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Suitcase Stories: Mapendo Reflects on Her Family’s Journey From the Democratic Republic of Congo and Starting Over

  July 24, 2023

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“This is when we knew we had to start life all over.” Mapendo Mutingamo, a refugee youth client at IINE, is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo; however, she and her family have not been there in over a decade. In our blog, she shares her Suitcase Stories performance – the story of her family’s journey from their home in the DRC, where life was comfortable until her father suddenly went missing; to Uganda, where they lived for ten years; to the U.S. After a long, difficult journey, Mapendo and her family of eight are putting down roots in Massachusetts, and Mapendo is determined to find success. She recently graduated from our Certified Nursing Assistant Program so she can pursue a role in healthcare. Here, she shares her story in her own words… 

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When I was young I felt like a celebrity because my father was a famous sculptor, researcher, and book writer about African art. We lived a life everyone worked hard to get in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a luxurious life with my parents and four older siblings. Life was too smooth until one day my father went missing. We didn’t take it very seriously for the first weeks because he usually went for business trips for his research work, but as weeks turned into months, we started getting worried. The fact that we were not able to communicate with him made it even worse. As a little girl who never thought of living without both of her parents, I remember asking my mother each single day to bring back my father, but with tears rolling down her eyes, she had nothing to say. She only got more grief.

Mapendo gives a Suitcase Stories performance at IINE’s 2023 World Refugee Day event in Lowell, MA

One night, we received a call from an anonymous number to find out it was my father. He was elaborating on how unsafe it was for us in Congo and that we had to flee immediately to Kampala, Uganda. That very night my family started packing only the things we will need for the journey. The young me was totally confused about what was going on, so I grabbed my favorite snack and a doll, thinking we were going for a family picnic.

We took a cargo ship to Uganda since it was the only means of transport we could get. Upon reaching Uganda, we took a bus that drove us to the capital. When we reached Kampala, we didn’t know how we were going to locate our father. We did not understand what people were saying. At that point I was confused about how I moved from luxury to the ghetto. Fortunately, a stranger saw how confused we were and took us to the nearest police station. One of the policemen knew Kiswahili and asked my mother questions. After a while, a stranger came claiming that he knew where we could find our father. He offered to take us. At that point, we had mixed feelings of happiness and fear, but fleeing from Congo was a risk we already made, so we had no choice but to go with him to where my father was.

Mapendo at the graduation ceremony for IINE’s Certified Nursing Assistant program

At last, we met my father, and we were so happy to see him again after a year. But we were so exhausted and famished. When he took us to the place we had to start living, we all broke down. This is when we knew that we had to start life all over with nothing like cars, luxurious foods, houses, or Barbie bedrooms.

After five years, life got better and we had access to good schools and better houses, and my family had also expanded, but the fact was that we could not be offered citizenship as neither my grandfather nor father were Ugandans.

After ten years, we got resettled to the United States. We got so excited but we felt like something was missing because one of our sisters went missing and our going to the States meant that we will never get a chance to look for her ever again.

Upon arriving in the United States, we came with a lot of expectations only to find out that I needed to get a job so I can help out with bills, rent, and paying my own tuition. I’m currently working as a crew member at a fast food restaurant. As a young adult, I have learned that in life, regardless of what you are going through, there are moments of happiness that you need to make the most of.

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Suitcase Stories invites storytellers to develop and share meaningful personal experiences of migration and cross-cultural exchange with others—from large audiences to small groups—of all ages. Everyone has a Suitcase story. Learn more about Suitcase Stories.

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