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As the political debate over refugees in America heats up during this political season, this series explores the experiences of refugees who are settling, and have settled, in Virginia, and the programs that provide services for them. The Harrisonburg and Charlottesville areas lead the way in refugee resettlement in Virginia. Harrisonburg is second only to Northern Virginia in the number of resettled refugees, which numbered 260 in 2013.

Preparing for the Next Wave of Refugees

In the final installment of our series on Refugees in Virginia, WMRA’s Jordy Yager takes a look at the next wave of refugees set to arrive in Charlottesville this year, and some of the people getting ready to help them.

About 20 minutes north of Charlottesville, there’s a tiny church with a red door that sits on a quiet back country road in the far reaches of Albemarle County. Shortly before noon every Sunday, about a dozen cars fill the gravel parking lot. A shuttle bus filled with people empties out. And the church comes to life.

Sound of Congolese singing at African Lighthouse Baptist Temple

Nearly 70 women, children, and men pack the twelve pews of the African Lighthouse Baptist Temple. They clap, they dance, and they sing.

PETER CHEGE: I would say, probably, majority of the people are refugees, three-quarter.

Pastor Peter Chege is a Kenyan immigrant who’s devoted much of his life to helping refugees, especially those from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

CHEGE: We do have a big significant number of refugees, but they struggle hard. They have a lot of basic needs. They have left people back in refugee camps, so they are caught between two worlds.

The International Rescue Committee, or IRC, has resettled more than 175 Congolese refugees in Charlottesville over the last three years. Refugees often come in waves, as human rights groups try to empty out and close down camps altogether, by permanently resettling the displaced migrants. Mirna Dickey, who works as a family support coordinator for the IRC, says Charlottesville’s next big wave is expected to be more Congolese.

MIRNA DICKEY: The Congolese come in two varieties, if you will. One is intact families, some of whom have been highly educated, leading professional lives and…those families, I think, are going to have an easier time. And then the others that we’re seeing are a lot of single moms with either young children or multiple children of all ages.

In some of those cases, the children’s father is one of the five and a half million people who’ve been killed during the two decades of war in the region. Just to give you a sense, that’s more people killed than the entire population of South Carolina. And for 500,000 Congolese, their survival has meant fleeing their homes, often finding refuge in camps in neighboring countries, where education is limited, malnutrition is rampant, and sexual assault and rape are common.

Suffice it to say, the Congolese face some of the biggest challenges of all refugee groups. They arrive in Charlottesville with severe medical and mental trauma issues. Most don’t speak English, few have ever driven a car, and one in five don’t read or write in their own language. But 96 percent of them are Christian.

CHEGE: Some of the immediate things that we will do is offer a community of believers, a community of people of like language and customs where they could meet together.

Pastor Chege has driven a taxi for most of the 10 years he’s been in the U.S. It’s decent money, he says, but what’s more, he gets to meet really interesting people. That’s how he first came into contact with Congolese refugees in Charlottesville and he realized he needed to help them.

CHEGE: We started helping with phones. We would help them as a church, even as a family. I happen to have T-Mobile, big family plan, where I can have 5 family lines for $100. So I have given numerous people phones, some for a year, some for 3 months, some for 6 months, and then that became a part of our church ministry.

While driving his taxi, one day, several years ago, Chege picked up an American woman named Faith Painter. For 30 years, she’d run the Blue Ridge chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. When she retired, she reached out to Chege and together they raised $120,000 to buy the Barboursville church.

There’s much more to be done though, especially with this next wave of Congolese refugees coming soon. So they’re planning to raise another $150,000 to expand their ministry’s reach this year.

FAITH PAINTER: We know we need to do fundraising to have a crisis disbursement program to get people over a hump, not for ongoing assistance, but definitely there are times when people need financial assistance, so we’re looking to raise money for that.

Working with the IRC, the church has helped more than 50 refugees get jobs. They serve as a reference for employers, help with interview skills, and childcare. They teach the Congolese how to drive. They’ve gotten cars and bikes donated for refugee families. Blankets, pots and pans, mattresses, you name it. But there’s so much more. For instance, in Virginia, if you’re not able to graduate from high school by the time you turn 22, your only option is a GED.

CHEGE: One of the other problems that I have seen is younger men who have come …and they get here, they are told they are over age, they cannot go to school. They have to do a GED and it is very very difficult. So basically they drop off and they have to do very menial tasks, so that is something that can be addressed.

As refugees struggle with the wide array of challenges that life in a new country poses, many of them find support, and solace, with new friends, at places as off the beaten the path as a tiny church with a red door in a quiet part of Virginia.

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.