Rolly Iyualeke shifted his sleeping daughter, Isabelle, from one shoulder to the other. The 33-year-old arrived in San Antonio with his wife and two children last Tuesday.
Iyualeke and his family left the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015, after experiencing dictatorial leadership and violence there. Since then, he and his family have traveled through Angola, Brazil, and Central America, eventually reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. They waited for officials to let them enter through a port of entry for two months.
“[In Mexico,] we lived in bad conditions,” Iyualeke said. “There were no toilets, we couldn’t take baths, there wasn’t food. What do we do with our children when it is like that? My daughter is sick. There were no doctors. It was really difficult.”
Iyualeke is one of around 250 migrants from Congo, Republic of Congo, and Angola that the City processed last week. He is also one of hundreds of African migrants that U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained in the past week. According to a news release from last Wednesday, CBP arrested more than 500 migrants from Africa between May 30 and June 5 in the department’s Del Rio Sector alone. Most of them came from Congo, Republic of Congo, and Angola.
“The introduction of this new population places additional burdens on processing stations to include language and cultural differences,” said Del Rio Sector Chief Patrol Agent Raul L. Ortiz in a prepared statement. “Our agents continue to meet each new challenge as the ongoing humanitarian crisis evolves.”
CBP has arrested more than 33,000 people in the Del Rio Sector in 2019 so far, double the arrests from the previous fiscal year. More than 80 percent of those arrested are from 38 countries other than Mexico.
Political instability in Congo and neighboring countries has contributed to a rising trend of African migrants leaving for different parts of the world, Bonita Sharma said. Sharma works as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Public Policy and has done refugee research in a global context.
The Kasaï region of Congo has seen militia and government conflict, leading people to flee the area, she added. The BBC reported in 2018 that resentment grew into rebellion against the government. Both sides of the conflict have murdered, raped, and committed other “inhuman acts” against civilians, U.N. investigators found. The conflict displaced more than 1 million people in the region.
Congolese refugees only recently started migrating beyond neighboring countries, Sharma said.
“Some of them may have been traveling for months to get to the Mexico border in search of better opportunities that the U.S. has to offer, the human rights that the U.S. has to offer,” Sharma said.
Jean Paul Kakweni, 30, also came through Central America with his wife and daughter. He left Congo in 2018 because of political instability and violence, he said. He vehemently disapproved of former President Joseph Kabila, who refused to step down after his term ended in 2016.
“I fled,” Kakweni said. “I was tortured. I have a lot of bad memories in my life.”
Like most of the African migrants in San Antonio, Iyualeke and Kakweni do not have family in the United States. While Central American asylum seekers typically only stay overnight at Travis Park Church before continuing their journey, the City and volunteer workers spent days trying to find a final destination for Iyualeke and his fellow asylum seekers.
Peter Stranges serves as vice president of programs for Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio. He said many of the Congolese migrants have requested to go to Portland, Maine. There is a large Congolese community there, and many wanted to go to a shelter in the city, he said. But the shelter they mentioned did not have spare beds. Instead, volunteers managed to find other shelters with space and people who know the asylum seekers to take them in, he said.
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“We’re just making sure the person at the other end of the phone can actually support them when they arrive,” Stranges said. “The last thing we want is for them to get to a city after a two- or three-day bus ride and find themselves homeless.”
For the next couple of weeks, Stranges said he expects to see around 300 Congolese migrants per week released from the border and to San Antonio.
“What we’re hearing now is there’s been a bunch of Congolese families at the border waiting to come through the port of entry. But that’s been going so slowly that they decided to cross the river and turn themselves into Border Patrol,” Stranges said. “They present to Border Patrol and ask for asylum.
“We don’t know when this is going to change,” he added. “So much of this is speculative at this point.”
For now, the flow seems to have stemmed itself. The City closed its overflow shelter at San Fernando Gym on Monday after getting travel plans and tickets for the last few African migrants from the original group. Remaining migrants were placed back at Travis Park Church, which regularly hosts asylum seekers overnight. Interim Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said the City is ready to accommodate any new influxes of African migrants.
“The volunteers and staff who’ve been working on this have become incredible at their ability to turn on a dime,” she said. “If we have to, we’ll do it.”
Bridger also assured that it was impossible for these asylum seekers who have been traveling for months to be carriers for the Ebola virus. She held a news conference Tuesday after representatives from a conspiracy website barged into the migrant resource center with cameras asking about Ebola. After volunteers escorted them out, Bridger said she gave an on-camera interview, doing her best to answer their questions. The incubation period for the disease is 21 days, and anyone infected would not have survived the trip, she said.
“These folks have been walking through Central America on their journey here to the United States for six months,” Bridger said. “There is absolutely no risk that any of them have Ebola.”
Asylum-seekers are screened at each border checkpoint they cross, including the U.S.-Mexico border. It is more likely that someone from New York would bring measles to San Antonio than a migrant traveling from Mexico, Bridger said.
“They have gone through more health screenings in the last six months than most of us go through in our lifetime,” Bridger said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Though the group of African migrants may not have known each other prior to meeting in Mexico, they became a community while traveling to the United States, Iyualeke said. He gestured to Nathan Pami, a 26-year-old asylum seeker who he met in Mexico. Both men hail from Congo and speak French. They and hundreds of other migrants from Congo, Republic of Congo, and Angola, became a community while traveling to the United States, he said. They call each other mon frere – my brother.
“All of us speak the same language, but we didn’t know each other,” Iyualeke said. “We traveled from different countries – Panama, Costa Rica – but we had the same destination. Our connection was, for the most part, about our language. We understood each other. The destination was the same. That connected us.”
People from Congo and Republic of Congo speak French, while Angolans speak Portuguese. Volunteers who speak both languages were dispatched to the City’s migrant resource center in the last week to help asylum-seekers.
Iyualeke said he had completed six out of the seven required years of medical school in Congo before leaving the country. He hopes to learn English and go back to school, he said.
“We need help,” Iyualeke said. “We left our country because there were lots of problems. We need work. And we respect the country we’re in.”
The Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio is managing donations to assist asylum seekers in San Antonio. Donate online here or call Christina Higgs at 210-222-1294.
Photographer Bonnie Arbittier contributed to this article.