted because of his ethnicity and beaten severely, but he refused to flee. However, now all of those rumors of war were turning into action. The nightmares of the people of Rwanda were coming to the Kivura family. One night, his brother-n-law came to him with great urgency to warn him that the Tutsi militia planned to attack Goma, and that his family was on the list of targets. Although Charlotte is one hundred percent Tutsi, she was targeted as well because she had married Alphonse, and lies were spread about her helping the Hutu resistance. The Bashi tribe were determined that the Kivura family was to be eliminated. Their resolve and determination was in every way an attempt to wipe out the Kivura name.
The Kivura family – Refugees for the first time
On August 19, 2008, with great haste the brother-n-law took Alphonse, Charlotte and three of his boys to the border of Uganda to stay until the violence had ended. His two older boys were away at their Catholic boarding school, which was about fifty kilometers away, or about a three-hour drive north of Goma. The school did not have a telephone and passage by road was cut off by the CNDP militia. Therefore, in his haste and panic, he was not able to contact the boys. Fiston who was sixteen at the time and Floribert who was only twelve, stayed unaware at school as their family fled Goma for their lives. From the border village of Bunagana, he was able to run his business remotely. In just a matter of days he was fortunate to meet Kigundu, a kind and elderly man who took ￼people into his home who were displaced. The Kivura family anxiously awaited news to come back home and had all intentions of doing so. However, the violence persisted and the fear of returning was paralyzing. Six months passed, when they came across some familiar faces in the Bunagana fish market. These faces were from the Bashi tribe. The very tribe that had killed his parents, and sought to kill his family, had made their way to Gisolo. It was only a matter of time before they put the pieces together and would come after his family. Alphonse had a decision to make. Should they abandon the boys and hopes of returning home? While living at the border, the boys were relatively close and to leave would be giving up on reuniting with them easily. However, to stay was to risk the deaths of the entire family. After much prayer, they made the best decision they could, and decided to protect the three young children and themselves. They left with haste and traveled through Kampala, Uganda and up to Nairobi, Kenya. Once in Kenya, they rested for a season with a mind to keep traveling to Ethiopia. While entering Kenya, they asked their driver to take them to the part of town where people who spoke their native language lived. The driver knew exactly where to take them within the city and they were able to meet very nice people who were willing to help them begin a new life in Kenya, far away from their troubles. Alphonse was surrounded by people from the Mushi tribe of South Kivu. They too had fled the ethnic violence. After a short while, he met and befriended a pastor who was from Congo and their families became very close. Alphonse had found the place for his family to settle in safety. Eventually, he would send for his boys to come and reunite with them. Nairobi, Kenya is a twenty-four hour drive from Goma. The city is large enough where Alphonse could hide in the shadows and not stick out to anyone. He also knew that his older boys could make a life in Kenya, and would be able to use their excellent education for job opportunities. Alphonse was rebuilding his life.
In April of 2010, his pastor had some friends visit from Congo. These friends happened to be from the Bashi tribe. Seeing their faces brought back the murders, the violence, the terror, and fear enveloped Alphonse. This fear immobilized him and brought about a certain paralysis. He could not escape those faces, the memories of being beaten, and what they had done to so many people that he loved. Even though these men were friends of his trusted pastor, safety was compromised and fear was inescapable. He was so disturbed that he went to report the incident to the RSK, which is an NGO that helps refugees in Kenya. He wanted to report his fear for his family and began to inquire about other options for his family. He was unsettled and wanted to get as far away from Africa as possible. He wanted a completely different culture and environment in which to raise his family. At the same time, moving further away from Congo seemed to be moving farther away from hope. What about his older boys? The same questions he had before leaving Goma, and the border, haunted him once again. What about my boys? He had not heard from his boys since he fled Congo two years ago. However, he simply could not stay and live in the everyday fear of being hunted down by evil. To stay was to live in inescapable anxiety, but to leave was to move away from his two lost sons. By September 30, 2010, the RSK agreed to help resettle them in another country far away from Congo, and the process began. The immigration process was a roller coaster of ups and downs. Yes we can. No we can’t. His case was thrown out, then reinstated. He faith in God never wavered. He believed that God would make a way when there was no way. The process was exhausting. In July of 2011, HIAS, another NGO, called him to come with his entire family for an interview. They then passed him off to a different NGO. In September, yet another NGO contacted him, but this only led to them passing his case off to a partnering NGO in October. Finally, in January of 2012, an NGO by the name of Jivia contacted them with the news that they were confident that they would be able to help them relocate. Alphonse was simultaneously both thrilled and devastated. He wanted nothing more but to take his family away from this constant oppressive fear. However, if he were to leave, a part of him would be staying in Africa – two large parts.
The process inched forward at a snails pace. They would take two steps forward and fall one step back. Appointments here and appointments there were the norm. Papers to prove this and papers to prove that. Finally, after interviews in February and a confirmation interview in May, he and his partial family were placed on a plane and arrived in Greensboro, NC on September 26, 2012, 7,338 miles from the last known location of their two oldest boys.
A new life begins in the United States
Once the Kivura family arrived in the United States, African Services Coalition took over to help resettle them. Each refugee family is allotted $1,100.00 per person by The Department of State. This money is given to the Resettlement agency and the organization is responsible for using these resources to provide rent for the families and to furnish their apartment. Obviously the agency tries to stretch this money as far as possible and seeks donations for items that they may not have to purchase. They try to spend as little as possible and after 90 days are required to give any excess money to the family. In addition to this start up money, each family member is given food stamps, a cell phone, and are enrolled in medicaid. Their food and health insurance are covered, but that still leaves these pilgrims with great uncertainty and the cost of the plane tickets to reimburse the International Organization of Migration. In the case of the Kivura family, that cost was almost six thousand dollars. Each refugee resettlement agency is responsible for finding their clients a job and this is an enormous task. Without a job, these families will never be contributors to the American economy and will never integrate into the society as a whole. They will remain clustered with those who speak their native language and will not build independent lives. However, with a job and a steady income the families gain confidence and independence.
Meeting need with love
That Christmas season of 2012, was a special beginning for the Kivura family and those involved in The 5:14 Initiative. Those who were desirous to help, learned that what this family needed more than a handout was a hand up. What they needed was an advocate. They needed someone to help them navigate the systems that are embedded in our country to help people just like them. So, several families stepped in to learn the system ￼and help them find out where they could get help and became their advocates. Someone found out that Alphonse was struggling with his vision. Alphonse had never had glasses with his own personal prescription. However, someone within The 5:14 Initiative knew an Optometrist who was willing to donate his services. Therefore, one week later, Alphonse could see clearly for the first time in decades.
The Kivura family met weekly for worship with many of the members of The 5:14 Initiative and over time, Alphonse revealed that they had five boys instead of three. Details were hard to come by even though their English was improving rapidly. The 5:14 Initiative knew that their boys were lost in the war, but the details were sketchy. Those in their church prayed regularly for them and were encouraged by the faith and hope that filled Alphonse and Charlotte. Therefore, it was a great joy and shock to hear Alphonse retell the story of what happened on that early morning of February 6, 2013. The caller on the other end said: “Daddy?” Alphonse felt his heart stop beating for what felt like a full minute. His reply was, “Fiston, is that you?” He had longed to hear that sweet voice again. Fear told him that his sons were killed, but faith kept them alive. It had been five years since he had heard from them, could it be that this was really his lost boys on the other end of the phone? He retold the story with a smile on his face and tears down his cheeks. The joy and relief was palpable as he replayed the conversation from memory for the church group. A visible weight was lifted as he retold the story, but another weight was replacing the one just removed: “how do we get them home to us?” There were so many questions, but the most important question was answered: “Were they alive?” Yes! They were very much alive. From this point forward, Jimmy Renslow, the Executive Director of The 5:14 Initiative, pressed forward. Now that there was tangible data, and a person matched with a place, some real work could be begin. The Kivura boys could have been found anywhere in Eastern Africa. Africans fleeing violence and bloodshed travel between borders undocumented with great frequency. Therefore, they could have traveled thousands of miles within the five years that had elapsed. However, the boys were found in the only other country where The 5:14 Initiative works – Uganda. Therefore, it was no coincidence, but providence, that they were matched with the Kivura family months earlier.
The community rallied around them when it came to light that they needed such things as beds, couches, clothes, gas, food, and especially when it was revealed that Charlotte was expecting a new baby girl. The community spent very little to finance these needs, but rather used their resources to provide for each need. For instance, one person met with the manager of a local thrift store and struck up a deal where the family could come in and spend $75.00 for clothing for the winter months. What they learned was their commitment of time, was of more value than their commitment of money. The Kivura family met weekly for worship with many of the members of The 5:14 Initiative. Over time, Alphonse revealed that they had five boys instead of three. Details were hard to come by even though their English was improving rapidly. The 5:14 Initiative knew that their boys were lost in the war, but the details were sketchy. Those in their church prayed regularly for them and were encouraged by the faith and hope that filled Alphonse and Charlotte. Therefore, it was a great joy and shock to hear Alphonse retell the story of what happened on that early morning of February 6, 2013. The caller on the other end said: “Daddy?” Alphonse felt his heart stop beating for what felt like a full minute. His reply was, “Fiston, is that you?” He had longed to hear that sweet voice again. Fear told him that his sons were killed, but faith kept them alive. It had been five years since he had heard from them, could it be that this was really his lost boys on the other end of the phone? He retold the story with a smile on his face and tears down his cheeks. The joy and relief was palpable as he replayed the conversation from memory for the church group. A visible weight was lifted as he retold the story, but another weight was replacing the one just removed: “how do we get them home to us?” There were so many questions, but the most important question was answered: “Were they alive?” Yes! They were very much alive. From this point forward, Jimmy Renslow, the Executive Director of The 5:14 Initiative, pressed forward. Now that there was tangible data, and a person matched with a place, some real work could be begin. The Kivura boys could have been found anywhere in Eastern Africa. Africans fleeing violence and bloodshed travel between borders undocumented with great frequency. Therefore, they could have traveled thousands of miles within the five years that had elapsed. However, the boys were found in the only other country where The 5:14 Initiative works – Uganda. Therefore, it was no coincidence, but providence, that they were matched with the Kivura family months earlier.
High Alert: Let’s get these boys home!
As soon as Jimmy found out they had settled in Uganda, he contacted his good ￼friends Bob and Carolyn Jacobsen, who are missionaries living in Uganda. They were anxious to get some loving hands on them, to evaluate their situation, and give them some much needed money. Therefore, Bob and Carolyn arranged to meet with them on February 20th, 2013. After their meeting, they sent us some pictures and reported that they looked great, were in good health, were well mannered, and were relatively safe. Simultaneously, Jimmy was working with a local non-profit law school to speed along the immigration process and they had their first meeting on March 7, 2013. This process took many steps, including getting birth certificates made in Congo and then translating them into French and then English. This process was meticulous, but was finally completed in May of 2013.
In the meantime, The 5:14 Initiative was sending money to the Penner family (pictured here) in Uganda and having them distribute the money to the boys monthly. This was done to help them steward the money, but also to allow others to check up on the boys and make sure they were safe and healthy while giving them some safe human interaction. Jimmy was also trying to keep up with the boys over Skype.
In August of 2013, as planned, Jimmy took his yearly trip to Uganda, except this time he had some added people to meet, Fiston and Floribert. He arrived and met with them right away. He scooped them up, spoiled them with food and movies, and took them along with him to do the work that he was sent there to do. Jimmy had long wondered how they actually found their family who was living across two oceans in the United States. Was it a phone call to a relative? Did they go to the Unites Nations? How could those dots be connected? They had not spoken to their parents in five years? How could they suddenly know where they were and how to get in touch with them?
Finally – some answers
Jimmy waited until he was face to face with the boys and looking in their eyes before he asked for this clarification and he was not disappointed with the story. While on a long drive through the Uganda countryside, Fiston and Floribert began to tell the story in turns. When they would move to fast, Jimmy would slow them down and ask them to back up. The story was riveting, compelling, and surprising. Jimmy began by asking them, “When was the last time you saw your parents?” The answer broke his heart. The last time they laid eyes on their parents was when their little brother, Munzi, was born and now Munzi was five. They came home from boarding school to see their new brother, and then returned to school as usual. While away at school, they were completely unaware of what was happening in their home town. They were so isolated from the world in their village that they did not know that violence had entered Goma, and they were certainly unaware that their parents had fled to the border and then on to Kenya. They went months without hearing from their parents, but this was not unusual as cell phones were not common yet in this region. They continued life as normal even as ethnic tensions slowly crept around them. They were isolated in the school, but even the school compound was not safe enough for the vile ethnic hatred that honors no borders. The boys recounted how they began to feel unsafe with the threats on their lives within the school. Tensions were getting unbearable and they lived their lives afraid of the shadows. The ethnic tension erupted one day when they heard a great turmoil outside. The village was normally quiet, so the raucous crowd was chilling. As they went to investigate, they were not prepared to see what was coming their way. Guns and machetes were being indiscriminately used towards Hutus. The boys, just part Tutsi, would have been targeted and killed. Fear enveloped them, but adrenaline forced their feet to move. War had come to them. Death was knocking on their door. Get out! Run! Survive! These were the only thoughts they had, so they followed the fleeing crowd and escaped the militia that had reached their school. They ran as fast and as far away as they could. These middle class teenagers now found themselves in survival mode, this was new for them. They were able to use some of the money they had saved to buy food when they could not find food off the land. Their first thought was to go home. However, they soon learned that this was not an option and they should pray that their family made it out before the war reached their home. With this news, the boys felt alone. What would they do? Where would they go? Who would take care of them? What about their dreams of education and a career? Where was their family? Are they safe?
After a few weeks of wandering, hiding, and trying to come up with a plan, they decided to flee Congo and the safest passage was through Uganda. Eventually, like many refugees, they were able to find transport into Uganda. Once they arrived to the only city in Uganda, Kampala, they reported to a local police station. Most refugees do not report to the police station out of fear, but the boys were young and alone, seeking help. There are many police stations in Uganda, so they found the closest one to where they were. Not surprisingly, the police were of little help. They dismissed them and told them that they must go report to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). The boys were again, alone. Exhausted, depressed, and frightened, for several days they slept on the steps at the police station trying to find the motivation to take the next step.
God with us…
One day, while sitting on the steps of the police station, a man who had just finished paying a traffic violation slowed his pace as he walked past them. He stopped, turned around, and stared at them, peering deep into their faces. Fear griped the boys and they suddenly recalled the terror of that fateful day when they saw murder and death for the first time. After an uncomfortable amount of time, the man spoke to them in their mother tongue. He asked: “Are you from Congo?” Fiston replied: “Why do you speak to me with my mother tongue?” The man came closer to Fiston and Floribert, ignored their question, and asked a shocking follow up question: “Is your father Kivura, Alphonse?” “What should I say,” Fiston thought? How much information should the boys reveal? Were his intentions for good or for harm? Not knowing what to say, he said nothing. However, the next question completely exposed him: “Is your name Fiston?” In utter disbelief and shock, he replied: “How do you know my father and how do you know my name?” The man replied: “My name is Immanuel and I am your cousin. I have not seen you since you￼were a child, but your face has not changed, only grown. What are you doing here?” In utter shock and disbelief, the reunion began right there on the steps of one of the many police stations in Kampala. As it turned out, Immanuel had fled to Uganda many years earlier as his parents were also killed in the war. He had begun a new life in Uganda, but had not seen the boys in fifteen years. Immanuel loaded up the boys with him and they were rescued from their loneliness, despair, and isolation.
The name Immanuel means “God with us,” and this fact did not escape the boys (Immanuel is pictured in the middle). On the way back to Immanuel’s house, their new home, they talked about how Kampala is a city of about two million people, yet on this particular day, at this particular time of day, at this particular police station, on those particular set of steps, they would unite with the only person in the entire country who might recognize them. Immanuel, a living manifestation of the reality that God had not forsaken them, walked right up to them, spoke their language and spoke their names. Indeed God was with them. It took a great deal of detective work to piece together the events surrounding the whereabouts of the Kivura family. Immanuel was able to contact family members back in Congo. They were able to give him a phone number of a pastor in Kenya. The pastor in Kenya had the phone number of Alphonse in the United States. It was after all of this background work, and after all of these sequence of events, when the long awaited phone call was placed. On February 6, 2013, they dialed the number, not quite sure if the numbers would actually reach their family whom they had not seen in five years. Alphonse recognized that the number was from Africa and so he answered it immediately. Daddy?” Alphonse felt his heart stop beating for what felt like a full minute. His reply was, “Fiston, is that you?”
Indeed…God is with us!
On that ride through the Uganda countryside Jimmy heard a story told, through the mouths of two boys who were lost. Lost? They may have lost their parents and their parents may had lost their sons, but make not mistake – they were not lost to God. For God, had Immanuel waiting for them and at just the right time, he orchestrated a grand reunion. Fast forward now almost exactly two years since that phone call. The 5:14 Initiative has continued to support the efforts of reuniting this family. Jimmy has now made two visits to Uganda and visited the U.S. Embassy and the International Office of Migration seeking to speed along this process. However, the process has been painstakingly slow. Albeit, a concluding chapter is in reach. We are elated to finally announce that on March 10th, 2015, Jimmy will escort Fiston and Floribert home and into the waiting arms of their parents. Tears of despair are going to be replaced with tears of joy. Arms with a five year ache, will finally be wrapped around one another.
The last time they saw one another, their youngest brother had just been born. Now, they will meet another infant, their baby sister. We are so honored to be a part of this story. God’s story…our story. Immanuel, indeed. God is with us. Will you celebrate God’s goodness on behalf of the Kivura family?
Update: We were finally able to bring these boys back to the United States and be reunited with their family. Both boys are in college and have jobs. They are doing extremely well. We are honored to play a part in their story and a part in the lives of many other refugees in our community.