Displaced Voices In His 70s, a Congolese Physician and Refugee Dreams of Medical School Once More
From the Congo to a refugee camp in Kenya to resettlement in Austin, TX—this is the story of a doctor who is starting over.
This is Displaced Voices , a monthly column by Jessica Goudeau which tells first-person stories of refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants. The as-told-to format gives them control over their narratives; when appropriate, we’ll use pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Jessica’s note: I met Gilbert at the English school in Austin where many refugees take classes and was struck by his dignity and sharp mind. He works tirelessly to learn English, and often stopped while we were talking to jot down a new expression in his well-worn notebook. One of his friends from the English class was a chemistry professor in Iraq and she and Gilbert spoke to me once about the difficulties of being a college-educated professional in their home countries and then coming to the United States, where their degrees and experience are not valued. I asked Gilbert to tell me how he went from being a one-time doctor to a medical assistant and ESL student in the United States.
I have been in the United States for twelve years. I came here as a refugee. I’m from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I left my country because I was not safe.
I am a doctor, a general practitioner, and I was living in the eastern part of the Congo, a small village outside the city of Bukavu. I had not always lived there; I was born in 1946 outside the city of Kinshasa. When I was a child, we had to build our own houses out of mud and brick. Later, when they began building the city of Kinshasa and making it the capital, they started to build the houses out of bricks and cement.
I loved working in the city of Kinshasa—it became a big city in my time—but I moved across the country, from west to east, to work outside of Bukavu. It was a very good opportunity for me; I could make more money, and I could live near some of my relatives. My wife was a social worker. I loved to help the people there.
At that time, in the last 1990s, the Mai-Mai rebels began moving into the region. They would often force young boys into their army, training them how to fight, giving them weapons. The boys—they were so young, only twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old—were enrolled by force.
When the mothers of these boys came in to see me, I told them to do their best to keep their boys out of the army. ‘They should be safe going to school,’ I said. ‘Do not let your sons enroll in the army. Do what you can to keep them safe.’
One day, three ladies came to my house. They told me, ‘We heard that the rebels are planning to harm you because you’re telling the mothers not to let their boys enroll in the army.’
There had been a pastor, also, who was preaching in this area. He also told the boys they should not go into the army. He was not killed, but when he was threatened, he left. I knew I had to leave too.
I left the small village and went to Bukavu. There was a scattered band of rebels—an uncontrolled band. I went immediately from Bukavu into Kenya. My family stayed behind. They only joined me later.
First, I went to Nairobi. I needed to be recognized as a refugee in the capital. After that, they sent me to a refugee camp. I went to Kakuma Refugee Camp. I stayed there one year by myself. After a year, my wife and three children came. It was hard for them to leave our country.
In the camp, I returned to the kind of rough living of my childhood. I had to build my own house again out of mud and bricks rather than a good home out of bricks and cement. And I could not work in the camp—not as a physician, anyway. In Kenya, they didn’t recognize degrees from outside countries like the Congo. And they didn’t give jobs to refugees. Jobs were a protected market. Only Kenyans could work as physicians.
I worked for an aid organization, IRC—International Rescue Committee. They let me be a medical assistant, even though I am a physician. I was able to help with some medical situations, but never surgery. When the Americans were coming, they told me to tell the Kenyans to accept me, to recognize my degree. But when the Americans left, the Kenyans didn’t care anymore.
No longer getting to do my work was not the hardest part of living in a camp, though. It was that sometimes, in this camp, there was still insecurity. We came to the camp to be safe but we were not always safe. There was a local tribe and they would come, sometimes, to the camps. They had guns that the government had given to the tribe—the guns were supposed to be to protect their cattle from thieves. But they would bring the guns and have a big fight killing the refugees because the refugees had a little bit of work.
The IRC workers helped us to apply for resettlement. First, you write to some organization, telling them you need to be resettled. In our case, we wrote to the American embassy in Kenya. All the Congolese refugees did that. They put all of these letters in an envelope and sent it to Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. The American embassy read over your entry and decided whether or not you need resettlement. We qualified for it.
My eldest daughter went to Canada on a scholarship. It was a special scholarship she earned because she graduated from high school and did very well. She left five months ahead of us; she went in 2006. She went to the capital city, to Ottawa. She married a man from the Congo and now they have two children. She has come to see us three times and my wife went to see her three times, but I have only been once—when she was married in Canada.
My other daughter and son came with us to Austin. They were in their early twenties by then. We were supported for six months by a resettlement agency named Caritas. They got us an apartment on the northern side of town. I liked my apartment very much. I could speak some English—I learned a little bit in the refugee camp in Kenya—but it was not much. My wife speaks less than me.
My children, my wife and I got jobs immediately. Caritas helped us get training to work as Certified Nurses’ Assistants. We helped people in a nursing home or in group homes. It was a job; at least it was something. I knew I would not be able to work as a physician in the United States and that my wife could not be a social worker. My children have gone to university, like my daughter in Canada. My son will be a nurse and my daughter will be a social worker like her mother. Both of them graduated with their degrees in May. I am very proud of them.
I am in my seventies, but I still plan to go back to school to get my medical degree in the United States. The problem for me is that I do not know how to use a computer. When I left the Congo, we did not have computers. When I went to a refugee camp, they started to teach a computer course, but I was not allowed to attend—they said it was only for the young people. First I am learning English; I go to the free English class for refugees four mornings a week and I attend the local community college English classes at night. I take notes of everything I am learning; I love the Longman dictionary and I have a very good grammar book. Soon I will learn to use the computer so that I can become a physician in the United States.
I will be glad someday to be a doctor again. But we had to leave the Congo and even Kenya to find safety and to have a good life. Now, here in Austin, we have a very good life.