Agustin Kagoma and Niyonkuru Neema – City of Chattanooga – Completed
When Kagoma Augustin and his wife, Niyonkuru Neema, had their first child, they named their baby girl “Furaha.” Furaha means “joy” in Swahili. But this family’s more than decade-long stay in an African refugee camp was anything by joyful.
A brutal civil war in Kagoma and Neema’s native Congo, the second largest country in Africa, forced them to flee their birthplace in the mid-1990s bound for Duta, Tanzania. They were only 18 and 20 years old at the time. When they arrived in Duta, Neema was also seven months pregnant. “It was very hard,” Neema said. “I was pregnant with Furaha and I could not eat. I became very sick. There was no money to buy anything, so my husband went to look for a job.”
Kagoma would find work as a fisherman in another city in Tanzania – “Kigoma.” He and the other men from the refugee camp would wait in the wee hours of the morning for a bus to carry them to Kigoma. It was a dangerous feat, Kagoma explained, because “if they discovered you were going somewhere away from the camp, they could put you in jail.”
The work wasn’t easy. The men would cast huge nets into the river to catch their fish at night to avoid being caught working. They received nominal pay for their labor at the end of each month, which they would send home to their wives and children. But, to make matters worse, the men would stay on the jobsite for several months as a time. Neema recalled the first moment Kagoma laid eyes on their newborn daughter, Furaha was six months old.
Houses in the refugee camp resembled huts made of sticks with tent-like tarps on top. There was no electricity for a refrigerator, microwave or stove. Each household was rationed six pounds of beans and cornmeal that was supposed to last two weeks. Families would build makeshift fire pits deep inside the ground where they cooked their meals. Meat was a rarity, and the refugees would have to travel away from the camp in order to find fresh, drinking water.
There was no indoor plumbing, either. Another outdoor pit, similar to an old-fashioned outhouse, served as the refugees’ bathroom facility.
“That was life in the camp. There is no choice,” Kagoma said matter-of-factly. “There is no joy because even the clothes you wear, when they become dirty, you may have water to wash them but there is no soap.”
This was Kagoma and Neema’s life from the mid-1990s until 2007. By this time, they had welcomed four more children to their family. In addition to Furaha, there were sons Dieudone, Edimo and Fisto, as well as another daughter, Aline. Identical twin boys Bukuru and Toye were the only children born on American soil.
The couple arrived in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2007 with assistance from Bridge Refugee Services. They had encountered some social workers who were looking for Congo families displaced by the war. Kagoma and Neema said these kind-hearted angels assured them that opportunities would be available in the United States for them to enjoy a better way life.
After one year of living in public housing, Kagoma & Neema’s church members from East Ridge Presbyterian helped them find a modest, two-bedroom rental home in North Chattanooga. The four older boys share a bedroom. A small area off the kitchen was converted into a bedroom for the two girls. And the twin toddlers sleep with mom and dad. The couple would later hear about Habitat for Humanity from other former refugees who had become successful homeowners.
While Neema had mixed feelings about leaving behind loved ones in Tanzania, Kagoma said he immediately found joy once arriving on American soil! And, the Chattanooga Affiliate is building its first 1,450 square feet home featuring five bedrooms and three bathrooms to accommodate this nine-person household. The home should be complete in late spring.
“We give God praise because even some of those (other refugees) looking to come to America for an education didn’t make it,” Neema said. “But God brought us here!” And with assistance from so many – including Habitat – God has also restored the family’s joy.