In Pursuit of Self-Sufficiency: Deo from DR Congo
On November 17, 1996, Deo fled from his country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire), to a refugee camp in Uganda. He had no idea that the camp would become his home for the next twenty years- the timespan of nearly an entire generation.
Deo’s country had been thrown into turmoil by what became known as Africa’s First and Second World Wars. “Laurent Kabila’s forces were overthrowing Congo’s President Mobutu’s government. Soldiers from other African countries came to fight, but they were just killing civilians,” he explains.
When the violence came to his doorstep, Deo started running. He lived only an hour by foot from the Ugandan border, but it was a huge distance in these extremely dangerous circumstances. “I saw them killing people with hammers, machetes, knives…” he remembers. “Dead bodies were everywhere. They almost caught me, but I kept running.”
“When I got across the border, there were huge Uganda Red Cross Society flags all over. I knew I was safe.” He and thousands of refugees from DR Congo received food, support, and medical attention in a transit camp before being transferred to a longer-term camp.
Multiple conflicts continued in DR Congo over ethnic, cultural, and political rivalries, as well as over the country’s extensive mineral resources (including diamonds, gold, and copper). This led to famine and disease and the deaths of millions of people.
Deo could not go home.
Life in the Refugee Camp
Getting enough to eat was a constant worry for refugees in the camp. “We were given plots of land to grow crops on. If the harvest was good, we were ok. If it wasn’t, life was very difficult. Sometimes the weather destroyed everything and there was no harvest.”
Those without education or skills had no other way to provide for themselves. “I was lucky,” says Deo. “Education was very important to my parents. They encouraged me and I completed grade twelve and then got a diploma in Education. I was a teacher in my country, so I became a teacher in the camp. I got ‘incentives’- a very low salary- but it was enough to be able to eat.” Self-sufficiency was not only an important value for Deo, but also a matter of survival.
“After I got my diploma, I wanted to continue my studies and become a priest. But God had other plans for me. I got married and had six children in the refugee camp instead,” he says, smiling.
“In Africa, having a big family is important. If there is war, children are killed, too. If you have a lot of children, it means you will still have some left.”
Even in the refugee camp, Deo and his family were not guaranteed safety. “Uganda has a border with Congo and Rwanda,” he explains. “Soldiers were coming across to kill refugees in the camp at night. They came and destroyed our crops. Sometimes I spent a whole week without sleeping. I was thinking all the time, ‘Where can I go? Where can I take my family?’”
Deo applied to relocate his family to a camp that wasn’t so close to the border. He was denied.
Without the chance to move his family, he focused on what he could do to help them. “The government of Uganda was offering a nine-month training program in journalism to a mix of refugees and Ugandan nationals. I was accepted into the program. I already spoke English, French, and Swahili, so when I graduated, I left teaching and worked as a news reporter and interpreter with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the camp.”
Once again, Deo was able to help his family live with as much self-sufficiency as possible in the challenging circumstances they were in.
A New Beginning
And then, in 2016, his family was finally given the chance to start a new life when they were resettled in Jacksonville, Florida. “After two days, I forgot my old life. I started sleeping well. My children were so happy because life here is not like it was for them in the camp. Here they can get what they need easily.”
Deo got a job as a dishwasher and did his best to help his family become self-sufficient in their new country. However, his wage was too low and housing became a critical issue. “We were living in a two-bedroom apartment, all of us together. The rental office told us we had to move, our family was too big. We couldn’t qualify to move to a bigger apartment, my salary was not high enough. We had nowhere to go.”
This is where Barton and Lori’s lives intersected with Deo and his family’s. “We had started Beyond90,” explains Lori, “and were living in an apartment complex that had a refugee community we were working with. Things changed, though, and refugees were no longer going to be housed there. We were trying to figure out our next steps at the same time that Deo and his family were about to become homeless. We all needed a new place to live. So, Barton and I bought a duplex and invited Deo and his family to rent the other side. It had four bedrooms and we agreed on a rental fee that would be affordable for them.”
“God sent Barton and Lori to bring us to this house,” adds Deo. “Now we have peace, my children have room to play, and I know I have money to pay the rent!”
The two families make a point of meeting together every Monday night. They are lively gatherings filled with laughter, homework help for the children, and putting in place plans for the future.
Deo is currently working as a hotel housekeeper and has hopes of one day becoming a teacher in the US. His focus these days, though, is on teaching his own children. “I tell them that when they finish high school they can go to college and find a job that will support them. They will finally have the lives I have always wanted to give them.”