African Refugees in Maine Appeal for Help for Fellow Tribal Members

Jun 20, 2014

Claude Rwangaje, left, and George Budagu Makoko, members of the Banyamulenge Tribe who now live in Portland.
Credit Tom Porter

As residents and city officials in Portland observe World Refugee Day, one group of African immigrants in Maine's biggest city is drawing attention to the plight of fellow tribal members in a refugee camp half way around the world. The tribe in question is the Banyamulenge, a Christian branch of the wider Tutsi ethnic group. Thousands of them live in Nairobi, Kenya, where they went to flee persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Last month Kenyan police rounded up nearly 200 of them from a Church and put them in a refugee camp, says Claude Rwaganje, a Banyamulenge community leader here in Portland.

"So the police came and took over everything inside, so they had trucks waiting outside," Rwaganje says. "Everybody who's coming from the sanctuary will enter into the truck going to a camp. Actually they put them in a stadium first for three days, where they didn't even have any food or water."

Rwaganje heads up a national organization representing the estimated 3,000 Banyamulenge who live in the U.S. He says the detentions in Nairobi are part of a large-scale Kenyan crackdown on foreigners in the country.

It's aimed at Islamic extremists in Kenya - particularly those belonging to the Al-Shabab movement, which has carried out a number of bloody attacks including the Nairobi shopping mall massacre last year. Attacks in the last week alone by Al-Shabab have claimed more than 60 lives.

The irony, says Rwaganje, is that the Banyamulenge are Christians, and as such are likely targets in the sprawling Dadaab complex, which - with a reported population of around 357,000 - is said to be the world's biggest refugee camp.

"Our concern is, one, their safety. This camp is full of extremist Muslims, including Al-Shabab, who is a terrorist movement that really doesn't want any Christian in that camp," Rwaganje says.

Refugee camps have already proven to be dangerous places for the Banyamulenge. In 2004, more than 150 of them were massacred at a camp in Burundi - victims of a civil war which claimed more than 5 million lives over the course of a decade.

Rwaganje fears the 2004 massacre could be repeated in Kenya if nothing is done. Al-Shabab, he says, has already issued threats against the Banyamulenge refugees in the camp.

The other concern is for the Banyamulenge children who were left alone in Nairobi when their parents were seized. Rwaganje says he has a cousin who was put in the camp along with his wife, leaving their 2-year-old child to be cared for by relatives.

George Budagu Makoko has a similar story:  "I have two different cousins. One of them is already in the process of re-settling here in the U.S., and he was waiting for the flight. But the other one got taken into the camp and left the kids at home without anybody watching them," he says.

Budagu Makoko - who has written a book about his journey from Congo to America - says it's a desperate situation, and many Banyamulenge in the United States are doing all they can to help.

"We send money all the time - I've been doing this for almost the last 12 years," Budagu Makoko says. "We've got to support them. That's the culture - we have a very tight culture where we have to support one another."

"I think it's very important to bring attention to the situation that these refugees at the camp in Kenya are experiencing," says Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.

Pingree was recently approached by Maine's Banyamulenge community, telling her of their concerns. Last month, Pingree sent a letter to the State Department to urge the U.S. to apply pressure to the Kenyan authorities and the U.N. to protect the Banyamulenge.

Last week, she says, she got an encouraging response. "The State Department responded by saying that they reached out directly to the Banyamulenge refugees in the camp in Kenya. Plus they're now trying to get them moved to a more secure location at the camp," Pingree says. "But probably most importantly, we have also been told that they are working at getting them out of the camp and back with their families, which would be great."

But until then, Banyamulenge tribal members in Maine and elsewhere are not taking anything for granted.

View a petition Banyamulenge tribal members in the U.S. are circulating aimed at winning the release of the Banyamulenge refugees in Kenya.