Spruce Grove refugee recalls flight from war in Africa

He used to live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country beset by dictators, corruption and the location for the conflict nicknamed Africa’s Second World War.

Patrick Kizehe speaks about his experiences coming to Canada as a refugee. Evan J. Pretzer/Reporter/Examiner

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Patrick Kizehe ran for his life to come to Canada.

He used to live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country beset by dictators, corruption and the location for the conflict nicknamed Africa’s Second World War. The Spruce Grove father of four fled with his family in 1996. Today, he is part of a small community of refugees in the Spruce Grove-Stony Plain area, works at the newly opened Parkland Wellness Centre and Refugee Welcome Space and is ever grateful to have gotten the opportunity to move to Canada.

“Coming here is like going to heaven while you are still alive,” he said.

Kizehe was born in 1984. Back then his homeland was called Zaire. It was peaceful even though a repressive political dictator named Mobutu Sese Seko ran it. While public executions and human rights abuses were rampant, Kizehe and his family enjoyed relative freedom due to their location in the mountainous Kivu region. His family raised cattle and were wealthy.

“We had a big house with five bedrooms and my dad was a traditional leader of our tribe,” Kizehe said. “All was well, there was no repression and we looked forward to school and going about our business as we usually did.”

Peace seemed perpetual, and then, the aftermath of genocide came to the Congo.

In the wake of the 1994 mass executions in Rwanda, rebels crossed into the country and brought their path of destruction and terror to the nation. Kizehe said the war was an isolated problem at first. Tribal leaders like his father tried to make peace, but with time, discrimination began at school. He would not get picked for soccer due to being seen as Rwandan as his tribe had ancestral roots in the nation before colonialism created new countries.

That snowballed into gunfire while walking home after a day of learning.

“I saw people running and bullets coming in and out,” he said. “I was 16 the day the real war started. No one knew what to do and the reason I am here is because my dad had money and paid the warlords to spare our lives.”

From refugee to Canadian

Kizehe and his family walked over four days to reach refuge in Uganda.

During their journey away from strife they hid in the bush during the day and walked at night. The group bore witness to cousins and friends dying and spent an estimated $47,000 Canadian to stay alive. Kizehe credits not being of fighting age for why he is still here and looks back on the experience with sadness at having experienced such discrimination.

“No one chooses how they are born,” Kizehe said. “It was terrible to be persecuted because of what we looked like.”

Kizehe with brother Rwema and sister Ariette after fleeing the Congo for Uganda. Kizehe is in the middle.Supplied photo

When they got to Uganda they were relieved to be somewhere safe but had to adjust to a new reality dramatically different from their previous lives.

Aid workers gave them a tent big enough for seven and there were eight people in Kizehe’s family. One person had to take turns sleeping outside even in bad weather. Kizehe credits his mother for keeping morale up.

“She was the believer and kept praying for a light out of the darkness,” he said. “She did a good job of cooking and saying this is going to end.”

Kizehe resided in Uganda from 1996 until 2004. He attempted to return home when a new administration offered assurances of safety, but found reality did not match up to their claims. Back in Uganda, he obtained a degree in social work and waited on a cousin to privately sponsor him to come to Canada. Some wait decades, but Kizehe was more fortunate.

His process took three-and-a-half years and he entered Canada in 2008.

“I am so blessed,” Kizehe said. “There are some people who are back in the refugee camps and they are still waiting and have been waiting for 20 years.”

He first worked at a group home in Ottawa. As a privately sponsored immigrant fleeing violence, Kizehe received none of the traditional one-year benefits from the government. Private sponsors provide six months of financial support and up to a year of social and emotional aid.

Stony Plain Alliance Church representative Sue Fulmore was with a team at the church that helped a refugee from Syria come to the community and says those who criticize the refugee system and advocate for Canadians only are mistaken.

“I think there is room for both,” she said. “We have room to welcome people from other countries who are facing much more difficult situations. They are fleeing for their lives and we are not in our country. I am not saying we should not help people here, but we have the resources to help others.”

In 2014 Kizehe moved to Alberta. He resides in the Tri-Region with his wife, three sons, daughter and works as a social worker. Federal statistics for the area list at least five people from nations like the Congo and Syria who now live in the community.

Kizehe says everyone has been welcoming and he wants to continue to give back through his job.

“I became a social worker because I was inspired by those who helped me,” Kizehe said. “I want to thank everybody who allowed us to be in this nation. It has been such an incredible second chance.”

Refugees can find Patrick Kizehe at the Parkland Wellness Centre and Refugee Welcome Space on Century Road in Spruce Grove. He also works to help refugees still in Uganda in addition to his activity in the community.