On the day that we sit down to talk it has been almost four years since Martin has seen his wife and daughter.
When he left them, he was under the impression that they would be reunited within six months to one year. He quickly discovered that was not true.
As June 17th is Father’s Day, I wanted to celebrate a father with refugee background, so naturally, I also ask Martin about his own father. Martin was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to two loving parents. He explains to me that after soldiers murdered Tutsis in Rwanda, they came to the DRC and did the same; this is how Martin became an orphan at a young age. His parents were murdered in the conflict when Martin was a child, but luckily neighbors and family friends came alongside him and cared for him.
When Martin’s neighbors fled to the refugee camps in Rwanda they took him with them and continued to care for him. It was here that he met the little girl who would one day be his wife. Martin and Sifa grew up as neighbors in the camp from 1997 until 2014. Martin smiles when recounting growing up near Sifa and how their friendship matured. Eventually they married and had a daughter, Inglide Manzi Igiwiye. Laughter fills the room and his eyes sparkle as he describes the naming process of their daughter. Martin explained to me that Inglide’s family name, “Igiwye” was given by neighbors and friends in the camp. After she was born everyone came together, met Inglide, and chose a family name for her. They then celebrated as a community; he describes it as a kind of birthday party. I feel Martin’s happiness when he recounts this party and the love and community surrounding his daughter.
But six months into Inglide’s life, Martin had to leave. He had the opportunity to resettle as a refugee in Appleton, Wisconsin. Martin and Sifa had both registered with the UNHCR while in the camp, but prior to getting married, and that meant they were on separate cases. When they got married they were notified that attempting to join their cases together would be very difficult and take a very long time, slowing their resettlement process. They opted to continue as separate cases. This also meant that if one of their cases was processed first they would be separated, as one would head to America ahead of the other. That person happened to be Martin. The day he left his wife and six-month old daughter will be a day he never forgets.
As a child, Martin missed the presence of his father and now he only wishes he could be there for his daughter so that she doesn't have that same experience. He also worries about their life in the camp, a lack of long term education, and a lack of quality basic needs such as food, healthcare and housing. He prays for their arrival here so that he can help them begin a new chapter. Though they speak on the phone around three times per week, he said Inglide cries every time they hang up, asking when she will be able to see him again. As I finish writing this, it is May. This month marks four years since Martin last held his daughter. In contrast to the quiet sadness that hung like a raincloud as he described their separation, pure happiness takes over when I ask Martin what his daughter likes to do for fun. Martin laughs as he tells me that her favorite thing to do is ride her bike; last year when he asked her what she wanted for her birthday she asked for a bike. He was happy to oblige! Inglide attends school in the refugee camp but Martin said it’s difficult to measure the talent of students in these classrooms due to lack of resources for teachers and pupils. Inglide is currently learning French, which means that when she arrives in America and begins classes here she will be trilingual! Pride for his daughter underlines every word.
His pain is evident, but he is convinced that as people hear his story, they will come to see the real lives affected by family separation. Martin knows many other refugees in the Fox Valley, and in America as a whole, who have been separated from their loved ones overseas and are waiting to reunite with them either through the AOR process or immigration paperwork. He knows that he isn’t the only one in this position, and he believes that telling his story will help bring life to a very real problem. Martin is not only a refugee, but he is a father, husband, and human. He has experienced real heartache, overcome great difficulty, and worked hard to get where he is. Martin has had to live through many experiences that most of us will never even be able to imagine, but he is strong and determined.
This Father’s Day, I want to celebrate Martin. But I also want to celebrate all of the other fathers with refugee background; men who have worked hard and left everything they know behind to build a better life for their children. They are strong, loving, and dedicated.
Today and every day, let us celebrate and honor them, let us pray for them, and let us advocate for them. Much like Martin, I believe that stories are powerful. I believe that his story is powerful and that it can impact us. It can teach us that the newspaper articles, and social media posts, the statistics and reports, are more than those things; because they represent real people.