Gilbert Hategeka laughed as he told the story of himself Tuesday.
The heating unit in his new home in Missoula was quiet when Hategeka, his wife and their four young sons moved in last month after spending most of the previous 18 years in a refugee camp in Uganda.
“I saw the heater but it wasn’t on, wasn’t working,” Hategeka said through a Swahili-speaking interpreter. “After about five days it just turned on and started vibrating. It vibrated the whole house.”
Hategeka did what he and his wife, Chantal Nyiramanza, are schooled to do in case of emergency as they settle into unfathomably different lives.
“I called the police,” he said.
“We talk about the fire alarms, so I think we got confused,” said Molly Short Carr, executive director of Missoula’s International Rescue Committee resettlement office.
Refrigerators vs. freezers. Cars everywhere. Credit cards. Electric stoves, after a lifetime of cooking with wood over an open fire. Water that comes from a tap rather than a river two-thirds of a mile away from your shack in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, a sprawling tent and hut city of 22,000 provided by the Ugandan government.
Kyangwali is across immense Lake Albert (think the length of Flathead Lake times four) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Hategeka, 31, and Nyiramanza were born and from which they fled separately with their families in 1998, victims of the Second Congo War.
Welcome to their new world, Missoula.
As their sons ages 2 to 10 scribbled with crayons and played in a corner, Hategeka and Nyiramanza sat Tuesday morning for another new experience – an American newspaper interview.
They were joined at the IRC office in west Missoula by Hategeka’s cousin, Joseph Bazungu; his wife Vanis Nyiraburanga, and their 15-year-old daughter Sifa. All those surnames that sound strange to the ears of Americans are normal for Africans, where wives and children don’t assume the names of their husbands and fathers, Carr said.
The nine Congolese in the small conference room accounted for one-third of those who’ve touched down in Missoula since Aug. 18, under the auspices of the IRC.
The sight of snow in the valley earlier in the day was the first in their lives. That may explain their use of a new-found skill, catching the bus to the meeting place.
“The first thing I’d say to Missoula is that in the camp we had to walk everywhere, but here we can catch a bus and it’s easy and it’s free,” Nyiramanza said as she kept an eye on her boys. “The second thing is even without knowing us everyone is very kind and welcoming to us, and I just want to say thank you.”
The two families live a couple of miles apart on the south side of the Clark Fork River, and they arrived a couple of weeks apart, the third and fifth to reach Missoula.
Carr was at the Missoula airport when Hategeka’s family of six arrived in late September. So was Bazungu, who’d lived near his cousin’s family in Uganda but didn’t know if he’d ever see them again when he left the camp earlier in the month enroute to America.
On Tuesday, Carr showed the families a video she’d shot on her phone as the two men reunited – hugging only after they danced a revolving-door dance at the airport.
They talked about the stores of Missoula – so much fruit, so many vegetables and, most wondrous of all, so much meat.
“We’re used to chasing it around,” Nyiramanza quipped through interpreter Peter McDonough, a University of Montana instructor who is steeped in Swahili after 3 ½ years in the Peace Corps in Tanzania.
As is the case with all the families who’ve arrived from East Africa refugee camps so far, these two are Christian, and specifically Baptist.
“We’ve been to four different churches so far to just have them check them out,” noted Lila Cleminshaw of Missoula, who’s part of the five-person family mentor team helping Joseph, Vanis and Sifa assimilate into Missoula life.
They all are singers, Lila said, and Sifa is excited – if apprehensive – about joining the Big Sky High choir when she begins the first formal classroom education in her 15 years this week.
Like her parents, Sifa was open to sharing her thoughts on her new home, where she's glad there’s a bus system so she doesn’t have to depend on cars to get around town.
She's anxious to learn “American” English and aspires to become a teacher.
“English here is different than the English in camp, so the way I learned in Uganda is very different from what I’m hearing now,” she said.
Already a boy from another Congolese family is on the Big Sky soccer team, and he reportedly scored two goals in a recent game, McDonough said.
Most if not all the Congolese men in town are soccer players and have jumped into organized leagues.
The soccer pitch in an African refugee camp is a busy place, said Carr.
“Life in refugee camps is at best monotonous,” she said. “They don’t have computers or the internet, TV or video games like we do.”
Bazungu is happy to put all that behind him.
“It was a terrible life,” he said of Kyangwali.
“Difficult to get food, difficult to get clothing,” Hategeka said.
The two men are looking for jobs in Missoula. Their wives start work at a local hotel next week. Two sons of Hategeka and Nyiramanza are of school age but can’t start classes until the necessary paperwork and immunizations are complete.
It’ll be awhile, if ever, before their horror stories of fleeing war in the DRC are told.
For now the learning curve is steep under the auspices of the IRC, which is in charge of the families for the first 90 days, and the gentle guidance of the mentor teams from Soft Landing Missoula.
“The first thing I noticed in coming to Missoula is that there’s law and order, in the sense that things run in an orderly fashion,” Bazungu said. “If you’re crossing the street, cars stop for you. Everyone follows the rules. That was a good surprise.”
“A thing that was really surprising for us was someone took us to get bikes for free,” his wife Vanis said. “It was a big deal in helping us be independent and to have our own transportation and not to depend on everyone else.”
In a contentious election year, when refugee resettlement in Montana and across the nation is an explosive issue, the Congolese families have been spared the vitriol.
“It’s been kind of amazing actually,” Cleminshaw said. “When they’re out shopping or at the bus stop people are happy to have them here.”
“I haven’t had anybody give me feedback that they’ve had anything negative, and they’re pretty vocal,” Carr said. “They tell me – the volunteers as well as the refugees.”
For perhaps the first time the Congolese families have goals and dreams, modest as they may seem.
“First it is to learn English and to learn it well,” Hategeka said. “Second is to get work. And to have friends and build a community.”
And, he added with a big grin, “to learn to drive a car.”
The resettlement effort – Missoula's third since the late 1970s – is in its infant stages, but those working to assimilate the newcomers say the day will arrive when they won't be known as “refugees” any longer.
That day they’ll be called Missoulians.