Our community, which has a long history of receiving immigrants from afar, now has another group, almost invisible as they work, shop, study and live among us.
They are the Congolese, some 200 of whom have arrived within the past decade as they flee our planet’s latest Holocaust. The Nazis’ infamous World War II Holocaust cost almost 6 million lives of Jews, Gypsies and political opponents; now a recent estimate puts the Congo toll at close to 7 million dead — not from gas chambers but from shootings, bombings, rapes and often-sadistic use of knives and machetes.
The Congolese are here legally, many having won the U.S. government’s “Immigration Diversity Lottery” that allows people to emigrate from countries with low historical rates of immigration. It favors those eligible to get a green card to work — which helps explain why so many arriving here are trained as accountants, in medical fields, psychiatry and similar areas. But their job hunt is difficult; lack of English limits most to employment as janitors and nursing home aides.
Many take classes in English as a Second Language in addition to their work, studying through the GED/Adult Literacy Program of the Regional Office of Education or at Heartland Community College. Some have spoken to local church and civic groups describing their backgrounds and present needs.
They are a diverse group. French-speakers, some come directly from strife-torn eastern Congo where rival gangs battle over a district so rich in minerals that international businesses eagerly deal with them. The foreigners compete for metals essential for today’s cell phones, laptop computers, MP3 players and digital cameras.
Many of these Bloomington-Normal newcomers, however, are from safer western districts. But as a leader of the local Congolese notes, “While they may not have been in the fighting, they were affected by it.”
That leader is Dr. Jacques Bisimwa, who served in a hospital in Bukavu, one of the eastern areas torn by fighting between the invading Rwandan army and rival Hutu and Ugandan gangs. The Congo Army is ineffective, and the United Nations’ small peacekeeping unit is now poised to exit.
Bisimwa recalls 1994 when an influx of Hutu refugees came from next-door Rwanda — where that tribe had earlier sought to massacre the entire Tutsi tribe, before an international force intervened. Now the Tutsis were in power, the Hutus were being chased, and thousands crossed into Congo.
“They numbered more than the local population. They were sleeping in the road, in schools, in churches,” he said.
Soon local people, as well as Hutus, were becoming victims in the deepening conflict. Large numbers of Congolese began fleeing westward, many being slain at Hutu checkpoints. Bisimwa’s staff urged him to leave: “I preferred to stay there — it was more safe” working in the hospital where the need for his medical skills protected him.
Finally in 2001 he and his family fled into Rwanda, where they boarded a flight to Benin on the west African coast. There he took advanced study to become a surgeon, planning to return to Congo in a few years when the fighting ended.
It has not ended. When he completed his surgeon studies in 2005, he entered the U.S. immigration lottery and came to Bloomington- Normal through a traditional route in this nation of immigrants: “A friend of a friend had a sister” who had come here.
Now Bisimwa studies at Illinois State University to get back into the medical field, while leading the local branch of One Heart for Congo, an organization that aids Congolese. He and his wife (who works at two jobs) have four children, all in local schools. “This is a nice place to live,” he reports.
Mark Wyman retired in 2004 after 33 years as a historian at Illinois State University. Among his publications are two that center on immigration: “Immigrants in the Valley Irish, Germans, and Americans in the Upper Mississippi Country, 1830-1860” and “Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930.”