By Margie M. Palmer
La Mesa resident and refugee publishes book about the challenges of resettlement in America
Although many San Diegans are aware that Southern California has long been a home for newly-resettled refugees, few understand the unique problems that are faced by this population once they arrive in the United States.
La Mesa resident and author, professor Justin B. Mudekereza, is hoping to change that. His recently released book, “Understanding the Multifaceted Management Problems of Refugee Resettlement in the United States of America”, explains the realities of the life that refugees live upon their resettlement in the U.S.
It’s a situation with which he has a personal understanding.
Mudekereza came from a very large family from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He was the 11th son of his father, who had 44 children. When his father died, Mudekereza sold what he inherited to start a nonprofit that helped widows, orphans and other victims of what the New York Times dubbed “Congo’s Never-Ending War.”
Mudekereza continued this work, and people were happy, until he became a threat to the politicians, which is why he was arrested and tortured and eventually fled the DRC in 2006. At first, he fled to Uganda — and although he initially came to the U.S. only to attend a training, he decided that as a torture survivor, it wasn’t safe for him to go back. Mudekereza arrived in Los Angeles in 2015.
“After I spent weeks in a shelter home in Los Angeles, I decided to come to San Diego. In the L.A. shelter, I was in my suit and tie, and someone there told me this wasn’t the place for someone like me. I didn’t know San Diego and didn’t know what it looked like, but someone paid for me to take a Greyhound,” he said.
At the bus station, Mudekereza met a French-speaking college student who invited him to spend the night at his home. Oddly enough, a colleague of that man’s roommate happened to be someone Mudekereza knew from Uganda.
“I knew he’d resettled to the United States and I knew his family was in Kentucky, but I didn’t expect to find him in San Diego,” he said.
By this point, Mudekereza’s friend had married an American, and they allowed him to stay in their home until he got on his feet.
Other refugees, he notes, aren’t as lucky.
“The most shocking problem, and issues we see in the U.S., especially here in San Diego, is the mental illness that’s seen in immigrant and refugee communities,” Mudekereza said. “When I looked into this matter, I saw all the problems that people were living through and all the hardships they have here in this country.”
A lot of those problems, he added, are linked to the insufficiency in cash aid that’s provided to refugees upon their arrival.
“When these people are brought here, a lot of them from Africa, after spending 20 years in a refugee camp, they think they start their life over again. People don’t know [the refugees] don’t have jobs, they’re not working, and they’re required to go to English [classes] before they can get a job,” he said.
“A refugee apartment rents for $1,500, but the government gives them $1,100. They also have utility bills. Food stamps are also never enough, and it doesn’t cover 30 days,” he continued. “The refugees I know and work with have special food in their culture and they don’t like junk food or American food, and the food they do buy is expensive.”
Another challenge, he adds, is that families often don’t have enough money to purchase hygiene projects, which can be especially taxing for women and girls.
“Bullying is a problem, especially when people are smelly because they don’t have money to buy hygiene products,” he said. “Because cash aid is insufficient, many refugees need to take on loans from friends without knowing where or when they can pay them back. Another thing people don’t realize is that refugees who come here are given an airplane ticket under a loan program and they have to pay back [the cost for] the airline ticket. It’s not purchased with a grant, it’s a loan that’s given by the International Organization for Migration.”
Payments to the IOM need to be made monthly, Mudekereza said.
All of this, combined with refugees often not being able to connect with translators who speak their specific dialect of a language, can be overwhelming.
“I think what I want people to take away from my book is an understanding of these problems,” he said. “My book talks about human life and how human lives are treated. I invite people to go out in their capacities and talk to decision makers, so that policy makers can make better policies that will help refugees and immigrants in this country.”
While his book is aimed at educating politicians to help them write better policies to help refugees, Mudekereza has recently undertaken another enterprise to help refugees more directly — a nonprofit organization he founded called New Neighbor Relief (NNR) that aids refugees by pairing them with local mentors who are tasked with helping them become self-reliant. The work of Mudekereza’s new venture is so important to him that he has suspended his teaching schedule at SDSU to dedicate his time to MMR’s mission.
NNR helps refugee families immediately with donated items like clothing and furniture. English is taught through NNR’s own language program. NNR assists refugees in finding employment. And NNR also helps with transportation needs by helping refugees obtain driver’s licenses, bicycles and offering rides.
For more information about New Neighbor Relief, visit newneighborrelief.org.
—Freelance writer Margie. M. Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.