Meet a couple separated by thousands of miles and America’s new refugee policies
The U.S. has accepted more refugees than any other country since 1980, but the Trump administration is now reversing course. In this special report for PBS NewsHour Weekend, produced in partnership with public radio station WNYC, correspondent Matt Katz has the story of how new American policies are creating uncertainty for a married Congolese refugee couple separated by thousands of miles. This story is part of "Chasing the Dream," which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.
By Matt Katz and Melanie Saltzman
MATT KATZ, WNYC: Andre Twendele's journey from Congo to the United States began in 2005. As a student, he joined an opposition political party that resisted the rule of President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo autocratically for the past 17 years.
Andre says Kabila's troops arrested him and seven classmates for leading an anti-government protest. For three days, they were detained and beaten and eventually marched into a forest. Andre had become friendly with a guard, who told him what was going to happen next.
ANDRE TWENDELE, Congolese Refugee: So he told me that what we are going to do is to kill you, but you will be in front of us, but I will do like I shoot you, but I will not shoot you. But when you hear only the shoot, you have to fall down as others. So it's what I did that day.
MATT KATZ: Andre watched as his seven friends were executed in front of him, one by one. When it was his turn, Andre played dead. The guards left the bodies in a ditch and fled.
ANDRE TWENDELE: I was crying, I was crying, what happened?
MATT KATZ: Did you check to see if they were alive?
ANDRE TWENDELE: Yeah, I checked but nothing.
MATT KATZ: You touched them?
ANDRE TWENDELE: Yes I touched them, but all of them they were killed.
MATT KATZ: Andre escaped Congo and ended up two countries away, in Malawi, at the Dzaleka refugee camp, part of his 11-year saga as a refugee. The camp is run by the government of Malawi and the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. There's little electricity, refugees have no indoor plumbing, and food rations are limited.
MATT KATZ, WNYC, DZALEKA REFUGEE CAMP, MALAWI: The numbers here have swelled in recent months to more than 33,000 people, because resettlement to other countries has slowed to a trickle. There used to be more than 1,000 people a year resettled around the globe, mostly to the U.S., but that has dropped dramatically.
MATT KATZ: Andre opened his application to enter the U.S. in 2012, when refugee admissions were still high. Officials from UNHCR and the U.S. government interviewed him and vetted his story of persecution. It took Andre nearly four years but finally, in 2016, 13 days before president trump's election, he was resettled in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He now works the overnight shift packaging seafood for high-end sushi restaurants. The work is physical, cold, and exhausting.
ANDRE TWENDELE: My experience is normally you have to be strong. Because I've seen many people coming there, after three days they run away.
MATT KATZ: The night shift at True World Foods is made up almost entirely of refugees and immigrants. Andre makes 11 dollars an hour.
ANDRE TWENDELE: What I've seen here in USA is when you are alone, it's not easy. Especially when you have a job and that job, the wage is not too much. You feel like what you get, you spend it, and you have nothing at all.
MATT KATZ: But Andre is grateful to be supporting himself. Back at the refugee camp, where I visited this past fall, Andre wasn't allowed to work. Malawi forbids it. But there's a thriving underground economy in the camp, and Andre sold homemade charcoal to buy food to supplement the meager rations provided. The camp is also where Andre learned English, and where he earned a college equivalency degree with a near 4.0 GPA, taking classes in international studies and economics.
The camp is also where Andre met Lisette Lukoji. Lisette's story is also one of political persecution in Congo. She says government officials arrested her five years ago because her uncle had opposed president Kabila. She was home at the time with her then-two-year-old daughter, Lorette. She has not seen or heard any news about her daughter since that day.
LISETTE LUKOJI, CONGOLESE REFUGEE (IN FRENCH — ENGLISH VOICEOVER) I don't even know where she is. I don't know.
MATT KATZ: Lisette says after she was locked up in solitary confinement, three guards sexually assaulted her.
LISETTE LUKOJI: They were planning on killing me, they raped me, I didn't have a choice. All three raped me and left me in the night.
MATT KATZ: They then gave her a little bit of money and released her. She escaped Congo, barefoot, and eventually made her way to the refugee camp in Malawi, where she met Andre.
LISETTE LUKOJI: He asked about me and where I was from. And my friend said, "She's from Congo" and gave him my full story. He asked if he could leave her with his number. And I said no, I don't want a number.
MATT KATZ: Lisette just wasn't into him, at first.
MATT KATZ (to Lisette): Why didn't you give him your telephone number?
LISETTE LUKOJI: I didn't even know him!
MATT KATZ: But he seemed interested in you? Charming and handsome, no?
LISETTE LUKOJI: Even so, I didn't feel like it.
MATT (to Andre): Playing hard to get?
ANDRE TWENDELE: Uh huh. Like she doesn't like to talk to me, something like that.
LISETTE LUKOJI: He was always asking my friend, 'Give me Lisette's number, I need to talk to that girl! I like her a lot, I want to marry her.
MATT KATZ: Soon enough they became friends. And then something more.
ANDRE TWENDELE: Something strange comes. Some feelings of love, or something like that.
MATT KATZ: They got married in the camp in 2015. His church bought him a suit. She borrowed a dress. 200 guests attended. But Andre thought if he amended his application to the U.S. to include his new wife, it would delay his arrival.
ANDRE TWENDELE: I was just crying. It was like a mix of feelings at that time. I want to go, and my wife is there, so I was confused.
MATT KATZ: The newlyweds assumed that she could come quickly once he was settled in New Jersey.
LISETTE LUKOJI: Well, he asked and he was told there was no way to do this and in 6-7 months it would be easy to get me there. But now it's been almost a year and I don't know if I'll ever be able to join my husband.
MATT KATZ: That's because Donald Trump has dramatically changed U.S. refugee policy, effectively delaying Andre and Lisette's reunion.
First, Trump enacted a 120-day ban on most refugee arrivals so new security protocols could be implemented. The ban and new vetting requirements have clogged the pipeline for new admissions like Lisette.
Second, citing concerns that terrorists could enter the country through the refugee program, president trump capped the number of entering refugees at 45,000, the lowest level since before the 1980 refugee act. In his last year in office, president Obama had set the cap at 110,000.
Third, the administration reassigned some American officials who handled overseas refugee admissions, adding to an already massive backlog on the waiting list.
So in the meantime, Andre tries to settle into Elizabeth, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City.
MATT KATZ, WNYC, ELIZABETH, NEW JERSEY: Andre's been living here in this neighborhood for more than a year now, wondering if and when his wife, Lisette, will ever be able to join him here in the United States.
MATT KATZ: Elizabeth has been a portal for immigrants for centuries. It's where Jared Kushner's grandparents sought refuge after the Holocaust, where Cubans immigrated in the 70s & 80s. And more recently, where the Congolese refugee community in New Jersey is centered.
Andre lives in a one-bedroom apartment with two other Congolese refugees. He gets together with others at occasional gatherings, for prayers, singing and food from home. Like at this Congolese Independence Day party last summer.
Elizabeth has become the de facto capital for refugees in New Jersey in part because the International Rescue Committee has its state office here. The nonprofit helps refugees like Andre adapt to their new lives from the minute they land in America. Alison Millan is the agency's New Jersey resettlement director.
ALISON MILLAN, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: It means everything from picking them up at Newark Airport, bringing them back to a furnished apartment, providing them their first hot meal in the country and connecting them with key services and systems here in the United States.
MATT KATZ: The agency runs English language classes and cultural orientation courses, and helps refugees find jobs, sometimes accompanying them on job interviews.
MATT KATZ: Is your task kind of helping turn these refugees into Americans?
ALISON MILLAN: I wouldn't say it's turning them into Americans. I think our job is to both celebrate the diversity that refugees bring and the experiences they bring and help them integrate into their new communities, as well as educating the communities where we're resettling them in about who refugees are.
MATT KATZ: The IRC helped Andre find his job at the seafood distributor. Andre sends part of his $440 a week salary to Lisette. And he tries to save for their future. But mostly he just pays his bills.
ANDRE TWENDELE: I know that this one is for rent, this one is for food, this one is for clothes, this one is for electricity, for gas, and this one is also for my wife.
MATT KATZ: Yeah, mm-hmm.
ANDRE TWENDELE: If she comes here, I'm working, she's also working, I think it will be better. USA is a nice country.
ALISON MILLAN: … to get Lisette here, through the refugee program.
MATT KATZ: Andre is working with the IRC to try and get Lisette here amid the new restrictions on refugee admissions.
ALISON MILLAN: I think there's just, there's still a lot of uncertainty and questions. A lot of people asking if they do have petitions like Andre does for reunifying with family, or their family have cases in the pipeline for resettlement in the U.S., will they be able to come, when will they be able to come? And unfortunately most of the time it's more questions than answers that we have.
ANDRE TWENDELE: Hello Lisette ….
MATT KATZ: For now, Andre has to settle for phone calls. He used his first paychecks to buy Lisette a phone. He even skipped some meals to save the money. Now, they speak multiple times a day. During breaks at work, and back home on the weekends.
ANDRE TWENDELE: One day Lisette will come here. I'm sure.
MATT KATZ: You're confident of it?
ANDRE TWENDELE: Yes, I'm confident she will come. With god's help my wife will be here, maybe we can also buy a house. Yeah, and I hope so that one day we'll have kids. I — I cannot say that my dream, my dream becomes reality now, because my wife is not yet here. But I have that chance to live a good, a better life.
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