Civil war drove Divine and her sisters from their home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996. Divine was 19 years old. The family fled to a United Nations refugee camp in Rwanda, which they would call home for the next 18 years.
“Life was hard,” Divine says matter-of-factly about her life there. She and her two sisters lived in a small, one-room shelter, one of thousands of makeshift homes covered with plastic sheeting. They lie in endless rows carved into the Rwandan hillsides.
“You sleep on a little bed,” Divine says of her sparse accommodations in the camp. “Near the bed you have your clothes. Near your clothes you have dishes. You have a small kitchen outside, wood for making fire and to prepare food.”
Divine met Jeanbaptiste in the camp and they were married there. They moved into a separate shelter of their own, the couple’s first home together.
The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) provided Divine’s family with basic necessities: food, water and medicine. Another nonprofit group offered primary education and gave Divine an opportunity to teach children.
Five years ago, Divine applied for resettlement in the U.S. She was moving through the process when she became pregnant and was unable to travel. It took another three years before her request was finally approved. One more year and she and her family would be on a plane to the United States.
Meanwhile, Bethany was organizing volunteers in Grand Rapids, Michigan to prepare for the family’s arrival. Members of Blythefield CRC (Christian Reformed Church) and Gold Avenue CRC collected donations and prayed for this family they had not yet met.
Divine and her family arrived in December of 2013 in the midst of heavy snowfall, which was something new to them. “I was saying, ‘What a cold country!’” Divine says of the experience. “We see everything is white. It’s wonderful, but it’s cold.”
Volunteers provided coats, gloves and boots to all 11 members of Divine’s family. Divine, her husband Jeanbaptiste, their six children, Divine’s two sisters and niece soon arrived at their new four-bedroom home. They were delighted to discover that the church volunteers had completely furnished the house and stocked it with food. They praised God in song for providing for them.
Divine was impressed that even the cold had been accounted for. “They put heat in our house,” she says. “Everything was good!”
Bethany assigned a caseworker to the family. She helped the adults enroll in job skills training, English classes and personal finances management. She helped enroll the children in school and assisted the family in applying for food and medical benefits.
As a result of the job skills training Bethany provided her, Divine not only acquired a job working as a hotel housekeeper, but felt confident enough to apply for a factory job with higher pay a few months later. She was hired and has had a great experience there.
“We have a team,” she says. “We have friends [there]. We like to work in a team. We’re joking, making stories. All things [at the factory are] good.”
Though they are thankful to be here in the U.S., the transition was difficult in the family’s first year here. The children, unable to speak English, struggled academically in public school. Jeanbaptiste’s oldest son tried to connect with some other teenagers in the neighborhood who only made fun of him for being different.
When the church volunteers closest to them learned of the children’s struggles, they mobilized to help. Through their connections with a private Christian school they helped the children enroll there and subsidized their tuition so they could receive a more individualized education.
Divine’s family has found a church home with Gold Avenue CRC, where they attend African community services that give them the opportunity to worship God in French, their native language.
“I thank people from the church. They are my family,” Divine says. “When I am with them it’s like I’m one of them. They love me a lot and I love them.”
“I thank Bethany for what it does for us,” she adds. “I thank case managers and what they did for me. I thank all people from America who have helped us – our neighbors, the people who took the time to look after my kids. I thank God who helped me to come here.”
Divine wants those who are interested in supporting resettling refugee families to know how blessed she has been by the assistance she has received from these people with a “heart of willing.”
“They can feel in their hearts that they are doing something not for nothing,” she says. “They are helping people who are like the member of their own families that have lost.”