Refugee Family Settles Into New Life
Burundi, a nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region, was in turmoil for decades. In 1972 violence broke out between two ethnic groups: the majority Hutus and the ruling minority Tutsis. Over one hundred thousand Hutus were killed in the conflict. Hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced or crossed the border into neighboring countries and became refugees. Among this last group was Benjamin Havyarimana, who fled to a refugee camp in western Tanzania. Benjamin met and married his wife Anelise in the camp, where he worked for the International Rescue Committee as a nurses’ assistant. The couple now has nine children.
The family moved between Tanzania and Burundi over the years, returning home in 1993 after Burundi selected its first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu. Tragically, Mr. Ndadaye was assassinated shortly after assuming office, and the family returned to the camps.
In 2006 the U.S. government allowed refugees who left Burundi in 1972 to immigrate to the United States.
Legal Aid attorney Megan Sprecher first met Benjamin and his family through her volunteer work with Catholic Charities, where she helped the children with their homework. Coincidentally, the family was also referred to Ms. Sprecher for legal assistance through the Community Advocacy Program (CAP), Legal Aid’s collaboration with MetroHealth System. She helped to secure benefits for the family, including money to cover transportation and child care costs, allowing Anelise to work and Benjamin to attend a full-time ESL course. Benjamin’s goal is to return to a career in nursing.
The family is now settled in the upper part of a two-family home on Cleveland’s West Side. The household includes Benjamin, Anelise, Jeska (22), Ludia (18), Charles (16), twins Buruku and Butoyi (14), Sadoke (10), Adronic (7), and Paul (3). The youngest member is Ludia’s daughter, two year-old Christina.
Benjamin shows off a certificate from his ESL course and the children’s report cards. Anelise gives a tour of the home, indicating the rooms the children share – the boys’ large room with two bunk-beds, the girls’ two smaller rooms decorated with dozens of pages from coloring books, and the family’s televisions. Benjamin points out an autographed picture on his bedroom wall – of himself and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson – while the kids giggle in the doorway. That picture is old news.
Charles says that the one person missing is a 20-year-old sister; she is back in Tanzania in the camps with her husband and child, and the family is unsure of when she will be able to join them in the United States. For now, they speak on the phone whenever possible.
Asked about Ms. Sprecher, they are enthusiastic. Benjamin adds to the cheers and applause: “Without Megan we would not have anything!”