Leonie Mandeba Lwamba has found safety in Saskatoon but she continues to live with horrific memories of violent conflicts in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joanie Peters
Horrors of war haunt refugee family
February 13, 2009
SASKATOON, Sask.—It is not unusual for Leonie Mandeba Lwamba to wake up from a recurring and distressing nightmare.
The images in her dreams are not fictitious—they are images of a family friend killing her mother in 1994 during the violent conflicts in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“The man who killed our mother used to come to our house and eat at our table,” she said. “That image keeps on coming back to me. I still have great difficulty trusting people.”
Loving support from the Mount Royal Mennonite Church in Saskatoon is helping her deal with this horrific memory along with other painful memories of violence in Zaire and her escape to a refugee camp in Kenya.
She is especially thankful for the support of Eric and Verna Olfert who understand the situation in Democratic Republic of the Congo through serving with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Chad and Nigeria and travel in African countries.
“People love me and encourage me—they are like my parents, they are like my relatives,” she said. “I don’t want to ever move away from here."
Lwamba and five children, ages three to 14, arrived in Saskatoon in March 2004. They were sponsored by the Mount Royal Mennonite Church through MCC’s refugee assistance program.
Lwamba was a teacher in Zaire and her husband Stephen was the school principal. They had two children when her mother was murdered. Their youngest child was only six months old.
Fearing for her life, Lwamba’s pastor helped her escape to a refugee camp in Kenya. One month later her husband and her children joined her in the refugee camp—a refugee camp where she lived for nearly eight year. Her sister Julienne was also at the same refugee camp.
The Mount Royal Mennonite Church heard about these families when her brothers, Michael, Fabian and Aliston, founders of an award-winning Canadian gospel group, Krystaal, performed in the church.
Her brothers were forced to run for their lives following the student massacre at the Lubumbashi University in 1989 and were miraculously reunited in Canada.
Lwamba recalls the excitement of hearing that her application for refugee status in Canada had been accepted and that she would soon be reunited with her brothers.
“First I cried and then I thanked God that I was going to Canada. I shouted all over the place—I’m going to Canada.”
But four days after arriving in Canada her oldest son died from sickle cell anemia—a traumatic event that she finds too painful to talk about.
Although she is happy with her life in Canada she is disappointed that her husband and sister are still trying to meet the requirements for Canada’s private sponsorship program.
Her husband, she said, lost his refugee status when he returned to Democratic Republic of Congo to assist his parents who were experiencing difficulties at that time. He is currently living in Nairobi and trying to have his refugee status reinstated. Her sister does not have the physical and emotional strength to complete the interview processes.
Lwamba has not seen her husband since he left the refugee camp and is thrilled that she had a recent photograph of him—a photograph taken by a friend she met through MCC who took the photograph during her travels to Kenya.
When she looks at the photograph of her husband she dreams of their future together in Saskatoon—a future that she hopes will make it possible for them to buy a house and provide a university education for their children.
She also hopes and prays that her sister Julienne will have the strength to complete the interviews. “My sister wants to come to Canada but she is so afraid of the interviews,” said Lwanda. “When she is asked about the stories she begins to cry and can’t continue the interview.”
Mennonite churches in Canada, through MCC, have helped about 50,000 refugees resettle in Canada under the country’s private sponsorship program that was started in 1979.