Gédéon Jino, a refugee from the Congo, at the wall-raising ceremony with wife Francine.
Gédéon and Francine Jino express joy at the Sept. 6, 2022, wall-raising ceremony for their new house, built by Wichita Habitat for Humanity with support from ICM Inc., a Colwich, Kansas, biofuels company. The wall-raising ceremony marks the beginning of construction of a new home. The organization has built 300 homes since its founding in 1986, including several for Wichita’s growing Congolese community. (Photo courtesy of Wichita Habitat for Humanity.)

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This story begins with Gédéon Bahemuka Jino’s happy ending — his life today in Wichita.

Gédéon works a job he enjoys in an office downtown, five miles from a house he owns near 17th and Hillside streets. He lives there with his wife and two daughters — one a junior at Southeast High School, the other a seventh grader at Curtis Middle School. The Jinos’ two sons serve in the military, which ensures that they can attend college and have it paid for.

On Sundays, Gédéon goes to Sharon Baptist Church on South Oliver Street, and thanks God because where Gédéon is now is far from where he started — more than 8,000 miles from his birthplace. The road to a happy life often passes through hell, as Gédéon’s certainly did.

“In one word, Wichita is my home. In Wichita, I am happy.”

It is not a life Gédéon planned for. “I had not even a drop of an idea in my mind” he would one day live in America, let alone Kansas. “I never decided to come here. It just happened to me.”

He is a Congolese refugee who, like thousands of others who now live in Wichita, ended up here because they knew someone who knew someone — because the international network that resettles refugees prefers a refugee to know at least one person in the place that will become their new home.

Congolese refugee’s home was a village in war-torn central Africa

Gédéon’s story begins in 1964 where he was born, in the village of Mandro in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an African country once known as the Republic of Zaire. Because his father was a polygamist who could not take care of his mother’s nine children, he grew up poor.  He was often hungry and did not own a pair of shoes until age 16.

“Can you imagine as a kid, 10 or 12, coming from school, and there is nothing to eat so you just go to sleep and go to school the following day?” he says. Through his childhood he worked on local farms, growing what food he could.

Despite this poverty, he recalls the beauty of his homeland, in the densely forested center of the African continent, wedged between the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and Lake Albert, just west of Uganda. 

Asked what he misses about home, Gédéon first says his sense of belonging, and second, the hills he belonged to. “My grandfather’s hills. My heritage. I miss that heritage.” 

Determined to be more than a laborer and to get a college education, Gédéon for years alternated working jobs to save money with enrolling in classes. It took seven years. He completed his degree at age 33. 

In 2003, he was still in the Congo, a 38-year-old husband and father with two small children, working as an instructor at a college in Bunia, the capital city of Ituri province, when the ethnic conflict that raged around him could no longer be ignored. 

Violence in his homeland had begun in 1994 as a result of the genocide occuring in neighboring Rwanda. Nearly a half million people were killed in a 100-day period of fighting between warring ethnic groups. The violence spilled over the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo with foreign governments backing armed rebels in what became known as the Second Congo War.

“When things became dire, I took my family — I had two kids — I closed the door and we stayed indoors the whole day,” he recalls. That day was May 3, 2003. “I didn’t know what was happening outside except the fighting because the fighting was all over. They even came to our location, but fortunately they did not open the door.”

Gédéon feared his family would be slaughtered. Outside their locked door, men armed with guns and machetes were engaged in indiscriminate killing of people from his ethnic group, the Hema people. He did not see bodies that day but he had seen bodies two weeks before in Mudzipela, following an assault in which more than 40 Hema people were killed in a single day. 

The Hema and the rival Lendu people in Ituri had fought for decades. Human Rights Watch suggests the Ituri Conflict began as a conflict between ranchers and farmers over land use, but bloodshed escalated into genocidal attacks on civilians as external actors allied with opposing sides

Gédéon was a soft-spoken teacher of English at the local college. He had studied the works of Shakespeare and Hemingway, Orwell and Beckett, contemplating the authors’ themes of tragedy and absurdity. He was not a man to take up arms. He asked God for help.   

“I prayed. I said, ‘God, I am not a fighter. I am not killing anyone. … I want to save my family.’”

With no plan but to go anywhere else

Gédéon was unsure what to do. With no impulse to fight, he chose flight and headed to the airport on foot with his wife, carrying their two young sons on their shoulders. 

There Gédéon encountered a former colleague and asked if he knew of any planes leaving the Congo. He was prepared to go anywhere. His colleague told Gédéon he was late — a plane had just left. Deflated, Gédéon said, “I didn’t know!” He was then told there would be another plane belonging to Doctors Without Borders with a scheduled flight to Uganda. 

“I begged him to give me that opportunity for my wife and family. And he said, ‘You have to pay something.’ I didn’t have enough money for that.” 

Gédéon realized his family could not leave unless he first went back to town to get more money. He found a man willing to give him a ride and told his wife to wait at a spot in the airport where he could find her later. 

“Stay here until I come back,” Gédéon recalls telling his wife with feigned certainty. But inside, he wondered if he would make it back. “My heart say, ‘Maybe.’”

It was about three miles from the airport to the center of town. “There is a crossroads that is the center of every activity. That is where he dropped me. Alone.”

Gédéon walked a half-mile to the school where he taught. “I walked not even meeting a dog,” he says. At one point, he heard the sound of his native language coming from a house and he stopped to talk to them. They were frightened, unsure of what to do. Gédéon had no advice for them and continued on to the school, hoping to find someone who would give him money.

Gédéon explained that at the school where he worked, most people were not of his ethnic group and therefore not at risk. 

“The academic director found me in our office. He called to me. He could not expect that I was going to be here. It wasn’t safe. He said, ‘How can I help you?’” 

Gédéon explained that his family was waiting at the airport, but they needed money to pay their passage out of the country. He admitted he had no plan beyond fleeing. The director retrieved $200 from the school and gave it to Gédéon.

“It was then that I started feeling some fear in my heart on how to go back to the airport,” Gédéon recalls. “I begged him again — because he’s not targeted by Hema, he’s not targeted by Lendu, he’s safe —  can you get me a ride back to the airport?” His director took him by motorbike. 

Acts of kindness by strangers lead to safety 

The two made the ride back without incident. Gédéon found his family and went to buy tickets for the plane. It was $120 for each adult, plus $60 for each child: $360 in all before fees. He had enough. 

Once on the plane, Gédéon’s wife began to ask where they were going and what they were going to do once they got there. Gédéon told her Uganda, but beyond that he did not know. 

“God is great. He arranged things,” Gédéon says, smiling.

On board he sat near a Congolese woman with relatives in Uganda. She asked where his family was headed. Gédéon explained he had no plan but to escape the violence, and knew not a soul in Uganda.

She asked him, “Do you know where you are going to sleep today?” By then it was evening. 

“I don’t know. What I know is we are fleeing.” 

The woman told Gédéon she would arrange for him to spend their first night with her uncle in Uganda. 

The woman then asked what the family would do the next day. Gédéon repeated that he had no plan, but an idea was beginning to form. 

Gédéon had an advanced degree in teaching English as a second language, and he knew by that time Rwanda was becoming an English-speaking country. French had been a dominant language of Rwanda since its occupation by Belgium beginning in the late 19th century. Following the 1994 genocide and Rwanda’s shifting allegiances, English became more dominant. 

“I thought Rwanda might need a teacher of English,” Gédéon says. So he asked the woman whether people traveled from Uganda to Rwanda, and if so, how? She told him there was a daily bus each morning, and started telling him the names of the buses. “Can you help me tomorrow morning to get a ticket to go to Rwanda?” he asked her. Then he turned to his wife and said, “We are going to Rwanda.”

On May 6, 2003, Gédéon’s family boarded a bus to Rwanda. Once he arrived, he relied on a network of connections from home to link up with the wife of a refugee who had ​already ​resettled in the United States. She was enrolled with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). That friend’s wife took in Gédéon and his family for three weeks until he secured a job as a college preparatory instructor of English, and helped connect him to UNHCR and refugee services.

“Then I resettled myself and I got a small room for my family and started my new life, from scratch, in Rwanda,” Gédéon says.

He stayed for the next 15 years. 

A refugee in another country that isn’t home

Why did it take so long for Gédéon to be resettled in America? He didn’t understand the process. 

“I didn’t know how to leave,” he says. “I knew that people were leaving but maybe because of sickness, family who were here (in America), or a security issue. But the resettlement program I know now, I didn’t know it before.”

Second, it was not obvious that his family qualified.

“You have to be eligible. They have conditions to be eligible. Single moms, HIV, family, things like that,” he says. “I was a man, I had a job, I took care of my family.”

But he did qualify as an eligible refugee because he met the requirements of not being able to fully integrate into the local community and not being able to go home.

Gédéon says integration would never be possible for his family. “You are not a Rwandan. Whatever you do, you are not a Rwandan.” 

Going home to the Congo was also not an option — and still is not an option — because the violence continues, creating an ongoing crisis for millions of displaced Congolese. The problem is so extreme that one estimate places deaths at 5.4 million — deaths caused not directly by fighting but the ensuing societal collapse that has led to starvation and untreated illness. Because of these perils, Congolese account for the single largest nationality of refugees entering the United States; in 2022, they accounted for 7,810 of 25,465 arrivals. Kansas has welcomed 970 Congolese refugees since 2018. 

After 12 years in Rwanda, the UNHCR called Gédéon in for an interview and asked him to tell his story. “I told all those stories from the beginning until that day. You repeat the story several times. The story became like a song.”

Every time he told his story, he noticed: “You have two people: One reading what you said before, the other asking questions.” The two compare answers and as long as your answers are always consistent, you persist in the eligibility process, he says.

“And if you are eligible for resettlement, that’s how we begin. That was in August 2015. I got here on November 28, 2018.” Gédéon says he would have arrived in America two years earlier but for the election of President Donald Trump, who imposed restrictions on refugee admissions that took the numbers to historic lows.  

Gédéon Jino with his family at home in the Wichita house he now owns. From left are Gédéon, daughters Syntche and Joy, and wife Francine. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Gédéon Jino with his family at home in the Wichita house he now owns. From left are Gédéon, daughters Syntche and Joy, and wife Francine. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

How does a Congolese refugee end up in Wichita?

So what twist of fate picks up a man born in Mandro village of Ituri province in the Congo, who has fled as a refugee to Kigali, Rwanda, then drops him into Wichita, Kansas? It happened because he knew someone. 

“They ask me if I have any relatives in America?” Gédéon recounts. “I said I don’t have a relative. I said I have only two friends – one living in Wichita and the other living in Kentucky.” They made the choice for him.

Gédéon didn’t know how his friend in Wichita ended up here — “I never asked her” — but it led to him coming here, too. She became known as his U.S. tie, or as he thinks of her, “the person who saved me.”

His family — now his wife and four children — flew from Kigali to Houston, then changed planes and flew to Wichita. At the airport, his U.S. tie, a caseworker and her mother, picked them up in two cars because they were many. The family spent the first night with the U.S. tie and the next day moved into their new apartment at 1678 S. Battin St., their home for four years.

The family’s resettlement was coordinated by the Wichita office of the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based nonprofit funded mostly by federal grants. The Wichita office is downtown in a nondescript building in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena at 420 S. Emporia St. The IRC office employs 80 people who assist about 2,000 refugees per year, some new arrivals and some established but needing support.

The IRC assisted Gédéon and his wife with securing jobs, KanCare health insurance and enrolling their children in Wichita Public Schools. Their oldest children — the boys —  soon graduated from Southeast High School before one enlisted in the Navy and the other in the Army. The younger girls started at Jefferson Elementary and Curtis Middle School. 

The boys stepped in to care for the house and their siblings while the parents went to meatpacking plant jobs at Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kansas. “Our kids were abandoned. And at that time, they really needed us because we were new.” 

The parents boarded a bus at 4 a.m. each morning in Wichita for the hourlong ride to work a 12-hour shift before another hour ride home; $30 a week was deducted from each of their paychecks to cover the transportation cost.

“This is too much for me,” Gédéon says. His IRC caseworker saw that Gédéon was unhappy.  Within six months, Gédéon had a job at IRC as a caseworker assistant. 

His wife stayed on at the meatpacking plant for two more years, commuting to Ark City before getting a much closer job at Martin Interconnect Services in Wichita. This month she moved to a higher paying job at Dold Foods, also in Wichita.

“It was a relief for me,” Gédéon says of the caseworker job he began in August 2019. He believes his English and relationships built with other refugees in Wichita’s Congolese community help him in his job. 

Wichita has a thriving community of Congolese, Gédéon explains. He estimates total numbers in the thousands, though there is no exact census. They have formed religious congregations supported by local Christian churches and have founded African grocery stores and even a restaurant. Gédéon’s current caseload includes about 70 active clients, who include a number of Congolese but also Afghani refugees and people from other countries. 

Gédéon says he doesn’t go many places but home, work and church, but that is enough. He says he and his children have experienced almost no discrimination nor any unpleasant interactions with police. They own cars, drive and maintain licenses.

His kids are thriving, he says. His sons gained U.S. citizenship through military service. His oldest daughter will graduate high school next year, while his youngest plays viola and recently qualified for all-city honors orchestra.

And just months ago, in December 2022, Gédéon moved his family into their own home, a house built by Habitat for Humanity. The boy who grew up hungry and had no shoes until 16 now pays his own mortgage. But more than owning a house, the Congolese refugee says he now has a home. 

“We have created a kind of community that we left behind. I have people to talk to. I have people who know me. I have people who have become part of my life. I’ve got it great,” he says, crediting God.

 “When he has a plan, whatever you go through, he will find a way. Here I am.”

Learn more about your neighbors with The Beacon’s Wichitans You Should Know.

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