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I thought I was an orphan

When violence separated her family, 14-year-old Mugeni believed she alone had survived.

by Mugeni O., a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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I was 14 years old in 2013, when militia attacked our village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the middle of the night. As homes burned to the ground and hundreds of people were struck down by machetes, I got swept up in the dark with the fleeing crowd and was separated from my parents and siblings. By the time daylight came, my family was nowhere to be found. I could only assume they’d all been killed.

The pain of that loss was unimaginable. Everyone I loved most in the world was gone.

I traveled through the bushes and forests for two weeks, escorted by a man I knew from my village. But when we reached Nairobi, Kenya, he abandoned me. I found a group home for unaccompanied and separated girls, where I lived for two years. I was so fortunate to end up in a place that kept me safe and provided me with health care, an education, and support to help me process all I had experienced. But this was only a temporary solution. In April 2016, I was resettled in the U.S. as an unaccompanied refugee minor, and Bethany helped me find a new home with a foster family in Michigan.

It was a difficult transition. I had terrible nightmares; I would sleepwalk through my foster home, calling out for my mother. Eggs were the only food I recognized, and for a few weeks, I ate nothing else. I began high school nearly right away to help me learn English, but those first few months were very difficult and very lonely.

What saved me, however, was having a family. My foster parents called me their daughter, and their love was overwhelming. From the first day, they invited me to eat dinner at the table with them and their baby sons, signifying to me that they considered me part of the family. Because I was a Christian, being a part of a Christian family and going to church together made me feel more at home.

Eventually, I learned English. I made friends at school. I watched American movies and played American games. I was like many American teens—except I’d experienced a trauma none of my friends had ever endured.

Then, in 2017, something amazing happened: I learned my family was still alive! My mother, brother, and sisters were living in a Ugandan refugee camp.

In July 2019, I saw my mother for the first time in five and a half years. I was so happy I couldn’t cry; the tears just wouldn’t come. She stood there in the airport in Uganda, wearing a blue skirt with flowers on it, looking more beautiful than I’d even remembered. She came back to life in front of my eyes.

My uncle, cousins, and brother were also waiting for me at the airport. I saw my two sisters the next day in Mbarara, where my family now lives. My sister Chuti was only 2 months old the last time I saw her. She didn’t recognize me, but it didn’t matter. They were all so changed, but so incredibly alive.

My foster mom, Jordyn, had traveled with me, and my mother took her aside, saying, “Mugeni is my daughter, but she will always be your daughter also. Our family is just bigger now.”

The area where my family was living in Uganda was very unsafe, so Bethany helped them move to an apartment in a more secure area. Jordyn and my case manager raised money online to pay for three months’ rent and school for all of my siblings for a year. I plan to help my mother start a business selling French fries so she can earn an income.

Our story is not without loss. My uncle and his wife had seven children, but four of my cousins were killed in the war. So many people lost entire families and everything they owned. The unrest in the DRC is ongoing and has forced 5 million people to flee their homes. Thousands of refugees are still arriving in Uganda every month. A young couple and their 3-week-old child stayed with my uncle. They’d fled the DRC just the day before I arrived in Uganda. While I’m grateful their child will not have to endure the separation and fear I did, I know their futures are still uncertain.

Yet, there is beauty in our story too. There is the beauty of those who are willing to take in families who have nowhere else to go—in the U.S., in Uganda, and in countries throughout the world. I pray that the U.S. does not end its refugee resettlement program. Because of it, I am no longer an orphan in a refugee camp. I became someone’s daughter when I needed a family. Now I have two mothers and two families.

There is also the beauty of hope and prayer. There are thousands of children who have experienced horrors similar to mine, who have not yet reunited with their families. But I believe they will meet again one day. I know God has a plan for them, like He had for me.

And then there is the beauty of faith—in my family and in so many others. It is miraculous to me that this faith has been strengthened, not destroyed, by what we’ve gone through. Every day, I hear people asking God to help them find the grace to forgive those who have hurt them. Though difficult, this kind of forgiveness is remarkable. And it is far, far better than a heart of hate.

You can help

Bethany stands for children—the ones hurting at home and the ones unprotected at a border.

Long-term refugee and immigrant foster care As a refugee foster parent, you can provide a safe and supportive place for a teen to heal from past trauma.

Short-term immigrant foster care As a transitional foster parent, you can provide a safe, short-term home for an unaccompanied minor until they can be reunited with a family member or a sponsor in the U.S.

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